NFC West preview

Quarterback Alex Smith, foreground, is coming off his best season since being drafted first overall in 2005, but San Francisco is driven by its running game and defense, including linebacker Patrick Willis. (Photo by Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images)

1. San Francisco

The 49ers haven’t had a winning season since 2002, which also was the last time they made the playoffs. The long wait may be over, partly because of weak competition in the NFC West.

San Francisco doesn’t have the most daunting offense, with quarterback Alex Smith still finding his way. Smith was the No. 1 overall pick in the 2005 draft, but his best season came last year, when he threw for 2,350 yards with 18 touchdowns and 12 interceptions.

Smith’s favorite target is tight end Vernon Davis (Maryland). Davis led all tight ends with 13 touchdowns to make his first Pro Bowl. The other star is running back Frank Gore, but injuries have allowed Gore to play 16 games only once in five years.

With Hall of Fame linebacker Mike Singletary as coach, it’s no surprise the 49ers stress defense. The main attraction is linebacker Patrick Willis, often mentioned among the best at his position.

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2. Arizona

This was supposed to be the year that Matt Leinart took over for retired Kurt Warner, but the fifth-year quarterback was released by Arizona and it will be Derek Anderson who is under center.

The Cardinals, who made the playoffs the past two seasons and won the division last year, do have Larry Fitzgerald, perhaps the best wide receiver in football, but he‚'ll get even more double coverage than usual with the departure of Anquan Boldin to Baltimore. Fitzgerald has had three consecutive seasons of double-figure touchdown catches and at least 96 receptions. On the other side is Steve Breaston, a 1,000-yard receiver in 2008. Chris Wells and Tim Hightower share carries in the backfield.

The defense has plenty of potential, with ends Darnell Dockett and Calais Campbell, linebacker Joey Porter, strong safety Adrian Wilson and cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie.

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3. Seattle

First-year Coach Pete Carroll doesn‚'t have much to work with, on offense or defense.

Quarterback Matt Hasselbeck is coming off a season in which he threw for 3,029 yards with 17 touchdowns and 17 interceptions His wide receivers are Deion Branch and Mike Williams, after T.J. Houshmandzadeh was released. Running back Julius Jones restructured his contract to remain with the team, but Justin Forsett will be the starter.

Rookie left tackle Russell Okung, the No. 6 overall pick, suffered a high ankle sprain during the preseason, putting his status for the opener in doubt. Backup Ray Willis already is is out after knee surgery. The anchor of the defense is three-time Pro Bowl middle linebacker Lofa Tatupu, who played only five games last season because of a torn pectoral muscle that required surgery.

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4. St. Louis

There’s not much good to say about the Rams beyond running back Steven Jackson, who is practically the only source off consistent offense on a team in transition. Jackson ran for 1,416 yards last season and had 51 receptions for 322 yards despite having little help.

With No. 1 overall pick Sam Bradford currently starting at quarterback, Jackson appears headed for another season with a heavy workload.

The Rams also have the No. 2 overall pick from 2008, Chris Long (Virginia), starting at right defensive end. Long started 16 games as a rookie but only four last season, an indication his career may be headed in the wrong direction. Second-year middle linebacker James Laurinaitis, meantime, had a stellar rookie season with 120 tackles, two sacks and two interceptions for the NFL’s fourth worst defense.

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