1. San Francisco 49ers
2011 RECORD: 13–3
The 49ers' patience finally paid off last season as the team made the playoffs for the first time in nine years. Under the guidance of coach Jim Harbaugh, former Number 1 overall pick QB Alex Smith (3,144 passing yards, 17 TDs) had the best season of his seven-year career. He limited his mistakes (five INTs) and made clutch plays to help the 49ers reach the NFC Championship Game. But as reliable as Smith has become, the 49ers' heart and soul is their stellar defense. LB Aldon Smith (14 sacks) pressured opposing quarterbacks, and the unit had three All-Pro players: LBs NaVorro Bowman (143 tackles) and Patrick Willis (97 tackles), and DE Justin Smith. San Francisco has all its key defenders back and will be tough to move the ball against.
BOTTOM LINE: If the Niners' defense can stay healthy again in 2011, look for San Francisco to win back-to-back division titles for the first time since 1995.
2. Arizona Cardinals
2011 RECORD: 8–8
The big question in Arizona: Who should start at quarterback? Kevin Kolb (nine TDs, eight INTs) was signed last year and then struggled, going 3–6 before injuries ended his season. John Skelton (11 TDs, 14 INTs) wasn't impressive either but went 5–2. The Cards need to make the most of star WR Larry Fitzgerald (1,411 yards, eight TDs), who is nearing the end of his prime. The Cardinals' D improved over the course of last season, and their special teams is top-notch with Patrick Peterson, who returned four punts for TDs in 2011, tying the NFL record.
BOTTOM LINE: Arizona needs a big season from Kolb or Skelton to have any shot at the postseason.
3. Seattle Seahawks
2011 RECORD: 7–9
Arizona isn't the only team with a QB competition. In Seattle, Tarvaris Jackson (14 TDs, 13 INTs), Matt Flynn (480 yards and six TDs in one start with Green Bay), and rookie Russell Wilson will battle for the starting job. The team's go-to guy is still RB Marshawn Lynch (1,204 yards, 12 TDs). Seattle also has good wideouts in Sidney Rice and Doug Baldwin and acquired pass-catching TE Kellen Winslow. The defense doesn't feature big names, but it gets the job done. Plus, Seattle added depth by selecting eight defensive players in the 2012 draft.
BOTTOM LINE: Unless one of their QBs blossoms, Seattle will once again be an average team.
4. St. Louis Rams
2011 RECORD: 2–14
New coach Jeff Fisher takes over a major rebuilding project in St. Louis. QB Sam Bradford (2,164 yards, six TDs), the 2010 Offensive Rookie of the Year, took a step backward last season, playing in only 10 games as St. Louis finished last in the NFL in scoring. RB Steven Jackson (1,145 yards, five TDs) is reliable, but the Rams were left without a standout receiver after Brandon Lloyd signed with New England. The defense has good young talent in LB James Laurinaitis (142 tackles) and DE Chris Long (13 sacks) but gives up too many big plays.
BOTTOM LINE: Fisher can mold this young team, but the Rams are still a long way from playoff contention.