1. Seattle Seahawks
2012 record: 11–5
The Seahawks have a gem in QB Russell Wilson (3,118 passing yards, 26 TDs). He led them to the playoffs as a rookie last season. Wilson has strong support from RBMarshawn Lynch (1,590 rushing yards, 11 TDs), a workhorse back. But newly signed playmakerWR Percy Harvin (677 receiving yards with Minnesota) will miss most — if not all — of 2013 after hip surgery. Sidney Rice (748 yards) and Golden Tate (688 yards) must pick up the slack while Harvin is out. Seattle's defense gave up the fewest points in the NFL last season (15.3 per game). CB Richard Sherman (eight INTs) and newly signed DE Cliff Avril (9½ sacks with Detroit) will make life difficult for opposing quarterbacks.
BOTTOM LINE: Even without Harvin, Seattle is poised to make a deep postseason run.
2. San Francisco 49ers
2012 record: 11–4–1
One thing's certain: It's tough to score against the 49ers' defense Led by LB Patrick Willis (120 tackles) and LB Aldon Smith (19½ sacks), the unit gave up the second-fewest points in the NFL last season (17.1 per game). QB Colin Kaepernick (1,814 passing yards, 415 rushing yards) is a dual threat with a knack for making clutch plays. His top receiver, Michael Crabtree (1,105 receiving yards), may miss the season with a right foot injury, but the Niners signed WRAnquanBoldin (921 receiving yards with Baltimore), who came up big for the Ravens in the Super Bowl.
BOTTOM LINE: Crabtree's injury is a concern, but the elite defense makes the Niners Super Bowl contenders again.
3. Arizona Cardinals
2012 record: 5–11
The Cardinals won their first four games last season — and then lost 11 of their last 12. The biggest problem was at quarterback, where four different players started. New coach Bruce Arians is counting on Carson Palmer (4,018 passing yards, 22 TDs with Oakland) to be the solution, but he has been inconsistent. Palmer does have an elite pass catcher in Larry Fitzgerald (798 receiving yards). New RBRashardMendenhall (182 rushing yards with Pittsburgh) is talented but injury-prone. Arizona's best playmaker is Patrick Peterson (seven INTs), an elite defensive back and dangerous punt returner.
BOTTOM LINE: The Cards' new players and coach will bring them closer to .500, but the playoffs are a long shot.
4. St. Louis Rams
2012 record: 7–8–1
The Rams' offense has a new look this season. Star RB Steven Jackson (1,042 rushing yards) left for Atlanta, and leading WR Danny Amendola (666 receiving yards) is now with New England. Rookie WR Tavon Austin and talented new TE Jared Cook will need to develop into go-to guys for QB Sam Bradford (3,702 passing yards, 21 TDs). Left tackle Jake Long, signed away from Miami, gives Bradford a top-notch pass protector. The Rams' defense is improving. Linebacker James Laurinaitis (142 tackles) is underrated, and Janoris Jenkins (four INTs) and Cortland Finnegan (three INTs) are a strong cornerback duo.
BOTTOM LINE: The Ram's offense will take a step backward this season, costing the team a shot at .500.
DID YOU KNOW?
The Rams finished in the bottom five of the NFL in attendance in each of the past five seasons. They had an 11–29 record at home during that span.
PHOTOS: ROBERT SORBO/REUTERS (SEAHAWKS), MICHAEL ZAGARIS/SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS/GETTY IMAGES (49ers), CHRISTIAN PETERSEN/GETTY IMAGES (CARDINALS), MARK J. REBILAS/US PRESSWIRE (RAMS)
ILLUSTRATION: ANDREW ROBERTS