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Seattle looks to continue reign in loaded NFC West

September 2, 2014

Not long ago, theirs was nicknamed the NFC Worst. Last season proved the NFC West is the deepest division in the NFL.

San Francisco and Seattle have the league’s best rivalry and met in the NFC Championship game, and the Seahawks achieved the most lopsided Super Bowl victory in two decades by routing Denver.

NFC West depth goes beyond just the Seahawks. The four teams combined to go 42-22 a year ago, the best of any division, and could be that good again.

Yet, there are concerns for each team when the season opens on Thursday with Seattle hosting the Green Bay Packers.

St. Louis, with its impressive defense, must trust in journeyman quarterback Shaun Hill, who has 16 passes in the last three years, after Sam Bradford’s year-ending knee injury in the preseason. Arizona, the only team to win in Seattle since 2011, has lost key defensive players. San Francisco will play at least six games without star linebackers NaVorro Bowman and Aldon Smith.

While Seattle’s defense might not match the suffocating numbers posted a year ago, if quarterback Russell Wilson and the offense continue to evolve then the Seahawks might not need the best defense to remain atop the division.

“Whoever comes out on top of the division is really going to be ready to play anybody,” coach Pete Carroll said.

The AFC West was as good as any division a year ago, but it’s about to get tested. The AFC West sported three playoff teams last season, with late-charging San Diego and resurgent Kansas City joining Super Bowl-bound Denver.

The path to the playoffs in 2014 has a few more potholes: The AFC West has to play the NFC West, where the Super Bowl champion Seahawks, Cardinals, Rams and 49ers boast some of the nastiest defenses the NFL has to offer.

Denver is trying to become the first team in four decades to win a Super Bowl the year after losing it.

No team has won successive NFC South titles since the league realigned in 2002, meaning the Carolina Panthers will be fighting history in a division stacked with formidable foes — not to mention tremendously talented quarterbacks — in Atlanta and New Orleans. And Tampa Bay is considered a dark horse under new coach Lovie Smith.

The Saints with Drew Brees and the Falcons with Matt Ryan have grabbed headlines with their offseason upgrades, while the salary cap-strapped Panthers have lost four linemen to retirement, and their top four receivers.

Green Bay predictably kept the NFC North title, but its unremarkable 8-1-7 record was the real surprise. Chicago took a step back, too, and Minnesota plummeted badly. Detroit was the only team with more victories than the previous year, but still had a losing mark and fired its coach.

The Packers, Bears, and Lions all ranked in the top eight in the league in total yards, and even the Vikings with their persistent quarterback problems finished 13th, higher than five playoff teams. For this division to again produce a true championship-caliber team, keeping main players such as Aaron Rodgers, Adrian Peterson and Calvin Johnson healthy is the first prerequisite. Then the defenses must get better.

In the NFC East, Nick Foles just might be the best quarterback in a division with Eli Manning, Tony Romo and Robert Griffin III.

Foles had one of the best statistical seasons in NFL history as he led the Philadelphia Eagles to a division title in his second season and Chip Kelly’s first as coach. Foles replaced Michael Vick in October, went 8-2 as the starter, and finished with 29 touchdown passes and two interceptions in 11 starts, including a playoff loss to New Orleans.

Manning is coming off his worst season for the New York Giants, the Dallas Cowboys’ Romo is coming back from surgery for a herniated disk, and RG3 is still struggling with an old knee injury. Whichever quarterback has the best regular season among the four could make the difference.

Tom Brady is the main reason New England is heavy favorite in the AFC East. At 37, Brady is still everything the New York Jets, Miami Dolphins and Buffalo Bills have been searching for. Namely, a franchise quarterback. Since Brady took over as the Patriots’ starter, the Jets have had nine quarterbacks start. Meanwhile, the Bills have had 11, and the Dolphins a whopping 16.

The AFC North is coming off what amounts to a down year for the NFL’s most successful division over the past six years. Only one team reached the playoffs, Cincinnati, which lost in the opening round for the third year in a row. Cincinnati has undergone the fewest offseason changes, aiming for a franchise-record fourth straight trip to the playoffs. Pittsburgh and Baltimore have adjusted their squads, but stayed with their overriding philosophies, while Cleveland can’t stop losing.

Chasing the Indianapolis Colts never has been easy in the AFC South. First, Tennessee, Jacksonville and Houston all tried, and failed, to slow down Peyton Manning. Now, Andrew Luck has taken his turn atop the division. The Colts have won eight of the last 11 division titles. The Titans feel they are oh so close after losing twice to Indianapolis last season by a combined 10 points while using a backup quarterback.

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