Fooch's Note: maybe the target gets just a little bit bigger with the Brandon Jacobs signing.
This may go beyond the NFC West, but for this edition, we're going to focus on how San Francisco's division rivals will be extra geared up for the 2012 match-ups. Each of these teams, as you know, will be facing the 49ers twice and as the season went on, you could see the beginning of the fire.
Particularly in the second games from Arizona and Seattle, there was serious competitiveness between these two. And to me, it looked like these teams were both jealous and in disbelief that the 49ers, after a decade-long playoff drought looked to be back on top.
And after this season ended with the 49ers making a deep playoff push, the word is now officially out: the 49ers are contenders. It's a tough, methodical team that is driven by great coaching and management -- they are becoming the ideal football team (as soon as they get their passing attack off the ground). So San Francisco's division rivals will be bulking up to combat the the reigning NFC West champions.
St. Louis was out of the playoff race early, so it was only natural that they started thinking ahead early. They brought in a new staff, led by former Titans head coach Jeff Fisher. Fisher brought with him the idea of how the Rams' defense should be, and even brought along a piece to help make it work, in cornerback Cortland Finnegan.
They also signed former Giants and Eagles wide receiver Steve Smith to help with the passing attack. Sam Bradford hasn't had a legitimate receiving threat to really gain chemistry with, and not to mention, he's missed a good amount of time due to injury. St. Louis isn't the first team the 49ers should worry about, but they could sneak out of the abyss and make a decent showing in the division.
The Cardinals were one of the teams that was just about all in on Peyton Manning, which they were dismissed from, even before the Niners. The Cardinals defense improved last year and will likely make strides again this offseason. Patrick Peterson has already established himself as a dangerous return man and could become a great cornerback.
Darnell Dockett is still as unlikable as ever, but he still plays pretty hard for Arizona. The offense is going to have to be content letting John Skelton and Kevin Kolb duke it out for the starting quarterback job; either way, San Francisco should be able to get after them both.
The Seahawks probably thought they won some sort of sweepstakes after landing quarterback Matt Flynn, who according to Aaron Rodgers is a top-15 quarterback in this league. For Flynn, it's going to be a tough job to try and find your groove in a new system, on a new team with Patrick Willis, Aldon Smith and Justin Smith in your grill. Flynn might get shaken up and never reach his potential. But if he survives, we'll know he's a decent QB and begin to take him seriously.
Marshawn Lynch is apparently the 49ers kryptonite. This man was the only person to break 100-yards rushing and score against the 49ers all season, and he did it in one game. Lynch goes into his supposed "beast mode" and that's that, but I would bet money the Niners defensemen won't forget it and look forward to seeing Lynch in 2012.
But even if Lynch can get his yards, Pete Carrol cannot beat Jim Harbaugh and that's that. Harbaugh is going to continue to make Carrol look silly and unqualified. And I can't wait.
These teams looked pretty aggressive in free agency, and will look for strong drafts to help catch up to the 49ers level of talent. But the one element that these teams don't have, is a Jim Harbaugh off the field and a Patrick Willis on the field. Two unique individuals that if I had to narrow it down, would be the heart and soul of the 49ers organization.
And while the opposing NFC West teams will be targeting the 49ers and be looking to get better overall, San Francisco will feed off of that to get better themselves. Harbaugh hasn't had a full offseason to really get into it with the team, so we could potentially see a bigger leap in the team's performance from year one to year two.
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