Just four years ago, some were jokingly calling for the NFC West to be contracted. Nary a team in the division finished over .500. Now it's easily the toughest division in the NFL. Here's a look at each club's NFL odds for a finish of No. 1-4.
NFL Odds (from BetOnline): first +100, second +180, third +450, fourth +1400
What's not to like here? No reason Seattle shouldn't be the best defense in the NFL again, although it seems all those preseason defensive holding and defensive illegal contact penalties are essentially because of Seattle's big, physical cornerbacks and safeties. The Seahawks Rule. Doubt it matters too much come regular season. The Seahawks presumably get a full season of Percy Harvin, whom they didn't have barely at all last regular season but who shined in the Super Bowl. I'd still say receiver might be the No. 1 concern area because Harvin is very brittle and there's not much after him. The schedule is very tough, having to play inside the NFC West those six times, plus the AFC West, Green Bay, Carolina and Philly, all division winners. However, would you bet against Seattle losing a home game? I wouldn't. So 4-4 on the road gives you a 12-4 mark, and that's enough to win the West again.
San Francisco 49ers
NFL Odds: first +150, second +160, third +350, fourth +900
I was higher on the 49ers a few weeks ago than I am now. True, preseason means squat. But the 49ers have been outscored 57-3 so far. Last week's 34-0 whitewashing by Denver was totally shocking because one would think San Francisco might have played with some enthusiasm considering it was the team's first game in the new Levi's Stadium. Colin Kaepernick likes to run, which makes his more susceptible to injury, and his backup QB situation looks like a disaster. Projected No. 2 Blaine Gabbert somehow has looked worse than he did in Jacksonville so far. The defense will be missing linebackers Aldon Smith and NaVorro Bowman for perhaps half the season, the first due to a suspension (why is the NFL dragging that decision out?) and the latter because of a major knee injury suffered in last year's NFC title game. Niners look a bit vulnerable.
NFL Odds: first +800, second +400, third +175, fourth +130
I believe the 2014 Cardinals will be largely opposite of last year's in that this club looks potentially very good offensively but has some questions on defense, which led the NFL against the rush in 2013. QB Carson Palmer has two excellent receivers in Michael Floyd and Larry Fitzgerald, and a guy I believe will be a breakout star this year in running back Andre Ellington. The offensive line added a few key guys after it was pretty terrible last year. The defense, however, has lost not just linebacker Karlos Dansby to free agency but fellow 'backer Daryl Washington to a year-long suspension and stalwart defensive tackle Darnell Dockett to a season-ending injury. This team will take a step back. Once again, no team hosting the Super Bowl will play in it.
St. Louis Rams
NFL Odds: first +1000, second +450, third +200, fourth +100
If the Rams had any semblance of offense, I'd pick them second in this division. That's how good the defense could be with the addition of first-round draft pick and defensive tackle Aaron Donald of Pittsburgh. The Rams' front four is probably the best in the NFL and the back seven aren't too shabby, either. There are major questions about QB Sam Bradford, and right now his starting skill position players are running back Zac Stacy and receivers Chris Givens and Austin Pettis. That's Cleveland-esque (minus Josh Gordon). Maybe if 2013 first-round pick receiver Tavon Austin and 2014 third-round pick running back Tre Mason break out, the Rams might have something. Or perhaps St. Louis can win a bunch of 17-14 games. It may have to.
NFL Free Picks: Tempted to drop the 49ers to third but can't pull the trigger: Seahawks, 49ers, Rams, Cardinals.