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St. Louis Rams – You know that I always go out on a limb somewhere in my forecast every year.  This year it’s going to be with Marc Bulger and the Rams offense.  Face it, the whole offensive unit is made up of Pro-Bowl performers.  Now if only the defense could hold their own.  Isn’t that the way we talked about the Rams of the Super Bowl years?  Uh huh.  Look for Jim Haslett to get the defense in the game.  Look for FS O.J. Atogwe to become a household name… okay, well maybe at least a name that is mispronounced in many households.  The Rams believe that first rounder Adam Carriker will become a perennial threat, especially because he lines up alongside Leonard Little.  So here’s my reach – Rams to surprise us all and win the NFC West.  And, I’ve got some more where the Rams are concerned in the Xtras section.

Seattle Seahawks – Let’s face it, the Seahawks of 2006 were not the same Seahawks that went to the Super Bowl at the end of the 2005 season.  A somewhere-below-middle-of-the-pack offense and a defense that gave up 30 plays of 30 or more yards during the course of the season, were it not for the division they found themselves in (the NFC Wuss Division, as I declared it last year), the Seahawks would not have made a return trip to the playoffs.   Granted, injuries sidelined many of their mainstays last season, but age appears to be catching up with them, and their window of opportunity appears to be closing, as the rest of this division is rapidly improving.  Matt Hasselbeck needs to rebound from what was a disappointing ’06 campaign.  Shaun Alexander needs to get back to his attacking style of running, and free himself from the nagging injury bug.  Mike Holmgren is hoping that the defense will stiffen, with new secondary coach Jim Mora Jr. and some free agent additions in the secondary.  Look for the Seahawks to find the going tough, and to tough out the kind of win/loss record that has them watching playoff scenarios very closely at season’s end.

San Francisco 49ers – The 49ers are this year’s sexy pick to go to the Super Bowl.  At least the fantasy forecasters have stayed in the same division – last year it was Arizona, you recall.  No doubt the 49ers were vastly improved under Mike Nolan last year.  But to put them in the Super Bowl?  Let’s think this through.  First of all, the loss of Norv Turner will hurt Alex Smith.  It might be offset because Trent Dilfer is still there, and make no mistake about it, Dilfer is an invaluable mentor to Smith’s development both on and off the field.  Secondly, consider that fact that last season was a tale of two halves for the Niners’ defense – the first half of the year in which they were on pace to set the kind of records defenses don’t want to set, and a second half where they stiffened considerably.  Which team shows up this year?  My thinking here is that the Niners will not sneak up on anyone this year.  They’ll be a tough opponent and surprise us, but definitely not by showing up in the Super Bowl.

Arizona Cardinals – “You want to crown their asses?”  Sorry, little Denny Green flashback.  Well, I tell you what – a lot of prognosticators had egg on their face last year over their crowning the Cardinals as last year’s sexy pick.  Make no mistake, the Cards are on the rise, but it’s a more subtle trajectory.  QB Matt Leinert is the real deal.  His receiving corps are arguably the best in the business.  Edgerrin James is still piling up the yards.   The Cardinals issues are in the trenches, where on both sides of the ball they tended to lose the physical match-ups.  Look at their draft and their free agency signings.  They brought the beef.  Look again.  They brought in some tough slabs of beef.  Though they are on the rise, I think the Cardinals are still a year away from making an ascent to the top.

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