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NFC West Preview: Cardinals expect to soar far above weak division / Division rating: 13.5

1. Arizona Cardinals

(16.0)

Offense: In leading the Cardinals to the Super Bowl, 38-year-old QB Kurt Warner showed there's still life in his aging arm. Pro Bowlers Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin are physically imposing receivers who can take over a game. Teams focusing on passing game should open running lanes for young RBs Tim Hightower and Beanie Wells. Rating: 4.5.

Defense: With impact performers such as S Adrian Wilson, LB Karlos Dansby, DT Darnell Dockett and second-year CB Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, there is no reason unit shouldn't play at the high level it did during last year's Super Bowl run. Rating: 4.0.

Special teams: Cardinals have quality kicking game (K Neil Rackers and P Ben Graham). Their coverage is decent, but more is needed from return game with rookie LaRod Stephens-Howling assuming role.Rating: 3.5.

Coaching: Ken Whisenhunt and staff instilled toughness in a team that used to be soft. Rating: 4.0.

On the spot: Warner. Season depends on him holding up for another year.

Prediction: No reason they shouldn't repeat as division champs. Record: 11-5.

***

2. San Francisco 49ers

(14.0)

Offense: RB Frank Gore, coming off third straight 1,000-yard season, is focal point of offense. QB Shaun Hill won job, but his well-being is a worry because of poor pass-protecting O-line. Niners were excited WR Michael Crabtree fell to 10th pick in draft, but his extended holdout means 36-year-old leading receiver Isaac Bruce must carry weak position. Rating: 3.0.

Defense: Beefy D-linemen Justin Smith, Isaac Sopoaga and Aubrayo Franklin specialize in keeping blockers off playmaking Pro Bowl LB Patrick Willis and veteran LB Takeo Spikes. CB Nate Clements and S Michael Lewis are only sure things in secondary. Rating: 4.0.

Special teams: All-Pro P Andy Lee and K Joe Nedney form excellent tandem. Allen Rossum (26.7-yard kickoff return average) has eight career return TDs. Rating: 4.0.

Coaching: Mike Singletary changed culture by instilling intensity, discipline and passion he displayed as Hall of Fame player.< b>Rating: 3.0.

On the spot: TE Vernon Davis. Sixth overall pick in 2006 draft needs production to match physical ability.

Prediction: A few players away from being a contender. Record: 7-9.

***

3. Seattle Seahawks

(13.0)

Offense: QB Matt Hasselbeck could rebound from bad back if suspect line protects him. WR T.J. Houshmanzadeh was signed because of injury-prone duo Deion Branch and Nate Burleson. Second-year TE John Carlson is rising star. Veteran RB Edgerrin James brought in to share touches with Julius Jones. Rating: 3.0.

Defense: Lofa Tatupu, Leroy Hill and first-round pick Aaron Curry make up quality LB trio. DE Cory Redding and DT Colin Cole brought in to beef up D-line, which needs bounce-back year from pass-rushing DE Patrick Kerney. CB Marcus Trufant must stay healthy to improve secondary that allowed NFL-high 4,149 net passing yards and 25 TDs. Rating: 3.5.

Special teams: K Olindo Mare is accurate on field goals and excels on kickoffs (22 touchbacks in '08). P Jon Ryan gets good height and distance. Josh Wilson is upper-echelon kick returner. Rating: 3.5.

Coaching: Jim Mora Jr. brings energy and previous head coaching experience to job. Rating: 3.0.

On the spot: Hasselbeck. Must stay on field for Seahawks to have a chance.

Prediction: Could surprise if key players stay healthy. Record: 6-10.

***

4. St. Louis Rams

(11.0)

Offense: Power RB Steven Jackson has to carry offense because of uncertain health of QB Marc Bulger and receiving corps depleted by release of long-time leader Torry Holt. Young O-line has promise with No. 2 overall pick Jason Smith joining OT bookend Alex Barron and C Jason Brown. Rating: 3.0.

Defense: DE Chris Long (last year's No. 2 overall pick), rookie MLB James Laurinaitis and unheralded FS Oshiomogho Atogwe are great building blocks as Rams try to reconstruct woeful unit. Rating: 2.5.

Special teams: P Donnie Jones, who last year became first player in NFL to average 50 gross yards per kick since Sammy Baugh in 1940, and strong-legged K Josh Brown were bright spots, but coverage and return game were dismal. Rating: 3.0.

Coaching: Steve Spagnuolo brings aggressive nature as ex-Giants D-coordinator. Too bad he doesn't have Giants' personnel. Rating: 2.5.

On the spot: Bulger. Two straight subpar seasons have front office thinking quarterback should be top priority in next year's draft.

Prediction: Despite young talent, they face long road to respectability. Record: 4-12.

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