The Big Question was a setup on the NFC West blog this week.
Oh, it was valid to ask which team should be the favorite. But I also knew the subject matter would set off a blaze of discussion. There was an incendiary element, for sure.
The comment count was moving toward 800 as the 24-hour mark approached.
"I'm OK with the 49ers being the slight favorites," Qwest12thMan wrote.
There was a catch.
"Seattle will surprise some people," Qwest12thMan continued, "and I can't wait until opening week when the Seahawks spank the favorites so bad that they never recover because of their choke-artist QBs."
The gloves had come off and we were only three comments into the discussion.
"The more talking heads write off the Cardinals, the better," alvaden wrote. "It's almost reassuring that the two-time division winner is being underestimated, once again."
Alvaden thinks the 49ers were built to beat the Cardinals, but he wouldn't be surprised if Seattle swept the 49ers.
"So keep believing the hype," he wrote. "It will make winning the division again all the more enjoyable."
The 49ers were 5-1 against NFC West teams last season. They were a Brett Favre mini-miracle away from beating the Vikings at Minnesota with Shaun Hill under center and Frank Gore unavailable. It's a little harsh to suggest the 49ers will have a hard time competing against teams other than Arizona, although seven of their 10 non-division opponents went 8-8 or better last season. Four of the seven nondivision games against winning teams will be on the road.
The Cardinals and 49ers play tougher non-division road schedules than the Seahawks or Rams. It's unlikely San Francisco will go 5-1 in the division again. It's unlikely the Cardinals will go 6-2 on the road for a second consecutive season. The closer I look at the schedules, the more likely it seems 8-8 could be good enough to contend for a division title. If the bar gets low enough, perhaps a dark horse can leap over it.
"The Hawks are another good draft away from seriously competing for the division," DiLune2 wrote. "I think they're in the 7-8 win range this year."
That would assume the Seahawks regain stability at quarterback and on the offensive line. Optimistic Seattle fans have been banking on Matt Hasselbeck returning to form over the last two seasons, but it hasn't happened. The team addressed its offensive line this offseason, adding first-round left tackle Russell Okung and veteran left guard Ben Hamilton. Hasselbeck will probably look good again while he's healthy.
"Every offseason is filled with discussion about Hasselbeck looking great or feeling better than ever," joe_cool585 wrote. "Hasselbeck will take one hit (that all the Seahawks fans will cry foul and say that it was cheap or illegal) that will knock him out."
Not that the rest of the division is stocked with Hall of Famers at quarterback. For all we know, Charlie Whitehurst could be better than Alex Smith, David Carr, Matt Leinart, Derek Anderson, A.J. Feeley and the rookie version of Sam Bradford. That's the thing about predicting the NFC West race when each team has legitimate question marks at the most important position. Warner made Arizona the favorite by default last season. Taking him away arguably makes the 2009 runner-up 49ers the favorite by the same standard.
"The only reason the 49ers are getting any attention is by default," quickresults0913 wrote. ""The odds-on favorite wins only 33 percent of horse races each year, and for handicappers, you know what I'm getting at. The 49ers will fail to meet the expectation, and your old class horse in the Seahawks will end up back on top of the division."
Then it got personal.
"Shame on you, Sando," quickresults0913 continued. "You know exactly why the 49ers lost in Seattle late in the season to blow their shot at the playoffs. Qwest is the most intimidating place in the NFL and when the coaches get the ship pointed in the right direction and we get our talent healthy, the NFC West will once again be no contest. YOU KNOW THIS!"
Did the Bucs know this when they won handily at Qwest Field last season? I'm thinking not.
The 2010 schedule will do us favors early. The 49ers open at Seattle. They close the season at home against the Cardinals. In the meantime, everyone can dream. Even you, Rams fans.
"The Rams will be vastly improved," baseballbraindude wrote. "The OL is solid and the defense is full of good young players; 8-8 is definitely possible. Bradford, [Steven] Jackson, [the not-yet-signed Brian] Westbrook and three up-and-coming receivers. Look out ... they will compete."
That solves that.