Sizing up SB contenders already? Thoughts

ESPN's John Clayton is listing the Seattle Seahawks second to Green Bay among teams most likely to supplant San Francisco as the NFC team in the next Super Bowl.

Separately, ESPN's Skip Bayless and Stephen A. Smith like the 49ers' chances for winning it all next season (see video above).

A few things to remember, from my perspective:

  • Health is huge: San Francisco and Seattle were both quite healthy through most of the 2012 season. Injuries caught up to both teams in the end. A fully healthy Justin Smith might have been the difference for San Francisco this season. The defense couldn't finish plays as consistently while Smith played with one healthy arm. That was one reason opponents completed too many deep passes against the 49ers late in the season. For Seattle, losing defensive end Chris Clemons severely hurt the pass-rush and run defense. While it's natural for those teams to lament these injuries, we shouldn't forget how healthy these teams remained in qualifying for the postseason. Frank Gore, Russell Okung and Sidney Rice played full seasons, a bit of a surprise. There are no guarantees good health will continue in the future.

  • QB watch: The Ravens have consistently won with Joe Flacco, but this postseason was the first time I thought Flacco really carried the team. Perhaps that should be encouraging for the St. Louis Rams. Sam Bradford obviously has talent. The Rams could use a Flacco-type transformation for Bradford. Perhaps that can happen if the Rams continue improve the supporting cast. Torrey Smith and later Jacoby Jones gave Flacco receivers with the speed to take advantage of the quarterback's strong arm. Anquan Boldin gave Flacco a big target with the ability to compete for the ball. The Ravens also settled on an effective line combination. I'm not sure whether Flacco's transformation is sustainable, but it's encouraging, at least. For now, the Rams have the third-best starting quarterback in the NFC West. The gap must shrink or disappear for the Rams to join the 49ers and Seahawks in this discussion.

  • Remember Arizona: Not long ago, the 49ers and Seahawks were seen as teams with promising defenses, but no viable quarterback. Both teams had some issues on their offensive lines as well. That is where the Cardinals find themselves heading into the 2013 offseason with new coach Bruce Arians. There are some differences, too, and much personnel work lies ahead. It's sounding like the Cardinals will invest in their offensive line the way their division rivals have done in recent seasons, with varying degrees of success. Arizona still hasn't taken an offensive lineman in the first three rounds over the past five drafts. Their division rivals have combined to draft 10 in the first three rounds over that period.

  • Changing division: The 49ers held on to win the NFC West by a half-game this season. Seattle was gaining in the end. The Rams went 1-0-1 against San Francisco. Winning the NFC West isn't a given for any of these teams. The competition will be fierce. The first-round bye saved the 49ers this season, in my view. Not having a bye forced Seattle to play consecutive games in the Eastern time zone. The Super Bowl hopes for NFC West teams could hinge on which one emerges atop the division.