Big Question: The Cardinals' chances

The San Francisco 49ers are a popular pick -- and the most logical one -- to win the NFC West this season. What are the two-time defending champion Arizona Cardinals' chances?

At least four factors give the Cardinals more than a fighting chance in their first season following Kurt Warner's retirement:

  • Superiority on the front lines. The Cardinals could have the best offensive and defensive lines in the division. Quarterback is still the most important position, but it's not as though the rest of the division is stacked at the position. The 49ers are the only team in the division with a defensive line close to as strong as the one Arizona will field this season. One question, though, is whether the Cardinals' defense can take full advantage of the strength Darnell Dockett, Calais Campbell and rookie first-round choice Dan Williams can provide. On offense, the 49ers loaded up with two offensive linemen in the first round, but the Cardinals' veteran group should be better in the short term after adding Alan Faneca and Rex Hadnot.

  • The Smith-Leinart factor. The Cardinals' Matt Leinart couldn't beat out Warner over the last few seasons. There's little shame in that. If the 49ers' Alex Smith can become a promising prospect less than a year after failing to beat out Shaun Hill as the 49ers' starter, Leinart shouldn't be written off automatically. Playing even to Smith's level could be enough for Arizona to win the division. Leinart hasn't done much to inspire confidence that he's ready for the job, but neither had Smith until he finally got an extended chance last season.

  • Coaching. The Cardinals wisely extended Ken Whisenhunt's contract through the 2013 season. Whisenhunt has succeeded in embracing the underdog's mentality in Arizona even while he has worked to change perceptions about the organization. The natural and justifiable tendency to discount the Cardinals following Warner's retirement should play into Whisenhunt's motivational hands.

  • Pressure/expectations. The pressure is off Arizona after the team won back-to-back division titles, multiple playoff games and earned a Super Bowl appearance over the last two seasons. The 49ers haven't won anything lately and it's unclear how they'll respond to pressure and expectations. Team president Jed York guaranteed a playoff appearance before last season. The team fell short, but it's clear York expects the team to deliver this season. The pressure is on San Francisco.

I've named the 49ers my preseason favorite based on what should happen, but what should happen isn't always what does happen. The Cardinals do not plan to go quietly.