Mailbag: Playoffs? Yes, he means playoffs

Paul from San Francisco writes: Hey Mike, liked the analysis of the Rams and where they improved/worsened from last season. Any chance you can do that for the 49ers? Also, I'm a little underwhelmed by all the forecasts of the Niners winning the West this year because of how weak the West looks/is. Can you take a look at how the Niners stand up against the first- and sec0nd-ranked teams in the other NFC divisions? In other words, what are their playoff chances if they do win the West? Which NFC West rookie makes the biggest impact this year? Sorry, a lot of questions! Thanks!

Mike Sando: No apologies necessary. Glad you liked the look at the Rams. We've subsequently put together one on the Seahawks. I'm working on one for the 49ers and will have one for the Arizona Cardinals, too. These have been quite fun.

Why worry about trivial details such as winning the NFC West for the first time since 2002 when there are playoff matchups to consider? Haha.

If the 49ers were to win the NFC West as the third or lower seed, they would draw a home playoff game in the wild-card round. Teams hosting wild-card games often draw relatively flawed opponents. For example, the 2008 Cardinals drew a home playoff game against the Atlanta Falcons and rookie quarterback Matt Ryan. The 2007 Seahawks drew a home playoff game against the Washington Redskins and Todd Collins. Drawing flawed opponents at home can help a team break through in the postseason.

That might not be the case for the NFC West champion this season. The other top teams in the conference are stacked with proven quarterbacks. Brett Favre and Aaron Rodgers are in the NFC North. Drew Brees and a more seasoned Ryan are in the NFC South. The NFC East has a different look now that Donovan McNabb has left the Philadelphia Eagles, but Eli Manning won a Super Bowl -- and multiple road playoff games -- for the New York Giants. The Dallas Cowboys finally won a playoff game last season with Tony Romo.

Drawing one of those quarterbacks in the wild-card round could be tough for the NFC West champion, whether it's the 49ers or anyone else.

Doug from Surprise, Ariz., writes: With the departure of Karlos Dansby and with Gerald Hayes' back injury, the Cardinals obviously have issues at inside linebacker. Given that they play a 3-4 defense, is it feasible that the Cardinals could plug Adrian Wilson into a linebacker role (i.e. some sort of hybrid strong safety/linebacker)? Wilson is too small to play linebacker full-time, but he is a very good strong safety who excels when playing closer to the line of scrimmage.

Mike Sando: The Cardinals might have to rely upon Wilson more as an extra box defender, but I can't see them turning him into a base linebacker. The team would lose some of what he offers as a safety while putting Wilson at additional risk for injury.

William from Cincinnati writes: My reason for writing is that I really don't see how the Rams are still considered the worst team in the league. Why does everybody think the Lions will all of a sudden be so good? The Rams beat them last year and have better players at most positions except for receiver (Calvin Johnson is the only reason, though), outside linebacker with Julian Peterson, tight end with Brandon Pettigrew and defensive tackle with Ndamukong Suh.

The other positions almost all favor the Rams or are a tossup. Running back, cornerback, free safety, strong safety, offensive line, fullback, middle linebacker, punter and defensive end all go in the Rams' favor with Steven Jackson, Ron Bartell, Oshiomogho Atogwe, James Butler, Jason Smith, Jason Brown, Jacob Bell, Mike Karney, James Laurinaitis, Donnie Jones and Chris Long, respectively. And, yes, Long is better than Kyle Vanden Bosch. He had more sacks and one less tackle and basically all of his stats came in the last eight games of the year. With that and the familiarity of the defense Long now enjoys -- plus Fred Robbins knowing Steve Spagnuolo's defense helping out -- he should be even better.

The tossup positions are at quarterback (that is with Sam Bradford), kicker and right outside linebacker.

So my question is, where's the love for the Rams? And that's just them vs. the Lions. I'm sure I could pick out another team or two and argue just as well that they are better than them as of now. Thanks again.

Mike Sando: Ah, yes, the most recent ESPN power rankings did have the Rams ranked 32nd and I think that's fair after the team went 3-13, 2-14 and 1-15 over the last three seasons. The Rams have earned our skepticism. We're still in the offseason and you're going to see more reliance on 2009 records when putting together power rankings.

I did take the Rams over the Lions before last season in terms of which organization was building more wisely. The Lions were going with older players and that didn't make a great deal of sense. The Rams paid a price for going as young as they did, although I didn't see a better alternative given the salary-cap situation and overall state of the roster.

The Lions can expect Matthew Stafford to progress enough in his second season to outpace Bradford and A.J. Feeley in the short term. That doesn't mean Stafford will be better for sure, but it's reasonable to think he might be until we see what the Rams' quarterbacks can offer. Also, if you have seen Louis Delmas play safety the for the Lions, you know he's a dynamic player and better than what the Rams have to offer at the position.

Kenny from Washington writes: Do you think Seahawks players respect Pete Carroll, or just think he came to Seattle to get out of a jam at USC?

Mike Sando: Those options are not exclusive. In other words, the answer to both could be the same.

I think Seattle players respect him, but it's never unconditional respect. He will have to earn that respect over time and across situations. He can lose respect by handling situations dishonestly or mishandling his duties. It's very early in the game right now.

Getting out of a jam at USC would have been secondary to the assurances Carroll needed from an NFL team. He was able to stay on the West Coast and get control over personnel matters. No other team on the West Coast was going to offer those things to him, and Carroll was getting to an age where it was probably time to take this job.

I don't think Carroll realized the severity of the sanctions that awaited. That might have reflected arrogance on his part and on USC's part, but I don't think he thought the NCAA would come down so harshly.