Five first-team All-Pro selections, an NFL high, return to the NFC West champion San Francisco 49ers.
The NFL's coach of the year, Jim Harbaugh, returns along with every starter from a defense that allowed 14.3 points per game, third-fewest in franchise history.
The 49ers are, by any reasonable measure, the team to beat in the NFC West this season.
But which team is best positioned to overtake them in the division? Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc. pointed north to the Seattle Seahawks, and those leaving more than 2,000 comments in reply generally agreed.
QBs Before NFC West Days
I did say generally.
"Seattle?" 335iRobot replied. "Because they added a QB (Matt Flynn) who is unproven beyond a few games? I mean, I'm a Cardinal fan, but look how Kevin Kolb panned out and he had a great game vs. a tough Atlanta defense. ONE GAME. I would not say Seattle is in any better position."
The conversation was spirited, but also civil -- and amusing during periodic maturity gaps.
"It's time for Kevin Kolb to shine," Totoy Bato 80 wrote.
"Shine my shoes," FistFulloRings replied.
Hey, if that's as low as an NFC West free-for-all goes, I'll take it.
The shoe-shine exchange was instructive to the extent Kolb remains a pivotal variable for the Cardinals and, by extension, the division. Kolb averaged a healthy 7.7 yards per pass attempt, but with 30 sacks, eight fumbles and seven missed games to injuries, the overall impression he left was a negative one.
"We know almost nothing about him other than that he had no handle of the offense last year and consistently looked lost," johnnodilo wrote. "If he can grasp the system well enough to get his team out of bad plays, then the sack numbers should come down and the line will look much improved."
Those skeptical of Seattle hit hard on Flynn-Kolb comparisons.
"Aren't the Cards the only team to beat the Niners in the division last season?" pendulum80 wrote. "But they don't have a legitimate QB to carry them past the Niners? Lemme guess, the Hawks do, right? LOL."
Fair point, but the prevailing opinion, even among 49ers fans, was that Seattle would pose a greater threat than Arizona, even though the Cardinals finished just ahead of the Seahawks in the standings last season. Both teams finished the season strong.
Arizona improved dramatically on defense as the 2011 season progressed, allowing only 12 touchdowns over the final nine games. (Seattle allowed 15 over that span and was more consistent.) The Cardinals won seven of their final nine games to finish 8-8, one game better than the Seahawks finished. Despite pass-rush concerns, Arizona finished the season with 42 sacks, tied with the 49ers for seventh in the NFL (Seattle had 33, ranking 19th).
But Seattle's running game was gaining momentum as the season closed, with Marshawn Lynch leading the NFL in rushing over the final nine weeks. Lynch even snapped the 49ers' 36-game streak without allowing a 100-yard rusher. Arizona's Beanie Wells, meanwhile, struggled with injuries and wore down. The team's most promising runner, Ryan Williams, spent the season on injured reserve with a torn patella tendon.
The Seahawks have the NFL's youngest defense and one of its youngest rosters overall, with greater potential for growth on the offensive line, where the Cardinals have failed to invest draft choices (that could change this year).
With an improved quarterback situation in Seattle -- Tarvaris Jackson recovered from a torn pectoral, Flynn replacing Charlie Whitehurst -- the Seahawks do have potential to take another step forward.
"As a Niner fan, the team that worries me the most is the Seahawks," BigBrad184 wrote. "I really like their young secondary and with a few more pieces in the front seven, that defense could be elite. I think they have some nice weapons on offense, but they need the line to grow up together in a hurry and have Flynn be an above-average starter (same as Alex Smith) to really challenge for a championship."
BigBrad184 also pointed to the Seahawks' home-field advantage, although Seattle went just 4-4 at home last season, compared to 7-1 for the 49ers and 6-2 for the Cardinals.
"I feel like the Seahawks are slowly trying to become a mirror image of the 49ers," kovz1586 wrote. "Build around a young defense through the draft and keep your players. Marshawn Lynch is a beast. The only question mark is, 'How high is the QB's ceiling?' -- once again mirroring the 49ers with Alex Smith. As a 49er fan, I hope the Seahawks don't have too much success, but they are the team I would most fear within our division."
Oh, and this just in: The St. Louis Rams play in the NFC West as well.
"This Ram fan isn't sleeping," Kenneth 2661 wrote. "I know we need a lot of help, but if your team suffered the injuries we did, how would they have finished? Stability is a key issue, at least with Jeff Fisher, we have a veteran coach who will bring a little discipline to an unstable team. If we get some playmakers in the draft, we will make some noise in the West.
"That said, I believe the Niners will win the division, with the Hawks second, Cardinals third and my Rams bringing up the rear -- THIS YEAR!"