Arizona Cardinals

Last season: 7-9, fourth place, NFC East.

Coach: Dave McGinnis (8-17), third year with Cardinals.

Story line: Is McGinnis the coach who can turn the Cardinals around or is he another in a line of those who get chewed up by the team's mediocrity?

Power game: A solid offensive line should afford QB Jake Plummer (only 29 sacks) the time to generate a top-rate passing game. With WR David Boston and TE Freddie Jones, Plummer doesn't lack for playmakers. But the Cardinals need disappointing RB Thomas Jones to make a difference.

Achilles' heel: The defense has been dreadful and last year cranked out a league-low 19 sacks. That will get your secondary scalded. The Cardinals were unable to land a pass-rushing end in the off-season and couldn't sign their first-round draft pick, DT Wendell Bryant, in training camp.

Pressure's on: CB Duane Starks. After signing for $23 million over five years, the former Ravens cornerback will be facing three of the most offensive-minded teams in the league in his own division. Without a pass rush, it's going to be hard to earn that money.

Ticket to San Diego: The winner of this division ought to be a favorite to reach the Super Bowl. But it won't be the Cardinals.

St. Louis Rams

Last season: 14-2, first place. Lost Super Bowl to New England, 20-17.

Coach: Mike Martz (24-8), third year with Rams.

Story line: Will the Rams squeeze a second Super Bowl title out of this juggernaut or will they go down as a one-and-done outfit?

Power game: Provided the Rams come up with a competent right tackle, the offense should be even better this season. Replacing fumble-prone Az-Zahir Hakim with Terrence Wilkins was a good move and keeps QB Kurt Warner's arsenal on overload. RB Marshall Faulk is the best player in the league, with no signs of slowing down.

Achilles' heel: The Rams were their own worst enemy last season with 44 giveaways, including 22 lost fumbles. Even so, they scored more than 500 points again. Imagine what might happen if they could hang onto the ball.

Pressure's on: Martz. With superior talent, he got outcoached in the Super Bowl and didn't call Faulk's number as much as he should have. It's time for Martz to show he's more than an innovator on offense.

Ticket to San Diego: If Warner and Faulk remain healthy, the Rams should be able to handle anyone they'll face.

San Francisco 49ers

Last season: 12-4, second place. Lost wild-card game to Green Bay, 25-15.

Coach: Steve Mariucci (47-33), sixth year with 49ers.

Story line: Returning essentially the same team from last year, can the 49ers overtake the Rams?

Power game: With the Comeback Player of the Year in RB Garrison Hearst, the 49ers were second in the league in rushing. That's a nice complement to QB Jeff Garcia's passing attack. WR Terrell Owens (93 catches, 16 TDs, 15.2 average) is almost unstoppable.

Achilles' heel: The 49ers ranked only 27th in defensive sacks per play and 19th in pass defense. Jason Webster and Ahmed Plummer are good cornerbacks, but a pass rush would definitely help. You can't have enough cornerbacks in this division.

Pressure's on: Mariucci. He failed in his bid to get a contract extension, even with an interview for the Bucs' job. Before extending, the 49ers want to see how far he can take this team. Not surprisingly, Mariucci was talking Super Bowl in the preseason.

Ticket to San Diego: The roadblock is immediate with the Rams. If the 49ers can navigate that problem, they conceivably could take the relatively short trip down the coast.

Seattle Seahawks

Last season: 9-7, second place, AFC West.

Coach: Mike Holmgren (99-61), fourth year with Seahawks, 11th year in NFL.

Story line: Can QB Trent Dilfer come back from a knee injury to reclaim the starting job he was given in the off-season or could Matt Hasselbeck hang onto it?

Power game: The Seahawks overcame an almost feeble passing attack by Hasselbeck last year with a solid running game. RB Shaun Alexander, who came out of college the same year as the Ravens' Jamal Lewis, ran for 1,318 yards and caught 44 passes. He's a force.

Achilles' heel: The offensive line surrendered 49 sacks last year, 38 with Hasselbeck under center. Hasselbeck played hurt much of the year and ultimately lost his job to Dilfer on performance. Whoever plays needs better protection than that.

Pressure's on: TE Jerramy Stevens. It's up to the rookie to prove his troubled past is behind him and that Holmgren did the prudent thing in making him a first-round draft choice. He's a big target if he can play.

Ticket to San Diego: Switching divisions and conferences, the Seahawks are capable of making a playoff run. The quarterback play will be pivotal.

MVP candidate

RB Marshall Faulk, Rams

Impact rookie

WR Eric Crouch, Rams

Best pickup

WR Terrence Wilkins, Rams

Biggest loss

RT Ryan Tucker, Rams

Most vulnerable

RB Thomas Jones, Cardinals

Best comback

QB Trent Dilfer, Seahawks


Jamison Hensley





Ed Lee





Brent Jones


49ERS* -- Super Bowl winner



Ken Murray

RAMS -- Super Bowl winner




Mike Preston


49ERS* -- Super Bowl winner



* -- wild-card team, ALL CAPS -- NFC champ, GRAY -- Super Bowl winner

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