NFC West...NFC's Best? 05/06/01
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There was a time in the NFL, not so long ago, where the 49ers were the most dominant franchise in the league. The team played many games that were won, before the coin toss was ever made. Teams were terrified to play the 49ers. With twenty years of success, and a constant ability to embarrass doubters the 49ers became one of the greatest dynasties of all time. There were still doubters though, even after winning five Super Bowls. "It's because they play in the NFC West" was a popular excuse for the 49er success. That excuse however, no longer holds any bearing, as the NFC West is now one of the toughest divisions in the league. Despite the 49ers glitch in consecutive winning, and ten-win seasons, the 49ers this season will aid in the development of a powerhouse division.

The 49ers have been in the cellar of the NFL for the past two seasons. The team has had to contend with incredible salary cap difficulties, owner turmoil, contract scandals, a complete turnover of the front office, and the loss of many veteran players, including future hall of fames, Steve Young, Ken Norton Jr, and Jerry Rice who will inevitably depart on June first. Amazingly, the teams reconstruction has taken about two years only, and the team is now looking to be competitive again. A new quarterback in Jeff Garcia will be running the show. Garcia is coming off a pro-bowl season with the team, in which he set a team record for passing yards. Terrell Owens will be the go to guy on offense, and the defense is expected to start seven or more players with a year of experience of less. The talent on the team though gives the 49ers reason to be optimistic. The 49ers hope that stars will bloom out of Julian Peterson, Andre Carter, John Keith, and Ahmed Plummer on defense. Given a solid running back, the team could be in good shape on offense as well. The 49ers however wont be the strongest team in the division, not yet at least.

The St. Louis Rams, two years removed from the Super Bowl still have one of the most explosive offenses in the league. Last season when kicker Jeff Wilkins was injured the team opted to go for two point conversions instead of signing another kicker in the interim - somehow there plan worked. The Rams will enter the 2001 season with a revamped defense, and three rookies picked in the first round. This team has the potential to take the NFC crown once again.

The New Orleans Saints have finally left their mark on the division. After being in hibernation for what seemed to be generations, the team finally put it all together and made a playoff run. The addition of this years draftee Deuce McAllister could add a completely new dimension to their offense (providing he can stay healthy). The team's defense is expected to be solid for the second consecutive year.

The Carolina Panthers tried to build a veteran team last season. They were mildly successful, but have likely learned their lesson after unimpressive results compared to the first time they tried this building process when they first entered the league. The team has made some youthful improvements, and providing they can actually get some play out of a new quarterback, they could be a team to contend with. One thing the Panthers have always done well is play at a high level in inter-division play; there's no reason to expect that to change this season.

Not so long ago the Atlanta Falcons bounced the 49ers from the playoffs. Since then, however the team has been on a downward spiral to injury-Ville. In an aggressive draft move, the Falcons moved up to the number one overall spot to select quarterback Michael Vick, perhaps the most athletic player to ever play in the quarterback position, Vick could dynamically change the Falcons performance. The Falcons however would be smart to take another year of the cellar and give Vick some time on the bench to fully adjust to the NFL before they look to make huge strides.

From top to bottom, the NFC West is finally an extremely solid division. Playoff contention is possible for most of the teams and competitive football will surely stem from the divisions talent. Look for the NFC West to make a run to be the NFC's Best.

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