2013 | 13-3, 1st in West
Last year in playoffs | 2013
Going all the way: The last franchise to win back-to-back Super Bowl titles was New England in 2003 and ’04, so the Seahawks have quite a challenge. Then again, Pete Carroll won consecutive national championships at USC, so he can tap into that experience. Seattle did a good job of hanging on to most of its core players, and largely keeping a dominant defense intact.
They’re doomed: The offensive line is a significant concern, having lost some key components. If that line has problems opening holes, it puts more pressure on back Marshawn Lynch, whose bruising style has defined the franchise. Losing Chris Clemons and Clinton McDonald on the defensive front could prove costly.
Now hear this: “I always said at ’SC, ‘We’ll look back someday and tell you how we did.’ Getting that Super Bowl ring to me was not the ultimate. I don’t think our players think about it that way. It’s ‘That’s what happened. Now, what’s next?’ ” — Carroll
2. SAN FRANCISCO
2013 | 12-4, 2nd in West
Last year in playoffs | 2013
Going all the way: Colin Kaepernick has more receiving weapons, with a healthy Michael Crabtree, and the addition of Stevie Johnson, Brandon Lloyd and others. Defensive tackle Justin Smith played with a shoulder injury last season, and underwent surgery in the off-season, meaning he could be closer to his dominating form this fall.
They’re doomed: With three new starters in the secondary, including both corners, the 49ers could be vulnerable on the back end. Linebacker NaVorro Bowman is expected to miss at least half the season recovering from his knee injury, and Aldon Smith is suspended for nine games for violating league policies. Offensive line is a concern too, with guard Alex Boone holding out, right tackle Anthony Davis (shoulder) missing training camp, and center Jonathan Goodwin now in New Orleans.
Now hear this: “We know we have the team to win a Super Bowl, we have the talent to win a Super Bowl. But there’s a lot of urgency to get it done.” — Joe Staley, tackle
2013 | 10-6, 3rd in West
Last year in playoffs | 2009
Going all the way: No one wanted to play the Cardinals in the second half of last season. They won seven of their final nine games, and were the only visiting team in two seasons to win at Seattle. Carson Palmer got hot, and so did Arizona’s defense, which was 28th against the run in 2012 but No. 1 in that category last season.
They’re doomed: The Cardinals were dealt a devastating blow in training camp when they lost Pro Bowl defensive tackle Darnell Dockett to a season-ending torn ACL in practice. Typically, the offensive line remains a work in progress, and the right side of this one is particularly suspect.
Now hear this: “The way we finished last year is something we can definitely build on. Obviously, we fell short of our goals of making the playoffs. But the way we finished left a solid taste in guys’ mouths that we were on the right track and have the right people to make a run.” — Larry Fitzgerald, All-Pro receiver
4. ST. LOUIS
2013 | 7-9, 4th in West
Last year in playoffs | 2004
Going all the way: The Rams had a trio of standouts on the defensive line in Chris Long, Robert Quinn and Michael Brockers, and they added a fourth first-rounder to that group in defensive tackle Aaron Donald. They will present big problems for every offensive line they face. St. Louis is strong on special teams too, with kicker Greg Zuerlein and punter Johnny Hekker.
They’re doomed: Losing quarterback Sam Bradford cripples designs on a big year. Shaun Hill is an experienced journeyman, but faces long odds to succeed. With Jake Long and Rodger Saffold rehabbing injuries, the pressure is on No. 2 pick Greg Robinson to bolster a shaky offensive line.
Now hear this: “I just came in and everything looked like Spanish, it sounded like Spanish. At the beginning of the year, I was kind of slowing myself down. I really didn’t know what was going on.” —Tavon Austin, receiver and No. 8 pick in 2013, on the difficulty of learning the Rams’ playbook