If you've been paying attention to the media of late then you're probably already aware that the San Francisco 49ers are going to win the NFC West in 2010. Hell, if you check with guys like Roger Craig or Trent Dilfer, they've already got the thing on lock.
While I didn't play for the Niners like Craig or Dilfer, I'm certainly just as biased, if not more so, when it comes to my favorite squad. So in my North Korean-level biased opinion, the Cardinals are headed for a three-peat (trademark Pat Riley) this season and there is nothing the boys from SF can do about it.
Since you're probably too smart to just take my word for it, I suppose I can back myself up with a few reasons. And since SB Nation has a bit of a fetish for fives and I like to write within a structure, you're going to get the Top Five reasons.
1) It's Still the NFC West
This is probably the most obvious and simultaneously important reason of all. In what other division could you lose a Hall of Fame quarterback, a Pro Bowl receiver, and the most highly-touted LB and safety on the free agent market and still be considered as a possible playoff contender? The NFC West is where your playoff dreams can come true! Even you, Rams ... but not really.
Since the Seahawks abdicated their throne after the 2007 season, there hasn't really been a clear offseason favorite for the crown. Even when the Cardinals were coming off a Super Bowl appearance, there was a strong faction of folks assuming they were a one year wonder.
You can evaluate the four teams in the division in pairs. The non-contenders and the contenders. Seattle added a nice amount of young talent, but they still have glass Matt Hasselbeck playing QB and a secondary that's about as solid as the plot of The Expendables. As for St. Louis, they may have added a big-time rookie in Sam Bradford, but they probably don't have the offensive line to keep him out of traction for more than a couple games.
That leaves the Cardinals and Niners as the two contenders.
Many are predicting that San Fran is prepared to take a big leap forward and though they have a strong defense led by Patrick Willis (that I'm actually quite jealous of), there are still a number of offensive questions. Is Alex Smith good enough to win a division? Can the team overcome the offensive line injuries suffered in training camp? If you combined Frank Gore and Brian Westbrook into one person, would they be able to play a full season without dying?
Gotta kill the King to be the King.
2) Beanie is Ready for His Close Up
When Wells was selected in the first round of the 2009 draft, he was accompanied by a host of questions about his ability to stay healthy. Though people seem to conveniently forget he missed just three games in his three seasons at Ohio State, Wells didn't do himself any favors by spraining his right ankle in his first training camp practice and missing significant time.
Beanie didn't make his preseason debut until the third game and shockingly enough, it doesn't exactly aid the development of a rookie when he can't get on the field and practice. Already a step behind, Wells sat behind Tim Hightower in the early party of the season and didn't carry the ball more than seven times until Week 6.
As the season wore on, the ex-Buckeye began to exhibit his stiff-arm-is-law brand of running the football while taking more and more carries from Hightower. In his limited opportunities for the season, Wells gained nearly 800 yards with a 4.5 yards per carry average.
With a clear shift in offensive philosophy from Warner's aerial assault to a power running game, Wells is going to get the ball early and often. Though Hightower is a nice back, the coaching staff knows that Beanie is a special talent and the distribution of carries should eventually reflect that. Given enough touches and provided Matt Leinart can keep defenses from loading up with nine in the box, Wells could easily have a 1,200 yard season.
Embarrassing Scott Howard fact: when Beanie Wells started his Ohio State career, I thought the Buckeyes had two separate blue chip running backs, Chris and Beanie Wells. Genius.
3) The Cardinals Have the Best Coach in the Division
His name is Ken Whisenhunt - maybe you've heard of him. When our balding hero stormed into town in 2007 on his white steed, he did more than win 27 games in three years; he changed the entire mentality of a franchise.
Before Whiz, the Cardinals had won just one playoff game in the entire Super Bowl era. Since his arrival, the franchise has won four. To simplify: Cardinals = bad pre-Whisenhunt, Cardinals = good after Whisenhunt.
But the fun is not just all wrapped up in Whisenhunt's abilities, it's when he's compared to the other coaches in the division that he looks even better. Pete Carroll actually has the most NFL game experience, but his 33-31 overall record is the epitome of average. Plus, is anyone really buying that he'd be in Seattle at all if USC wasn't about to get the postseason ban hammer dropped on them?
I'm certain Niners fans will beg to differ, but while Mike Singletary's ra-ra act works for a while, I imagine he'll get tuned out by his adult male players before leading San Francisco to playoff glory. As for Steve Spagnuolo, he may be a fine coach, but I'm not sure a staff of Vince Lombardi, Tom Landry, Don Shula, and Bud Kilmer could win more than six games with the cast of Rams he's got.
Whisenhunt may be the best of a below average bunch, but even among a better pool, Whiz would still stand out as a star.
4) The Schedule is Charmin Soft
This is also a product of the NFC West, but based on strength of schedule, the Cardinals have the easiest slate in the NFL. Getting to play the Rams twice is always a nice coup, but outside of that, the Cards play just four 2009 playoff teams.
Quite a few NFL teams - even good and consistent ones - have been derailed by a tough schedule in the early going, for teams with questions like the Cardinals, it can be a killer. Fortunately, for the purposes of meshing, the Cards open at St. Louis and have their home opener two weeks later against the moribund Raiders.
Though that's a decent start, the Chargers and Saints await in Weeks 4 and 5. But even if the Cards get off to a rough start, the creamy middle of the schedule is where a division champion can be made.
In that stretch, the Cards play Seattle twice, Tampa Bay, Kansas City, and the Rams again. The other two dates are at Minnesota (probable loss) and a home revenge Monday Night Football affair with the 49ers. There's a stretch that screams 5-2 at worst.
The final quarter of the schedule features home games with the Broncos and Cowboys, along with visits to Carolina and finishing the season in San Francisco. With any luck, the Broncos and Panthers will be out of playoff contention by the time of those games (and hopefully starting Tim Tebow and Jimmy Clausen) and the Cardinals should be able to stock up enough wins to weather the Dallas Christmas visit and hopefully make the season finale meaningless.
But before you get too excited, realize that if you sub out Minnesota and Dallas for Green Bay and Philly, you basically have the Niners schedule.
5) The Defense is Ready to Break Out
If you're like me, you've probably spent the better part of the past two seasons wondering one question about the Arizona defense: How does the caliber of defensive talent that the Cardinals have manage to put up such frequent terrible efforts?
Said another way: there is just too much damn talent on this defense for it to suck.
In 2008, the Clancy Pendergast-coordinated unit allowed the fifth most points in the NFL and crumbled on the final drive of the Super Bowl. Bill Davis was promoted to the coordinator gig in 2009 and in the regular season, the team hung out in the middle in most defensive categories.
Yet when we last saw the Cardinals defense they were getting 90 points hung on them in just two playoff games. This despite having four of their defensive starters (Darnell Dockett, Antrel Rolle, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, and Adrian Wilson) having been selected to the Pro Bowl. Poor return on investment.
Realizing that Rolle has taken off to New York (sorry, Giants fans, he's not worth what you're paying him) and Karlos Dansby has become a neighbor of LeBron's (sorry, Dolphin fans, he's not worth what you're paying him) there is still oodles of talent on the defense. Three of those four Pro Bowlers are still present, while Rolle was replaced with the Jets' Kerry Rhodes. Add first and second round draft picks in DT Dan Williams and LB Daryl Washington and there's no shortage of ability.
Provided the team can continue to gel in the second year of the Bill Davis era, it should quickly come to light that the offensive fireworks produced by the Packers and Saints were more an exception than the rule. Talent usually succeeds.
(Bonus Reason) Matt Leinart
Like you REALLY thought you were going to get through an entire Cardinals column without a section devoted to the starting QB.
I won't beat you over the head with what you've already read, but why is Leinart not just as capable of leading a team to the playoffs as Alex Smith? Sure, he struggled as backup in garbage time within an offense that wasn't structured to his talents, but that shouldn't exactly surprise anyone.
While watching the 2005 Orange Bowl (thanks, ESPNU) yesterday, it became clear that Leinart is just one of those dudes who shines the brightest when the lights are right in his face. Hollywood's going to answer the bell on September 12th and all the haters are going to quietly slink to the background.
Fortunately for all of us, the time for supposing and half-baked predictions from handsome bloggers is just under three weeks from ending. Soon, football will be back in session and it will again be cool to drink a beer at 10 a.m.
In case you are wondering if I'm one of those people who doesn't believe in what I'm writing, I've put my money where my mouth is on this issue. Cardinals at 5/2 to win the West, $100 bet at Planet Hollywood. I look forward to seeing it pay off.
I eagerly await a response from our good friends over at SB Nation Bay Area - you know, if they haven't packed it in Glen Coffee-style already.