BY PAUL HINES
MT. VERNON —
The beginning of every sports season starts with sky high expectations.
NFL fans are no different. Fan bases in St. Louis and Chicago might want to temper their excitement a bit as the preseason kicks off though. We're less than a month away from the start of the season, and it's about the time when fans seriously start sizing up the quality of their squads.
It seems like just a few short years ago, the NFC West was the laughing stock of football. Every team was equally mediocre. Seattle edged into the playoffs with a losing record after beating the Rams in the final game of the regular season. That was 2010.
This is how quickly things can change in the modern NFL. The college ranks are loaded with talent that translates into impact rookies at the professional level. San Francisco ended this past season on the cusp of a Super Bowl title, falling to the Baltimore Ravens. The Seahawks advanced to the playoffs, earning a wild-card berth. This time their win total was an impressive 11.
This is the competitive environment the Rams will be competing in this season as they enter division play. St. Louis played both teams tough a season ago. St. Louis famously tied the 49ers and then beat them in overtime later in the season. Against the Seahawks, St. Louis split with each team winning on its home field.
The NFC West with the 49ers, Seattle and a solid Rams team should be one of the better divisions across the NFL. The only vulnerable team on a weekly basis is the traditionally hapless Arizona Cardinals.
The last few seasons Arizona has had a carousel of quarterbacks since Kurt Warner left. It's the most critical position in today's NFL and at Arizona it's always unstable.
About the only other division in football that is as loaded with competition is the one the Bears reside in, the NFC North.
The Packers, Vikings and Bears all won at least 10 games. The Bears finished 10-6 and found themselves on the outside of the playoff picture. It's a statistical oddity that hasn't happened in years. Typically, a 10-win team is a sure bet for the postseason.
As a Bears fan, I am a bit concerned. Chicago didn't do a ton in the offseason to take additional steps to improve. And in the NFL, if you stay the same often it seems your team is in for a regression in wins.
Within the division, the Packers and Vikings will again be solid playoff contenders. I expect the Lions to bounce back from an awful 2012. Detroit started the season 4-4 before ending the year with eight-game slide. It seems a squad with Matthew Stafford and Calvin Johnson on offense would repeat a similar disaster. They do need to sure up a porous.
Another intriguing aspect of the season comes in week 12 when the Bears travel to St. Louis for a Sunday matchup. The Bears topped the Rams last year, but it should be a close game this season.
Paul Hines is the sports editor at the Register-News.