You could potentially also refer to this as the top five reasons this person is delusional. The media has been anointing the 49ers as the team to beat in the NFC West. There are plenty of reasons for this given the evolving storylines of this offseason. And yet, Arizona Cardinals fans still feel the to scream out like a petulant child: "Look at me! Look at me!" Obviously given the turmoil of an NFL season, the Cardinals could still finish on top of the NFC West. Personally I don't expect it, but hey, crazier things have happened.
There are plenty of reasons why the 49ers are going to win the NFC West, but as is the case on Mondays here at SB Nation Bay Area, we'll stick to five such reasons.
1. The 49ers defense is going to be one of the best in the NFL
The 49ers defense was incredibly solid last year. The traditional statistical measurements would show them at the middle of the pack, but Football Outsiders ranked the 49ers defense 3rd in the NFL. While every statistical measurement has its weaknesses, I would argue FO's is closer to being on the money than most others. The 49ers did give up a good number of yards, but the defense also stepped up when needed. This bend but don't break approach led to an 8-8 season, which I suppose is fitting. The truly distinguishing numbers can be seen in points allowed. In the 49ers 8 wins, the defense gave up 56 points. In the 49ers 8 losses, the defense gave up 225 points. I think we see a pattern there.
However, as we look forward to the upcoming 2010 regular season, the 49ers defense has made improvements in several areas that should allow it to bring more consistency to the table. First and foremost, they'll have Nate Clements back for the entire season. He suffered a shoulder injury midway through the season from which he would not return. Although he hasn't quite lived up to his monster contract, he's been a key component in both the pass defense and also the team's outside rush defense. He is as good an open field tackler as you'll see from cornerbacks. More importantly, he's got the confidence to go up against the biggest, baddest wide receivers in the league.
On top of the improved health, the team added important young talent. The team let Mark Roman walk this offseason in part because of his own struggles, but more because of the continued emergence of Reggie Smith and the drafting of USC big hitter Taylor Mays. Smith appears to be stepping into Roman's role as the primary backup safety, while Mays will see a good amount of playing time on passing downs.
The pass rush should continue to improve as well. Although Ahmad Brooks will miss the first couple weeks of the season, that has allowed the team to get an idea of what Diyral Briggs and former Cardinal Travis LaBoy bring to the table. LaBoy has a rough injury history, but if he can stay healthy he is an excellent pure pass rusher.
Add all this up and I wouldn't be shocked to see the 49ers end the season as one of the best defenses in the NFL.
2. Alex Smith Is entering his second year with the same offensive coordinator and the same offense
For the anti-49ers crowd out there, Alex Smith is always the guy that receives the most criticism. As a former #1 overall pick, Smith has not lived up to expectations and fans are ready to let him know about it. And yet, the context of Smith's situation is always ignored. A proper perspective will show a young QB with the pieces in place for a breakout season.
Now, I'm not saying that Smith is going to become the best QB in the league, or even a Pro Bowl starting QB. Rather, he's in a position to find success in the 49ers offense. Prior to this season, he had not had the same offensive coordinator for more than one year since he was at Utah. Having five different coordinators and five different offenses means learning five different foreign languages. As one who struggles to learn foreign languages, I can empathize with Smith's plight.
This season Alex Smith finds himself in the Jimmy Raye offense for the second straight season. This means he's spent the offseason perfecting his knowledge and performance within the offensive scheme, rather than learning an entirely new scheme. A joke was made about how each year in OTAs and minicamps the team had to learn things as simple as where to line up for even just the huddle. As outrageous as that seems, such is the life of learning an entirely new playbook. This offseason has seen the 49ers working on perfecting the timing of the offense.
Finally, Smith has more weapons at his disposal than any other time since he was drafted. He's got MIchael Crabtree, Vernon Davis, Frank Gore, Josh Morgan, and Ted Ginn to throw to. Most importantly with Crabtree, he has had an entire offseason to work with him and develop the timing that is necessary for any successful QB/WR duo.
Combine all these together, and I fully expect Alex Smith to outplay Matt Leinart and provide a sufficient spark to guide the 49ers to the NFC West title.
3. The offensive line is about to become a strength on this team
Arguably the 49ers biggest problem in 2009 was the offensive line. They directly addressed that problem by drafting OT Anthony Davis and OG Mike Iupati in the first round of the 2010 NFL Draft. The plan was to slowly work them into the first string early in the season. In the first week of training camp, both Davis and Iupati found themselves taking reps with the first team offense.
Iupati is considered closer to being a polished starter than Davis. However, both of these young men will experience their share of struggles early in the season. The key will be for them to face this adversity and break through. While I was surprised to see them promoted to the first string so soon, I do think that will turn out to be for the best. This early promotion will allow them to develop the necessary chemistry with the rest of the line. Aside from just knowing the protection schemes and how to play their own position, Davis and Iupati will have to get used to the guys around them, just as those guys will have to get used to them.
The 49ers offensive line will take some time to completely gel, particularly in light of Eric Heitmann's broken leg. The team starts the season up in Seattle, which will provide an excellent early season challenge for Davis and Iupati.
4. The rest of the division has too many question marks
Consider this a response to Scott's "It's Still The NFC West." While the Rams are slowly adding the necessary pieces, the most they can do is play the role of spoiler. They get the 49ers and Seahawks to close the season, so they could certainly cause some havoc at that point. However, the odds of them winning the West are somewhere between slim and none.
The Seahawks will certain present a challenge to both the Cardinals and the 49ers. The Seahawks have a good deal of talent on the team. More importantly, IF they can stay healthy, the Seahawks could very well battle for the crown. As the all-caps on IF indicates, that's one big if. That's not factoring in Coach Fredo, who took a Super Bowl runner-up Patriots squad and ran them into the ground after a failed short stint with the Jets.
As for the Cardinals, I certainly won't argue they are not a talented team with some upside. They've got an intriguing young running back in Beanie Wells, they've still got Larry Fitzgerald, and that defense certainly has some talented players. And yet, I just don't see it as being enough given the losses of Kurt Warner and Anquan Boldin. In regards to the Boldin loss, the Cardinals do have Steve Breaston and Early Doucet looking to make an impact. They're talented young receivers, but it remains to be seen whether either of them will be able to fill the truly bad-ass shoes of Anquan Boldin. 84 receptions and 1,000+ yards receiving is no small feat to replace.
As for Kurt Warner? Plenty has been said about the end of the Warner era and the return of Matt Leinart. In his rookie season, Leinart seemed to be on the right path as he threw for over 2,500 yards with 11 touchdowns and 12 interceptions. Not too shabby for a rookie. Of course, the Cardinals had Kurt Warner on the bench and he ended up starting the next three seasons, leading the Cardinals to as much success as they've ever had.
I certainly think Matt Leinart has the talent to play in the NFL. And he's got some impressive weapons surrounding him. Everybody in the Bay Area makes the comparisons between Alex Smith and Aaron Rodgers because of the Rodgers playing for Cal and the way that draft fell. And yet, we rarely hear the Smith-Leinart comparisons when 49ers fans were praying he would go pro for the 2005 draft. Leinart has basically fallen into Bolivian (thanks Mike Tyson!) and become an after thought.
The Cardinals have plenty of question marks, but none is quite as big as Matt Leinart. Alex Smith remains a question mark for the 49ers, but I just have a good feeling about his performance this season. Maybe that feeling is just homer-ism, but I can live with that. Both teams are expecting to ride a strong running performance to success, but I think the 49ers will get more out of Smith than the Cardinals will out of Leinart. Consider it the combination of the weapons available to each and the circumstances within each of their own offenses. It's not a great reason to believe this, but its a reason nonetheless.
5. The 49ers currently own the Arizona Cardinals
The 49ers swept the Cardinals last season. Sure it's only one season, but seeing as the Cardinals were supposedly better than the 49ers, they certainly didn't show it in their two matchups last season. That's not to say they won't do well against the 49ers this season, but I'd imagine the 49ers will head into their two matchups against Arizona with at least a little bit of confidence.
The 49ers snuck by in the season opener last season, but the week 14 matchup at Candlestick showed just how physical the 49ers were compared to the Cardinals. The six forced turnovers would be enough on their own. However, it was the nature of some of those turnovers that showed who was the more physical team. Dashon Goldson came crashing in on two of those fumbles with monstrous hits. The team threw Warner around like a rag doll. All in all, a truly Mike Singletary-style performance.
Singletary gets a lot of grief from some folks about his supposed "antics." Of course, they fail to realize how much the 49ers have bought into his style. Vernon Davis has repeatedly declared that Singletary turned around his career when he threw him off the field that first game. Sure some of Singletary's initial actions were a bit suspect, but he's proven over the course of the past season and a half to be a guy for which his team will battle to the end. All else being equal, that devotion to Coach Singletary would be a nice little tiebreaker.