First, here's the projected finish for the NFC West as detailed in PFP 2007.
San Francisco 49ers
St. Louis Rams
For the precise win projections you'll have to pick up your own copy, but I'll tell you two things: One, the division is projected to be very bad, and, two, the 49ers lead is .1 wins over the Seahawks.
The 49ers get a big boost from having the worst projected schedule in the NFL. A couple games away at Pittsburgh and at Cincy are about as hard as it gets outside of the division. The other advantage the Niners enjoy is a lot of youth that is all likely to improve to some degree. In other words, even if players like Vernon Davis, Manny Lawson and Alex Smith don't see a big jump in production individually, even a small step by all three will greatly benefit the team. Still, the Niners are not being projected as a good team, but rather a slightly below average team with a very favorable schedule.
Whereas the Niners appear to be a young team on the rise, Seattle is seen as an old team on the decline. Understanding that, the inverse of what is true of San Francisco is true of Seattle: if a few key players, say Matt Hasselbeck (32), Walter Jones (33) and Julian Peterson (30) collectively decline, even slightly, the team will take a big step back. Here's a place where statistical projection I think can be a touch inadequate. Beck is being lumped in with a bunch of quarterbacks with different skill-sets and I doubt his bread-and-butter mid range precision should decline much, if at all, at 32. Jones is a slam-dunk HOFer and as likely as anyone to defy normal aging trends. Finally, Peterson is a stupendous athlete and workout fanatic with as good as chance to age gracefully as any linebacker in football. This, I think, is a good example of when to combine what we know from historical trends with what we know as fans. Any of those three are certainly capable of decline, but expecting an immediate decline based solely on age defies my best available information and most logical conclusions.
While I still worry about Levi Brown's ability to handle the edge rush, I think Arizona should have a top fifteen offense. The problem, of course, is that their defense has nearly no chance of being even adequate. After what I consider a very poorly managed draft, the team failed to add a single pass rusher, a competent linebacker, or any semblance of depth. That is, unless you're counting Private Pyles, of which they now have two. I'm perfectly fine with Gabe Watson, whose a stout two gap lineman that earned his place at nose tackle and played a large part in a much improved run defense, but redundant fat body, Alan Branch, did everything he possibly could to work his way out of the first round. Your opinion of this defense's potential and the Cards draft likely has a lot to do with how good you think Branch can be, I see a player that didn't show up for the most important two months of his life and think bust. Contrarily, Branch has a world of talent and could be a bargain in the second round. Either way, neither addition is likely enough to push the Cards into contention this year, but with a rising offense, they are, once again, a team that can engender hope in their fans.
Finally, here's the big surprise for me: St. Louis projected to be the worst team in the division. The main culprit, a lot of luck on third down for the offense in 2006. St. Louis's overall offensive DVOA, 12.3%, just third downs, 23.2%. Now, good offenses regularly outperform their overall DVOA on third down, but that's likely a cause rather than an effect. Or, to be less cryptic, getting a lot of lucky first downs that win your team three more chances on offense is going to boost your overall DVOA, but over time, it's not sustainable. Meanwhile, the Rams have almost no chance of fielding an even competent defense, with little pass rush and a joke of a secondary. Add in an increased chance of injuries to irreplaceable skill position players (Marc Bulger, Steven Jackson and Torry Holt) and you can see how if things break wrong for the Rams, they could easily be one of the worst teams in the division.
Tomorrow, I'll revise my projections for the NFC West, as I planned on doing, based on recent developments and the wisdom of Football Outsiders. Taken with all due respect, I don't anticipate a radical change from this version.