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The Road To The Super Bowl, NFC West

   by Wayne Root - 08/08/2012

This is a continuing series of Conference Previews as the 2012 NFL Season is just one week away from the start of NFL Preseason 2012. As the season progresses, I will be updating these predictions- as upsets and "key" injuries can change the course of action in a nano-second. There have been some off-season trades and the chemistry and the locker-room antics will be closely monitored during the two-a-day practices in the heat of August. This early season guide will allow you to stay updated on last season's strengths and weakness, and what lies ahead for each team this season.

NFC WEST:

The NFC West has been considered one of the weakest divisions in the NFL for quite some time, and it has made making NFL picks a disaster for football betting fanatics. This year expect to see many profitable betting opportunities with Seattle, St Louis and Arizona. There are arguments that could be made for all four teams as contenders, and this might be the campaign that it becomes a lot more favorable to back these teams on any given Sunday.

San Francisco 49ers ---For years and years, we knew that the Niners had some talent, but the Mike Singletary era just didn’t end up going the way that it was supposed to go. San Francisco had talent everywhere in 2011—it's incredible to think it got even better during the offseason. Mario Manningham, Randy Moss, Brandon Jacobs and A.J. Jenkins are all the new hype around the 49ers offense. Now with Head Coach Jim Harbaugh calling the shots, QB Alex Smith is taking care of the football, and the defense is playing a heck of a lot harder than it did under Singletary. Now, the team went from a perennial 6-8 win average team to one that was a play or two away from going to the Super Bowl. Smith has to continue to take care of the pigskin and not throw picks, though this year. He is probably going to be asked to do a bit more for his team knowing that he has both WR Randy Moss and WR Mario Manningham to work with. RB Frank Gore is becoming known as fragile, but the addition of RB LaMichael James & RB Brandon Jacobs should help out on the ground. Even if the offense is receiving all the hype, the defensive should be getting just as much hype, considering they are returning all 11 starters—a rare feat in the salary-capped, free-agent era of football. It’s up to this defense once again to keep them in games. With LB Patrick Willis and the leagues best linebacking core leading the way, there’s no reason to believe that the 49ers won’t win this division for a second straight year. The 49ers' schedule tends to favor them playing at home during the middle of their season. >From Week 5 to Week 11, they only play one road game, and the bye is also included in Week 9. San Francisco plays four of its six in division games the second half of the season.

Seattle Seahawks --really can compete in the NFC West. The team has played a heck of a lot better defense under Coach Pete Carroll, but the offense for the most part has been suspect. As a result this year, the team drafted QB Russell Wilson as a project pick and signed QB Matt Flynn via free agency. Adding Matt Flynn sent the Seahawks offense to the next level. Flynn has solid timing and accuracy, not to mention he has established weapons in place. Though it seems Flynn will be the starter, there could be a three-way fight for the job between the two along with incumbent QB Tarvaris Jackson. Either way, the important function of the offense is to make sure that RB Marshawn Lynch gets the job done. Lynch just earned himself big payday in the offseason, and he is the key to keeping this offense going; especially knowing that there really aren’t any truly explosive receivers that can readily stretch the field. Defensively, Bruce Irvin has been getting plenty of reps, while Chris Clemons is absent. Clemons is a one-man pass-rush machine, and the Seahawks know they have to do something about it. Irvin will be rushing on third downs, so expect even better secondary play, which may be hard to top after the surprising performances from last year. Seattle doesn't have many oddities to its schedule: It plays three division games before the bye, three after the bye. Since it is such a good home team, it might play into its advantage that it has three sets of back-to-back home games. Look for them to give the 49ers a run for the money in this Division.

Arizona Cardinals---Meanwhile in the desert, Head Coach Ken Whisenhunt is on the hottest seat in the league and probably didn’t get fired because his team finished out the year winning 7 of their last 9 last year, getting the Cardinals to .500 by beating the Seahawks on the final day of the regular season. That being said, 8-8 isn’t going to cut it this year in all likelihood for Whisenhunt to keep his job. Two things scare me the most about the Arizona Cardinals: their quarterback and offensive line play. They essentially did nothing to upgrade the offensive line, and Kevin Kolb's contract gives him the first shot as the starter for at least one more year. QB Kevin Kolb is also going to be up against it this year. If Kolb fails, he could easily be replaced and become a career backup. WR Larry Fitzgerald was a bit off of his normal numbers last year, but the addition of WR Michael Floyd could open things up for him (and return this offense to the same level that it was at when Fitz and WR Anquan Boldin were both dominating receivers). Arizona is fortunate enough to have a couple of back-to-back home stands—one early in the season and one towards the end. The second half of the season looks to feature the possibility of only one cold-weather game, but Weeks 15 (Lions), 16 (Bears) and 17 (49ers) will be a tough way to finish out the season.

St. Louis Rams---2011 was supposed to be the year the Rams took that next step forward after a successful 2010 campaign, but it proved to be just the opposite. St. Louis took a step back instead: the lockout-shortened offseason, the installation of a new offense and the injuries all had their hand in the Rams' demise. We like the fact that they signed Head Coach Jeff Fisher in the offseason, and we also like that they traded and traded quite a bit in the NFL Draft to pick up a ton of potential starters. It showed the league that QB Sam Bradford is still the face of this franchise and the future. Les Snead and Jeff Fisher took over and gave this team new purpose and direction. Out are the days when Billy Devaney only drafted choir boys; in are the days when Fisher doesn't mind drafting red-flag character guys. Look for Janoris Jenkins and Brian Quick to be the difference-makers on their respective sides of the ball. RB Steven Jackson has the potential to continue what might be a Hall of Fame career. Are the Rams there yet? Not quite. Can they find a way to compete in the vastly improved NFC West next season? It is entirely possible. Still, we look to see the framework for a much better and improved campaign set in 2012. The Rams are going to be an up and coming team to watch in the future as long as they continue to draft well with all of their extra picks and keep building on a solid foundation. The Rams are going to learn how to be road warriors, as that's where they'll play six of their final nine games. St. Louis has some pieces, but it is not yet quite ready for full-blown success.

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WARs PREDICTIONS:

If Alex Smith has the same type of season he had in 2011, then the 49ers are the "lock". But look for a major push by Seattle. It seems they play well at home and teams had trouble traveling there to play. I would like to see Kolb have the year he's capable of having and the Rams will surprise many...especially if QB Sam Bradford and Steven Jackson can avoid injuries along with the return of Jeff Fisher to show the Ram Fans why he's considered one of the best coaches in the NFL.

1st---San Francisco

2nd---Seattle

3rd---Arizona

4th---St Louis

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