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NFL

Niners among favorites in NFC

| Sunday, Sept. 1, 2013, 12:01 a.m.
Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III (10) listens to the play calls on a radio while on the sidelines during the first half of an NFL preseason football game against the Steelers on Monday, Aug. 19, 2013, in Landover, Md.

The NFC West was called the NFC Worst not long ago.

In 2010, it was the first division since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger to have all four teams finish the regular season with losing records. Seattle went 7-9 and made the playoffs by default.

But smart player acquisitions and shrewd coaching changes have prompted a turnaround.

With last season's Super Bowl runner-up San Francisco and surprising Seattle — and their young and mobile quarterbacks, Colin Kaepernick and Russell Wilson — the division could be the front-runner to have the NFC's representative in the Super Bowl.

Atlanta, which lately has hung around among the contenders without breaking through to the big one, will have a say. And maybe now more so than ever, with veteran running back Steven Jackson adding even more punch to a potent offense.

And Green Bay, with All-Pro quarterback Aaron Rodgers, is a perennial contender.

In his second season, fiery coach Jim Harbaugh led the 49ers to the Super Bowl, where they lost by three points to Baltimore after trailing, 28-6, early in the third quarter.

The Seahawks, under third-year coach Pete Carroll, won 11 games, their most since 2005, and mounted their own playoff comeback. Trailing Atlanta, 27-7, late in the third quarter of an NFC divisional game, the Seahawks lost by two.

Meanwhile, the St. Louis Rams, coming off a 2-14 season, became respectable under first-year coach Jeff Fisher and went 7-8-1, beating and tying the division-winning Niners.

That left Arizona, which went 5-11 for the second time in three years and cost coach Ken Whisenhunt his job after six seasons. A former Steelers assistant, Whisenhunt guided the Cardinals through their improbable 2008 Super Bowl run and a playoff appearance the next season. But it's a what-have-you-done-lately league, and another ex-Steelers assistant, Bruce Arians, was hired in his place. What looks to be a shaky offense might make things difficult for Arians.

St. Louis has its own young gun at quarterback, the pocket-oriented Sam Bradford, and a realistic chance to end its string of nine nonwinning seasons and make the playoffs for the first time since 2004.

Elsewhere, the return of Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III from major knee surgery will continue to be monitored daily. As a rookie, he lived up to his hype despite playing hurt. Recovery seems to be going well, so the larger question is what restraints, if any, will be placed on him.

The Vikings' Adrian Peterson had a remarkable season, falling 8 yards short of Eric Dickerson's all-time single-season rushing record after suffering a major knee injury in 2011. With good health, Peterson again could make a run at the mark.

Andy Reid is coaching the moribund Chiefs, giving Chip Kelly a chance to revive the Eagles. At Oregon, Kelly masterminded an explosive, fast-paced offense. But can that style work in the NFL? And if so, is the necessary talent there? Another coach under the lens is New Orleans' Sean Payton, who is back from suspension with some rebuilding to do after the bounty saga and last season's 7-9 crash.

Bob Cohn is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at bcohn@tribweb.com.

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