NFC West division continues to improve

Ken Whisenhunt (Getty)

Thanks to rapid improvements across the division, the NFC West is no longer the laughing stock of the NFL. But even after a strong finish a year ago, can the Cardinals keep up in 2012?

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Just a few short years ago, the NFC West was the laughing stock of the NFL. Thanks to rapid improvements across the division, those days are over.

While the Arizona Cardinals finished the 2011 campaign winning six of their last eight games, keeping up that momentum might be a tall task. Like it has been over the last handful of years, the NFC West division is improving at a fast rate and 2012 should be no different.

The Seahawks have made the biggest splash this offseason as the team managed to lure QB Matt Flynn to Seattle. Flynn was a shoe-in to end up in Miami – being reunited with coach Joe Philbin – but Flynn will instead make his way to the Northwest likely ending the Tarvaris Jackson era. The Seahawks also locked up RB Marshawn Lynch to a long-term deal.

In San Francisco, all of the pieces are in place for the 49ers to be a formidable opponent for years to come. With a tremendous defense, above average rushing attack and bright young coach, San Francisco could once again be the class of the NFC West. Not to mention QB Alex Smith is back and is taking the necessary steps needed to solidly his status as a clear-cut starter.

Meanwhile in St. Louis, the Rams are in a state of change again as veteran coach Jeff Fisher has taken over the reins. Steve Spagnuolo appeared to have the once proud franchise back on track but that progress stalled a year ago. Now with Fisher in the mix, St. Louis isn't that far off from making a comeback. Sam Bradford still has the potential to become a franchise quarterback and RB Steven Jackson has a few years left in the tank.

That brings us to the Cardinals who could conceivably find themselves on top of the NFC West or at the bottom. The competition will continue to get stiffer and Arizona has areas that have plagued them in recent years that still haven't been addressed.

First and foremost is at quarterback. The success of next season could fall squarely on the shoulders of Kevin Kolb. Kolb was slowed by injuries last season – his first with the Cardinals – so it's still unclear whether he can consistently perform at a high level. If Kolb isn't able to get the job done, it might be a devastating setback. Sure, John Skelton could come in to save the day, but Skelton is still raw and needs more polish to be handed the keys to the Arizona offense.

Quarterback play has the upmost importance in the NFL, but following closely behind is the offensive line. The Cardinals' woes in the trenches might even outweigh the team's struggles under center. Arizona has taken a patchwork approach to building its offensive line and has failed to bring in a cornerstone to build around. The Cardinals are expected to address the o-line in this year's draft, but that's also been expected in the past and did not pan out.

Luckily for the Cardinals there are some bright spots to look forward to. Defensively, Ray Horton and company started to figure things out in the second half of last season. There are playmakers to build around such as CB Patrick Peterson, LB Daryl Washington and others. LaRod Stephens-Howling remains one of the NFL's best threats on special teams, an area where Peterson also excels.

Ultimately, the pieces are in place for Arizona to build on the success it experienced late last year, but the pieces are also in place for the team to play like it did early on. It's difficult to predict how the Cardinals will play at this point but it's not difficult to predict that the NFC West will continue to be vastly improved and provide a stiff challenge for all teams involved.

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