The NFC West hasn’t sent two teams to the playoffs since 2004, the longest active drought for any division in the NFL.  For these four teams it again appears that the road to the playoffs goes through the division. The 49ers are installed as heavy favorites to repeat as NFC West champions.

The odds indicate that the 49ers should have little trouble holding off the likes of the Seahawks, Cardinals, and Rams. Oddsmakers don’t seem to have faith in Sam Bradford’s ability to bounce back from a poor 2011 season, or Jeff Fisher’s ability to turn the Rams around in a hurry, while Arizona’s late-season run didn’t earn much respect from the oddsmakers either. Converting the odds into percentages would indicate that San Francisco has about a 75 perent chance of repeating their feat from a year ago.There clearly isn’t any value in the 49ers. San Fran made upgrades at wide receiver and added depth at running back in the offseason, but the franchise hasn’t repeated as division champions since Steve Young left town and there’s no reason to believe they’ll win this division in a walk as the odds would indicate.

The improvements in San Francisco come mostly on the offensive side of the ball. The y added running backs Brandon Jacobs and LaMichael James, as well as wide receiver Mario Manningham. You’ll notice that Randy Moss was not mentioned as an improvement because it’s inevitable that he’ll provide some sort of distraction at some point this season. The team’s flirtation with signing Peyton Manning in the offseason may have served to cause a rift between Alex Smith and Jim Harbaugh as well. The defense remains largely unchanged, but with better than expected play in 2011 from the likes of Carlos Rogers and Dashon Goldson, a slight regression is likely.

Ultimately, everything went ultra-perfect for San Francisco in 2011. This season, they won’t be able to feast on the soft schedule that they had last year, with trips to Green Bay, New Orleans, and New England in 2012, and home dates with Detroit, the New York Giants, and Chicago. So which of the other teams has the best shot of taking advantage of their situation and dethroning the 49ers? That would probably be the team that handed the 49ers their only divisional loss of 2011. The same team that ended 2011 winning seven of their final nine games: the Arizona Cardinals.

The Arizona Cardinals ended 2011 on a 7-2 run to get to .500, overcoming a 1-6 start to finish 8-8. John Skelton was at the helm for most of that impressive turnaround as he now boasts a 7-4 record as a starter in his two NFL seasons.  Now that Skelton has won the starting gig over Kevin Kolb and his big fat contract, the team can get off to quick start with three of their first four games coming at home. Skelton’s best skill may be his tunnel vision for Larry Fitzgerald: six of Skelton’s 13 career TD passes have been to Fitzgerald.

There are a couple new faces in an improving offense with wide receiver Michael Floyd added through the draft and running back Ryan Williams returning after missing his rookie season with a knee injury. Expect Williams to take over for Beanie Wells as the team’s lead back sooner rather than later and add an explosive element to the running game that the Cards didn’t have in 2011. This team’s strengths, however, are its defense and special teams.

During their final nine games, Arizona did not allow more than 23 points. The defense is powered by the defensive line.  Led by Darnell Dockett and Calais Campbell, the team recorded 42 sacks last season. Patrick Peterson makes the special teams unit a difference-maker after establishing himself as one of the more dangerous punt returners in the league.

In Seattle, the Seahawks spent much of their offseason targeting a new quarterback and finally acquired Matt Flynn to the tune of a three year, $19.5 million contract. Not only will he not be able to throw to the likes of Greg Jennings, Jordy Nelson, and Jermichael Finley anymore, but it looks like he’s going to have to wait a while before throwing to anyone.  Unfortunately, he wasn’t able to win the starting gig, getting outplayed by third-round pick Russell Wilson.

The Seahawks have talent at the wide receiver and tight end positions, but the team just hasn’t been able to get the passing game to work under Pete Carroll. A hot preseason from Wilson doesn’t change the fact that this is a run-first offense that will lean heavily on Marshawn Lynch. It appears Lynch will escape suspension this year, but with another traffic incident looming over his head, his production may suffer. The Seahawks are underrated on defense and have the league’s best home field advantage, but this group isn’t ready to compete.

The Rams brought in Fisher to be the team’s head coach in the offseason. He’ll have his work cut out for him with a group that finished 2-14 last season. Expect Bradford’s numbers to improve over last season, and another workmanlike year from Steven Jackson, even though his age and number of carries are now becoming a concern. Bradford will have an improved group of pass-catchers to work with as Danny Amendola returns from injury to play with new additions Brian Quick and Steve Smith.

There’s no reason to believe St. Louis will be any better defensively this year. If the unit couldn’t play for defensive guru Steve Spagnuolo, there’s no reason they’ll play any better for Fisher, even if he did bring Cortland Finnegan along with him. Gregg Williams had been hired to coach the defense, but he’s been suspended indefinitely for his role in the bounty scandal in New Orleans.

Here’s how I see the NFC West breaking down:
1.    San Francisco (9-7) – Tougher schedule in 2012; a defensive regression must be expected.
2.    Arizona (8-8) – Riding high on a 7-2 run to end 2011.
3.    Seattle (6-10) – Huge quarterback and coaching concerns.
4.    St. Louis (6-10) – Fisher will need more time to turn this group around.

The 49ers remain the favorites to win the division, but the odds should not be slanted so heavily in their favor. The Cardinals are worth a look since they offer tremendous value with odds as high as +993 on Pinnacle.  With John Skelton having won the starting quarterback job, the team can avoid the 1-6 start that cost them their 2011 season. And with strong defensive and special teams units, the Cardinals are poised to make some noise out west in 2012.