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NFL Season Preview: NFC West

Sports Mole previews the 2014 season of the teams from the NFC West.

The Seattle Seahawks begin their campaign on Thursday to become the first NFL team to defend the Super Bowl title in 10 years.

Pete Carroll's side start the season as favourites to retain the Vince Lombardi trophy, and become the first side to win two championships back to back since the 2004 New England Patriots.

Their task is a tough one as they play in arguably the toughest division in the NFL in the NFC West, and the San Francisco 49ers will especially be looking to avenge their defeat in the NFC championship game.

Here, Sports Mole breaks down the prospects for the NFC West teams in the 2014 season.

Seattle Seahawks

Russell Wilson #3 of the Seattle Seahawks celebrates with the Vince Lombardi trophy after defeating the Denver Broncos 43-8 in Super Bowl XLVIII  on February 2, 2014© Getty Images

Last season: 13-3 - Super Bowl Champions

Notable ins: Paul Richardson (Draft), Justin Britt (Draft), Cassius Marsh (Draft)

Notable outs: Brandon Browner (New England Patriots), Clinton McDonald (Tampa Bay Buccaneers), Golden Tate (Detroit Lions), Walter Thurmond (New York Giants)

Outlook: Although the Seattle Seahawks were not active in free agency they had a very successful off-season, as they managed to tie down key defensive duo Earl Thomas and Richard Sherman to long-term contracts. With those players intact and money saved elsewhere, the club will be able to secure the future of quarterback Russell Wilson next season.

As with all Super Bowl-winning teams, some players were signed to big deals to other clubs, but due to their success in the Draft in recent years their loss shouldn't be felt on the field. The Seahawks look well equipped to become the first team to win back-to-back titles since the Patriots in 2004. Carroll's side have also managed to avoid the off-season distractions their biggest rivals the 49ers have endured since February.

Prediction: 14-2 – NFC championship game defeat – The Seahawks look well placed to repeat and should coast through the regular season with a strong record. They avoided injuries to key players in the skill positions last season, but that could catch up with them this year and stop them from repeating their Super Bowl triumph.

San Francisco 49ers

Colin Kaepernick of the San Francisco 49ers celebrates after a touchdown in the third quarter against the Carolina Panthers during the NFC Divisional Playoff Game on January 12, 2014© Getty Images

Last season: 11-5 – NFC championship game loss

Notable ins: Antoine Bethea (Indianapolis Colts), Stevie Johnson (Buffalo Bills), Jonathan Martin (Miami Dolphins), Jimmie Ward (Draft)

Notable outs: Carlos Rogers (Oakland Raiders), Tarell Brown (Oakland Raiders), Jonathan Goodwin (New Orleans Saints), Mario Manningham (New York Giants)

Outlook: The 49ers have endured a tough 2014 so far as they lost the NFC championship game to the Seattle Seahawks, losing linebacker NaVorro Bowman to a torn ACL during the game. The All-Pro will start the season on the PUP list and will not be able to play until at least week six.

Add that to losing Aldon Smith for nine games due to his suspension by the NFL for his off-season demeanours, and potentially defensive end Ray McDonald to a six-game ban following his arrest for a domestic violence felony.

On the positive side of things for Jim Harbaugh's side, quarterback Colin Kaepernick signed a new long-term contract with the club and his offense looks to be potent heading into the campaign.

The addition of Stevie Johnson will bolster the 49ers to provide another weapon in their battles against the Seahawks, but if Kaepernick goes through inconsistent periods like he did in 2013, allied with the absences of defense, the 49ers could struggle to match their 12-4 record from the last campaign.

Prediction: 11-5 – NFC wildcard-round defeat – The 49ers are a well-coached team and one that has reached the championship game for the past three seasons. However, that run will come to an end as their secondary isn't the best and Kaepernick will not be ready to go score for score with the better offenses in the conference.

Arizona Cardinals

Wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald of the Arizona Cardinals catches a touchdown reception past cornerback Cassius Vaughn strong safety Antoine Bethea of the Indianapolis Colts on November 24, 2013© Getty Images

Last season: 10-6 - Missed playoffs

Notable ins: Antonio Cromartie (New York Jets), Jonathan Dwyer (Pittsburgh Steelers), Ted Ginn (Carolina Panthers), John Carlson (Minnesota Vikings)

Notable outs: Andre Roberts (Washington Redskins), Karlos Dansby (Cleveland Browns), Rashard Mendenhall (Retired), Javier Arenas (Atlanta Falcons)

Outlook: Bruce Arians's side surprised a lot of people last season with their 10-6 record and were the only team to defeat the Seattle Seahawks at CenturyLink Field. However, they narrowly missed out on a place in the post-season, and are now faced with an even harder task to get in this time around.

All-Pro linebacker Daryl Washington was suspended for the 2014 campaign for violating the league's policy on substance abuse for the second time in a year. The Cardinals will also be without defensive end Darnell Dockett as he tore his ACL during the off-season, and he will be a big miss on their defense in terms of leadership, while signal caller Karlos Dansby left for the Cleveland Browns.

Quarterback Carson Palmer will need to limit his turnovers this season compared to the 25 he committed last year to ease the pressure on his defense, while running back Andre Ellington has to provide an outlet on the ground along with free-agent signing Jonathan Dwyer to have a chance of the post-season.

Prediction: 8-8 - Miss playoffs – The Cardinals will miss out on the playoffs again as Palmer's play doesn't quite have the strength to propel the club to the 10 wins they would need to come into the reckoning, along with having a fairly tough schedule in the 2014 campaign.

St Louis Rams

Robert Quinn of the St. Louis Rams reacts to a touchdown by Frank Gore of the San Francisco 49ers in the second quarter at Edward Jones Dome on September 26, 2013© Getty Images

Last season: 7-9 - Missed playoffs

Notable ins: Greg Robinson (Draft), Kenny Britt (Tennessee Titans), Shaun Hill (Detroit Lions), Aaron Donald (Draft)

Notable outs: Shelley Smith (Miami Dolphins), Harvey Dahl (Free agent), Will Witherspoon (Free agent)

Outlook: The Rams' season could be over before it has even begun as quarterback Sam Bradford tore his ACL during pre-season and has been ruled out of the entire campaign. The Rams played nine games without the 27-year-old in the 2013 season and managed to win four games with Kellen Clemens at the signal caller position, but they face a harder task with Shaun Hill starting this season.

Hill hasn't started a match since the 2010 campaign and has been a steady if unspectacular performer when called upon, and could be in for a tough challenge guiding the Rams to success in the tough division. On the positive side of things for Jeff Fisher's side, their defensive line becomes even more potent with the addition of Aaron Donald.

Robert Quinn, Chris Long, Michael Brockers and Donald will have to have excellent seasons to keep the opposing offenses' scores to a minimum to have a chance to reaching the playoffs, and even that might not be enough.

Prediction: 6-10 - Miss playoffs – The loss of Bradford is huge for the Rams and ultimately one that ends their hopes for a playoff place, despite the quality players they have on defense.

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Russell Wilson #3 of the Seattle Seahawks celebrates with the Vince Lombardi trophy after defeating the Denver Broncos 43-8 in Super Bowl XLVIII  on February 2, 2014
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