(Sports Network) - For the first time in a while, the San Francisco 49ers enter a season as the favorite to win the NFC West.
However, the new-look Seattle Seahawks might have something to say about that when they host their division rivals this Sunday at Qwest Field in Pete Carroll's debut as the Seahawks' new head coach.
The 49ers haven't made the playoffs since the 2002 season, but have shown steady signs of improvement since Mike Singletary took over as head coach during the 2008 campaign. Though their 8-8 record last season was below expectations, it did mark the Niners' first non-losing mark since going 10-6 in 2002.
"Really the biggest question mark that I would have is as a team with the talent that we have [is], are we ready to go and I guess play to the level that we are capable of playing at?," said Singletary.
Another plus for San Francisco was its 5-1 mark against the NFC West, though it will be facing a Seattle club on Sunday that bares little resemblance to last season's squad. In fact, 27 players on the Seahawks' roster are in their first year with the club.
That turnover made the preparation for this game a little tougher for Singletary and his coaching staff.
"There's been a significant amount of preparation due to the fact that you have a new coach, you have a new offense, personnel changes, things like that," said the coach. "So, as best we could have tried to put pieces together and we're still continuing to do that."
While Seattle is going through wholesale changes, the 49ers flash a little consistency, as offensive coordinator Jimmy Raye II is back in his role for a second straight season. San Francisco hasn't entered the season with a returning offensive coordinator since Greg Knapp's three-year tenure from 2001-03.
Working under the same system should help quarterback Alex Smith, who will look to put some career-long struggles behind him this season.
Seattle, meanwhile, will be looking to leave behind a 5-11 campaign that cost Mike Holmgren's hand-picked successor Jim Mora Jr. his job after just one season.
In steps Carroll, who spent his last nine seasons in the college ranks as the sideline general of USC after four relatively unsuccessful years as an NFL coach in the 1990's. Carroll amassed a combined 33-31 record with theNew York Jets (1994) and New England Patriots (1997-99) before winning seven straight Pac-10 titles and a pair of national championships with the Trojans.
Carroll has certainly made his mark by parting ways with a number of veterans, including wide receivers T.J. Houshmandzadeh and Nate Burleson, defensive end Darryl Tapp and defensive backs Deon Grant and Ken Lucas in favor of fresh blood.
"I think we're a more talented football team, absolutely," said general manager John Schneider, who helped build this team along with Carroll. "We're bigger. We're faster."
Seattle, which won four straight NFC West titles from 2004-07 and carries a four-game losing streak into this game, will be without one of its top new players as tackle Russell Okung, the sixth overall pick of the 2010 draft, is sidelined with an ankle sprain.
The Seahawks lead the all-time series with the 49ers, 12-10, including a conventional split of last year's home-and-home. Seattle was a 23-10 loser when it visited San Francisco in Week 2, but got revenge with a 20-17 victory at Qwest Field in Week 13. The teams embarked on an unconventional split in 2008, including a 33-30 overtime win for the 49ers in Seattle.
Singletary is 1-2 as a head coach against the Seahawks. Carroll, who served as defensive coordinator with the 49ers in 1995-96, is 1-0 as a head coach against his former employer. The victory came for his 1998 New England Patriots team. Singletary and Carroll will be meeting for the first time as head coaches.
WHEN THE 49ERS HAVE THE BALL
An inability to consistently put up points is the main factor as to why the 49ers did not make the playoffs a season ago. They ranked 18th in points per game (20.6) and 27th in total offense (290.8 ypg.). San Francisco will look to improve with a core offense that spent most of 2009 together. Smith (2350 passing yards, 18 TD, 12 INT) took over the starting job in Week 8 of last year and put together solid numbers, while showing he has put past shoulder injuries behind him. Having wide receiver Michael Crabtree (48 receptions, 2 TD) for a full season will help, as the 2009 first-round pick did not make his debut until the end of October due to a lengthy contract holdout. Smith also showed good chemistry with tight end Vernon Davis (78 receptions, 13 TD), who led the team in catches and tied an NFL record for most touchdown catches at his position in a season. San Francisco also owns a workhouse in the backfield in Frank Gore (1120 rushing yards, 52 receptions, 13 total TD), and he will be running behind an offensive line that features a pair of 2010 first-round picks in left guard Mike Iupati and right tackle Anthony Davis. Veteran center Eric Heitmann is out, though, due to a broken fibula.
Teams did not have trouble moving the ball against the Seahawks last year, as they ranked 24th in total defense (356.4 ypg) and 30th against the pass (245.4 ypg). Hoping to improve on just a 28-sack season last year, Seattle will be going with a defensive scheme that will feature offseason addition Chris Clemons (11 tackles, 3 sacks with the Eagles) in the "Leo" spot. Former tackle Red Bryant, all 323 pounds of him, will also switch to the right end spot. Seattle's strength is its linebacking group, one that is still strong despite Leroy Hill's (46 tackles, 1 sack) absence because of a one-game suspension for violating the league's substance abuse policy. In his place will be David Hawthorne, who spent most of last year in the middle due to an injury to Lofa Tatupu and led the Seahawks with 117 tackles to go along with four sacks and three interceptions. The return of Tatupu will be a big boost, as will a more seasoned Aaron Curry (61 tackles, 2 sacks), the fourth overall pick of the 2009 draft. A back injury slowed cornerback Marcus Trufant (49 tackles, 2 INT) last year, but he enters 2010 healthy. That should help Seattle's pass defense along with the addition of No. 14 overall pick Earl Thomas, who starts at free safety next to vet Lawyer Milloy (34 tackles).
WHEN THE SEAHAWKS HAVE THE BALL
Carroll will be looking to blend a host of new players alongside veterans on the offensive side of things. Returning under center is Matt Hasselbeck (3029 passing yards, 17 TD, 17 INT), who has battled injuries over the last two years. While wide receiver Deion Branch (45 receptions, 2 TD) and tight end John Carlson (51 receptions, 7 TD) are familiar targets, the release of Houshmandzadeh elevated former USC wideout Mike Williams to a starting role as he looks to revive his career under his former college coach. Former Texan Chester Pitts will get the first chance at replacing the retired Walter Jones at left tackle due to Okung's injury. He'll join a line that allowed a horrid 41 sacks last year. Seattle's backfield also has kind of a new look. Justin Forsett (619 rushing yards, 4 TD) enters as the starter over Julius Jones (663 rushing yards, 2 TD) after a solid season last year, but Carroll has been known to favor a dual-back scheme. That could lead to some carries for both Leon Washington, who is coming back from a serious leg fracture suffered last year with the Jets, and ex-Redskin Quinton Ganther, with the latter set to start at fullback.
The end zone is a tough place to find when you face the 49ers. Led by tackling machine Patrick Willis (152 tackles, 4 sacks), San Francisco forced a league- leading 21 fumbles last year and kept opponents out of the end zone in five games. Willis, the inside linebacker next to Takeo Spikes (75 tackles, 4 sacks), is already the unit's leader entering his fourth season. The 49ers bring a lot of pressure from the linebackers, as outside starterManny Lawson (68 tackles) led the team with a career-best 6 1/2 sacks last year. San Francisco also has a solid front three led by nose tackle Aubrayo Franklin (36 tackles, 2 sacks) and high-motor end Justin Smith(55 tackles, 6 sacks), who is expected to make his 140th straight start in this one. San Francisco's secondary is a bit more suspect, as nickel back William James is out with an ankle injury while starting corner Nate Clements (35 tackles, 1 INT) has yet to live up to the monster deal he signed a few years back. While Michael Lewis (82 tackles) is listed as the starter at strong safety, Taylor Mays was drafted by the Niners in the second round of the 2010 draft. The former USC All-American would love to show up Carroll after his former college coach passed on him in the draft in favor of Thomas.
There are only a handful of must-starts in this one, including the 49ers' Gore, Crabtree and Davis, while Seattle's Carlson is on the verge of being a solid fantasy tight end. Hasselbeck is a mere shadow of his former fantasy self, while Alex Smith hasn't done anything yet to warrant a look on Sundays. Forsett should see more carries than Jones, but will give away some touches to the backup, while Williams is a sleeper pick as a 6-foot-5 red-zone target for Seattle. The Seahawks' struggles on defense last year may be present in this game, but the 49ers' defensive squad is worth a look. Seattle's uncertain offense hinders the value of kicker Olindo Mare, but San Francisco's Joe Nedney isn't a bad start.
The Seahawks passed the torch to the Arizona Cardinals for NFC West supremacy a couple seasons back, but the 49ers appear ready to grab that for themselves. San Francisco has a defense that is tough to score on, and that should create headaches for a Seattle offense that is learning how to come together. While Alex Smith still has a lot to prove as San Francisco's starting quarterback, he has a host of playmakers around him to help. Hasselbeck does not, and the 49ers are just too talented up front for the Seahawks' ground game to handle. Seattle would love to deal the "favorites" a crucial Week 1 loss, but don't have the tools to do so. Instead, the Niners' march towards a division title begins with a victory.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: 49ers 24, Seahawks 17