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WEST DIVISION

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September 02, 2002

BY NEWSDAY IN PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH BY DIVISION — ST. LOUIS RAMS

Coach: Mike Martz, third season.

Last season's record: 14-2, first in NFC West. Lost to Patriots in Super Bowl .

Who's in: LB Jamie Duncan (Buccaneers), WR Troy Edwards (trade, Steelers), WR Terrence Wilkins (trade, Colts).

Who's out: LB Mark Fields, LB London Fletcher, WR Az-Zahir Hakim, T Rod Jones, DL Sean Moran, T Ryan Tucker.

Outlook: Rams breezed through the regular season and conference playoffs before running into the Patriots, whose superior game plan paved the way to one of the biggest Super Bowl upsets ever. St. Louis still has the talent to go a long way in the playoffs, although defensive coordinators will almost certainly copy Bill Belichick's strategy of making Kurt Warner throw and punishing the receivers. Marshall Faulk is the game's most complete back, but his creaky knees are always a concern.

Parting shot: With San Francisco nipping at their heels and Faulk's health an issue, Rams don't make another Super Bowl run.

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SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS

Coach: Steve Mariucci, sixth season.

Last season's record: 12-4, second in NFC West. Lost to Packers in first-round playoff game.

Who's in: DE Sean Moran (Rams), S Tony Parrish (Bears), G Ron Stone (Giants).

Who's out: TE Greg Clark, G Ray Brown, S Lance Schulters.

Outlook: With salary cap problems finally out of the way, the 49ers are deservedly optimistic about their chances. Quarterback Jeff Garcia is one of the NFL's most productive, if unheralded, passers. He had 32 touchdowns and only 12 interceptions last season. Running back Garrison Hearst was last season's comeback player of the year, and wide receiver Terrell Owens is one of the most dangerous, if tempestuous, players in the game. The defense has improved dramatically, but needs to take another step.

Parting shot: With a few breaks, not to mention a win or two over St. Louis, the 49ers can win the West.

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SEATTLE SEAHAWKS

Coach: Mike Holmgren, in his fourth season with Sea- hawks.

Last season's record: 9-7, second in AFC West.

Who's in: CB Doug Evans (Panthers), DL Brandon Mitchell (Patriots) and QB Mark Rypien.

Who's out: TE Christian Fauria, QB Brock Huard, KR Charlie Rogers, DE Michael Sinclair, RB Ricky Watters, T Todd Weiner.

Outlook: Trent Dilfer's preseason knee injury was a huge blow. He'll be back at some point, but Matt Hasselbeck is the man for now. Not a comfortable feeling for Seahawks fans, because Hasselbeck was a major disappointment last season. The Seahawks need running back Shaun Alexander, who had a breakout season in 2001, to have another strong showing. The defense is solid, but nothing great. Another factor is the Seahawks' move to the NFC West, where difficult games with St. Louis and San Francisco await.

Parting shot: If Seahawks fizzle this season, Mike Holmgren might be out of a job.

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ARIZONA CARDINALS

Coach: Dave McGinnis, third season.

Last season's record: 7-9, tied for third in NFC East.

Who's in: TE Freddie Jones (Chargers), CB Duane Starks (Ravens).

Who's out: CB Corey Chavous, CB Tom Knight, WR Rob Moore, RB Michael Pittman.

Outlook: As usual, the Cardinals have nothing going for them. Jake Plummer enters yet another critical season that might determine whether he's back next season. Running back Thomas Jones was handed the starting job after Pittman left for the Buccaneers. And the defense continues to battle the perennial problems of lack of talent and depth. About the only positive on this team is the offensive line, which features mammoth guard Leonard Davis.

Parting shot: The Cardinals are now NFC West fodder.

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