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September 01, 2003|Lonnie White | Times Staff Writer

In order of predicted finish

**

WEST DIVISION

St. Louis Rams

Coach: Mike Martz, fourth season.

Last season's record: 7-9.

Key additions: RT Kyle Turley, C Dave Wohlabaugh, LB Pisa Tinoisamoa, P Sean Landeta, FS Jason Sehorn, DT Jimmy Kennedy, S Rich Coady.

Key losses: CB Dre' Bly, RB Trung Canidate, TE Ernie Conwell, CB Dexter McCleon, WR Ricky Proehl, DL Jeff Zgonina, G Tom Nutten.

Outlook: Quarterback Kurt Warner looked great during the exhibition season and if he stays healthy, the Ram offense will be nearly unstoppable, especially with Marshall Faulk back at full speed. Expect huge seasons from Warner and Faulk behind an improved offensive line that includes standouts Orlando Pace, Kyle Turley and Adam Timmerman. With Sehorn sidelined because of a broken foot until October, the Ram secondary may have some problems with Aeneas Williams at free safety, instead of cornerback.

Bottom line: The Rams are confident again with Warner and Faulk back together. With receivers Isaac Bruce and Torry Holt in their prime and tight end Brandon Manumaleuna becoming more of a target, St. Louis almost has too many weapons. But it will be the defense that will decide the Rams' fate.

Prediction: 11-5.

*

SEATTLE SEAHAWKS

Coach: Mike Holmgren, fifth season.

Last season's record: 7-9.

Key additions: DE Chike Okeafor, DT Norman Hand, LB Randall Godfrey, K Josh Brown, CB Marcus Trufant.

Key losses: FS Marcus Robertson, P Jeff Feagles, K Rian Lindell.

Outlook: Big things are expected from quarterback Matt Hasselbeck, who finished strong last season to pass for more than 3,000 yards. Koren Robinson and Darrell Jackson are solid wide receivers; Shaun Alexander is one of the league's best running backs. The Seahawks also have a strong offensive line, led by tackle Walter Jones. New coordinator Ray Rhodes has to toughen a defense that should be much quicker with Godfrey at middle linebacker. Seattle's secondary will be a strength with Shawn Springs and Trufant as the starting cornerbacks.

Bottom line: This may be the season that Holmgren finally gets the Seahawks deep into the playoffs if a few things go right. Hasselbeck is more comfortable with the offense and the offensive line should be able to open holes for Alexander. The defense will be better but it still has to prove to be of postseason quality.

Prediction: 9-7.

*

SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS

Coach: Dennis Erickson, first season.

Last season's record: 10-6, lost to Tampa Bay in divisional playoffs.

Key additions: TE Jed Weaver, DT Travis Kirschke, OT Kwame Harris.

Key losses: OG Dave Fiore, DE Chike Okeafor, LB Quincy Stewart, DT Dana Stubblefield.

Outlook: After taking a beating last season, quarterback Jeff Garcia has struggled with back problems throughout training camp. San Francisco needs Garcia healthy to challenge for the NFC West title. Garcia's backup, Tim Rattay, has ability but he's not ready to handle explosive receiver Terrell Owens. The 49er secondary is the weak link of the defense with cornerbacks Jason Webster and Ahmed Plummer, both of whom get beat deep too often. San Francisco is strong at linebacker with Julian Peterson and Derek Smith and on the defensive line with Andre Carter.

Bottom line: Over the years, veteran Garrison Hearst has proven to be a quality running back but it may be time for the 49ers to turn to Kevan Barlow. By going with the younger running back as a starter, San Francisco's offense has more explosiveness.

Prediction: 8-8.

*

ARIZONA CARDINALS

Coach: Dave McGinnis, fourth season.

Last season's record: 5-11.

Key additions: QB Jeff Blake, RB Emmitt Smith, FB James Hodgins, OG Cameron Spikes, WR Larry Foster, WR Anquan Boldin, FS Dexter Jackson, DE Calvin Pace.

Key losses: WR David Boston, WR MarTay Jenkins, FS Kwamie Lassiter, QB Jake Plummer, WR Frank Sanders.

Outlook: The offensive line is not that bad with tackle L.J. Shelton and guard Leonard Davis. That's good news for Smith and Blake, two veterans looking to revive their careers in Arizona. Blake's biggest problem is that the Cardinals do not have any proven receivers with Boston and Sanders leaving during the off-season as free agents. And Arizona will still have problems stopping teams. Super Bowl MVP Jackson, a free agent from Tampa Bay, has the makings of being the next Larry Brown, who flopped at Oakland after winning the award playing for Dallas.

Bottom line: It's hard not to root for Smith with the Cardinals but the odds are against him when it comes to having a successful season playing with his new team. Arizona just does not have enough talent to compete every week.

Prediction: 4-12.

**

NORTH DIVISION

GREEN BAY PACKERS

Coach: Mike Sherman, fourth season.

Last season's record: 12-4, lost to Atlanta in wild-card round.

Key additions: LB Hannibal Navies, LB Nick Barnett, CB Al Harris.

Key losses: WR Terry Glenn, LB Hardy Nickerson, CB Tyrone Williams, LB Nate Wayne, DT Billy Lyon, DE Vonnie Holliday.

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