The NFC West had two playoff teams in 2020, and one more that remained in contention until the end.
The fourth team? Yeah, that was the 49ers.
The 49ers breezed through the NFC playoffs the previous season en route to the Super Bowl. But their Super Bowl hangover consisted of a rash of injuries to many of their star players.
Now, the 49ers appear to be back.
By any measure, the organization had a strong offseason. They retained many of their top free agents. The 49ers filled every hole in free agency, which allowed them to trade up to make an investment in their quarterback of the future, Trey Lance.
But general manager John Lynch and coach Kyle Shahanan are not looking years ahead. They believe they have a roster that is capable of returning to among the NFL’s elite. That is why they do not want to short-change the rest of the team by living through the ups and downs of a rookie quarterback.
Until Lance can prove he is better than Jimmy Garoppolo and gives the team the better chance to win games, the 49ers plan to ride with the veteran quarterback.
The 49ers this offseason locked up left tackle Trent Williams and fullback Kyle Juszczyk to multi-year contracts to make them the highest-paid players at their positions.
They brought in center Alex Mack and edge rusher Samson Ebukam to fill needs.
Some of the 49ers’ other top free agents returned to the club on one-year contracts, such as as nose tackle D.J. Jones and defensive backs Jason Verrett, K’Waun Williams and Jaquiski Tartt.
The 49ers have put themselves in a position to provide their fan base with reasonable hope that the 2021 season could end in a trip to the Super Bowl.
But the 49ers are not alone in the NFC West.
After all, they are a member of the only division in the league in which every team holds a realistic goal of playing football in the final game of the year . . . in Los Angeles on Feb. 13, 2022.
Los Angeles Rams
Before the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, no team had ever won a Super Bowl in their home stadium. Now, the Rams are intent on making it two in a row.
The big offseason move for the Rams was to move on from quarterback Jared Goff in a blockbuster deal in which they received Matthew Stafford.
Stafford, 33, has long been considered one of the NFL’s top talents — even if his resume consists of just three postseason appearances in his 12-year career with zero playoff victories.
The Rams, coming off a 10-6 record, had a road playoff victory over the Seattle Seahawks before falling to the Green Bay Packers in the divisional round of the playoffs.
They have the best player in the division — if not the entire NFL — in game-wrecking defensive lineman Aaron Donald.
Cap issues brought about the offseason losses of tight end Gerald Everett, defensive linemen Michael Brockers and Ebukam, and defensive backs Troy Hill and safety John Johnson.
But the bulk of the roster returns. The Rams also added speedy wide receivers DeSean Jackson and rookie Tutu Atwell to allow Stafford to air out his powerful arm.
This could be it for the Seahawks, as we know them.
Pete Carroll’s team has been yearly contenders for as long as quarterback Russell Wilson has been with the organization. But this offseason was bizarre. The man who concludes every press conference with “Go Hawks!” might be going, all right.
Wilson is reportedly not happy with the organization. And it could be cutting both ways. He is not altogether pleased with the efforts of the front office to support him, and he could also be wearing out his welcome with the organization.
But as long as he is here, the Seahawks are still a threat to every team on their schedule.
Seattle won the NFC West last season before the Rams bounced them in the playoffs.
The Seahawks picked off some pieces from other NFC West teams in free agency with the signings of Everett from the Rams, and Kerry Hyder Jr. and Ahkello Witherspoon from the 49ers. And we shall see if former 49ers edge rusher Aldon Smith sticks around and can make a contribution.
They lost such defenders as defensive lineman Jarran Reed, and defensive backs Quinton Dunbar and Shaquill Griffin in free agency. But the nucleus returns to make another run.
And, by “nucleus,” we mean Russell Wilson.
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For the second offseason in a row, the Cardinals made a big-splash addition to their roster.
A year ago, Arizona swung a deal to acquire DeAndre Hopkins, one of the top wide receivers in the league.
This offseason, the Cardinals added another former Houston Texans star, defensive lineman J.J. Watt, a five-time All-Pro player who has been plagued by injuries in recent seasons.
The Cardinals were 8-8 a year ago. They fell out of the playoff picture with back-to-back losses to close out the season against the 49ers and Rams.
Quarterback Kyler Murray enters his third NFL season, and it is time for him to take the next step. The Cardinals’ season depends on it.
Murray, the No. 1 overall pick of the 2019 draft, completed 67.2 percent of his pass attempts last season for 3,971 yards with 26 touchdowns and 12 interceptions. He also rushed for 819 yards and 11 touchdowns.
They lost mainstay cornerback Patrick Peterson and their leader in sacks, Haason Reddick, in free agency to Minnesota and Carolina, respectively.
But they picked up Watt, receiver A.J. Green and center Rodney Hudson. Rookie receiver Rondale Moore gives the offense another big-play threat.
After the NFC West has produced three different division champs in each of the past three years, the Cardinals have a strong enough roster this season to join the party.