ARIZONA CARDINALS

Last year: 8-8, 2nd place

Outlook: QB John Skelton won the starting job over high-priced Kevin Kolb, which shouldn't be too stunning as Skelton went 6-2 in place of Kolb over the second half of last season. Pass protection will be an issue, however. The offensive line remains a mess after the free-agency buy of ex-49ers T/G Adam Snyder. Wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald Jr. helped key a Dec. 19 win in Arizona last season for the 49ers' only loss to a NFC West foe. All eight of the Cardinals' 2011 wins came by seven points or less, so there is some resiliency among coach Ken Whisenhunt's group. Can Patrick Peterson, a stellar punt returner, keep up as a cornerback with the 49ers' improved receivers?

ST. LOUIS RAMS

Last year: 2-14, 4th place

Outlook: Coach Jeff Fisher inherited a franchise seeking its first winning season since 2003. The Rams have compiled only 15 wins over the past five seasons combined. But Fisher has a franchise quarterback in Sam Bradford, if he overcomes ankle issues. Steven Jackson (1,145 yards in 2011) remains the workhorse while the line and receiving corps grow. The Rams have one of the league's up-and-coming defenses, led up front by first-round picks Chris Long, Robert Quinn and rookie Michael Brockers. Courtland Finnegan came aboard to bolster a secondary depleted by injury last season.

SEATTLE SEAHAWKS

Last year: 7-9, 3rd place

Outlook: Good thing 5-foot-11 rookie Russell Wilson is mobile, because the surprise starting quarterback will be entering a heated rivalry with the 49ers. Wilson played his way past Green Bay Packers product Matt Flynn, whose $19.5 million contract wasn't enough to sway coach Pete Carroll. Marshawn Lynch's hard-charging legs should key an offense that desperately brought in two former 49ers receivers, Braylon Edwards and Terrell Ownens (since released). Although the Seahawks have gone 7-9 in each of Carroll's two seasons, his defense is gaining respect. The physical secondary sent three to last season's Pro Bowl: safeties Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor and cornerback Brandon Browner.