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Arizona Cardinals

The mild, mild NFC West

San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick (7) is tripped up by Indianapolis Colts linebacker Bjoern Werner during the second quarter of an NFL football game in San Francisco, Sunday, Sept. 22, 2013. (AP Photo/Aaron Kehoe)

What a difference a year makes, right?

Wait...

Scratch that.

What a difference three weeks make, right?

Three weeks ago, the NFC West was the best division in football. Three 1-2 starts later, and the division looks like N'Sync. One of them is clearly talented and going onto bigger things. The other members of the group might soon be begging for a slot on "Dancing with the Stars."

- Arizona still can't pass protect.

- St. Louis' youngest roster in the league is playing like the youngest roster in the league.

- And San Francisco's mighty defense not only ranks fourth from the bottom versus the run, but the unit just lost its best player for an unknown period of time.

What in the Mild, Mild West is going on around here?

Sports fans love to use the word "parity" to describe the NFL. But the truth is, the "money-buys-championships" sport of Major League Baseball that everyone loves to rip has featured more champions and more year-to-year playoff team turnover the last decade than the NFL.

However, the 16-game NFL schedule SCREAMS a greater sense of urgency.

Three short weeks ago, Giants, Steelers, Redskins and Vikings fans awoke for opening day with the wide-eyed zeal of a trailblazer. Every great journey begins with that first step. Anything is possible. Super Bowl here we come.

Those same fans woke up Monday confronted with the long odds of making the playoffs. After all, only three teams have started 0-3 and made the postseason since 1990.

Things aren't so grim for the three last place teams in the NFC West. Even though it represents only a one-game difference, a 1-2 record feels infinitely easier to overcome. But the Cardinals, Rams and 49ers all had such high hopes for the season, and their greatest fears have surfaced early.

- A new offensive system in Arizona hasn't changed the ugly truths that the Cardinals still can't run the football or protect the quarterback.

- Sam Bradford hasn't played poorly for St. Louis, but he doesn't seem to be taking that long-awaited step into stardom that Rams fans thought was coming this season.

- Defenses have taken away Colin Kaepernick's ability to run with the ball, and his arm isn't making them pay (25th in the NFL in passer rating).

- Opposing tight ends have killed the Cardinals for 23 catches, 346 yards and four touchdowns through three games. And a single receiver has accounted for at least six catches, 116 yards and two scores each game.

- The Rams' running back-by-committee approach ranks 29th in the league, and the Cowboys outrushed them 193 yards to 35 Sunday.

- And San Francisco? Mighty San Francisco, my pick to win the Super Bowl, has lost back-to-back games by a combined score of 56-10.

Still, it's too early to bail on preseason predictions. The AFC East is currently 9-3, but I refuse to believe the division is superior to the NFC West.

The Kansas City Chiefs (worst record in football last season) have a two-game lead over the defending NFC champions, but I'll wager Colin Kaepernick's other eyebrow that the Niners will finish with a superior mark.

And I know the Cardinals haven't looked like the same defensive team they were last season, but #58 is returning soon.

Oh, it's a wacky league, this NFL. The Indianapolis Colts reversed their fortunes in a year's time. The Jacksonville Jaguars? Well, it's taking longer. They call it a grind, and if you're a fan, that's exactly what you want it to be. Because a few more false steps and the members of "best division in football" will be preparing for the draft far sooner than any of us predicted.

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