The Front Row with MARK NELKE Sept. 9, 2012

The real NFL season starts today

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One team is banking on a rookie quarterback and an improved defense to lead them to a Super Bowl title they thought they should have won a few years ago.

The other team had a surprising breakthrough season a year ago, and are hoping the same defense and an improved offense will lead them one game farther than the NFC Championship Game they played in last year.

And with that, the battle for the NFC West begins in earnest today, with Seattle at Arizona and San Francisco at Green Bay.

SEATTLE WAS so determined not to go through another season of Tarvaris Jackson quarterbacking their team that the Seahawks brought in not one, but two QBs - high-priced free agent (Matt Flynn) and a rookie (Russell Wilson) - to make sure that didn't happen again.

Then, to their credit, when the Seahawks unloaded Jackson on the Buffalo Bills, they were actually able to get something back in trade.

Seattle has always been an enigma - head-scratching losses followed by "why can't they do that more often?" victories.

Look at last year - the Seahawks beat the eventual Super Bowl champion Giants at the Meadowlands, and also beat the Eagles, the Ravens and the Bears.

But they also lost 6-3 to the Browns - the Browns! - and also lost to the Redskins and the Cardinals.

Seattle is pretty proud of its 4-0 preseason - though who remembers how anybody ever did in the preseason in the past. That aside, the Seahawks should be better offensively with either Wilson or Flynn - or even the ghost of Dan McGwire - calling the signals. That's because they still have that guy that eats Skittles to hand the ball off to.

And Seattle has the best home-field advantage in the division, and one of the best in all of football. The Seahawks may need that loud crowd more than ever this year, with the Cowboys, Packers and Patriots coming to town.

MANY BLAMED Kyle Williams and his fumbled punts for the 49ers not reaching the Super Bowl last year.

The truth is, if San Francisco could have moved the ball with any consistency in last year’s NFC title game vs. the Giants, it wouldn’t have came down to that.

That’s still the big question this year. The 49ers are banking on new wide receivers Randy Moss and Mario Manningham to actually get open so Alex Smith has more people to throw to this year. Last year, if Vernon Davis wasn’t able to fight off quadruple-teams to get open, S.F.’s passing game often resulted in Smith running for his life and throwing the ball away.

The 49ers’ offensive line needs to continue to get better, so they can protect Smith and run the ball consistently.

Last year, they had too many games where they went three-and-out, three-and-out, three-and-out, long pass that led to a field goal, three-and-out, three-and-out, interception/fumble recovery that led to a touchdown, three-and-out, three-and-out, etc.

They can’t continue to rely just on their defense, especially in today’s pass-happy NFL, where if you throw the ball enough, chances are you will hit on a long pass play or draw a questionable pass interference penalty.

It’s funny. The 49ers have put together a pretty good old-school football team — run the ball, play defense, don’t turn the ball over. Meanwhile the league has evolved to a new school (pass, pass, pass) approach.

Which leads us to their matchup today at pass-happy Green Bay and Aaron Rodgers.

SO WHO will win the NFC West? San Francisco probably won’t duplicate its 13-win season from last year, and Seattle should be a little better than its 7-9 record in 2011. The division title will probably come down to the teams’ two meetings — Oct. 18 (a Thursday night) in San Francisco, and Dec. 23 in Seattle.

Maybe the bigger question is, will DirecTV and Fox ever come to an agreement, as 12 of Seattle’s 16 games are scheduled for Fox.

Mark Nelke is sports editor of The Press. He can be reached at 664-8176, Ext. 2019, or via email at mnelke@cdapress.com. Follow him on Twitter at CdAPressSports.

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