The battles between the 49ers and Cardinals only should gain importance as the NFC West grows in stature from top to bottom.
Maybe it was as Alex Smith was threading a pass into Vernon Davis with just nine seconds left in last week's NFC divisional playoff game. Maybe it came before that, when the 49ers had piled up 13 regular-season wins, or, for the sake of balance, when the Cardinals and Seahawks each climbed out of an early-season hole to have a chance at .500 to end the year.
Maybe it came when the Rams, the team bringing up the bottom of the division, went and hired Jeff Fisher as their new head coach.
Probably, the resurgence of the NFC West is about all of that.
A few years of the division being treated as the dregs of the NFL – topped off by 2010 when the Seahawks ended up winning the division crown with a 7-9 record – seem to be over. The NFL has always been about the ebb and flow, whether it is in a game, a season or over so many years.
The NFC West is counting on some flow going forward.
It hasn't been all bad. There is only one division that has won at least one playoff game in every one of the past eight postseasons (dating back to the 2004 season): The NFC West. Twice the division winner has made it to the Super Bowl (Seattle after the 2005 season, the Cards after 2008) and the 49ers could be the third representative if they conquer the Giants Sunday in the NFC Championship.
Now that the Rams have Fisher, the division can also argue it has the highest-profile coaches from top to bottom, with Jim Harbaugh in San Francisco, Pete Carroll in Seattle and Ken Whisenhunt in Arizona. The coaching staffs may be more stable now across the division than they have in a long while.
What will be interesting is if all the teams can continue to build with their current quarterback situations, which in today's NFL remains the No. 1 building block for any franchise. The Rams still have Sam Bradford, who took a step back this season but was hampered by injuries (to himself and others) and poor play by the receivers and offensive linemen he played with.
Smith certainly has shown a remarkable transformation this season in San Francisco, and his play has been a solid reason the 49ers are in the position they are in, down to the stunning way he led a pair of late touchdown drives against the Saints. He had his best year and seems primed to remain San Francisco's starter – although it will take more than just this season to flush all the doubters.
Both the Cards and Seahawks are still searching for certainty. The Seahawks continue to say they like Tarvaris Jackson, but his progression has been limited. He may stand to benefit from a full offseason with a team he just started with last year, just as the Cardinals are hoping with Kevin Kolb (and with John Skelton, to a lesser extent).
One interesting development within the West: The 49ers have flourished in their resurgence because of their defense. Both the Cards and Seahawks battled back toward .500 after poor starts riding mostly their defense. And Fisher's background – and history as coach of Tennessee – is with a defense-first philosophy.
In this era of offensive fireworks, the NFC West could be morphing into more of a physical, rough-and-tumble division.
"Our brethren in the NFC West have become stronger," Cardinals general manager Rod Graves said. "But I feel we proved last season, especially over the last nine games that we can play with any team in the league. If we focus on our strengths and the things we do well, we will take care of business in the NFC West."