The NFC West is a punchline no longer. In fact, if you speak in a derisive tone within earshot, this newly nasty division will punch you in the mouth. Then it’ll rip the football out of your hands.

A few years ago, the NFC West was effectively the NFL’s version of the Pac-10 … if you removed Oregon, Stanford and USC. The 49ers, Rams, Cardinals and Seahawks weren’t known for physicality or execution — more like finesse and incompetence. There were players who didn’t quite fit the mediocre mold, guys like Patrick Willis and Adrian Wilson, but as teams the NFC West didn’t scare anyone (besides their own fans).

The 49ers were the class of the division last year, but you could see the signs as the regular season progressed. Facing the Ravens in Baltimore (on Thanksgiving, with a very short week to prepare) was a challenge the 49ers weren’t quite up to at the time, but the most physically painful games the 49ers played in the second half of last season took place in Arizona and Seattle. Compared to facing the Cardinals and the Seahawks in Weeks 14 and 16 respectively, the Steelers were as tough as tapioca in Week 15.

The Rams got better the instant they hired Jeff Fisher, as Steve Spagnuolo was completely overmatched in 2011. Fisher is known for defense, and Sam Bradford has suffered from the same shortcomings as Alex Smith early in his career. Namely, porous offensive line play and no receivers. After a close loss at Detroit and a close win over the Redskins, the Rams are already at half their win total from last year. Considering how St. Louis is probably still the likeliest candidate to finish fourth in the NFC West, this division has quickly transformed from top-to-bottom irrelevance into the hardest-hitting, best tackling, fiercest division in the NFL.

Most people won’t believe that now. The NFL-loving public has been conditioned to respect the East and North divisions in both conferences for so long, to suddenly accept the idea that the teams in the NFC West are stronger, faster and meaner than the rest … well, that’s a transition in perception that will take at least another full season to occur.

But check this space at the end of the year — the Patriots, Cowboys, Redskins, Packers and Lions won’t be the only well-respected teams to fall to the 49ers, Cardinals, Seahawks and Rams. Word will spread about the fury coming from out West.

The 49ers have the edge in their division as of now, because their defense is still a cut above and their offense is the most balanced. However, the gap between the Niners and their intradivisional opponents isn’t all that large. One of Jim Harbaugh’s challenges this season will be to continue respecting each and every opponent. At least until after they beat  them, then dismissive comments are just fine.

Before this season, it became popular to look at the 49ers’ 2011 13-3 record and proclaim how regression was inevitable. No way they would experience the same amazing luck with injuries and turnovers, plus their first place schedule would prove too difficult. Then the 49ers won their first two games by 8 points apiece against playoff teams from the NFC North on national television, tempting the same analysts (professional and amateur alike) to turn around wonder how many losses are out there for San Francisco, if any.

However, if the 49ers are to lose three or more games before 2012 draws to a close, at least one or two will probably come from games against other NFC West teams. And if those losses occur, they shouldn’t cause too much panic. Keeping players healthy will be of vital importance all season, but it’s going to be especially difficult during these rivalry games. Just ask Delanie Walker and Kyle Williams. The true victory this season for the 49ers and the rest of the teams in the NFC West: getting through their divisional games unscathed.