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We already looked at the AFC, and now let’s take a look at the NFC. Will the Giants be a contender come December? We’ll see…
The distance between the Panthers and the rest of league is huge. They are certainly not going to make the playoffs this season but the development of Cam Newton will be huge for the Panthers going forward. The defense is not that bad, decent at worst but last year the offense simply could not score. If they could get a bounce back year from both DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart, the Panthers could win some games. Expect a lot of struggles for Cam Newton this season, though.
Rex Grossman, the newly anointed starter of the Washington Redskins, is well, Rex Grossman. Normally I needn’t say more, but the Redskins do some things well. They run the ball decently well, and should be able to compete in most games. The truth is the parity in the NFC is such that any team from this point on can conceivably make a push for a playoff spot. Tim Hightower and Roy Helu have both looked impressive in the preseason. The defense still isn’t where it should be but I like the additions of Ryan Kerrigan as a pass rushing outside linebacker, Barry Cofield as a nose tackle, and Josh Wilson at corner. There is a lot of potential in the Redskins’ outside rushers, Kerrigan and Brian Orakpo. They should be better than last year’s defense. They’ll be in a lot of close games but in close games, you need a quarterback who can win you games, and I don’t think Grossman is the guy.
The four teams are so difficult to separate, neither team is particularly bad but, neither team is good enough to win any other division in the NFL. As I’ve said many times before, in this and the AFC Preview, it is a quarterbacking league right now. Seattle won the division last year but have Tarvaris Jackson at quarterback now. San Fran still has Alex Smith at quarterback. Their big off-season addition was coach and QB guru Jim Harbaugh. The Rams have the best quarterback in the division, in Sam Bradford-a future star in this league.
The Cardinals have the best team and a new young, promising quarterback in Kevin Kolb. The Cardinals liked Kolb so much they traded Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and a second round pick for him, then proceeded to hand him a 5-year, $64 million deal, with $21 million guaranteed. The race for the NFC West crown is going to be tight, but I could hardly say it’ll be compelling, especially for us on the East Coast. Kevin Kolb to Larry Fitzgerald is the reason I’m picking the Cardinals to win the NFC West. Did they over pay to obtain and then sign Kolb, yes, but I do think that Kolb is real deal.
Realistically how much does Donovan McNabb really have left in the tank, contrary to what he believes? The offense loses their top receiver, Sydney Rice, and they lack a real third down back. Toby Gerhart was terrible last year in blitz pickup situations. It’s really difficult to envision McNabb having a bounce back year. The defense lost Ray Edwards and Ben Leber and the team did not replace these players with those who have similar talent. This is off a team that was 6-10 last year to begin with. That being said, they’re a better team than the record indicates. The wheels just feel off for a team that was Super Bowl contenders just the year before. Their pass rush dropped off considerably last year, and losing Edwards is not going to help. Ultimately, the division is too tough, and expect a similar record in Minnesota this year.
I’m not sold on the Giants running game. I like what they have in Ahmad Bradshaw and Brandon Jacobs, but I’m worried about their offensive line. Running the ball was the strength of this team when they won the Super Bowl, but since then they’ve become more pass happy. Eli Manning needs to take better control of the ball this year for the Giants to compete. He also loses key weapons in Kevin Boss and Steve Smith. Hakeem Nicks and Mario Manningham are healthy and poised for a big year, but the offense cannot survive 30 turnovers from their quarterback and expect to make the playoffs. The defense is good enough for the Giants to make the playoffs but because of the turnovers, the defense is often facing a short field. They were seventh in the league in yards allowed but seventeenth in the league in points allowed last year. To me the Giants look like a .500 team.
They have a great young offensive core in Josh Freeman, LeGarrette Blount, and Mike Williams. The future seems to be bright for the Bucs but right now, but there are just too many teams positioned better to make the playoffs than the Bucs. I like the direction the Bucs are going, but they play in a division with both Atlanta and New Orleans. I don’t see the NFC South producing three playoff teams, so the Bucs are the odd team out.
The backbone of the Bears is their defense. It appears that Pro Bowler Lance Briggs won’t be around this year. Even without Briggs, the unit still should be pretty good, but the offensive hasn’t really improved since last year’s unit. Jay Cutler gets hit too often, some of it is due to the offensive line, some due to Mike Martz being the Offensive Coordinator. It’s just hard for me to see the Bears experiencing the same success they have last year. They are great against the run but they are about league average against the pass. Their schedule is littered with teams who throw the ball really well: GB nd Detroit twice, Philly, NO, SD, and with Julio Jones you could include the season opener versus the Falcons. I just felt the teams in front of them have gotten better this off-season and the Bears have regressed.
What do the Cowboys do best? Throw the football. Tony Romo is back under center and Dez Bryant is entering his second season in the league. Along with Bryant, Romo has two of the league’s best weapons in tight end Jason Witten, and wide receiver Miles Austin. With Felix Jones, health is always a concern but Tashard Choice is a serviceable backup. The defense is the issue with the Cowboys, their front seven has big names like DeMarcus Ware, Bradie James, and Jay Ratliff, but they finished second to last in points allowed per game (27.3). The weakness of the Cowboys has been and will continue to be their secondary. The player that needs to step up is Mike Jenkins, he simply needs to play better. As good as the offense can be the Cowboys still just narrowly miss the playoffs.
The Lions seem to be building towards a special year, and by special I mean a playoff run, something they haven’t done since 1999. In between 1999, post-Barry Sanders, and now, the Lions have gone through the Matt Millen era, and the historic 0-16 season. A 4-0 preseason may not mean much to most teams because they’re meaningless games, but for a team that is used to losing like the Lions, they can be used a springboard to a big season. The Lions also won the last four games of the 2010-11 season, so they have not tasted defeat in nine months. The entire season hinges on the shoulders of Matt Stafford, because the Lions are a passing team, and because his season has ended the past two years due to shoulder injuries. A perfect example of what this Lions are capable of under Stafford is the preseason game versus New England, when Stafford went 12-14 (one incompletion was a drop) for 200 yards and 2 touchdowns. The offensive line has looked much improved in the preseason and this could help to limit the hits Stafford takes and keep him on the field for a full season. If the Lions want any shot at making the playoffs this year, Suh needs to play 16 games, and not get suspended for mauling a quarterback. He has a target on his back and he’s likely to get no sympathy from both referees and Roger Goddell. Bottom line: if Stafford plays 16 games, the Lions will make the playoffs.
The Packers rode Aaron Rodgers and an aggressive attacking defense to a title. That seems to be the blueprint for winning Super Bowls, as the Packers and the next team, the Saints, both used that philosophy to win the past two Super Bowls. Expect a little Super Bowl hangover, but the Packers should have enough to win the ultra-competitive NFC North. The Packers still don’t run the ball nearly well enough to be considered favorites. Ultimately the team is the same as it was last year, but history has proven it’s very hard to repeat unless you’ve got an all-time great team; the Packers don’t qualify as all-time greats.
The Saints got too pass happy last season, it’s a decent game plan that can win you a lot of regular season games, but it has its pitfalls. Just look at Peyton Manning and the Colts, they’ve won one title in his 13 years. While the Saints won the title in 2009-10 behind strong play from Drew Brees, there was a balance in their offensive attack. The best thing you could say about the Saints offense that year was it was explosive and unpredictable. Last year they simply threw the ball too much, as injuries to Pierre Thomas and Reggie Bush led Sean Payton to abandon the run. Drew Brees threw the ball 658 times last year, compared to 514 the year before (he sat out the last game that year but assuming he throws 30 passes that games, he’s still only at 544). This ultimately led the Saints to be very predictable and led Brees to throw a career high 22 interceptions, way too much for somebody as good as Brees. They’re hoping the addition of Heisman trophy winner Mark Ingram will help restore balance to their offense.
Defense will be the key to the Falcons success, if the unit can play as well as they played last year, fifth in points allowed per game (18.0), the Falcons can be Super Bowl contenders. Pass rushing and a second receiver were two areas they needed to improve to be serious contenders. The addition of Ray Edwards is big, with John Abraham playing the other side, because it’ll give them a very good pass rush. They addressed their wide receiver situation by trading multiple draft picks for Julio Jones. They were too heavily reliant on Roddy White, due mainly to the incompetence of Michael Jenkins. In Jones the Falcons get a very capable #2 receiver and a player talented enough to be a future #1. Coming off the best year of his career, expect Matt Ryan to have an even better year this year with Jones. The offense is balance and dangerous. Also, expect a big year out of a healthy and effective Michael Turner.
Nnamdi Asomugha, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Jason Babin were acquired to improve the Eagles defense. Steve Smith and Ronnie Brown were signed to improve what is already one of the league’s best offenses. Quarterbacked by Mike Vick, the most hated QB in football, they are the NFL equivalent of the Evil Empire or the Miami Heat. It’s undeniable that on paper, they are the most talented team in the NFC. It’s a good for the rest of the league, and fans, that talent doesn’t necessarily win titles.