NFC fans may be a little perturbed that I waited a few days to post thoughts on the elder conference, but look at it this way, sometimes the best comes last. Do I think the conference is markedly better than the AFC? Not at all. However, there are teams in the NFC who appear to be juggernaut and a group of mid-level dark horse squads that should strike fear into any team in this league. I love the offensive talent in the NFC North, ferocious defense of the East and pleasant mix of both O and D in the South. Sorry NFC West, you have little to be desired much like your AFC counterparts. Let’s take a look at how it breaks down.
Packers- Quarterback Aaron Rodgers is the best signal caller in this division and will give the Packers a shot at the conference. He’s very accurate, tough and has a slew of talented playmaking receivers. If injuries didn’t hit this team so hard last year, they may have been a deep playoff team as they were in 2007 when they reached the conference championship. Green Bay has two major problems however, a completely new base defense and a lot of players who don’t fit in it. The team drafted BJ Raji of Boston College to fill the 3-4’s most critical position-nose tackle. Raji is listed on the teams website as a backup NT.
Vikings- Brett Favre, Brett Favre, Brett Favre. That’s most of what we heard all off-season. The former Packer and Jet QB returns to save the talent rich, yet quarterback poor Vikes. Unfortunately for Minnesota fans their ancient shadow-of-his-former-self quarterback won’t be the savior. Without a full training camp I expect his 39 year old body will break down again. Nice defense, great running game, terrific offensive and defensive lines but bad wideouts and underwhelming backups at QB.
Bears- Da Bears have a franchise quarterback and real shot at being competitive, but will their receivers show up? That is the question I have to ask of this offense. You look at Devin Hester, Earl Bennett and Rashied Davis and scratch your head. If not, you should start scratching. None of these guys is a top-flight receiver and despite their rocket-armed passer, I don’t see defenses respecting the deep ball. Matt Forte is an excellent running back and tight end Greg Olsen can be considered one of the best receiving tight ends. Chicago’s defense may not have the talent of its Super Bowl team of 2005, but it always finds of way into being tough and strong.
Lions- Detroit has reasons for optimism at least on offense. Rookies Matt Stafford and Brandon Pettigrew help form a strong quarterback-tight end combo that should light up the divison for years. Throw in humongous holdover wide receiver Calvin Johnson and the team should score points. Can their offensive line protect Stafford, open up holes for Kevin Smith and last a full season? That’s another story. Detroit should improve defensively, hard not to after going 0-16 last season. New head coach Jim Schwartz brought in a pleasant mix of rookies and vets like safety Louis Delmas and linebackers Larry Foote and Julian Peterson. Six wins would be a success.
Falcons- Quarterback Matt Ryan will not suffer a sophomore slump and will lead his team into the playoffs yet again. Ryan’s maturity, poise, accuracy, arm strength, solid reads and athleticism are the reasons every other team in the NFC should be scared. I’m not convinced his best weapon Michael Turner will stay healthy for a full season after carrying more than 370 times last year, but feel that Ryan is good enough to make the Dirty Birds a 10-win squad regardless. On defense, you have to think players entering their second year of Mike Smith’s system will get even better. That said, they have a number of question marks of the defensive line and secondary to go along with depth issues almost everywhere.
Saints-New Orleans is the sexy Super Bowl pick because of their offense but as the cliché states: defense wins championships. Drew Brees is the most polished passer in the conference but he certainly can’t play on the other side of the ball. There isn’t a single standout playmaker on this defense and with the uncertainty regarding Nawlens’ two best past rushers (Will Smith and Charles Grant) who allegedly used a banned substance and face four -game suspensions, I’m not picking this team to take their division.
Panthers-After years of supporting him, I no longer like Jake Delhomme as a starting quarterback. This would be a running team anyway but Delhomme does nothing to win games when he needs to. I watched this veteran throw five interceptions in the playoffs last year and does not have the resume of a Brett Favre or any other legendary status that should cement him as Carolina’s QB. This team has a dominant running game and great wide receiver, but a weak quarterback and thin defense. Most teams avoided major injuries during the off-season/preseason but Carolina lost it’s second most important defender, tackle Maake Kemoeatu.
Buccaneers-Instability at quarterback, new head coach, new running back, miserable wide receivers and a rebuilt defense. Not a good year to be a Tampa fan. Retread passer Byron Leftwich starts for this once proud (albeit short lived ) franchise. Tampa’s secondary is pretty good, anchored by future hall of famer Rhonde Barber but the defensive line and ‘backers seem devoid of playmakers. 7 wins would be a triumph with this bunch.
Eagles- I like good QB’s and Donovan McNabb is still the best in this division. I love the weapons he has in second year wide receiver DeSean Jackson, do-it-all man Brian Westbrook and rookie thumper LeSean McCoy. This team has some question marks on the offensive line most notably at left tackle where it traded for Jason Peters. The former Buffalo pro bowler is vastly overrated and I’m worried McNabb may have to scramble for his life a bit. On the defensive side, one word-speed. I usually dislike smallish, fast defenses because they are very easy to run against, not with Philly. Despite the death of legendary coordinator Jim Johnson this defense is loaded and will carry on his legacy of consistent quarterback pressure. Trent Cole, Chris Gocong and Asante Samuel lead a deep D.
Giants- Eli Manning is a good player who will put up good numbers this year, I just don’t see the Giants knocking off Philly. There is a lot to like about this Giants squad from its terrific backs (Brandon Jacobs and Ahmad Bradshaw), depth at receiver and standouts on defense. Without top notch receiver this team won’t be back in the Super Bowl. They drafted Hakeem Nicks in the first round and he did nothing all preseason. It usually takes wideouts a year or two to figure things out so he may be huge down the road, but right now the best options appears to be Steve Smith and tight end Kevin Boss.
I could write eight blog entries on how much I love this defensive line, it’s deep and extremely talented. You have players like Justin Tuck who can rush, play the run, are super athletic and strong leaders. Throw in pass rushing demon Osi Umenyiora, and two-way interior lineman Barry Cofield and Fred Robbins and you may have a sturdy line, but the team has four quality backups in Mathias Kiwanuka, Chris Canty, Rocky Bernard and Dave Tollefson.
Cowboys- Tony Romo will have fewer headaches without Terrell Owens in the locker room but will also have fewer wins. The ‘Boys melted down again last year and despite immense offensive and defensive talent lacked heart, coaching and execution. I love the running game anchored by Marion Barber and Felix Jones I just don’t see that being enough to earn a playoff spot.
Defensively, they have the games best rush ‘backer in DeMarcus Ware, but the secondary is weak. Nine wins would be a success.
Redskins-Year after year running back Clinton Portis proves he’s one of football’s best all around backs. He’s great at pass protection, catching and of course running. The question is whether his passer, Jason Campbell can help carry the load. It’s not Campbell’s fault he’s had multiple offensive coordinators during his five seasons but it is his fault that touch passing, good reads and accuracy has eluded him.
The team’s defense is fairly strong though it lacks enough pass rushers in my mind to be dominant.
Seahawks-If Matt Hasselback stays healthy this team will win a division it owned for years. Hasselback is extremely accurate and has weapons at receiver, running back and tight end. Look for Julius Jones to have a big year at running back and backup Edgerrin James to pitch in a lot.
TJ Houshmandzadeh and Nate Burleson are an interesting duo at receiver and Jon Carlson is an underrated tight end.
The defense is a question mark, especially given the poor year they had in 2008 defending the pass. Rookie Aaron Curry will help that pass rush but they also Julian Peterson.
49ers- I think Shaun Hill surprises a lot of people this year at quarterback. He and wide receiver Josh Morgan will hook up early and often. There isn’t a lot of speed or proven players at receiver but I think they going in the right direction. Frank Gore and Glen Coffee will anchor a strong running game. On defense, Patrick Willis and Nate Clements remain studs. Look for this team to challenge for the division.
Cardinals- Fresh off a Super year, my optimism for the Cards is super low. I’m not convinced that aging QB Kurt Warner will stay healthy and despite immense offensive talent and good coaching, their backup option is still Matt Leinart. In case you haven’t been watching, he isn’t very good.
Defensively, I like their team. There are playmakers at every level. Adrian Wilson is their best player.
Sorry Cards, no redemption this year.
Rams- Rookie head coach Steve Spagnuolo will turn this team around eventually, but has a hard task in front of him. There is little in the way of offensive talent beyond quarterback Mark Bulger, runner Steven Jackson. I like second year burner Donnie Avery but am not convinced he’ll be a number one receiver.
Defensively, the team is actually pretty good. Chris Long and Leonard Little provide some push up front, I like Will Witherspoon at weak side backer and rookie MLB James Laurinaitis and beyond that is playmaking safety OJ Otogwe.
Eight wins would be a good season.
East-Patriots (top seed)
West-Chargers (second seed)
AFC Title-New England over San Diego
NFC Title-Eagles over Falcons
Patriots over Eagles