2012 NFC Preview and Projected Standings: Packers and 49ers Are Teams to Beat

Jake WestrichSenior Writer IAugust 8, 2012

GREEN BAY, WI - JANUARY 15:  Aaron Rodgers #12 of the Green Bay Packers looks to pass against the New York Giants during their NFC Divisional playoff game at Lambeau Field on January 15, 2012 in Green Bay, Wisconsin.  (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Editor's Note: We will be updating our 2012 NFL simulation predictions later this month as training camps play out, depth charts take shape and injuries are known heading into the 2012 regular season.

Thanks to Peyton Manning's new residence in the Rocky Mountains, the Sanchez-Tebow, ahem, "drama" and the collective aptitude of the Steelers, Ravens and Bengals making the North coalition the most competitive division in football, the AFC has hogged the gridiron headlines this August. However, with the G-Men's conquest in Indianapolis last February, the NFC has harbored four of the past five Super Bowl champions.

Given the Giants, San Francisco 49ers and Green Bay Packers boast three of the more formidable rosters in the NFL, along with title-aspirant teams in Atlanta, Detroit, New Orleans, Philadelphia and Dallas, it's not a stretch to assert the Lombardi Trophy's forecast states another sojourn to the conference at season's end.

Though the Giants captured their second ring in the past five seasons, New York fans might not recognize their boys in blue. Super Bowl hero Mario Manningham departed for the West Coast, as did running back Brandon Jacobs. Tight end Jake Ballard is also gone, waived after suffering a torn ACL against New England in the championship game. Rookies David Wilson and Rueben Randle were brought in to fill some of these voids, as was the mercurial Martellus Bennett.

Assimilating new faces into an offense is an arduous task, but the Giants faithful should rest assured as Eli Manning is well equipped to deal with the changing scenery.

San Francisco signal caller Alex Smith will likewise be working with a revamped roster. While the 49ers were one of the league's surprises last season with a 13-3 mark, the offensive unit left much to be desired as their 310.9 yards per game ranked 26th in the NFL. To help improve this company, the aforementioned Manningham and Jacobs, Randy Moss and rookies A.J. Jenkins and LaMichael James were added to the skill positions, transforming a pedestrian attack to one of the more versatile assaults in the conference.

Unlike their competitors, the Cheeseheads did little to supplement their squad during the offseason, although not much change was necessary from a team that went 15-1 in 2011. The Packers did strengthen their offensive line with the acquisition of five-time Pro Bowler Jeff Saturday, and utilizing six draft picks on the defensive side undoubtedly augments a crew that was in the middle of the pack in points allowed last season.

Yet, will these alterations equate to a voyage to the Big Easy, this year's site of Super Bowl XLVII, or have the adjustments distorted already-winning formulas for the franchises in question?

To answer this query, we "played" the 2012 NFL season out thanks to the award-winning WhatIfSports.com pro-football simulation engine. Running each contest 1,001 times, we were able to decipher the playoff contenders for the upcoming campaign, as well as which players are free to start making vacation plans for January.

As always, all of our simulated NFL content is based on the statistical DNA of the league's 32 teams. The simulation process takes into account: team depth charts, injuries, passing yards, rushing yards, receiving yards, turnovers, rush defense, pass defense, offensive philosophy (pass versus rush) and minutia your brain can't handle at this time.

The rosters and depth charts used were up-to-date and accurate as of August 7, 2012.

Playoff participants are denoted by * (division winners) and + (wild card recipients). Wild card tie breakers are based on projected win percentage.

From a faculty standpoint, there's much to be desired from this contingent as the Cowboys take the NFC East crown with just a 9-7 record. Don't misconstrue this sentiment as condemnation on the group's performance; the division has its fair share of drama in store for 2012.

While pigskin pundits don't question the dexterity of the Giants in the playoffs, the team has struggled mightily in the regular season.

Despite a manageable slate in 2011, Tom Coughlin's lineup went 9-7 and was a Tony Romo choke away from staying at home after New Years. This is further evidenced by their point differential, as New York had a negative figure in this category. If the Giants plan on defending their belt, they will need to up their feats during the fall.

Speaking of improving their operation, I'd say the "Dream Team" didn't fulfill their self-professed prospects last season, finishing with a mediocre 8-8 record. The procurements of sturdy linebacker DeMeco Ryans and first-round pick Fletcher Cox will render a positive influence on defense. However, unless the beleaguered Eagles line is able to keep Michael Vick upright, don't envision the City of Brotherly Love to make much noise this season.

Overlooked by the Robert Griffin III hype were Washington's sly and solid grabs of Pierre Garcon, Madieu Williams and Brandon Meriweather. Alas, all eyes will be on RG3 and the offense. Though Cam Newton's ridiculous rookie campaign has placed an unfair onus on Griffin III (and Andrew Luck, for that matter), the Heisman winner just has to be competent for this team to compete.

Considering the putrid play in our nation's capital the past three seasons, that's a proposition the fanbase will readily take.

And we could pontificate on Dallas's improved secondary or dynamic rushing attack making the team a challenging foe. Sadly, unless Romo finally figures it out, this will also be a franchise whose hype won't match the harvest.

NFC North Wins Losses
Green Bay Packers* 11 5
Chicago Bears+ 9 7
Detroit Lions 8 8
Minnesota Vikings 7 9

The black-and-blue division regains some of its yesterday aura with three playoff contenders and an ambitious, up-and-coming bunch in Minnesota. Much like the SEC in college football, it will be a war of attrition that settles the winner of the NFC North.

The Bears were dealt a bad hand in 2011. Despite coming out of the gate with a 7-3 record, Chicago suffered a major blow when Jay Cutler was injured in Week 11, ending his season as well as the hopes of a Bears' Super Bowl run. With backup Caleb Hanie under center, Chicago limped to a 1-5 finish down the stretch.

There is optimism in Solider Field, however, as Cutler has finally been provided receiving weapons in Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery. If Cutler and Matt Forte can stay healthy, the Bears could regain their 2010 form.

Most of the key components of one of the most explosive offenses return for the Detroit Lions, who posted their first winning year in over a decade. Unfortunately, not much good has derived from the Detroit front since the team's defeat to New Orleans last January. Numerous player arrests have dampened the sanguinity surrounding the organization, and Matthew Stafford remains a major injury risk. This, combined with backfield issues and a tougher schedule, have Lions fans fearing the worst for 2012.

The Vikings continue to build around their youthful core, bringing in sound investments in Matt Kalil, Harrison Smith and Josh Robinson. But while exciting neophytes litter this Minnesota roster, along with the esteemed Jared Allen coming off a 22-sack season, the only news of importance produced by the Twins Cities this year will be the health of All-Pro Adrian Peterson.

If Peterson cannot recover from knee surgery, it will be a long four months for those draped in purple.

As for Green Bay—well, they're pretty good. A 15-1 record speaks for itself, no? The only area of enhancement the Packers desperately need is out of the backfield as their running game ranked 27th in the league. James Starks carries the torch for now, but look for Alex Green to take over if Starks fails to come to fruition. That said, Aaron Rodgers and the aerial assault seemed to do just fine without reinforcement on the ground last season, so perhaps this isn't as big a deficiency as feared.

Atlanta has racked up 43 wins in the past four seasons, Tampa is experiencing a renewed focus under Greg Schiano and Newton might be one of the most exciting players in the league. But in spite of these intriguing storylines, the only narrative receiving noise will be the Saints' response to the bounty scandal.

Yet for NOLA fans anxious on this counter, seeing No. 9 in the huddle should alleviate some of this apprehension. With Sean Payton relegated to the press box for most of last season, Drew Brees displayed that he was more than capable of running the show on the field. And though Jonathan Vilma's leadership will be missed, in truth, his play noticeably regressed in 2011.

In short: the Saints, minus their head coach and a few cogs on defense, should be just fine.

A full offseason under his belt should do wonders for Newton and the offense, as the second-year Auburn product had only an abbreviated August to digest the Panthers' offensive strategy last year. Nevertheless, if Carolina fails to make strides on the other side of the ball, where the team surrendered 26.8 points per game (third-worst in the NFC), the fireworks facilitated by Newton will be for naught.

In 2010, Tampa was one of the NFL's darlings, submitting a 10-6 record with an inexperienced, youthful delegation. Entering 2011 with heightened expectations, the Bucs fell flat on their face, notching just four victories, correlating to an exit for head coach Raheem Morris. Schiano seems to be a firm voice to right Tampa's ship, although this turnaround will take more than one season to come to fruition.

It's rare that a coach who's averaged nearly 11 wins per season in his tenure would find himself on the hot seat, but one can make the case that a scenario as such applies to the Falcons' Mike Smith. Unless Matty Ice and the Dirty Birds finally come through in the postseason (Atlanta is 0-3 in this forum since Smith took the reins), it's easy to envision a change of guard for the 2013 season.

The NFC West used to be known as the "NFC Worst," with the highlight, er, lowlight, coming in 2010 as the division "crowned" the Seahawks as champs with a 7-9 record. Yet after three teams won seven or more games last season, the division-ok, the division remains sort of a joke.

However, not to say this western party needs to be totally dismissed. Jim Harbaugh ignited a revitalization in the Bay Area, leading the 49ers to a 13-3 record in his first season overseeing the program. Now blessed with one of the deeper and more talented skill pools in the NFL, if Alex Smith can be as efficient (17 touchdowns, five interceptions) in this upcoming year as 2011, the Niners may be Super Bowl bound.

Southeast of San Fran, the Cardinals quietly collected eight wins last season, not bad considering their major offseason acquirement, Kevin Kolb, was a total bust. Though there's nothing enticing about his play, if third-year arm John Skelton provides a steady presence under center, Arizona could be a dark horse as a Wild Card contender.

Speaking of underdogs, St. Louis commands a fair share of hope for a roster that went 2-14 in 2011. The Rams are optimistic that a new direction of leadership will guide Sam Bradford back to his 2010 fashion where he threw for over 3,500 yards. Steven Jackson will need to hold up for St. Louis to have any chance, but Jeff Fisher has done more with less over his career.

In the Emerald City, the Seahawks are hoping to finally have their franchise quarterback in former Green Bay backup Matt Flynn. Marshawn Lynch finally validated his college hype with a Pro Bowl campaign in 2011, though legal issues could spell trouble for the Cal product. The signing of Terrell Owens will garner hype, but Doug Baldwin, Sidney Rice and Golden Tate provide Flynn a stable and deep receiving corps.


Throughout the 2012 NFL season, WhatIfSports.com will provide FOXSports.com its game predictions and fantasy projections on a weekly basis.

Editor's Note: We will be updating our 2012 NFL simulation predictions later this month as training camps play out, depth charts take shape and injuries are known heading into the 2012 regular season.


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