The Top Eight NFC Teams Capable of Making the Trip to Super Bowl XLIV
If you're a fan of football, this is the WORST time of the year for you.
The Draft is over, training camp is months away and the NBA and NHL playoffs are getting all the pub.
So to satisfy my football jones I put together a list of the 8 teams (plus a dark horse candidate) that I think could represent the NFC in the 2010 Super Bowl.
Coming soon, the AFC top 8! Enjoy!
Dark Horse Pick: Detroit Lions
No, this is not a joke.
While most analysts have Atlanta or some other up-and-coming team as their sleeper pick, I chose the Lions.
I know they went 0-16 last year. I know the franchise QB has never taken an NFL snap and the offensive line that allowed 52 sacks last year did not get any of the big name O-linemen available. But the Lions did add Brandon Pettigrew and Derrick Williams to pair with Calvin Johnson—and even people who aren't Lions fans know how good he is.
I know that the new head coach, Jim Schwartz, has no head coaching experience. But he did help a fairly no-name defense hold opponents to the second fewest points per game (14) in the NFL last season, which can only help a defense that ranked last in points allowed and total yards allowed in 2008.
Martin Mayhew has already shown himself to be light years ahead of Matt Millen, although that isn't saying a great deal. So the Lions will make a complete 180 and appear in their first Super Bowl since 1957.
No. 8 Minnesota Vikings: Child's Play Not Working for Childress?
Advantage: Adrian Peterson
Having a running back like AP is hard to quantify because there are so few backs like him. He's physical between the tackles and lightning quick in the open field. He's proven his productivity (3,100 yards in two seasons) and his ability to shoulder a large load (601 carries in that same span). Though last year saw Peterson's number of carries increase, he didn't seem to suffer any real wear from the additional volume.
Why number eight?
Because of the Vikings' No. 7 and their handling of him.
Want to hurt a young quarterback's ego? Replace him with a backup who throws more interceptions (Frerotte threw 15 to Jackson's two), who only threw three more touchdowns (12 to nine) in twice as many attempts (149 to 301) all while taking double the sacks (14 to 29).
Then throw him against the NFC’s best defense in the playoffs and say,“OK, go win.” Now add to that rumors of bringing in an aging "icon" to take the young QB's place— an "icon" who showed signs of his age in the Jets last 5 games—and you have an excellent recipe for disaster.
No. 7 Green Bay Packers: Who's Missing the Big, Bad Favre?
Advantage: Huge Chip
Nobody's talking about the Packers. NOBODY. Aaron Rodgers, despite having a very good year (4038 yards, 34 TDs) is being told that he is now the third best QB in his own division. Now he’s listed behind the crybaby from Denver and the pretty boy in Detroit. Imagine if the rumors hold true and "Favruh" joins the Vikings...
The larger story in Wisconsin is how the once stout defense let Rodgers' excellent year go to waste. To put it in perspective, the offense managed to average just 3 more points than the defense gave up. Guys like A.J. Hawk and Aaron Kampman are not going to allow a repeat performance. You've got to believe that the Packers are tired of hearing how good the Bears defense is every year. The Packers have the talent to make it to the Super Bowl, and with last season fresh in their memories, they should also have the mindset.
Why number seven?
The Packers ran young Ryan Grant to the tune of 312 carries, which can make even a 26 year old feel 40. Despite those 300-plus touches he still managed just under four yards a carry and only reached the end zone four times. In today's NFL especially teams have to have a complimentary backup in the running game. The other concern is which defense will show up? The one from Brett Favre's last season, or last year's representation?
No. 6 Dallas Cowboys: Swagger Like Us
Advantage: Overall Talent
The current roster of Dallas Cowboys is stacked, even with the subtraction of Owens and Mr. Vegas (A.K.A. Pacman Jones). On offense Jason Witten and Roy Williams will be QB Tony Romo's main targets, but the Cowboys sport potentially the best one-two punch in the backfield with the bruiser Marion Barber and the lightning bolt Felix Jones.
On defense, Coach Phillips' obvious strength, the Cowboys boast young up-and-coming players like DeMarcus Ware, Jay Ratliff and Marcus Spears who are integral to the success of the 3-4 defense. The Cowboys managed to rank 5th in the NFL in pass yards allowed despite having well-documented issues in the secondary with injuries and less than stellar play.
Why number six?
The division they play in features two other teams that could potentially punch their own ticket to the big dance. Worse still, both those teams have better QB leadership, team continuity and coaching. These are all things that the Cowboys have lacked, which has led them to zero postseason wins this decade.
No. 5 Arizona Cardinals: They Said We Couldn't Do It Again...Can We?
Advantage: Passing Offense
Two words: Larry Fitzgerald.
OK, it's more than just the play of one guy. Still, like the picture above shows most defensive backs in the league have become quite familiar with the back of his jersey. With his strong hands, downfield speed and toughness it's tough to lock down this wideout. Compounding this problem is the fact that just on the other side of the field is Anquan Boldin; a physical and deceptively quick option 1A.
Offensive guru Ken Whisenhunt has found ways to get these guys the ball in space where they can operate best. If a team gets off to a slow start against this team it will be a very long day.
Kurt Warner is the perfect QB for this offense, since his strengths (accurate arm, quick release) are accentuated and his weaknesses (mobility, age, and arm strength) are hidden from view.
Why number five?
Though the passing game is their strength it is also their weakness. Teams with a strong pass rush and decent secondary will be able to disrupt the timing of the passing game. Without a consistent running game and a less than stellar offensive line, the Cardinals will have a hard time winning their own division (as they did last year), let alone the NFC.
No. 4 Carolina Panthers: Cat Scratch Fever
Dennis Rodman may have thought chemistry was only a class you take in high school or college, but for football players it is an absolute must. If you look at the Panthers overall numbers last year, they weren't impressive. QB Jake Delhomme threw 15 TDs to go with 12 interceptions. The defense only collected 37 sacks and allowed 20 points a game—just five less per game than they scored.
So how did the Panthers manage the 12-4 record they carried into the postseason? Because every player on that roster believes in each other. If the Dallas Cowboys have taught the NFL anything, it’s that talent is simply not enough.
John Fox doesn't get enough credit for the job he's done year over year. He gets guys to play their hardest each week. Considering the job they were able to do last year it’s difficult not to think they’ll be in the mix this year.
Why number four?
There are too many questions surrounding this team. Let's face it: the team fell flat on their faces in the playoffs. That kind of thing leaves a mark.
Can Delhomme rebound?
Will the defense suffer with the eventual loss of Julius Peppers?
Is the offense better or worse than it was last year with Steve Smith a year older?
Will the Panthers' first three draft picks—all on the defensive side of the ball—make an impact?
Does Mushin Muhammad have anything left?
Tampa fell apart last year and so did New Orleans. Anyone see that happening again?
No. 3 New Orleans Saints: 'Aints No More
Advantage: Sean Payton and Drew Brees.
Drew Brees has always been a very good quarterback. It's the reason the Chargers felt they could pass on Michael Vick's incredible talent and pick up Brees in the second round and there's no question which QB has had the better career.
However, teaming with Sean Payton has been a marriage of amazing success. In '08 the Saints lead the NFL in points (28.9), total yards (410.7) and pass yards (311) per game.
The Saints had seven players with 30 or more catches last year and Jeremy Shockey was the only guy NOT to reach the endzone among them. Which pretty much means the only guy not scoring for the Saints is the mascot...what is their mascot any way?
No one expects Reggie Bush to have another off year and the evolution of Pierre Thomas should give the Saints the balance that they lacked last year.
Why number three?
The defense. Some of the defense's shortcomings can be laid at the feet of the offense. The offense is a quick strike, down-the-field offense, which is great for scoring, but can wear a defense out when the time of possession leans in favor of the opponents. That, plus their inability at times to run successfully with the lead late in games, led to the Saints being near the bottom of the league in most categories.
Simply put though, compared to the top defenses in the league, the Saints are somewhere short of the ideal. Adding Darren Sharper and Malcolm Jenkins to the secondary should help, but it could still be a long road.
No. 2 New York Giants: Old is New Again
Learning the lessons from the Parcells teams in the early 90s, the Giants have enjoyed a renaissance the past few seasons.
They have a beastly running back in Brandon Jacobs and a defense that can be flat out destructive at times. This helped them offset the loss of the 6'5" Cheddar Bo—I mean Plaxico Burress. Pass production did drop off, but they managed to end the season third in points.
Even without Osi Umenyiora the Giants still managed to boast a defense that ranked in the top 10 in every major defensive category while racking up 42 total sacks. Depth became an issue down the stretch, but with the offseason additions and the return of the 5 Hour Energy guru Umenyiora it's hard to count them out.
Why number two?
Largely unnoticed is the departure of Derrick Ward, but this could be a bigger loss than the Giants realize. Ward had a higher per carry average than Jacobs with 37 fewer carries. Ward also was very good in the passing game catching 47 balls to Jacobs' six.
It will be tough to replace his AND Burress' production, although getting Hakeem Nicks and Ramses Barden won't hurt.
No. 1 Philadelphia Eagles: Coming for dat number 1 spot!
By the end of last season, Westbrook was severely banged up and Donovan was fed up.
So the Eagles front office presented them both with gifts.
For Westbrook, a blocking fullback (Leonard Weaver) to open holes in the strong defensive lines of the NFC East. Tra Thomas was let go, since he was never proficient at run blocking, as was LJ Smith who was never interested in run blocking.
They were replaced by Jason Peters (considered the top LT available) and Brent Celek, who had the Eagles not franchised LJ, would have been on the field a lot more. They also gave Westbrook a young understudy with trustworthy knees to absorb some of the punishment in LeSean McCoy.
For McNabb: a younger (more talented?) group of tackles, with Shawn Andrews moving out to the right spot alongside his brother Stacy.
A fully healthy Kevin Curtis,and though Joe Banner can't claim credit for that one, it's still nice to have. Also a second year Desean Jackson, who is coming of the best year an Eagle rookie receiver has had in the Reid era.
McNabb also benefits from LJ's departure as he has a more sure-handed TE in Celek and the vacancy will allow draftee Ingram to develop more quickly.
The front office also gave Donovan Jeremy Maclin, who can take the burden of special teams off of DJack and chip in on offense to some degree as well.
For a team that was a defensive stop from playing Pittsburgh for the Lombardi trophy, the Eagles did not sit on their hands this offseason. The obvious focus was to grab younger talented players to compliment their veterans.
They also added Ellis Hobbs, Sean Jones and Rashad Baker to their secondary and bring back a defense ranked third overall in the NFL, number one in the NFC.
Why they may not make the flight to Miami:
Because everyone expects them to. Because the pressure of the departure of the most tenured Eagle (Dawkins) might mean the writing is on the wall for anyone with a young understudy waiting in the wings.
The last few years have shown that it’s the team playing the best at the right time that stands on the right end of the confetti shower.
Leftovers and second guesses
Rather than arguing about the teams not on the list, here are my reasons for ommissions:
The Chicago Bears, despite adding Jay Cutler, have not given him any real weapons and their running game was just as bad (actually worse) as their passing game. Defensively, they're really nowhere near the same team that went to the Superbowl against the Colts. Since three teams will probably come out of the NFC East and possibly three from the South, it doesn't leave them much of a leg to stand on.
The Atlanta Falcons did add Tony Gonzalez to an already solid offense, but their success was in a division in disarray. Things have solidified in the NFC south which may leave them and/or Tampa Bay on the outside looking in.
The Washington Redskins were almost my pick over the Cowboys, but that's mainly due to my irrational hatred of the Cowboys. From an unbiased standpoint they're still a few pieces away from the conversation, but not much. They definitely have the advantage over the Cowboys in coaching, but Campbell is not quite there yet.