Handicapping the NFC: Brett Favre Is Still the Key

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Handicapping the NFC: Brett Favre Is Still the Key
(Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)

In my previous article for Bleacher Report, I came across an interesting streak concerning teams that have won the Super Bowl.

 

Almost every team that won the Super Bowl since the American-National Football League merger had made the playoffs the season before.

 

The exceptions to this rule could be broken into two categories-

 

A-    Teams that employed a new starting quarterback from the previous season for the majority of the campaign (the 1980 Oakland Raiders, the 1999 St. Louis Rams, the 2000 Baltimore Ravens, and the 2001 New England Patriots).

B-    Teams that finished strong in the prior season (the 2003 Patriots, the 1982 Washington Redskins, the 1981 San Francisco 49ers, and the 1969 Baltimore Colts).

 

Therefore, while handicapping the American Football Conference, it was easy to toss out Buffalo and Jacksonville as true contenders for the 2009 season.

 

But who will the suitors be for the National Football Conference in 2009?

 

Let’s toss out the Detroit Lions, who may be getting a promising new quarterback in Matthew Stafford, but have a long way to go otherwise.

 

Also throw out the Green Bay Packers, St. Louis Rams, and Washington Redskins. Aside from the Redskins’ highly rated defense in 2008, there’s little to believe any of these teams are truly Super Bowl contenders; their hopes are mainly for improvement from 2008.

 

And also, let’s throw out the Dallas Cowboys.

 

This would not likely be a shocking statement if not for Dallas’ reputation as the NFL’s most popular team.

 

But the questions regarding the Cowboys still stand, even without clubhouse lawyer Terrell Owens. Their rushing attack is still suspect. They made defensive coordinator Brian Stewart the scapegoat for not making the playoffs in 2008 despite finishing third in the conference in pass defense and sixth in rushing defense.

 

He’s been replaced by head coach Wade Phillips, proving downsizing is everywhere.

 

Meanwhile, Tony Romo is still a small college, undrafted quarterback who spent three years on the bench before being placed in the limelight in 2006 out of desperation.

 

That 4,000 yard season he had in 2007? Scott Mitchell had one once, too.

 

Playoffs in Dallas? Perhaps. Nobody rushes the passer like DeMarcus Ware, and the pickup of inside linebacker Keith Brooking from Atlanta will help.

 

Super Bowl? Out of the question.

 

This leaves five non-playoff teams from 2008 to analyze; Chicago, New Orleans, San Francisco, Seattle and Tampa Bay.

 

The Buccaneers are in rebuilding mode after losing their last four games of 2008 and drafting quarterback Josh Freeman in the first round. But in looking at their free agent signings and departures; are replacing Jeff Garcia with Byron Leftwich, Warrick Dunn with Derrick Ward, and wide receiver Joey Galloway with tight end Kellen Winslow really good short-term moves?

 

And for that matter, will Raheem Morris have the career Jon Gruden has had?

 

Youth may be served in Tampa Bay, but is talent?

 

Seattle returns several players from injury, most notably quarterback Matt Hasselbeck and the entire offensive line, and signed wide receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh.

 

But the Seahawks won as many games without Hasselbeck as they did with him. The depleted offensive line allowed only 36 sacks, and Seahawks rushers still gained 4.2 yards per carry during the season, but the team still went 4-12.

 

New head coach Jim Mora Jr. underwhelmed in Atlanta, where he once had to use a cell phone during overtime to figure out playoff possibilities and then played for a tie in a game the Falcons would eventually lose. There’s little reason to believe this team will be a championship contender.

 

The Chicago Bears, not to mention head coach Lovie Smith, are predicating their entire success on the acquisition of quarterback Jay Cutler.

 

It’s not a poor strategy. They’ve given him a running back, Matt Forte, who rushed for 1,238 yards as a rookie in 2007. They drafted a wide receiver, Juaquin Iglesias, to throw to. They even signed three offensive linemen, including left tackle Orlando Pace, so Cutler will have the time to throw and find pass catchers among his less-than-impressive receiving corps.

 

The problem is the defense had only 28 sacks last season and the Bears didn’t address this deficiency during the off-season.

 

Defense was also the problem in New Orleans last season. The Saints brought back memories of the San Diego Chargers of the early ‘80s with a top-ranked offense but a porous defense.

 

Quarterback Drew Brees probably won’t throw for more than 5,000 yards this season, only because head coach Sean Payton naturally will want to shift some of the offensive load to running back Reggie Bush, who replaces the released Deuce McAllister for good.

 

But the Saints will assuredly continue to score, and the defense will improve with a new defensive coordinator, Gregg Williams, four free agent signings, and even the top three picks in the draft devoted to stopping the opponents.

 

The question is how much? The above formula for picking Super Bowl champs only fits the 2009 Saints if their 4-3 finish in an 8-8 2008 season qualifies as “finishing strong.”

 

It probably doesn’t. The Saints are an improving team, but the defense needs a year to come together before truly becoming an elite team.

 

San Francisco is showing certain signs of breaking out of their six year losing streak. They won five of their last seven games in a 7-9 2008 season. Shaun Hill had a respectable first season as a starting quarterback, and if Alex Smith can't come back from a shoulder injury, could mix well with running back Frank Gore, who ran for more than 1,000 yards last season. The 49ers signed right tackle Marvel Smith after their offensive line allowed 55 sacks, and drafted potential star Michael Crabtree to catch passes.

 

So IF Gore, injury prone throughout his career, stays healthy, and IF Crabtree allows Smith to reach the potential he had when he was the first overall pick in the 2005 Draft, and IF the offensive line allows fewer than 40 sacks, and IF former first round pick Manny Lawson becomes the pass rusher the 49ers thought he’d be when they drafted him in the first round in 2006, San Francisco will win their weak division.

 

But face it—that’s a lot of ifs.

 

It’s more likely Arizona will repeat as the division champion. But this is still a 9-7 team in 2008 and they appear vulnerable in 2009.

 

True, Kurt Warner-to-Larry Fitzgerald is the hottest passing attack in the NFL and almost single-handedly overthrew the top defense in the league in the Super Bowl, but the rest of the team ranked from mediocre to lousy statistically.

 

The Cardinals were only 19th in the NFL in total defense last season. They finished dead last in the NFL in rushing.

 

To rectify this, the Cardinals drafted running back Beanie Wells in the first round and signed cornerback Bryant McFadden away from the Steelers.

 

But can a glorified high second round draft choice be a 1,000-yard rusher in his rookie season? How will a defensive back that played in only 10 games last season improve a pedestrian pass rush that sacked only 31 quarterbacks last season?

 

Arizona likely wouldn’t have made the playoffs had they not played in the weakest division in the NFL. Thankfully, they have Matt Leinart in reserve, because by the time the rest of the team catches up to Warner-to-Fitzgerald, Warner may be 40.

 

So don’t expect a repeat appearance in the Super Bowl from Arizona.

 

One of the reasons Arizona went to the Super Bowl in the first place was because Carolina Panthers quarterback Jake Delhomme threw five interceptions in the playoffs against them.

 

What makes the Panthers a less-than-appealing pick to win the NFC is their defense. Carolina allowed 30 or more points in six of their final eight games and more than 21 in all of them.

 

Moreover, to sign big-name free agents like Delhomme and defensive end Julius Peppers, the Panthers lost many of their role players, such as fullback Nick Goings and kick returner Mark Jones.

 

Carolina is still a good team, but is not an improved one.

 

Neither are the New York Giants, who collapsed down the stretch in 2008 without Plaxico Burress. They drafted wide receiver Hakeem Nicks in the first round, but to ask him to fill the shoes of Burress or fellow departed receiver Amani Toomer is asking a bit much.

 

Add in the loss of 1,000-yard rusher Derrick Ward to the Bucs, and the Giants don’t figure to win as many as 12 games again.

 

It would therefore appear the NFC Championship Game could be a rematch of 2004 with the Atlanta Falcons and Philadelphia Eagles.

 

The Eagles had the top-ranked defense in the NFC last year and finished in the top 10 in the league in total offense. Donovan McNabb has shed his initial desires to be a running quarterback, and is now a winning quarterback who thinks pass first. The past five seasons have had McNabb post the top four passer ratings of his career.

 

The Eagles even gave McNabb new weapons to work with in the draft with wide receiver Jeremy Maclin and running back Shady McCoy.

 

McCoy figures to spell Michael Westbrook, who is recovering from a knee injury in 2008.

 

The defense did lose free agent safety Brian Dawkins to Denver, but he is now 35.

 

What the Eagles lose in leadership they hope to gain with the continued maturity of run-stuffing middle linebacker Stewart Bradley and a promising cornerback duo of Asante Samuel and ex-Patriot Ellis Hobbs.

 

Atlanta didn’t have the defense of Philadelphia, and lost Brooking and strong safety Lawyer Milloy to free agency.

 

But after allowing nearly five yards per rush in 2008, the idea is to allow second round pick William Moore to replace Milloy, first round draft choice Peria Jerry to plug the middle on the defensive line, and to hope veteran free agent Mike Peterson exceeds the results Brooking put up at middle linebacker.

 

Seven of the Falcons’ eight draft picks went to defense, and tight end Tony Gonzalez was added to give second-year quarterback Matt Ryan yet another weapon to go along with 1,699-yard rusher Michael Turner and Pro Bowl receiver Roddy White.

 

Atlanta’s defense is a cinch to improve, thus making them one of the two best teams in the conference.

 

Unless...

 

Unless the Minnesota Vikings sign Brett Favre to be their quarterback.

 

Current projected starter Sage Rosenfels is not the quarterback one employs to sell tickets or win championships. He’s a career backup and has thrown 22 interceptions during the last two seasons despite making only 10 starts. That's hardly the sort of efficiency one wants out of a quarterback whose main offensive focus is giving the ball to running back Adrian Peterson.

 

Favre threw as many interceptions, 22, as he did touchdowns for the New York Jets last season, but also took them from 4-12 in 2007 to the cusp of a division title at 10-6. His stature was such that long-time underachiever Thomas Jones became the AFC’s leading rusher in 2008 as defenses had to prepare for gunslinging first and ground control second.

 

If Brett Favre can turn Jones into a 1,300-yard rusher, what will his presence, even at 40, do for Peterson?

 

Now give Favre Bernard Berrian, who averaged more than 20 yards on 48 catches in 2008. Draft another wide receiver, Percy Harvin, in the first round to complement him, and a 6'8", 332-pound right tackle, the appropriately named Phil Loadholt, to protect the veteran gunslinger after Minnesota allowed 43 sacks in 2008.

 

Throw in a defense with three Pro Bowl-caliber players on the defensive line: Kevin Williams, Pat Williams, and Jared Allen. The Vikings had the best defense against the run in the NFL in 2009, and though they were a middle-of-the pack team against the pass, veteran cornerback Antoine Winfield seemed to be everywhere last season. The other projected starters are either in, or coming in to, their prime, while Allen led a pass rush that collected 45 sacks.  

 

Minnesota allowed an NFL-record seven touchdowns on kick returns in 2008, a number that certainly will go down and add another victory to the Vikings’ record.

 

And the schedule is rather easy, with a 5-0 start a realistic possibility.

 

With Favre, the Vikings could easily get home field advantage in the playoffs.

 

It has been said Favre wants to play for the Vikings in order to show Green Bay, personally, that they should have welcomed him back after 16 years of loyal service in 2008.

 

What he may wind up doing is exacting revenge on McNabb for 4th and 26.

 

The picks-

 

WITH FAVRE IN MINNESOTA

 

  1. Minnesota (12-4) Vikes first Big Dance in 33 years if Favre avoids turnovers
  2. Philadelphia (11-5) Perhaps the best team overall
  3. Atlanta (10-6) Dark horse contender
  4. Arizona (10-6) Should get five victories, minimum, out of their own division
  5. Dallas (10-6) The best pass rush in the NFC, but QB-RB combo isn’t there.
  6. New Orleans (9-7) Brees + Bush = Big Future

 

WITHOUT FAVRE IN MINNESOTA

 

  1. Philadelphia (11-5) The top seed
  2. Atlanta (10-6) But something tells me the Falcons would win a title game
  3. Chicago (10-6) Cutler vs. Rosenfels goes in favor of the Bears
  4. Arizona (10-6) Only because 49ers schedule is much tougher
  5. Minnesota (10-6) Favre completes them, but doesn’t make them.  
  6. Dallas (10-6) If they do win the Super Bowl, 4-3 in their last seven games of 2008 qualifies as a “strong finish.”

 

The 40-year-old Favre is a question mark, but surely more of an exclamation point than Rosenfels. If he signs with Minnesota, the pick is the Vikings.

 

If he doesn’t, go with Atlanta.

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