Last week, I gave you my High School predictions for the AFC, but that's only half the league. So this week, I'm giving you the NFC.
The NFC was...harder to pick. There are a handful of elite teams, a handful of teams that could be good if a billion things go right for them, and a lot of teams that are going to be really, really awful. At least on paper. And isn't that the thing?
Would I have ever guessed last season that the Falcons would be any good? Probably not. Would I have guessed that the Seahawks would've fallen apart like they did? Not likely. Would I have guessed the Lions wouldn't have won a single game? Ok...maybe.
But there once again, there are a lot of teams that are going to be hard to say that they're going to be one way or another this season. But, as I found, they're not all that hard to make fun of. That's why I love the NFC.
St. Louis Rams
Mark Bulger had a great start to his career, but has fallen off constantly since 2006. He almost lost his job to Trent Green last year, and new Rams Coach Steve Spagnulo doesn’t have any particular attachment to Bulger.
I’m assuming Bulger makes it through Week 5, and then falls apart facing actual defenses, and Boller’s in by the bye (Week 9).
Player to Watch: James Laurinaitis
Not only are the Rams giving Laurinaitis the difficult task of being the starting middle linebacker for a team that isn’t particularly good, but they made it even harder on him by dismissing Pisa Tinoisamoa, the only Ram to put up any numbers last season.
Of course, if the whole Rams thing doesn’t work out, he can always go into wrestling.
If Matt Hasselbeck’s aging body can hold up, and if Jim Mora learned his lesson from his time in Atlanta, and if T.J. Houshmandzadeh can revert to form, and if the Seahawks can field more than one healthy receiver every week this year, and if Julius Jones doesn’t fall apart again, and if the defense, especially the ultra-talented linebackers, can perform to expectations, and if….
Player to Watch: T.J. Houshmandzadeh
Given last year’s wide receiver disaster in Seattle last year (don’t quote me on this, but I’m pretty sure I suited up for at least a few games for the Seahawks) the addition of T.J. Houshmandzadeh was a huge one.
Now, can he stop bitching about his Madden rating long enough to deserve a better one?
San Francisco 49ers
Apparently, Shaun Hill and Alex Smith have spent the off-season rooming together, playing basketball, going fishing, and basically just hanging out and pretending that the 49ers actually have at least one decent QB between them.
Why Disney hasn’t picked this story up for a movie staring Zach Efron and one of the Jonas Brothers, I have no idea. Alphonso Ribeiro stars as the lovable “Coach Singletary” who motivates his troubled young QBs by constantly taking off his pants.
With Vernon Davis as himself, because he should be doing something.
Player to Watch
Honestly, I feel horrible for Alex Smith. He’s really not as bad as you think, but he’s played in four different systems in five years, which has him going consistently backwards.
He looked like he’d really turned a corner under Norv Turner, and could probably do well backing up in San Diego. Mostly, I just think somebody should be watching the poor kid.
It’ll be interesting to see how the Cardinals deal with their newfound success, but I don’t have particularly high hopes. They benefited from a hilariously bad NFC West last season, but got absolutely drubbed by the Jets, Eagles, Vikings, and Patriots.
To put things in more perspective, Tarvaris Jackson lit up their secondary. Dwell on that for a second.
Now, did they turn it on when it counted and almost win the Super Bowl? Absolutely. And they have the talent to do that every week, but while they charge into the season ready to conquer the world, they’re still the team that gave up 35 points to Tarvaris Jackson.
Player to Watch:
Chris “Beanie“ Wells
If the Cards have any hope of repeating last season’s achievements, they’re going to have to get the running game more involved.
Beanie Wells is a fantastic athlete who will give them an extra dimension out of the backfield that Edgerrin James didn’t last season. Until about Week 5, when his knee comes flying apart. But it’ll be a hell of a five weeks.
The Saints couldn’t buy a break last year. Their offense was great for most of last season, and they still went 8-8. Now, Joey Harrington is back, Reggie broke up with Kim, and I just don’t know what to believe.
Except that their defense is still pretty bad, and no matter how many yards Drew Brees throws for this year, it’ll still be 16 too few.
Player to Watch:
Despite having a few really good years with the Vikings, Sharper hasn’t stopped complaining this off-season that their Cover-2 scheme didn’t give him enough opportunities to get stats.
Apparently, he joined the Saints, in part, because their offense gives him the ability to do whatever the hell he likes. So expect him to intercept every pass the opposing QB throws this year (no promises on runs).
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Are we sure Jon Gruden isn’t coaching the Bucs anymore? They’re still collecting mediocre quarterbacks like so many Pokemon, and not a single one of them has any sort of lock on his job.
Josh Freeman will probably play this year despite not being ready, Byron Leftwich will certainly get a shot, but he’s really only good for a couple week stop-gap.
And don’t get me started on the fact that Luke McCown is currently listed No. 1 on their depth chart. That isn’t even the right McCown brother!
Player to Watch:
Bryant came out of nowhere last season to become the best player on my fantasy football team, but the impetus is on him to follow it up, especially since he got a huge pay raise this season.
Having Kellen Winslow taking away some of the pressure will help, but if I’m going to draft him again, I need more assurance.
There’s a lot to like about the Falcons, who picked up future Hall of Famer Tony Gonzalez to give Matt Ryan the outlet option that he was missing last year.
Between Gonzalez, Roddy White and Michael Turner, Matty Ice has all the tools to put the Falcons back into the Playoffs this year.
Assuming, of course, that the retooled offensive line and linebacker units hold up their end of the deal. But I think they will.
Player to Watch
Baker slides into the Left Tackle slot this year after taking a beating last season.
If he can get healthy and stay that way this season, he should do a fine job anchoring the Falcons line, but he’s only had one pro season, and he only played five games, so it’s hard to get a bead on him.
There’s not a lot of good depth on the Falcons bench for tackles, so it’s a lot of faith to be putting on him.
Yes, Jake Delhomme fell apart in the playoffs last year, but he’s still a fine quarterback. I think he’ll bounce back fine, especially after another off-season to recover from his Tommy John surgery.
And look, his backup is Josh McCown and isn’t even the right McCown brother! Wait…did I already use that joke? Ok, fine, it is, but he’s not better than Jake Delhomme.
Player to Watch
Despite his best efforts to get out of town, Julius Peppers is still under contract with the Panthers. How Peppers responds is going to be key to the Panther’s defense.
He accounted for 14.5 of the Panthers' 37 sacks last season, but if he starts letting his contract disputes get to his head, the Panthers defense will fall by the wayside with him.
You *have* to figure the Lions will win at least one game this season. You just have to. And the day they win that game will be cause for celebration in Detroit.
Of course, that will probably be the only game they win, but still. They’ve made a few improvements across the board which should help them going into the future.
Player to Watch: Calvin Johnson
I could say Matt Stafford, but I don’t know how interesting watching him hold a clipboard would be. I can probably give you some video of me wincing at Dante Culpepper throwing interceptions circa 2001-2004, if you want. So just watch Calvin Johnson. He’s the most fun.
The Pack’s defense was pretty bad last season, causing Aaron Rodgers to look worse than he actually is. To try to pick things up, they’re making the transition to the 3-4.
But the transition isn’t going to be natural, especially for a team that isn’t designed for it. I think they’ll be improved this year, but it’s going to take a few weeks for them to settle in, and I don’t see them recovering from a bad start.
Player to Watch: Jeremy Kapinos
Kapinos may not even keep his job if he has a poor pre-season. As much as the Packers were hurt defensively, they suffered from poor punting for most of last season.
Now, Kapinos had a good December, but the Packers were already out of contention by that point, so it didn’t really give him any edge.
Having a good punter is going to be key to making sure the defense has a chance to put things together early in the season.
The Jay Cutler trade suddenly put a lot of impetus on the Bears season. They have to win with Cutler this season or it’s going to be a huge disappointment.
But the problem is, things aren’t really lined up for the Bears to be successful. Greg Olsen, Desmond Clarke, and Matt Forte should be okay, but otherwise, they have a poor line (even with Orlando Pace), and a defense, which has always considered their strength for so many years, has been on a decline the past few years and hasn’t really done much to improve.
I’m not saying the Bears will be a bad team this season, just not a great one.
Player to Watch: Jay Cutler
There’s really no other choice here. So much of the Bears' season is dependent on whether or not Cutler really was the missing piece. Was the Bears team just a quarterback away from being back in the Super Bowl, or did poor line and receiver play make Kyle Orton look worse than he was?
Forget the pressure he was under in Denver, Cutler has to suffer through being the franchise in Chicago.
Now that we know Brett Favre isn’t coming in, how can Tarvaris Jackson and/or Sage Rosenfels possibly come in with any confidence? They’re constantly going to be looking over their shoulders.
Neither one of them is good enough to deal with the pressure of leading a playoff caliber team.
Not only that, but they’ve got possible suspensions to two of their defense’s biggest stars hanging over their heads, and a brand new starting safety in Tyrell Johnson who has to big shoes to fill in one of the league’s best defenses.
Player to Watch: John Sullivan
While Johnson has a tough road to replace Darren Sharper, the pressure is really on John Sullivan this year.
The second-year center has the unenviable task of taking over for Pro Bowl center Matt Birk, who departed for the Baltimore Ravens. Now there’s no doubt that Birk was on the downslide in his last season in Minnesota, but he was still the anchor of one of the best run blocking lines in the league.
Not only will Sullivan be expected to maintain that running game, but he will be tasked with making two mediocre quarterbacks look like capable playoff contenders.
After a good first half of last season, the Redskins ship started to sink towards the end of last year.
Players, (most notably Clinton Portis) had no confidence in head coach Jim Zorn, the organization has no confidence in Jason Campbell, nobody has confidence in their wide receivers, and they just put a boatload of money on the table for DeAngelo Hall, a guy who was cut midway through last year by the Raiders. The Raiders.
These guys don’t need a $100 million defensive tackler. They need a counselor and a hug.
Player to Watch: Mike Williams
Everybody’s going to be watching Albert Haynesworth, but I want you to keep your eyes on Mike Williams.
The massive offensive tackle missed the last four years due to his ballooning weight, but after an intense summer training program, he’s dropped all the way from 450 lbs to 449 lbs. You’re almost there, Mike!
Note: He should not be confused with former Detroit Lions receiver Mike Williams, who also weighs 449 lbs.
Oh, Cowboys Stadium is a fantastic looking piece of art, but as a football stadium, I’m not so sure. Take, for example, the gigantic HD video screen hanging above the field.
The biggest of its kind, no less. And it’s only 90 feet above field level, so you know every punter in the league is going to be gunning for that thing.
And it might be at the top of some of their ranges, but you just know somebody’s going to nail it at some point this season, and it’s going to be the best part of the Cowboys' year.
Player to Watch: Roy Williams
Dallas gave up a lot to get Williams last year, but he was anemic during his run with the Cowboys. It probably didn’t help that Brad Johnson was throwing him the ball or that he would sometimes get confused and start playing safety in the middle of plays, but Dallas has since cut ties with Johnson, Terrell Owens, and the other Roy Williams, so there’s no excuses this season.
If the Cowboys want to keep up with the rest of the NFC East, and it will be hard, they need a big year out of their No. 1 receiver.
The Eagles have all the players in place to have a great year offensively. McNabb, Westbrook, Celek, Jackson, Curtis, Maclin, and new starting left tackle Jason Peters.
These guys are all set up to put up incredible passing numbers (Andy Reed will not run once this season).
That is, until every single one of those guys suffers a season ending injury in Week Four, and they’re sending out Kevin Kolb to throw lobs to Reggie Brown and that guy from that reality show.
Hell, Westbrook’s already going to miss the pre-season. I don’t know what those other slackers are waiting for.
Player to Watch: Quintin Demps
This is the first year in a long, long time the Eagles haven’t had Brian Dawkins patrolling the secondary, looking to make some helmet-to-helmet contact.
In his place stands second-year man Demps. With the passing of defensive coordinator Jim Johnston and the departure of Dawkins, this will be a new-look Eagles defense, set up for Demps to either shine or fail.
It should be interesting to see how things pan out as the season progresses.
New York Giants
In compiling this list, I figured that seven teams in the NFC had a legitimate shot of making the playoffs based on their progress this preseason (Atlanta, Carolina, New Orleans, Minnesota, Philadelphia, and New York). Of those seven, I think the Giants are the best team.
Yes, Eli Manning got a case of the Manning-face in the playoffs last year, but consider that they won 12 games last season without a top receiver, probably would’ve beaten the Vikings if they hadn’t played their third-string most of the game, and they did it all without their best player, defensive end Osi Umenyiora.
Player to Watch: Steve Smith
Ah yes, the Other Steve Smith. Smith has a big challenge ahead of him this year, trying to replace both Amani Toomer and Plaxico Burress, the Giants’ two most productive receivers.
He’ll have some help from rookie Hakeem Nicks and workout superstar Sinorice Moss, but the impetus will be on Smith to carry the receiving corps this year, a job I’m not positive he’s going to be well suited for.