For the past few years, there has been little doubt with conference in the NFL was superior. The AFC's most consistently elite teams are the Patriots, Colts, and Chargers—while the NFC boasts the Eagles, Seahawks, and Panthers. Of those three NFC teams, only one made the playoffs last year.
However, the Giants' Super Bowl win over the Patriots in February has brought a sudden legitimacy to the NFC. Not since the Buccaneers' elite defensive squad of 2002 has the team that hoisted the George Halas Trophy also won the Lombardi Trophy in the same season.
With that in mind, here are five teams to watch in the NFC:
New York Giants
Give the champs their due.
The Giants suffered through a tumultuous 2006 campaign in which the team's franchise running back retired and the locker room nearly fell apart en route to an 8-8 finish.
Few thought the Giants would be able to stay together as a team in 2007, let alone win enough games to make the playoffs. A Super Bowl win? Forget it.
Now, 2006 seems like a lifetime ago. Head coach Tom Coughlin, who was thought to be out the door at the end of 2006, has a new, long-term contract. Heavily criticized quarterback Eli Manning now claims the title of Super Bowl XLII MVP.
A lot can change in a year.
What remains to be seen is what the team will do for an encore. Expectations will be higher than ever in New York. After an emotional playoff ride, will the Giants suffer the Super Bowl hangover, much like the 2005 Pittsburgh Steelers?
The Giants will not have an easy road, playing in the hyper-competitive NFC East. However, the most difficult non-conference team Big Blue has to play will likely either be Pittsburgh or Cleveland. Not bad.
Another key to the Giants' success in 2008 will be how the team plays after losing key starters. After losing safety Gibril Wilson to the Raiders, the team drafted Miami's Kenny Philips as a replacement.
Add to that the fact that for a second straight year, future Hall of Fame defensive end Michael Strahan is considering retirement. With a Super Bowl ring on his finger, he may be less inclined to return.
The offense will need to continue the success it had in the postseason if they hope to compete in 2008. The running back committee led by Brandon Jacobs was a formidable threat in the postseason, rushing for 405 yards in the playoffs.
Eli Manning turned it on in the playoffs, completing 72 of 119 passes for six touchdowns and one interception. Still, questions will linger about whether he can continue his success.
In the end, the Giants have as good a shot as any team in the NFC in 2008. Whether they can go deep into the playoffs remains to be seen, but the boys in blue now know what it takes to go all the way.
The Vikings were one of the most fun teams to watch in 2008. Running back Adrian Peterson stole the show in Minnesota, rushing for 1341 yards with 12 scores, all in his rookie season. For his efforts, he was elected to the Pro Bowl, ahead of star running backs Brian Westbrook and Marion Barber.
With Peterson and veteran runner Chester Taylor, the Vikings have what is quite possibly the best rushing tandem in the league. The addition of former Bears' wide receiver Bernard Berrian via free agency should help the progression of third-year quarterback Tarvaris Jackson.
The Vikings also greatly improved their defense by adding All Pro defensive end Jared Allen. Allen led the NFL in sacks in 2007 with 15.5, and should help improve an already stout defense. "We should have a good shot to win the NFC North division," said defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier. "Anytime your ownership is willing to do what Mr. Wilf did to acquire Jared Allen, it makes you glad to be a member of the Vikings."
Another benefit for the Vikings is their division. With Green Bay facing its first season without Brett Favre since Bill Clinton was elected, and the Bears going nowhere without a legitimate quarterback, the NFC North is up for grabs. A division crown and a playoff birth are within sight for the Vikes.
The fate of the team may ultimately lie in the hands of quarterback Tarvaris Jackson. His 2007 season was unimpressive. jackson finished with a 70.8 passer rating, throwing 12 picks to just nine scores. The additions to the offense, as well as the strength of the running game should help Jackson. Without at least the threat of a passing game, though, the Vikings may not make it very far.
Tony, Tony, Tony.
If the Cowboys want any chance of winning their first playoff game in a decade, quarterback Tony Romo is going to have to be the one to get the Boys there. Romo is 0-2 in the playoffs with nearly two years of starting experience under his belt.
The Cowboys were an elite team in 2007, regardless of conference. They ranked third in points scored, behind the Packers and the mighty 18-1 Patriots. Still, the team has not been able to get over the first-round hump since Troy Aikman was the team's signal caller.
With two first-round picks in the 2008 Draft, the Cowboys were able to address two needs. First, Arkansas running back Felix Jones will combine with Marion Barber to create a potent 1-2 punch for the team's ground game. Secondly, USF's Mike Jenkins will help shore up a secondary that ranked 13th against the pass in 2007.
Really, the Cowboys are a team with very few holes. Tony Romo is a Pro Bowl quarterback, and mercurial receiver Terrell Owens had a great season in 2007, racking up 1355 yards and 15 touchdowns.
Meanwhile, the Cowboys defense may be one of the better units in the NFC. Led by safety Roy Williams, the Cowboys ranked ninth in total defense in the league last season, and fourth in the NFC.
How the Cowboys bounce back from a disappointing finish to their 2007 campaign will be worth watching. Tony Romo turned heads this month when he tried to qualify for the U.S. Open. When he did not qualify, he said, "I played nine holes last week, and tried to get in game shape, but obviously that wasn't enough...it comes and goes."
The Cowboys have nearly all the pieces in place for a real Super Bowl run in 2008. If they can repeat their success from last season, a division win and a first-round bye are easily obtainable.
There is one name Eagles fans can't seem to say enough these days. No, it's not that of their quarterback, Donovan McNabb. No, it's not Pro Bowl running back Brian Westbrook, either.
It's Cal's DeSean Jackson.
The Eagles selected Jackson with the 49th overall pick in the draft last month. His electrifying speed as a punt returner and as a receiver has fans in Philly buzzing.
The offseason has been an unusual one for the Eagles. At season's end, McNabb wrote an article for YardBarker.com, saying, "Now that the season is over and we are concentrating on 2008, I hope we are able to secure some playmakers in all three phases of the game." Many on the team echoed his sentiments, including Westbrook and safety Brian Dawkins.
After signing free agent cornerback Asante Samuel in the wee hours of free agency, head coach Andy Reid and company also attempted to add a veteran receiver to the team. In fact, the Eagles very nearly wooed Randy Moss away from Bill Belichick and Tom Brady.
When Plan A failed, the team attempted to trade for the Cardinals' Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin, the Lions' Roy Williams, and the Bengals' Chad Johnson. None panned out, so the Eagles resorted to the draft.
Jackson will help to improve a lousy special teams unit which was one of the worst in the league in 2007. Asante Samuel should help the Eagles force turnovers in 2008. The Eagles ranked dead last in interceptions last season with 11. Samuel had 6 by himself in 2007.
The Eagles finished with a disappointing 8-8 mark last season, last in the NFC East. They were also the only team from the division not to make the playoffs.
The Philly faithful have been tortured as of late. Since the team's Super Bowl run in 2004, the Birds have missed the playoffs twice. In 2006, the team made it to the playoffs with the help of journeyman quarterback Jeff Garcia and the running game of Westbrook.
In order for the Eagles to make the playoffs in 2008, the offense has to get over its red zone slump. Having McNabb all the way back from knee surgery will help, as well as having franchise tight end LJ Smith back.
The defense is young and fast, and with coordinator Jim Johnson's rotation of lineman, the defense should improve beyond its top 10 standing in the NFL from last season.
As always, the Eagles' season will rest on the shoulders of McNabb. If he can stay healthy and play consistently, the Eagles should be able to make the playoffs. If not, the Eagles might be glad they have two first-round picks for next year's draft.
Green Bay Packers
It is an unusual time in Green Bay.
Sainted quarterback Brett Favre is gone, and in his place, Aaron Rodgers looks to lead one of the NFC's top teams to playoff glory once again.
Favre's retirement in the offseason was a shock to the Pack faithful. To many, the success Green Bay had in 2007 was a sure indicator that the face of the franchise would suit up for another year.
Now, the Packers have gone from one of the most complete teams in the NFC to a great unknown. The Pack's tremendous run in 2007 got them all the way to the NFC Championship game, where they were defeated at home in overtime, 23-20.
Still, en route to a 13-3 finish and a first-round bye, the team's young upstarts, such as wide receiver Greg Jennings and running back Ryan Grant, gave fans plenty to be excited about.
The defense of Green Bay was also a surprise to many. Ranked 11th overall, the Packers were stout against the run and pass, with top 15 rankings for both.
In just one season, the NFC North has gotten much more competitive. The Bears went to the Super Bowl in 2006, but struggled last season. The Vikings nearly missed the playoffs. The Lions are slowly improving with an explosive offense, but don't have much defensively.
The Packers also brought in insurance at the quarterback position by drafting Louisville's Brian Brohm in the second round. Still, the Green Bay brass maintains the job is Rogers' to lose. "Aaron's fine," head coach Mike McCarthy said. "He knows how we feel about him, he knows what his role is on our football team, and he'll be given every opportunity to be successful here."
More than any other NFC club, the Packers will rely on the quarterback position to bring success in 2008. If Rogers or Brohm can return this team to the level it reached last season, the Pack just might be ready for a Super Bowl run. If not, even the NFC North crown might even be too lofty of a goal.