The preseaon is over. Now that the games count, here's what you can expect from the NFC.
Dallas Cowboys: A team looking for an identity. Marion Barber and Felix Jones give the Cowboys a tenacious running game. That is, if they decide to use it. They ran the ball just over 42% of the time last year. Granted, that was with T.O., so it could change. Their pass attack is thin at best. Witten is now their premier pass catcher (no, I don’t buy Roy Williams). They did add Keith Brooking but outside of DeMarcus Ware and Terence Newman (who can still be inconsistent) their defense is unimpressive. They play in the toughest division in football. That being said they play a relatively easy schedule. The only real non-division challenges they have are Atlanta (week 7, coming off their bye) and San Diego (week 14 after going to the Giants). If you can’t tell I’m not a fan of the Cowboys, but their schedule will give them a shot at the playoffs.
Where They Finish: With the rest of the NFC faltering the Cowboys will get a wild card spot. Don’t expect them to do much when they get there though.
Philadelphia Eagles: Love their offense. If McNabb can return to Pro Bowl form, and everything indicates he can, they should score a million points this season. Problem is they play defense like a drunk girl on prom night. Not only did they lose their defensive captain and a man who has come to define their defense over the past decade (Brian Dawkins) but they also lost their Defensive Coordinator Jim Johnson to cancer. They will be good, but they have been so hyped, especially since signing Mike Vick, that they will not be able to live up to the expectations. Speaking of Vick, what can the Eagles really expect of him? Once he is eligible to return he will give defenses something else to be worried about, but no more than any other team that runs the Wildcat. It’s hard to imagine he will have a real tangible impact on the team…unless McNabb gets hurt. Their first couple of games may not seem difficult (at CAR, NO, KC before a week 4 bye) but the offensive potential for those teams have to cause some concern. Their second half schedule is brutal including three straight division games (at WAS, NYG, DAL) and road games in San Diego, Chicago, and Atlanta.
Where They Finish: Essentially the same as Dallas. They’ll join the Cowboys as a wild card team. Depending on their matchup they could make some noise but their team is not built for the cold.
New York Giants: Same story as last year-talented defense (unlike others I don’t think their secondary is bad and when you have the pass rush they do, it doesn’t really matter) good running game*, but question marks at wide receiver. They have a lot of really good number two and slot receivers but don’t have a true number one and may not have a real deep threat. They’re hoping that Domenik Hixon or first round pick Hakeem Nicks can be that guy, but neither has shown they can do that yet, though Nicks did look good in the preseason. Offensive Coordinator Kevin Gilbride has his hands full trying to find a way to stretch the field so defenses can’t just put eight or nine in the box and stuff the run. Still they could be the class of the NFC. Other teams have been successful with staunch defenses and killer running games so why can’t the Giants. I especially like them in the playoffs. They’re an experienced team who can thrive in the cold. This team is built for January and I see them there.
*Bradshaw will have a breakout year with Ward no longer taking carries from him.
Where They Finish: First in the East, best record in the NFC
Washington Redskins: Probably the worst team in the division, though they could be competitive in a lot of others. After the failed attempt to get Jay Cutler their biggest problem remains at QB. Their wide receiver core is respectable and could be explosive with the right guy at the helm but with no one to throw to them I can’t believe they’re going to be overly productive*. Despite being only 27 Clinton Portis is due for a down year. His offensive line is mediocre and he hasn’t had less than 325 carries in his five years in D.C. with the exception of 2006 when he only played in eight games. This type of wear on a running back has constantly driven down backs in the later part of their career. Remember Shaun Alexander? Portis may have a few years left in him but he is certainly on the decline of his career. They have a respectable defense and the addition of Albert Haynesworth will help (though now that he is not playing for a contract will he be as productive?) but Brian Orakpo’s ability to play outside linebacker is still a question. Their defense is not exceptional enough to overcome the offensive deficiencies to make them contenders, especially in that division.
*I include Chris Cooley as part of the WR.
Where They Finish: Last in the division, out of any playoff race.
Arizona Cardinals: The defending NFC champs still have an explosive pass game so long as Kurt Warner can stay healthy. Warner is 38 and has taken a beating in his 11 year career so that is by no means guaranteed. I still don’t like their run game. Beanie Wells will be the next Ron Dayne. Tim Hightower is a great short yardage and third-down back but cannot carry the load as a number one runner. Their defense has some playmakers (Adrian Wilson, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, Darnell Dockett) and the addition of Bryant McFadden should help a secondary with little depth but this is still the team that went 9-7 last year and couldn’t stop anyone during the regular season. Much like the Colts of a few years ago you don’t know which defense you’re getting: the abysmal one of the regular season or the unit that turned it on in the playoffs and are responsible for the run the team made. Given the history of the team I lean toward the first option. They play in the worst division in football but their non-divisional schedule will give them problems. I’m still not sold that they can overcome the franchise history of ineptitude.
Where They Finish: The Cardinals will look a lot like they did last year. They’re still a dangerous team but inconsistent. Despite their .500 record they’ll make the playoffs in this horrendous division.
San Francisco 49ers: I would like them a lot more if Michael Crabtree had actually shown up to camp and didn’t essentially throw away his rookie year over a few million dollars. They still have major quarterback issues. Frank Gore will have a good year and should return to 2006 form. Still Gore alone won’t be enough to win games. Patrick Willis will still be Patrick Willis and the defense will be good but overall the team isn’t much different from the squad that went 7-9 last year.
Where They Finish: With questions at wide receiver and quarterback the Niners will be lucky not to take a step backwards. This will be the true test for head coach Mike Singletary who was inserted for Mike Nolan midway through last year. Can the fiery coach keep it up for a whole season? I think not.
Seattle Seahawks: Matt Hasselbeck is healthy (for now) as are their wide receivers (including key offseason addition T.J. Houshmandzadeh) but Walter Jones is not. The Seahawks don’t have a good enough running game, even with the addition of Edgerrin James, to keep the pressure off Hasselbeck and even with a healthy wide receiver corps this team is not going to put up a bunch of points. Patrick Kerney is a top of the line pass rusher and with Lofa Tatupu and 2009 Defensive Rookie of the Year Aaron Curry anchoring the linebackers they’re defense should keep them in games. The Seahawks are on the right track, but they’re still a few years away.
Where They Finish: At .500 the Seahawks will compete for the division title but will lose the tie breaker to the Cardinals. Remember the Broncos last year?
St. Louis Rams: The Steve Spagnuolo era is here in St. Louis and Rams fans couldn’t be happier. The recent trade of 2006 1st round pick Tye Hill for a 7th rounder in 2010 is all that needs to be said about Scott Linehan’s time in St. Louis. Steven Jackson is still one of the best all around backs in the league and with Spag’s commitment to the run he should have a monster year. (assuming he can stay healthy) From there things don’t look as good. Donnie Avery proved in his rookie year last year that he can be a deep threat and the offseason acquisition Laurent Robinson has looked great in the preseason. Still the Rams wide receivers are at best unproven. Marc Bulger is on the hot seat just three years after signing a six year, $62.5 million contract. The other story line for the 2009 Rams will be what Spagnuolo can do with the defense. The Rams have been horrid the last few years, especially against the run. Reports out of St. Louis are encouraged by the defensive line play, a signature of the Spagnuolo’s New York Giants during his time as their defensive coordinator. The linebacker corps should benefit from moving Will Witherspoon to weak side and rookie James Laurinaitis looks to have secured the starting middle linebacker job. The secondary is even worse off with the trade of Hill and will struggle while they try and mature on the go.
Where They Finish: The Rams face a tough first half schedule and will start 0-5 at least. If they get through that without giving up they can go on a run. Three straight home games against the Saints, Cardinals, and Seahawks will be the key to the Rams avoiding another embarrassing season.
Chicago Bears: Everyone is in love with the Bears, but frankly I don’t get it. Yes Cutler is a mammoth improvement at quarterback and they have a good running game with second year back Matt Forte, but they’re not even the best team in their division. They still have no receivers (I am not drinking the Devin Hester Kool-Aid), at best an average offensive line, and an overrated, underachieving defense. They play a tough schedule as well, starting at Green Bay then coming home for the defending Super Bowl Champs not to mention road games at Atlanta and Baltimore and a home bout against the Eagles. Don’t forget, they aren’t the only improved team in their division. Green Bay is poised to make a run with Aaron Rodgers at the helm and Minnesota is the defending division champs with the best running back in the league.
Where they finish: Ok so .500 may be a bit conservative, but I really think this team is incredibly overrated. When Devin Hester proves he is more than a return man and their defense shows more than the middle of the pack they were last year then I’ll buy in, but for now they’re finishing third in the division.
Detroit Lions: Don’t worry Lions fans, you’ll win a game this year…I think. The most heartbreaking part of last year’s debacle for the Lions was how competitive they seemed in nearly every game. They consistently went up by 10-14 points and would inexplicably fall apart in the second half. They have a new coach, hopefully a new culture and have added some pieces. Julian Peterson and Larry Foote are significant improvements on defense and provide veteran leadership. Calvin Johnson will catch some balls, no matter who is throwing to him, and Kevin Smith is an adequate running back. Their offensive and defensive lines are still atrocious and they have a long way to go still, but it appears that they’re on the right track. How they handle Matthew Stafford and his development is still the biggest question for the Lions. It will determine if they’re the Green Bay Packers (Aaron Rodgers) or the San Francisco 49ers (Alex Smith) in three years.
Where They Finish: If they don’t beat the Vikings at home in week 2 they will go 0-6 and could easily lose their first nine games. Once that kind of panic sets in anything could happen. Still I think this team will be competitive in games and could surprise some teams and steal a win or two.
Green Bay Packers: The Packers grossly underachieved last year in the wake of Brett Farve Debacle Number One. Heads up to the rest of the NFC North, and the NFL for that matter, the Packers are back. As mentioned earlier Aaron Rodgers will have a break out year and prove that the Packers made the right decision. Ryan Grant should have a bounce back year and get his yards per carry back toward the 5.0 of his rookie year. They have a premier receiver in Greg Jennings and pair him with the ageless Donald Driver. The biggest question mark for the Packers is their defense. They will surely have some growing pains in switching to the 3-4. They still have playmakers though, even if you don’t count Aaron Kampman due to his pending switch to linebacker. They have arguably the best secondary in the NFL, so long as Al Harris bounces back from a subpar 2008 campaign. Everyone is talking about the Vikings and Bears, but the Packers are the team to beat in the North.
Where They Finish: Win the division and get the second seed in the NFC behind the Giants.
Minnesota Vikings: The Vikes may have added the (statistical) best quarterback in history, but they’re essentially the same team that went 10-6 last year. Mark my words, Brett Farve will be detrimental to the Vikings. (just ask Jets fans) They have the best running back in the league, a killer offensive line and defensive line and a defensive unit that can stop the run better than anyone in the league. What they need at quarterback is, well, Sage Rosenfels. They need someone to manage the game and hand off the Adrian Peterson. Instead Farve will continue to be a gun slinger and turn the ball over. He’ll take his team out of games by not giving the ball to the best offensive tool in the game. With the division improved and a tough non-division schedule (Bal, at Pit, NYG) this team is going to take its losses.
Where They Finish: Tied for second in the division, with a shot down the stretch. They will look like a playoff team but will lose their last three games of the year. (at Car, at Chi, NYG) If they can steal one of those they will have a shot at a wild card spot over either Dallas or Philadelphia.
Atlanta Falcons: The Falcons are another team that’s going to score like Trent from Swingers but can’t play defense. They gave up nearly 350 yards per game last year and their only real offseason move on that side of the ball was the pickup of former Jaguar Mike Peterson. Everyone knows about Tony Gonzalez. Matty Ice enters his sophomore season surrounded by weapons. Michael Turner is due for a down year after carrying the ball an insane 376 times last year but Jerious Norwood has proven to be a dangerous back when he gets the opportunity. Their success in 2009 relies on how John Abraham can lead the young defense.
Where They Finish: Division winners. They should get through the wild card round with a home win but it is hard to see them matching up with the Giants or Packers.
Carolina Panthers: The Panthers wish football was more like baseball, a game of individual accomplishments. They have the best running back tandem in the league. (no offense to the Titans) They have an explosive wide receiver in Steve Smith. (when he’s not punching teammates) They have an elite pass rusher in Julius Peppers. (even though he wants out of Carolina) Unfortunately they don’t have much to go along with those playmakers. Jake Delhomme will be lucky if he is still the starter at the end of the year. There’s not much after Peppers on the other side of the ball, especially after the injury to Jon Beason. They do have a solid offensive line that leads their running game, but the holes in their depth chart are bigger than the ones DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart will be running through. The South also got the unlucky draw of playing the NFC and AFC East which will make it harder for every team in the division.
Where They Finish: Second in the division and miss the playoffs.
New Orleans Saints: This division has a problem. No one can play defense. Drew Brees should be able to put up some more epic numbers again this year after nearly breaking the passing yards record last year. Reggie Bush will continue to be a bust. Pierre Thomas will miss the opener but should be there as an adequate back, not that Brees needs it. Defensively they have some good players but the unit as a whole is underwhelming. Their secondary is especially abysmal. Every game they will win will be a shoot out. For that reason it’s hard to predict what they’ll do. They could be anywhere from 9-7 to 4-12. Given their difficult schedule I’ll opt for the latter.
Where They Finish: Out of playoff contention
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: The Bucs are a mess. They are a team without an identity after the firing of Jon Gruden and release of Derrick Brooks. The trade for Kellen Winslow doesn’t make sense for a team with so many needs. Josh Freeman was a stretch at the 17th pick and failed to even be in contention for the starting job, which is now in the hands of Byron Leftwich. Derrick Ward is arguably the worst of the Giants three running backs, but he’ll get a chance to start in Tampa. Antonio Bryant had a career year last year as the team’s only real target. Now can he repeat that performance while competing for balls with Winslow? Defensively they are a team that is not that young and not that good. Not a good combination. After falling apart down the stretch last year this team has taken a distinct step backwards
Where They Finish: They just miss out on the number one pick to the Lions.