Breaking Down the NFC, Division by Division

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Breaking Down the NFC, Division by Division

NFC EAST

Philadelphia Eagles (11-5)

Obviously, this prediction relies on McNabb and Westbrook staying healthy for the duration of the season. By the same token, the offensive line must remain intact, especially Shawn Andrews and $60 million man Jason Peters.

Second year WR DeSean Jackson looks primed to build on his sensational rookie season and the committee of Curtis, Maclin and Avant are more than qualified to get the job done. The Michael Vick experiment will be fun to watch as long as it doesn't interfere with continuity. 

The defense, which had already lost it's heart and soul with the death of coordinator Jim Johnson and departure of legendary FS Brian Dawkins, suffered another devastating blow with the loss of LB Stewart Bradley. The birds also have issues at safety, where they are starting rookie Macho Harris.

Yet Asante Samuel looks prepared to take on the leadership role left vacant by the absence of Dawkins, and the Eagles have a strong defensive line led by stalwart DT's Patterson and Bunkley and ferocious DE Trent Cole.

New York Giants (10-6) 

Super Bowl Champions just two years ago, the G-Men fell to the Eagles after winning the division last season. The loss of itchy-trigger-finger Plaxico Burress was visibly evident in the playoff loss and will continue to hinder the offense in 2009.

Still, QB Eli Manning has developed into a skilled and dependable leader and the Giants' running game (despite the loss of Derrick Ward) is tough and unyielding. The performance of rookie WR Hakeem Nicks could be the key to the offense.

The Giants defense is one of the NFL's best. The return of tenacious DE Osi Umenyiora, combined with Justin Tuck and Mathias Kiwanuka give NYG a relentless attack on the opposing QB. This defense won't lose the Giants many games.

Dallas Cowboys (8-8)

At 9-7 last season, Dallas is difficult to predict this year. They decided to chalk up the T.O. era as a loss and move forward with underachieving Roy Williams as their top wideout. Romo could revitalize Williams' career...or not. Their chemistry will be essential for the Cowboys to be effective on offense.

The one-two punch of Marion Barber and Felix Jones is dangerously intriguing, and Tashard Choice is not satisfied being third on the depth chart. Jason Witten is one of the league's best tight ends. 

DeMarcus Ware is as ferocious as they come. He has developed into one of the most feared defensive players in the NFL. Dallas brought in LB Keith Brooking to improve upon a unit that already boasts young talent Anthony Spencer and the aforementioned Ware.

Washington Redskins (8-8)

The 'Skins annoyed QB Jason Campbell in the offseason by toying with the idea of trading up to draft Mark Sanchez. This is could be the tell-tale year in Campbell's career, as Washington fans will not be content with anything short of a playoff berth. With a young group of talented wideouts ready to show what they can do, Campbell must deliver now or never. 

Washington brought in the guy that many consider the NFL's most dominant DT, Albert Haynesworth, for a meager $100 million. Sheesh. The 'Skins also drafted LB Brian Orakpo and he should see playing time immediately.

LaRon Landry is a vicious hitter and is emerging into a top flight safety. Haynesworth's impact on the defense could move this team over the .500 mark, but they won't make the playoffs in the inflexible NFC East. 

 

NFC NORTH

Chicago Bears (9-7)

Jay Cutler whined his way out of Denver and into Chicago, to the delight of Bears fans. After years of lackluster QB play in the Windy City, Cutler steps under center entering the prime of his career. Although he has a shortage of weapons at WR, Cutler should combine with tremendous second-year RB Matt Forte to catapult Da Bears into the playoffs.

Chicago has had one of the NFL's best defenses over the last four or five years. With perennial Pro Bowler Brian Urlacher leading the way, backed up by OLB Lance Briggs and DT Tommie Harris, the Bears stout defense should continue to be a force. Harris needs to return to Pro Bowl form for this to be a top 5 unit.  

Minnesota Vikings (8-8)

Brett Favre is quite possibly the most annoying player in NFL history. His perpetual indecisiveness is simply infuriating. This time Favre's wavering mind might cost the Vikings a year of team progression, just as it did for the Jets last season. What a selfish prick.

Good thing the Vikes have All World RB Adrian Peterson to bail them out of a losing season on Favre's account. Peterson will have another mind-boggling year and might even run Minnesota right into the playoffs.

The Vikings defense is strongest up front, with monstrous DT's Pat and Kevin Williams teaming with DE Jared Allen. Corners Winfield and Griffin are a good tandem. Not a scary defense but a solid unit nonetheless.

Green Bay Packers (8-8)

Aaron Rodgers appears primed for a breakout season. Last year Rodgers threw for over 4,000 yards and 28 touchdowns, compiling a 93.8 QB rating. With a solid group of receivers (Jennings, Driver) and a decent running game, this offense will put up enough points to be competitive. 

The Packers will be running a 3-4 style defense, with Aaron Kampman teaming with A.J. Hawk to provide a quick, strong linebacking corps. Atari Bigby is an underrated safety and the Pack have one of the most feared CB tandem with Woodson and Harris. Rookie DT B.J. Raji could be the x-factor as tackle is very important piece in the 3-4. 

Detroit Lions (3-13)

Rookie QB Drew Stafford inherits a godawful offense (aside from terrific WR Calvin Johnson). Second year RB Kevin Smith has potential, but the offensive live is in shambles and needs to open holes for him to be effective. Three wins might be a generous prediction.

The Lions quietly improved their defense in the offseason by adding veteran linebackers Julian Peterson and Larry Foote. They already have a gifted young 'backer in Ernie Sims, who flashed his Pro Bowl potential last season and could reveal the full arsenal of his abilities with some assistance from the two smart vets.

 

NFC SOUTH

New Orleans Saints (10-6)

Drew Brees is a stellar QB and proved it once again last season, when he threw for over 300 yards in 10 games. While he is unlikely to repeat that incredible feat, another Pro Bowl caliber year is well within his sights.

Marques Colston leads a good receiving corps, and a running game featuring last year's surprise player Pierre Thomas (12 td) and the underachieving but still electric Reggie Bush make the Saints one of the league's most explosive offenses. 

The defense will once again be led by DE's Charles Grant and Will Smith, with second year DT Sedrick Ellis filling the gaps in the middle. Ellis' development could be a vital part of a unit that needs to improve on last year's effort, when most Saints games were a shootout.

New Orleans brought in veteran FS Darren Sharper and drafted CB Malcolm Jenkins to bolster a struggling secondary.

Atlanta Falcons (10-6)

Perhaps the biggest surprise of last season, Atlanta went from 3-13 in '07 to 11-5 in '08, with a 7-1 record at home. Much of that success can be attributed to the remarkable composure of rookie QB Matt Ryan and the brilliant addition of RB Michael Turner, who rushed for an astonishing 1,700 yards and 17 touchdowns.

The Falcons brought in future Hall of Fame TE Tony Gonzalez in the offseason, who should provide Ryan with exactly the type of target he needs to compliment Roddy White. 

Defensive Ends John Abraham and Jamaal Anderson lead an unspectacular Falcons defense that kept the team in the game for the most part last season. Atlanta does not have a lot of big names on the defensive side of the ball, but they play well together and should be a middle of the pack unit this year. 

Carolina Panthers (9-7)

After an impressive 12-4 record last season (8-0 at home), the Panthers were embarrassed by Arizona in the playoffs after Jake Delhomme threw an incomprehensible five interceptions. Delhomme is no doubt eager to erase that nightmare performance with a good '09 season.

He's got a great weapon in Steve Smith and one of the best running games in the NFL in DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart. Stewart's health has been in question as of late and could be the key to keeping the Panthers in playoff contention. Matching last year's record is unlikely.

LB Jon Beason and DE Julius Peppers lead a strong Panthers defense. Beason had 138 tackles last season and was phenomenal against the run. He is developing into one of the best linebackers in the NFL. The supremely talented Peppers was franchise tagged after unsuccessfully seeking mega-millions. Look for another monster year from him.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers (6-10)

When the most important position on the field is shaky, the playoffs are simply out of reach. The Quarterback situation in Tampa is unstable with Byron Leftwich winning the job over Luke McCown and rookie Josh Freeman, the heir apparent who may see playing time this season if things get rocky in Tampa Bay.

The running back position is also uncertain, with recent developmetns suggesting the underachieving, often injured Cadillac Williams will be the Bucs' No. 1 back.

They brought in Derrick Ward from the Giants so expect to see plenty of him as well, with Earnest Graham as the No. 3, a role is no doubt unsatisfied to fill. They certainly have depth at RB.

The Buccaneers have a very solid defense, as has been the case for years. Gaines Adams is quickly becoming one of the most feared defensive ends in football, with incredible length and speed.

Tampa boasts an excellent secondary, featuring second year CB Aquib Talib, who could reveal his Pro Bowl potential this year, teamed with veteran Ronde Barber. Jermaine Phillips and Tarnard Jackson are underrated safeties who get the job done. 

NFC WEST

Arizona Cardinals (12-4)

The defending NFC Champions have some swagger heading into '09, with all of their key players returning. They have unquestionably the best receiving duo in football in Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin.

Breaston provides a solid third option and they improved their running game by drafting Beanie Wells in the first round. Wells apparently lost the starting job to Tim Hightower in a preseason battle, but Beanie will get his carries and be effective for the Cards.

There is no reason to think Kurt Warner will lose his touch (even though he did just that in St. Louis one season after winning the Super Bowl)...which would be the only way that Arizona does not have the NFC's top offense.

The Cardinals had an underrated defense last season, and they proved it in the playoffs. Running a 3-4, the Cards biggest strength is their secondary, with All Pro SS Adrian Wilson as the defensive captain. Antrel Rolle moved from CB to free safety, a change that looked quite smart last year as Antrel enjoyed a solid season.

With one year of playing the position under his belt, look for Rolle to step up into Pro Bowl caliber play this season. At corner, last year's rookie Rodgers-Cromartie was a valuable addition, especially in the playoffs. He has a nose for the ball and should bring his interception total up this year. 

San Francisco 49ers (7-9)

The '9ers had an open competition at QB during training camp and pre-season, with Shaun Hill fending off former No. 1 overall pick Alex Smith. Good thing for SF fans, as Alex Smith is clearly a bust who never materialize as a starting QB in this league. Hill, on the other hand, is serviceable.

Sure, he's unspectacular, but Coach Mike Singletary wants to run the ball down people's throats with Frank Gore anyhow. All Hill will be asked is to manage the game, make smart decisions and don't lose the game for the running game and improving defense. Rookie Glen Coffee looked impressive in the preseason and could spell Gore from time to time.

Patrick Willis is perhaps the best Linebacker in football. He's fast, strong, smart and hungry. Still somewhat under the radar (for casual fans, at least) look for Willis to solidify his position as one of the top five defensive players in the NFL.

If he maintains a healthy career, Willis might find himself in the Hall of Fame before all is said and done. Outside of Willis, however, the '9ers are pretty questionable. Nate Clements is a very solid veteran corner, and OLB Manny Lawson can play. But the front three are a bit suspect and the safety position is unreliable. 

Seattle Seahawks (6-10)

Look for Seattle to improve on last year's dismal 4-12 record. They brought in WR TJ Houshmandzadeh to give Matt Hasselbeck a legitimate No. 1 WR. With Deion Branch and Nate Burleson, Hasselbeck should have enough weapons to get going. The signing of Housh cannot be understated; it was imperative.

The 'Hawks also brought in Edgerrin James to help bolster a weak rushing attack. James will combine with Julius Jones, which is still an uninspiring tandem. 

The strength of Seattle's defense is clearly their linebacking corps, which now features No. 4 overall pick Aaron Curry out of Wake Forest. Curry was actually projected to be a top two or three pick but slipped to Seattle at four, who were delighted to select him, even with LB not being a need position for them.

Look for Curry to have a sensational rookie year and collect defensive rookie of the year honors. He has some quality teammates to learn from in Tatupu and Hill, giving the Seahawks a quick, intimidating LB unit. The team's best CB, Marcus Trufant, will be out until at least week eight. That is a crucial blow for this defense. 

St. Louis Rams (4-12)

Marc Bulger and Steven Jackson lead a Rams offense that was unimpressive last season as they finished an abhorrent 2-14. The only way that this team can have any significance is if S Jack can get back to his Pro Bowl form and start running defenders over like he used to.

Donnie Avery is a good young WR, but outside of him the Rams are pretty thin at wideout. The offensive line lost future hall of famer Orlando Pace.

 

PLAYOFF PREDICTIONS

WILD CARDS - NY Giants, Atlanta

NFC Champion - Philadelphia

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