Yesterday, I discussed my thoughts on the AFC. Now it's time to turn our attention on the NFC.
How will the four divisions shake out? What teams will earn Wild Card spots in the playoffs? Will Adam "don't call me Pacman" Jones derail the Cowboys' hopes of a Super Bowl? Can the champs repeat?
I answer all of these questions and more. Get your popcorn ready.
Winner: Philadelphia (12-4)
The worst to first trend in the NFL continues with the Eagles. First of all, before you say, “What?! Dallas has 13 Pro Bowlers!” look at the schedule.
While the division portion is tough as usual, the rest is a bit easier. They play only two teams outside the division that made the playoffs in 2007 (Seahawks and Steelers). The Eagles also get to play dysfunctional/rebuilding teams such as Cincinnati, St. Louis, Atlanta, Arizona, Baltimore, Chicago, and San Francisco. Philadelphia should be favored in all seven of those games.
RB Brian Westbrook had his best season as a pro last year. He rushed for over 1,300 yards and accumulated over 2,000 yards from scrimmage. He also led the team with 12 touchdowns and 90 receptions.
Underrated WR Kevin Curtis had 1,110 yards receiving on a 14.4-yard average. The Eagles drafted WR DeSean Jackson to be an explosive playmaker and add depth at wide receiver.
Defensively, this team was solid versus the run, but they were a little leaky against the pass and only recorded 11 interceptions. To remedy this situation, Philadelphia roped in free agent Asante Samuel to a six-year deal. During the past two seasons with the Patriots, Samuel recorded 16 interceptions.
If you believe in late-season momentum, and I do, the Eagles carry a three-game winning streak into 2008. Also, four of their losses last season were by three points, including one to each of the Super Bowl participants.
I see the Eagles rebounding after a disappointing 2007 and capturing the division crown once again.
This enormously talented and potentially combustible team could make another serious run at the division and home-field advantage.
Tony Romo is back, as is T.O. The Cowboys wisely gave RB Marion Barber the top spot on the depth chart and a rich contract extension. With two 1,000-yard receivers (Terrell Owens and Jason Witten), and a potential 1,000-yard running back, Dallas will have a top-five offense again.
Defensively, Dallas returns a very solid group. DeMarcus Ware, perhaps the best defensive player in the game, led the team with 14 sacks last year. Leading tackler Bradie James returns, as do hard-hitting Roy "horse collar" Williams and sack specialist Greg Ellis.
Dallas owns the biggest offseason headline with the acquisition of Adam "don't call me Pacman" Jones. If Jones produces on the field, and stays quiet off, he'll be just fine. If not, there could be dissension in the Dallas locker room.
As great as Dallas' winning tradition is, they have not won a playoff game since 1996. Here are their playoff results since then:
1996 Divisional Round: Lost to second-year Carolina.
1998 Wild Card Round: Division doormat, Arizona, defeats Dallas handily 20-7 at Dallas.
1999 Wild Card Round: Lost to Minnesota after jumping out to 10-3 lead.
2003 Wild Card Round: Lost to Carolina again. This time in a blowout 29-10.
2006 Wild Card Round: A game every Cowboy fan wants to forget. QB/ex-holder Tony Romo mishandles slippery ball during a field-goal attempt. Seattle wins 21-20.
2007 Divisional Round: First-round bye. Home-field advantage. Opponent we've already beaten twice. Easy? Nope. Giants come in to Dallas and beat them 21-17.
Before you write and say this is a bunch of Cowboy hate, just think about it. All I've given you are facts. Facts that show no matter what Dallas has done in the regular season (No. 1 seed, division champ, wild card), they have not met expectations.
Until they win a playoff game, I cannot put them in the Super Bowl, like most other prognosticators have already.
Newly hired head coach Jim Zorn begins his journey as an NFL coach in a unique situation. Unlike most first-time head coaches, he does not have to deal with completely rebuilding a roster.
The Redskins used the emotional fuel of Sean Taylor's tragic death to win their last four games and sneak into the playoffs.
This is a team that has to score more points, and their draft emphasizes that need. Washington used two out of their first three picks on wide outs, and they used their second pick on TE Fred Davis. Davis seems to pair up nicely with starter Chris Cooley.
The defense is solid enough, as they were in the top half in the league in points allowed and yards allowed. Leading tackler London Fletcher returns, as does safety LaRon Landry. The defense generated only 33 sacks last year, and they needs to get more production from someone in their front four other than Andre Carter.
I see the Redskins fighting with a few other teams during the last week of the season for the final Wild Card spot.
New York Giants (8-8)
I know what you're thinking. I'm nuts. No Super Bowl winner has missed the playoffs the following season since the 2006 Steelers. But the Giants' record wasn't much better than this last year (10-6), when they got unbelievably hot on the road on their way to the Lombardi Trophy.
Strahan's gone, as is LB Kawika Mitchell. Gibril Wilson departs an already weak secondary. Jeremy Shockey's stewing over how he was treated during the Super Bowl run once he went down, and Plaxico is holding out over his contract.
Offensively, the Giants will return to their tandem backfield of Brandon Jacobs and Derrick Ward. Jacobs bust out with a 1,000-yard season on a 5.0 yard-per-carry average. Eli Manning did a good job spreading the ball around to his receivers. The Giants return three players who had at least 50 catches. Plaxico Burress led the way with 70 reception, 1,025 yards, and 12 touchdowns. Amani Toomer turns 34 this season. Look for him to yield some playing time to second-year pro Steve Smith.
On the defensive side of the ball, the Giants return Osi Umenyiora and Justin Tuck on the line, LB Antonio Pierce, and CB Aaron Ross. New York addressed their pressing needs in the secondary in the draft. They used their first two picks on defensive backs, including S Kenny Phillips in the first round.
The division is already brutal enough, and the schedule outside the division is no cupcake. New York faces Seattle, Cleveland, and Pittsburgh, and they close the season out at Minnesota, who could be fighting for playoff seeding.
Winner: Minnesota (11-5)
Last year's edition finished the season 8-8 on a two-game losing streak. They started off the year 2-5, and then ran off a five-game winning streak in weeks 11-15. They were in contention for the playoffs until they wore out in the end. That won't happen this year. A more experienced team will be better prepared to get out the gate quickly and avoid a slow start.
With the addition of DE Jared Allen from the Chiefs, the Vikings will be solid, if not spectacular, along the defensive line.
Let's not forget the man who is perhaps the best, pure running back in the league. Adrian Peterson has all the tools, and the offensive line, to crack 1,500 yards. He needs to stay healthy and avoid unnecessary physical punishment. Luckily, the Vikings have Chester Taylor to carry the rock and take some of the pounding.
The one question the Vikings have is in the passing game. In order to be successful, Tarvaris Jackson needs to continue to progress. Luckily for him, he has Brad Childress as his mentor. Childress, if you didn’t know, was Donovan McNabb’s quarterback coach and offensive coordinator for seven seasons.
Jackson needs to up his completion percentage above 60 percent and throw more than nine TDs. Jackson should take full advantage of play action with Peterson and Taylor in the backfield. If he is patient, he will find open receivers.
If Peterson stays healthy, the Vikings should make a deep run through the playoffs.
Green Bay (8-8)
The Aaron Rodgers era is going to open up roughly. Rodgers has played well in very limited action, but now he is the man in Green Bay.
In the first seven games, the Packers' opponents include Minnesota, Dallas, Tampa Bay, Seattle, and Indianapolis. Four of those are 2007 playoff teams, and Minnesota figures to be improved. They must also play New Orleans, Carolina, Houston, and Jacksonville in consecutive games later on in the season.
Aaron Rodgers does have a good supporting cast around him. Ryan Grant leads the ground attack, while Donald Driver and Greg Jennings lead the receiving corps.
Nick Barnett and A.J. Hawk lead a young linebacking group, and Al Harris and Charles Woodsen are solid corners.
The Packers' fortunes lie squarely on Rodger's shoulders and Coach McCarthy's ability to mold the young quarterback.
Jon Kitna predicted ten wins for his club last year. Halfway through the season, it seemed as if it were possible. The Lions were 6-2 and battling Green Bay for the division. Then a reality check set in and a six-game losing streak ensued. The Lions finished 7-9 while allowing a league-high 444 points.
The Lions and Mike Martz cut ties, and now the Lions look to implement an inside running game. Detroit drafted RB Kevin Smith with the first pick in the third round. Smith is a hard-nosed, workhorse running back.
In the passing game, Kitna completed 63 percent of his passes, but he also threw 20 interceptions. WRs Roy Williams and Calvin Johnson must step up their game and avoid injuries to help make this offense better.
This team, though, won't go anywhere if the league's worst defense doesn't improve big time. Detroit was the worst team in the league in terms of yards and points allowed. I don't see the Lions improving enough on the defensive side of the ball to compete for a playoff spot.
Just a year removed from the Super Bowl, the Bears were a team in disarray last year, and they will probably be worse this year.
The defense took a big step back last year. They were 24th in the NFL against the run and 27th against the pass. This was supposed to be the side of the ball the Bears were going to lean on when times got tough, and they couldn't come through.
The offense was unimpressive last year, and they no longer have their leading rusher (Cedric Benson) and leading receiver (Bernard Berrian). The struggles at quarterback are well documented.
The Bears made Super Bowl XLI despite the erratic performance of QB Rex Grossman. This past season, the Bears played QB merry-go-round with Grossman, Brian Griese, and Kyle Orton. I don't think the Bears really feel comfortable with anyone in the trio.
The one bright spot on offense is the drafting of RB Matt Forte. He may be ready to be the No. 1 running back when training camp opens. All Cedric Benson proved was to be too immature and too much of a bust to be worth the No. 4 overall pick. Second-year TE Greg Olsen needs to step up after a rookie year in which he only started four games and managed less than 400 yards.
While the defense probably will bounce back in 2008, the offense doesn't have nearly enough pieces to compete.
Winner: Seattle (13-3)
Seattle benefits from playing in a weak division. They also have one of the best home-field advantages at Quest Field with their 12th man.
The Seahawk offense returns with Matt Hasselbeck at quarterback. Hasselbeck set career highs last year with 3,966 passing yards and 28 TDs. He makes smart decisions with the football, as he threw only 12 interceptions.
Returning with Hasselbeck are leading receivers Bobby Engram and Nate Burleson. Engram accounted for 94 receptions and 1,147 yards, while Burleson recorded nine touchdown receptions.
In the offseason, the Seahawks trimmed the fat and released RB Shaun Alexander, whose skills are quickly declining. The Seahawks look to follow the NFL trend of a tandem backfield with newly acquired free agents Julius Jones and T.J. Duckett. Rookie battering-ram Owen Schmidt should do a solid job of replacing retired Mack Strong at fullback.
The Seahawks rewarded a couple members of their defense by giving LB Lofa Tatupu and CB Marcus Trufant contract extensions. Look for Seattle to coast through their division on their way to anther division title.
St. Louis (6-10)
The Rams double their win total from last season, but it won't be enough to avoid double-digit losses again.
Last season, Steven Jackson fell just about 700 yards short in his quest for 2,000 yards from scrimmage. The Rams cut ties with Isaac Bruce and acquired the underwhelming Reche Caldwell. This anemic offense scored less than 17 points and rushed for less than 100-yards per game.
Defensively, only the Detroit Lions gave up more points per game last year. The defense, though, got automatically better by drafting DE Chris Long. Pairing Long on the right side of the line with Adam Carriker should give the Rams a solid line.
Now, if only they could do something about the rest of the defense.
The Cardinals have been the chic pick the past few seasons to make some noise in the playoffs. They won't be this season.
This is another example of a team not having an identity at the quarterback position. Right now, the Cardinals are saying that Matt Leinart is the starter. Kurt Warner may have something to say about that. Warner led the Cardinals to wins in three out of their last five games with his veteran leadership and 62 percent completion rate.
Leinart only completed 53 percent of his passes with two touchdown passes in five games.
The Cardinals had trouble running the ball in 2007, and were one of the worst defensive teams. Edgerrin James had a 1,200-yard season but averaged less than four-yards per carry. The longest run for the Cardinals was only 27 yards.
They are going to have to run better in order to sustain drives and keep their defense off the field if they plan on making the playoffs.
San Francisco (3-13)
This team possessed the worst offense in the NFL last year. They were last in yards and points. I'm actually surprised they won five games last year, until I saw that three of those wins came against this division.
Don't be surprised if QB Shaun Hill is the starter by the midway point in the season. He was 2-0 in his only two starts for the Niners, while throwing five TDs and only one pick. San Francisco got solid production from Frank Gore, who led the team in rushing yards and total receptions. They also got solid production from TE Vernon Davis, who had four TDs and over 50 receptions.
2007 Defensive Rookie of the Year Patrick Willis leads a defense looking to improve over last year's numbers. The 49ers' defense was in the bottom half of most statistical categories, including yards and points allowed.
This team must improve greatly on both sides of the ball in order to compete for a Wild Card spot.
Winner: New Orleans Saints (11-5)
The Saints finished 7-9 last season after a 10-6 season and their first ever berth in the NFC Championship game. Deuce McAllister was lost early on to a season-ending knee injury, and the Saints started out 0-4. They then won seven out of ten games, only to lose their last two contests.
On offense, the Saints love to throw the ball. Drew Brees tossed an NFL-record 652 passes, 28 of which went for touchdowns. That high attempt-total, along with 18 interceptions, was mainly the result of the Saints falling behind early in games, especially in the beginning of the season.
The receivers are led by Marques Colston, who has 168 receptions for 2,240 yards and 19 TDs in his first two seasons.
New Orleans needs to find a role suitable to fit the unique skill set of RB Reggie Bush. He has yet to break a big run, or show the determination necessary to run inside the tackles. He is best used in tandem with another back. If Deuce cannot return to form and stay healthy, perhaps second-year pro Pierre Thomas can fill that role.
Defensively, the Saints seem to have given up more big plays than anyone else during the past two years. They have sorely missed an effective space-eater along the defensive line for years, but may have finally found their man.
New Orleans drafted DT Sedrick Ellis with the No. 7 overall pick. He should fit in nicely with DEs Will Smith, Charles Grant, and newly acquired Bobby McCray. The linebacking corps got a boost when they traded for Jonathan Vilma. Vilma fills a need in the middle they haven't had since Sam Mills.
In the secondary, the Saints signed CB Randall Gay from New England and drafted CB Terry Porter.
The Saints made some moves to improve their defense, but will struggle again if they don't pan out.
The Panthers sorely missed Jake Delhomme last season. Delhomme had elbow problems early on and ended up having Tommy John surgery. After Delhomme went down, the Panthers turned to David Carr, Vinny Testaverde, and Matt Moore. None of these players was adequate, as not a one completed more than 57 percent of his passes or had a QB rating higher than 67.0.
Despite this inconsistency, WR Steve Smith had another solid year. He caught 87 passes for 1,002 yards and seven touchdowns.
There will be some changes in the backfield this season. Gone is DeShaun Foster and here comes Jonathan Stewart. The powerful Stewart looks to pair up with running back DeAngelo Williams and his five-yard per carry average.
Defensively, the Panthers were not on par with what we have grown accustomed. Collectively, they only registered 23 sacks. DE Julius Peppers had an off year and only managed 2.5 sacks. The one bright spot was LB Jon Beason. He led the team with 140 tackles.
I believe that the Panthers will be one of those teams fighting for a playoff spot in the NFC right until the last week.
Tampa Bay (8-8)
Winning the NFC South last year with a 9-7 mark, the Bucs ended their season with a home playoff loss to the New York Giants.
Veteran Jeff Garcia led the Buccaneers on offense. In his 13 games, Tampa Bay was 8-5. Garcia completed nearly 64 percent of his throws while throwing 13 TDs and only four picks. Despite the loss of Cadillac Williams, Earnest Graham filled in nicely with 10 TDs and nearly 900 yards on the ground.
On defense, Tampa went back to Buc ball. They had a turnover rate of +15. They held opponents to under 17 points per game and an average of less than 300 total yards. The unit is led by Derrick Brooks and Ronde Barber.
Outside the division, the Bucs visit Denver and Dallas, while they host Seattle, Minnesota, and San Diego.
2008 will be a little better than 2007 for the Falcons, mainly because it has to be. The Michael Vick dog-fighting case turned last season into a disaster. Don't forget that their coach bailed on them for the SEC in a time of need.
The Falcons started anew with the hiring of Thomas Dimitroff as their new GM. In turn, he hired Mike Smith to be head coach. The Falcons then slammed shut any notion of bringing Vick back after his prison term is over by passing over Glenn Dorsey and selecting Matt Ryan as their quarterback of the future.
The Falcons are clearly in rebuilding mode, as they cut ties with veterans DeAngelo Hall, Warrick Dunn, and Alge Crumpler.
The Falcons will make some strides, but they are two or three seasons, and a couple of good drafts, away from competing.
Wild Card Round
No. 3 Minnesota over No. 6 Carolina
No. 5 Dallas over No. 4 New Orleans
No. 1 Seattle over No. 5 Dallas
No. 3 Minnesota over No. 2 Philadelphia
NFC Championship Game
No. 1 Seattle over No. 3 Minnesota
Seattle's defense is capable of slowing down Minnesota's ground attack at home. Hasselbeck is capable of leading the Seahawks back to the Super Bowl in Mike Holgrem's last season.
Super Bowl XLIII
Seattle over Jacksonville 24-16
In probably one of the lowest rated Super Bowls ever, Jacksonville will not be able to take advantage of playing a Super Bowl in their home state. Pro Bowler Matt Hasselbeck's Super Bowl experience gives him the edge over Jacksonville's David Garrard. Seattle's defense will be enough to slow down the Jaguars' dynamic punch in the backfield. Mike Holgrem's final season ends with another ring.
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