While the AFC has been the stronger conference for the most part throughout the last decade, with all but 2 Super Bowl titles going to an AFC team from 2001-2009, the NFC has experienced some resurgence lately, with the New Orleans Saints winning in 2010’s Super Bowl XLIV. This is due in large part to the strengths of teams such as the Saints, and other solid teams such as the Dallas Cowboys, Green Bay Packers, and Minnesota Vikings, in addition to plenty of other playoff-worthy candidates like the New York Giants, Atlanta Falcons, Philadelphia Eagles, and San Francisco 49ers. It may seem to some as though the NFC may finally have the firepower to contend with the AFC. However, the AFC is still home to perennial powerhouses New England and Indianapolis, and other Super Bowl contenders such as the New York Jets, the Baltimore Ravens, and the San Diego Chargers.
So, can the NFC win back-to-back Super Bowls for the first time since 1996 and 1997 (when the Cowboys and Packers won, respectively)? And if so, what team might it be? Here’s some ideas of what some of the top NFC teams (any team that could realistically contend for a playoff spot) may do this season, now that we’re halfway through the preseason and there seems to be a better idea of position battles that have been resolved, how well injured players have returned, etc.:
Overall, it’s most likely that the NFC East and NFC North will be wildly competitive all season long, with close races between the Cowboys/Eagles/Giants (as always) and the Vikings/Packers (with the Bears being a possible sleeper pick to make a resurgence after a down season last year). Meanwhile, the other two divisions (West and South) aren’t as strong, but still hold some reasonably talented teams.
NFC EAST- this division is consistently one of the strongest in the NFL, and this season is no exception. Any team could make the playoffs in this division, but this year may once again only see two NFC East teams in the playoffs (with the NFC North likely sending two once again).
Dallas Cowboys: This year’s NFC has some of the best offensive teams in recent memory, and the Cowboys are one of them (along with Green Bay, New Orleans, and Minnesota). Tony Romo could easily have one of the best seasons of any NFL quarterback, with plenty of playmakers around him on offense. It also seems that he’s rid himself of the “not clutch” label, as he has finally been able to win some playoff games. Roy Williams has looked like a pretty big disappointment since his acquisition from the Lions, but he’s still not a bad option. Miles Austin seems to be a bit overrated, but he’s the Cowboys’ best option. Rookie Dez Bryant takes the field as well as a receiver, and while rookie receivers don't often make huge impacts, Dez Bryant could be one who does. Their excellent tight end Jason Witten, along with third receiver Patrick Crayton and promising tight end Martellus Bennett, round out the Cowboys’ receiving corps, giving Romo plenty of options to throw to. The running game could be even better than the passing game, as three talented backs take the backfield for the Cowboys: explosive Felix Jones (the starter) bruising Marion Barber, and third option Tashard Choice. The offensive line is solid as well, as Romo should have enough time to throw and the backs will have enough holes to run through as well. Defensively, the Cowboys aren’t quite as excellent, as their pass defense got torched on a few occasions last year, most notably for close to 600 yards in two games by Eli Manning. Their front seven, which led the Cowboys to the 4th-best run defense last year, holds a good group of players overall, led by pass-rushing terror DeMarcus Ware, along with solid linebackers Bradie James and veteran leader Keith Brooking. PREDICTION: 11-5, division champs- The ‘Boys should have a solid season due to their top-tier offense, but their average defense will probably keep them from truly being one of the best teams in the league. They are a pretty sure bet for a playoff appearance though, and they could make a Super Bowl run if the pass defense can pull things together at the right time.
New York Giants: The Giants are a solid team offensively now, with Eli Manning showing good growth so far in his career. He should definitely be fine for the start of the season, with that nasty cut on his forehead healing by then (He will likely play in the Giants’ next game against the Ravens). However, Brandon Jacobs isn’t really the same back he was a couple of years ago, and he’ll back up Ahmad Bradshaw. Steve Smith, Mario Manningham, Hakeem Nicks, and Ramses Barden provide Manning with an excellent group of young receivers, and if they can all develop nicely and produce, the Giants’ passing offense could do some real damage. Kevin Boss provides Manning with an underrated option at tight end, also. The offensive line is still an above-average group as well, and the Giants’ offense could be a top-10 unit again this year, especially with their passing game. The Giants’ D is middle-of-the-pack in both pass and run defense, with a mediocre secondary and linebacking corps, but their defensive line is still one of the deepest units of its kind in all of football, with a great rotation going at both the tackle and end positions: Mathias Kiwanuka, Osi Umenyiora, and Justin Tuck at end, and Barry Cofield, Chris Canty, Jay Alford, and Rocky Bernard at tackle. Jason Pierre-Paul could also turn out to be tremendous at defensive end, as he is raw but the Giants have a knack for developing linemen. However, the linebackers aren’t great, as there isn’t too much depth behind a decent starting group of Clint Sintim, Keith Bulluck, and Michael Boley. PREDICTION: 9-7, no playoffs- they have a solid offense, and a good enough defense to keep them in the playoff hunt, but the Giants are still in a very tough division and that will hold them back.
Philadelphia Eagles: If Kevin Kolb can step up and replace Donovan McNabb, then the Eagles will be dangerous. Now it’s quite a big “if” as to whether Kolb can be just as good as McNabb was, but he might be able to come close, as he’s looked solid this preseason (going 11 for 17 with 126 yards in his last game). He has a solid amount of playmaking weaponry at his disposal, with Desean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin both providing threats to score on any given play, with Brent Celek being a solid pass-catcher as well (the Eagles always tend to use their tight ends a lot). Lesean McCoy has looked promising as well at running back. The offense as a whole is one of the better units in a conference full of excellent offensive groups. Defensively, the line is solid (even more so now with rookie end Brandon Graham thrown into the mix), as are corners Asante Samuel and Ellis Hobbs. However, there isn’t a ton of depth in the secondary, and the linebackers aren’t spectacular, with the exception of a solid player in Ernie Sims. A decent year defensively can be expected, with the run defense being most likely a top 10 group and the pass defense being a little weaker (maybe league average). PREDICTION: 10-6, wild card- Kolb should be decent, and there’s plenty of help from their solid receiving corps, but McCoy might not be great this year as the only real option. There are also some questions defensively, with a lack of true impact players. There’s enough young talent to make this team a threat in the future, though, and they could certainly be a wild card team this year as the NFC East is actually a bit weaker than usual.
Washington Redskins: Perennially overrated with playoffs hopes aplenty each year, the Redskins do always have a talented bunch of players… however, they just can’t seem to ever execute. Owner Dan Snyder loves to bring in big names, and the ‘Skins consistently sign the top free agents, but they don’t seem to produce. This year, they’ve brought in another experienced head coach in a LONG line of Washington head coaches, Mike Shanahan, who is clearly going to take no nonsense from the players (see Haynesworth, Albert), and may just whip them into shape. Donovan McNabb won’t turn this 5-11 team around, but Shanahan could. Meanwhile, Snyder has brought in high profile players (as always) at the running back position, with Larry Johnson and Willie Parker being added in the offseason, replacing Ladell Betts and joining similarly aging Clinton Portis. Really, the talent is there at receiver as well, with former second round picks Malcolm Kelly and Devin Thomas sharing the position with Santana Moss and Joey Galloway, but they’ve both been busts to this point. They both could be solid receivers, but haven’t shown much thus far. Tight end is filled by solid Chris Cooley, who could stand out this year with McNabb tending to throw to tight ends often, with another second round flop in Fred Davis backing him up. The offensive line was a total mess last year, but Trent Williams should help to shore it up. Defensively, if Haynesworth can actually show up to play this year, the aging defense may at least be able to stop the run, with plenty of talented players like Andre Carter, London Fletcher, and Brian Orakpo in the front seven. The pass defense likely won’t be brilliant, but should be above average with players like Carlos Rogers, DeAngelo Hall, and LaRon Landry handling starting jobs in a pass defense that finished 8th last year, and their secondary is a deep unit as well. PREDICTION: 7-9, no playoffs- The Redskins disappoint almost each year, and the first year of the Shanahan Era is no exception. The talent is there though, as they have loads of solid veteran players. The NFC East is just too strong, but the ‘Skins could win a division like the NFC West if they were in it.
NFC NORTH- the second strongest division in the NFC, and another one of the strongest divisions in the NFL, the North is home to two legitimate Super Bowl contenders, the Packers and Vikings. After that, the Bears could surprise some people, while the Lions seem to be constantly rebuilding (although they seem to be putting together an excellent core group of young players, such as Matt Stafford, Calvin Johnson, Jahvid Best, Brandon Pettigrew, and Ndamukong Suh).
Chicago Bears: Not too differently from the Redskins, the Bears have enough talent to make the playoffs, but the question is whether that talent will show up. If not, you’d have to imagine that Lovie Smith won’t be returning next year. At quarterback, Jay Cutler’s season was almost a total loss, and at times, his performance made the Bears look like complete idiots for giving up not one, but two first round picks (plus a third rounder and a decent QB, Kyle Orton) in order to get him. Matt Forte suffered through a miserable sophomore year as well, but the addition of Chester Taylor should ease his workload this year. For both Cutler and Forte, the talent is there, but they’d both have to bounce back in a huge way for the Bears to contend. The pass-catchers aren’t spectacular, but Devin Hester still has potential as a deep threat, Devin Aromashodu could be a good possession-type target for Cutler (his speed isn’t great, but he’s a tall player), Johnny Knox could make great strides this year, and Greg Olsen is an above-average pass catching tight end, too. Another thought is that with Mike Martz running the offense, Cutler could improve a good bit. However, bad decisions plagued Cutler last year, and if he makes the same mistakes again, the consequences could be worse and this season could be just as big of a disaster. The offensive line was not great last year, adding to Cutler’s woes by not consistently giving him enough time. They didn’t really make any big additions on the line, as they didn’t have a top pick like the Packers and Redskins did to get a solid O-line prospect. Defensively, they are once again similar to the Redskins, with plenty of veteran players who are talented such as Brian Urlacher, Tommie Harris, Charles Tillman, Lance Briggs, and now Julius Peppers. However, for the first time in what seems like forever, the Bears defense was actually not very good last year, with their leader Urlacher missing a lot of time due to injury. Urlacher’s absence led to a gaping hole in the front seven, leading to the Bears finishing 23rd in rush defense (and 17th in total defense). PREDICTION: 8-8, no playoffs- Despite having some holes, the Bears do have plenty of talent across the board. Cutler and Forte should bounce back at least somewhat, as well as the defense, but a return to the playoffs should not be expected.
Green Bay Packers: The Pack could put together an incredible season, with Aaron Rodgers now in his third season and already looking even better this preseason (a 154.0 rating in two games!), and their 2nd-ranked defense now has a full year in the 3-4 scheme under the belt. Any offensive line questions have been quieted at least a little with the addition of Bryan Bulaga, and the return of Mark Tauscher to the right tackle spot. Meanwhile, Ryan Grant is one of the steadiest, most consistent backs in the NFL, and is pretty much a sure bet to pick up over 1000 yards, and the rest of the offensive lineup is well-stocked, with Greg Jennings and Donald Driver holding down the wideout spots, and Jermichael Finley poised for a breakout year after a tremendous second half to last season. Jordy Nelson could continue his steady development and become an above-average number 3 option at receiver as well. Defensively, the club has Al Harris returning from an injury, and he will rejoin a pass defense that has loads of talent among its starters, but simply lacks depth. Defensive Player of the Year Charles Woodson, and 2-time Pro Bowler Nick Collins will hold the starting cornerback and free safety spots, respectively. At strong safety, the team has promising rookie Morgan Burnett fighting inconsistent and injured Atari Bigby (and apparently winning). Even though the Packers’ pass defense finished 5th in overall pass defense, it seemed like they were torched last year against most solid passing attacks, and has been unimpressive this preseason as well. However, the front seven for the Pack is one of the best in the NFL, leading the NFL in rushing defense last year despite having lost Aaron Kampmann for a large part of the season. This year, they have added Mike Neal to the defensive line (replacing suspended Johnny Jolly), and could have excellent seasons from second years BJ Raji, Clay Matthews, and Brad Jones. PREDICTION: 12-4, division champs- less holes on this team than on many others (despite O-line and secondary issues), and an offense that should dominate.
Minnesota Vikings: Well, now that You-Know-Who is back for another shot, the Vikings once again have very real hopes for the Super Bowl. Without Favre, the Vikings would have had to fight for a playoff spot (could Tarvaris Jackson/Sage Rosenfels REALLY have been trusted to lead this team?), but now they may well be the favorite for the NFC North. However, Favre could regress some from his preposterous 2009-2010 season (and there has been speculation that he may miss games due to the ankle), and Peterson still has his fumbling problems. In addition to this, there seem to be some problems in the receiving corps as well now, with both Sidney Rice and Percy Harvin going down to injuries. Now, Rice has had surgery and may miss half of the season, with Harvin suffering from recurring migraines. However, if Rice and Harvin are healthy, and Peterson can correct that one small flaw in his game, the Vikings’ offense is every bit as stacked as the Packers’, or Cowboys’, or anyone else in the NFL. Even the loss of Chester Taylor has been filled in by the younger Toby Gerhart. On defense, the Vikes have a run defense that is as stingy as ever (finishing second only to the Packers last year), but their secondary, again similarly to Green Bay’s, is flawed. For example, they finished 19th last year in passing defense, and there shouldn’t be a huge improvement there (although rookie Chris Cook has looked solid). Another question mark appearing on their defense is whether or not the Williams brothers (Kevin and Pat) will ever serve that 4 game suspension. If they do, the Viking defense could simply fall apart. PREDICTION: 11-5, wild card- They should be a playoff team, but likely won’t overpower people the way they did last year, because Favre won’t have the otherworldly season he did a year ago.
NFC SOUTH- the South holds the Saints, defending Super Bowl Champions… and not that much else. The Falcons could be a nice surprise, but the Panthers and Bucs both have their share of issues (or maybe even more than their shares), with the Panthers run defense being suspect to say the least, and the Bucs having tons of question marks across the board (but at least a franchise quarterback is there for them in the form of Josh Freeman, while the Panthers have Matt Moore and Jimmy Clausen battling for the starting job).
Atlanta Falcons: The Falcons went home after a somewhat disappointing 9-7 finish last year, as Matt Ryan and Michael Turner did not show the star power that guided the Falcons to an 11-5 season in 2008. They will be an interesting team to watch this year, because if Ryan can get his sophomore slump behind him, the Falcons offense will be a decent bunch this season. The backfield of Turner, Jerious Norwood, and Jason Snelling is above average, but Turner is certainly the focal point, and is a candidate for a bounce-back this year. In the passing game, the two best options for Ryan are Pro Bowler Roddy White, and Hall of Fame tight end Tony Gonzalez. However, there really isn’t much after White at wideout, with number two being second-year Harry Douglas. In addition, rookie receiver Kerry Meier was placed on injured reserve, taking away another target. Defensively, there is a lack of impact players in the front seven, as star lineman John Abraham struggled through a down season a year ago, picking up just 5.5 sacks. However, if Peria Jerry and Sean Weatherspoon develop well, they could join MLB Curtis Lofton as a nice young core for this defense to build around. Even without big names, the Falcons front seven do their job well, finishing in the top ten in the NFL in rush defense last year. Their pass defense was awful as times last year, though, as they finished a dismal 28th in pass defense. They overpaid to get Dunta Robinson (second biggest contract in the NFL for a corner) to remedy the situation, but he won’t work any miracles. PREDICTION: 8-8, no playoffs- it’s tough to only give them an 8-8 record, because Ryan should play some solid football (closer to his rookie year than his sophomore year). However, there aren’t that many targets for him, and the defense is below average, especially in the secondary.
New Orleans Saints: Yet another high-powered offense in the NFC, the Saints have one of the true superstars of football in Drew Brees, and more than enough playmakers around Brees for him to make their offense go. Wideouts Marques Colston and Lance Moore are both well above average, and youngster Robert Meachem could make an impact as well, with Devery Henderson still providing a nice deep threat in addition to those three. Running backs Reggie Bush, Pierre Thomas, and Ladell Betts make for a very nice running-back-by-committee setup for the Saints. Thomas should have the best season of those three, as Betts is more of a backup than a first option, and Bush hasn’t shown enough of a tough running style to make him a real feature back. Tight end Jeremy Shockey, while providing a big name, has actually never been a huge producer in the passing game at any point in his career, whether in the Big Apple or the Big Easy. There aren’t any huge names on the offensive line, but they do their job well enough to protect Brees. Defensively, The Saints looked porous at some times last season, while at other times, they were a turnover-creating machine. The specialty of the secondary certainly is forcing interceptions, as ageless free safety Darren Sharper is still one of the best ballhawks around (9 interceptions last year). His backup, second-year Malcolm Jenkins (a former corner), could produce some turnovers as well. The corners, Tracy Porter and Jabari Greer, are also proficient at forcing turnovers (Porter had 4 picks last year). The loss of Scott Fujita hurts their linebacking corps as the Saints didn’t really have anyone to replace him, but there are plenty of other solid players in the front seven (MLB Jonathan Vilma and DE Will Smith being the best of the bunch). Another important note is that return man Courtney Roby could definitely create a few points of his own this year, and he might make an impact in the passing game as well. PREDICTION: 12-4, division champs- the Saints will certainly put together a solid season offensively, but unless their defense can step up and do more than just create turnovers, they may have some problems getting past opponents in the playoffs.
NFC WEST- even weaker than the South is the West, with two teams fighting for a division title and having essentially no shot at a wild card berth if they don’t win the division. After the Cards and Niners are the horrific Rams (you have to pity Steven Jackson, who is basically their whole team at this point, and Sam Bradford, who may well get pummeled by opposing defensive lines), and the Seahawks, who could have some potential if their quarterback wasn’t aging Matt Hasselbeck (although the alternative for them is unproven Charlie Whitehurst).
Arizona Cardinals: Well… Super Bowl runner-ups two years ago, the Cards will have to fight just to win one of the weakest divisions out there. Without Kurt Warner, Anquan Boldin, Karlos Dansby, and Antrel Rolle, they will have an uphill battle to make it back to the playoffs. New quarterback Matt Leinart needs to prove that he’s not a bust, but he has not looked impressive in the preseason so far. It’s already a given that he won’t be as effective as Warner, but he’s also lost a key target in Anquan Boldin, who was dealt to the Ravens. Running backs Beanie Wells and Tim Hightower will share the workload, but it’s not hard to imagine that Wells will be getting the lion’s share of the carries by the end of the year, as he could really end up being a major impact player if he can stay healthy, which he had a tough time doing at Ohio St. The receivers aren’t bad, even without Boldin, as Larry Fitzgerald is still among the best in the game. However, Fitz will certainly see tougher coverages, and beyond number two man Steve Breaston, there isn’t too much else, as nobody after that has much, if any, experience (number three Early Doucet could be okay, though). In addition, this is an offense that doesn’t use tight ends much (Ben Patrick and Anthony Becht combined for under 20 grabs last year), so it will fall to the receiver to make the plays. The offensive line could be good as well, led by veteran guard Alan Faneca. The defensive line is good enough, with Calais Campbell being a solid young player and Darnell Dockett being a superb 3-4 end. However, the linebackers will miss Dansby sorely, and even though Joey Porter is a decent replacement, he’s a bit over the hill and likely won’t have a long future in Arizona. Worse yet, none of the other 3 starting backers are bigtime playmakers either. Even without Antrel Rolle, the secondary isn’t bad at all, as the Cards brought in Kerry Rhodes as a replacement, and now have Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, Adrian Wilson, and Rhodes holding down 3 of the spots in the starting secondary. Not too shabby. The second cornerback slot is a bit of a question mark, though. PREDICTION: 8-8, no playoffs- Matt Leinart is possibly the biggest question mark right now… if they had a true quarterback, they’d be a surefire playoff team and maybe even a Super Bowl contender.
San Francisco 49ers: Alex Smith will almost certainly be the key to their season. Maybe he’ll finally start to consistently play well, maybe he won’t, but the 49ers’ season hinges on that “maybe”. There are enough playmakers on the offense for him to have a big year, with Frank Gore, Michael Crabtree, and Vernon Davis being the best ones. However, receivers Josh Morgan and Ted Ginn Jr. could do some damage as well, as Ginn hasn’t shown all that much to this point in his career, but he’s still explosive and a fresh start in San Fran could do him some good. In the backfield, Gore will once again be the primary back, but the 49ers just added Brian Westbrook as well. Now, Westbrook doesn’t seem to have too much left in the tank, but who knows? Worst case scenario, he operates more as a receiving threat out of the backfield, giving Smith another weapon (Actually, the worst case scenario would involve him missing a ton of time to injuries… AGAIN). Also, rookies Mike Iupati and Anthony Davis both look like they could start immediately, providing a big boost to a previously mediocre line. On the defensive side of the ball, nobody really jumps out, except Patrick Willis, who has quickly become one of the best linebackers (and maybe even one of the best defensive players) in the league. After him, there aren’t too many big-impact guys on this defense… Nate Clements is still a pretty solid corner, and Taylor Mays has the athleticism to make some plays in his rookie season. Basically, the Niners’ defense isn’t great, but it’s not terrible either. It’ll keep them in enough games to give Alex Smith a chance to come through. PREDICTION: 10-6, playoffs- Last year, it was Vernon Davis who broke out for the Niners. This year, it’s Alex Smith’s turn, and it may be his last chance to do so. If he can, and there’s a good chance he will with the players surrounding him, then this team could win their weak division without breaking a sweat.
PLAYOFFS: (team in caps is predicted winner)
Wild Card Round - Eagles v. COWBOYS
- VIKINGS v. 49ers
Divisional Round - PACKERS v. Vikings
- COWBOYS v. Saints
NFC Championship - PACKERS v. Cowboys