NFC East (predicted order of finish and records)
Dallas Cowboys (11-5) — An unexpected late season push propelled this usually dormant December team into the playoffs last season, and by all means, that momentum should continue this season. Dallas is loaded from top to bottom, and led by their steadily improving quarterback, Tony Romo. They are the team in this division with the fewest questions, and though they are beat up on the offensive line, their defense should be able to compensate and aid the Cowboys to their third division title in four years.
New York Giants (9-7) — A string of four consecutive playoff appearances was snapped last season thanks to a 3-8 finish by Big Blue, but with a new defensive coordinator and plan, New York should be able to regain their strength from their Super Bowl run of a few seasons back. It is doubtful that last season’s mediocrity was indicative of a team on the decline, mostly since their offensive skill players are young, talented, and improving, hopefully leading this consistent Giant squad back to the postseason.
Washington Redskins (8-8) — The change in culture and the bringing in of McNabb and Shanahan should be enough to make last year’s 4-12 dismal Redskin squad considerably better. The Haynesworth situation has become quite the headache for a team that doesn’t need one at all. Also, they still play in the most competitive division in football, and though a case can be made that any of these teams can win it, their offensive and defensive units as whole aren’t as good as either Dallas’ or New York’s.
Philadelphia Eagles (7-9) — The Eagles are a team that usually plays to the opposite of their expectations, but rarely do they experience a transitional year such as the one they are about to. Mainstays of their franchise, McNabb and Westbrook, are gone, and the reigns will be handed over to young Kevin Kolb, about whom the jury is still out. They are essentially rebuilding by their standards, and though they are not a playoff team in the estimation of most, they could be in the market for eight or nine victories.
NFC North (predicted order of finish and records)
Minnesota Vikings (12-4) — Everyone loves the Packers in this division, but consider the Vikings. I’m not sure Brett Favre would have returned if he did not think this team did not have a legitimate shot at the winning the Super Bowl, of which it came seconds shy last season. Adrian Peterson is as good as ever, and though the Vikings have undoubtedly been affected by injury prior to the season’s start, their front four is among the league’s best and could lead Minnesota to a place they’ve never been before.
Green Bay Packers (11-5) — The Packers are certainly a team on the rise, and come into 2010 as a trendy pick to go the Super Bowl. The development of Aaron Rodgers into one of the league’s best quarterbacks has been spectacular, and a defense that thrived on takeaways last year should do more of the same and account for a few wins on its own. Special teams were a big weakness for a team whose offense and defense led them to the playoffs, but they should be able to put it all together here in 2010.
Chicago Bears (8-8) — It will be incredibly tough for the Bears to do anything of note this year, mostly because they’ll be looking up at the two best teams in the NFC. They have some interesting, but talented pieces, from Cutler to Peppers to Forte, and in the opinion of most they will be fine on defense. As hard as they try, their firepower on offense is lax to say the least, especially with the turnover problems a season ago. Expect a season similar to last one for Chicago, one where they linger in mediocrity.
Detroit Lions (4-12) — It’s about time that all of these high draft picks start paying off for the Lions, and even though they should improve this year, they’re still very young and inexperienced and in another tough NFC North. They’ve put all of their trust in young Matthew Stafford, a no-brainer move, but he’s still only in his second year. A fruitful offseason definitely gives them some experience, most notably on defense, but Detroit has too many holes on both sides of the ball to be competitive this season.
NFC South (predicted order of finish and records)
New Orleans Saints (11-5) — The champs are definitely the team to beat in the mercurial NFC South. The team that won it all returns most of their important players and their coaching staff, and though most times it is incredibly difficult to repeat in the NFL, the Saints may be cut out to do just that this year. We’ll see more video-game numbers from Drew Brees and his explosive arsenal of offensive weapons. Beware of the unlikely Super Bowl hangover for this lock to return to playoffs and do damage in them.
Atlanta Falcons (9-7) — Another trendy pick to be an NFL elite this year, the Falcons come off of a 9-7 campaign where they lost both their starting quarterback and running back. If any team has the potential to overtake New Orleans, it is absolutely the Falcons, but most of this hope is based in their young defensive core and potentially huge upside. Injuries were a major factor in Atlanta’s downfall last year, and though they may not be a powerhouse, they should challenge for an NFC Wild Card spot.
Carolina Panthers (7-9) — A disappointing 8-8 campaign just one year after a 12-4 has quickly turned John Fox into a lame duck coach, and the margin for error is especially small with a young quarterback in Matt Moore, who did play well last season, but does not have much experience. Their two-headed running attack is clearly the strength of their offense, but their defense could struggle big time. This roster may not stand out as anything special, but the Panthers always find a way to stay competitive.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers (3-13) — Let the disaster continue by the Bay, as the Bucs are fully submerged in a phase of rebuilding. Things can’t go worse than the lowly 3-13 Tampa posted in 2008, but I wouldn’t expect them to go much better. There are next to no expectations for Raheem Morris’ squad, with youngsters a plenty on both sides of the ball. They have some young building blocks, but they won’t come close to cracking the cellar and won’t dream of reaching .500 for a few more seasons at least.
NFC West (predicted order of finish and records)
Arizona Cardinals (9-7) — Yes, they’ve lost Warner, Boldin, Rolle, and Dansby, just to name a few. However, this NFC West may be one of the worst divisions in recent NFL memory. Furthermore, I’ll take the veteran leadership of Fitzgerald and Arizona over the youth and potential of San Francisco any day. I’ll admit that the quarterback situation might come back to be disastrous for the Cardinals, but we’ve seen too much perseverance and fortitude from Arizona for them to come up short this season.
San Francisco 49ers (7-9) — Most say there’s no quarterback controversy with Alex Smith at the helm, but that may just be by default. The remainder of their offense has the potential to be propelled by youth; however, the Niners didn’t shore up their weaknesses on defense, especially in the secondary. There is a decent chance that San Francisco lives up to the hype that most are projecting upon them this season, and the division title will likely be decided by two matchups with Arizona in the final six weeks.
Seattle Seahawks (5-11) — The Seahawks reek of a team that will be pretty bad for years to come, as they are just in the earliest stages of rebuilding. They may have the most experience group in the division, especially at quarterback; however, Seattle just isn’t very good, with a desperate running back and wide receiver situation. It’s not just this; their defense has the potential to be putrid, but there is also a chance that Pete Carroll can straighten things out right away and return the Seahawks to winning ways.
St. Louis Rams (3-13) — It’s actually pretty hard to go 1-15, but the hideous Rams managed to do it, and for the fourth straight year, they will have three wins or less. Steven Jackson is buried on this awful team, but it will be intriguing to see the play of No. 1. overall pick Sam Bradford in his rookie season. An easier schedule could see St. Louis grabbing another win or two, but the master plan is to break it down a little bit more and find some defensive counterparts for Bradford with high draft picks in coming years.
NFC's Top 10 Offensive Players
1) Aaron Rodgers, QB - Green Bay
2) Drew Brees, QB - New Orleans
3) Adrian Peterson, RB - Minnesota
4) Larry Fitzgerald, WR - Arizona
5) Tony Romo, QB - Dallas
6) Brett Favre, QB - Minnesota
7) Steven Jackson, RB - St. Louis
8) Frank Gore, RB - San Francisco
9) Calvin Johnson, WR - Detroit
10) Miles Austin, WR - Dallas
NFC's Top 10 Defensive Players
1) Jared Allen, DE - Minnesota
2) Patrick Willis, LB - San Francisco
3) Charles Woodson, CB - Green Bay
4) DeMarcus Ware, LB - Dallas
5) Julius Peppers, DE - Chicago
6) Adrian Wilson, S - Arizona
7) Kevin Williams, DT - Minnesota
8) Jay Ratliff, DT - Dallas
9) Jon Beason, LB - Carolina
10) Justin Tuck, DE - New York