The Favorites: Philadelphia Eagles and New York Giants
The Eagles have been the big winners of the free-agency period as they added CB Nnamdi Asomugha, QB Vince Young, DE Jason Babin and DL Cullen Jenkins. They also traded backup QB Kevin Kolb to Arizona for CB Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie. The result is a 10-6 team that has added four starters to a defense that needed a shot in the arm.
The only question on the Eagles is the offensive line, which has been a mess in preseason. Still, they were third in points scored (439) and second in yards gained (6,230) in 2010 and QB Michael Vick’s athleticism can hide some of the deficiencies on the line. With these free-agent additions, they potentially have a defense that can carry this team to a Super Bowl title.
The New York Giants were 10-6 last year, but it seemed liked a disappointment. They were 9-4 entering Week 15 with a chance to clinch the NFC East. They gave away a 31-10 fourth-quarter lead to the Eagles, losing 38-31. The Green Bay Packers destroyed them the following week 45-17. Those losses kept them out of the playoffs.
This team turned the ball over too much and made too many mistakes. They were second in the NFL in interceptions thrown (25) and led the league in total turnovers (42). They also ranked 16th in penalty yards per game (48.6). If this team is going to return to the playoffs, they have to stop making so many mistakes.
The Dark Horses: Dallas Cowboys and Washington Redskins
The Cowboys were expected to compete for a Super Bowl berth, but started the season 1-7. That led to the firing of head coach Wade Phillips and Jason Garrett led the team to a 5-3 record in the interim. That earned him a job in 2011.
The Cowboys still have a lot of talent on offense and if QB Tony Romo can stay healthy in 2011, that will help them compete for a playoff spot. However, he started six games last year and the Cowboys were just 1-5 in those games. The offensive line needs to be rebuilt and the pass defense must improve from 26th (3,894 yards allowed) if Romo is going to lead the Cowboys back to the playoffs.
The Redskins were the disaster of this division last year. They started the season 4-3 and were competitive in two of their losses, which were both by three points. They went on to finish the season 2-7 and ended up benching veteran QB Donovan McNabb. He was traded to Minnesota and the Redskins figure to go with QB John Beck this season.
Not only is their quarterback situation unsettled, but also they ranked 31st in passing yards allowed and 30th in rushing yards allowed. The move to a 3-4 defense did not work out in year one; the pressure is on head coach Mike Shanahan to move this team in the right direction. That is going to be a tough task; they are clearly the fourth team in this division.
The Favorites: New Orleans Saints and Atlanta Falcons
Both teams had one of the most entertaining divisional races last year, which was eventually won by the Falcons. However, neither team showed very well in the playoffs. The Saints lost a first-round game at 7-9 Seattle 41-36. The Falcons had a first-round bye, but were blown out by the Green Bay Packers at home in the Divisional Round 48-21. These two teams figure to be the class of the NFC South again.
New Orleans is led by an explosive offense with QB Drew Brees who has averaged 4,583 yards passing and 31 touchdown passes per season since coming to New Orleans in 2006. He has accumulated 34, 33 and 33 touchdown passes over the last three seasons. They also have a stable of running backs, led by veteran Pierre Thomas and rookie Mark Ingram.
If the Saints defense that ranked seventh in points allowed (307), fourth in yards allowed (4,900) and first in touchdown passes allowed (13) can keep its 2010 form, the Saints will be in the NFC playoff mix.
The Atlanta Falcons had a dilemma this offseason. The natural reaction is to overhaul the secondary when the team loses 48-21 in the playoffs and gives up 366 yards passing and three touchdowns in the playoffs. That game was turned on an interception thrown by QB Matt Ryan. WR Roddy White is one of the top weapons in the game and they have the running game secure with RB Michael Turner.
What they did not have was a serviceable receiver on the other side of the field. They attempted to fix that in April when they traded the farm for Julio Jones. If he can live up to his sixth overall pick status, the Falcons could emerge as an explosive offense. They were fifth in points scored last year, but only 16th in yards gained. He has the potential to open up their offense and finish in the top five in both categories.
The Dark Horses: Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Carolina Panthers
Most of the dark horses are teams that had losing records. However, the Buccaneers won 10 games last year, but failed to make the playoffs. They were an improved unit, but benefited from playing the NFC West. The Buccaneers were 9-1 against teams with losing records, but just 1-5 against teams with winning records.
They have a very talented offense led by QB Josh Freeman, RB LeGarrette Blount and WR Mike Williams. They are all young and the lockout was not what this team needed for their continued development. The Buccaneers will be back in playoff contention, but I do not think they make the jump until 2012.
The Panthers are in an impossible situation. They play in a division with three teams that won 10 games while they are in rebuilding mode. They had the worst record in the league last year in large part due to an offense that was 32nd in points scored (196) and yards gained (4,135). They drafted QB Cam Newton with the first pick, but he is going to struggle as he learns the NFL game. Time will tell if Newton can turn this franchise around, but he will not do it in 2011.
The Favorites: Green Bay Packers and Chicago Bears
The Packers are the defending Super Bowl champions and the Chicago Bears won the NFC North before losing to the Packers in the NFC North. They will be the two favorites in the division.
Packers QB Aaron Rodgers’ stock was rising before he led the Packers to the Super Bowl last year. He is only 27 years old and already being considered one of the elite quarterbacks in the NFL. LB Clay Matthews is already one of the best outside rushers and is only 25 years old. This team is loaded with young talent and could be in position to add to that Super Bowl title.
The Bears had a successful season, but a lot of things bounced the right way for them in 2010. They benefited from having very few injuries and even though they drew the second seed, they were able to host a 7-9 Seattle team in the playoffs.
There were still some flaws on this team, notably an offense that ranked 30th in yards gained. They attempted to rectify that by adding WRs Roy Williams and Sam Hurd in free agency; it remains to be seen if the former Cowboys can improve the offense in Chicago. The defense is still stellar, but MLB Brian Urlacher turned 33 years old this year and DE Julius Peppers turned 31 years old. The Bears need those two to stay healthy and on top of their game if the Bears are going to repeat as NFC North champions.
The Dark Horses: Detroit Lions and Minnesota Vikings
I really was impressed with how the Lions finished the 2010 season. They won their last four games of the season, including wins over the Super Bowl champion Packers and at the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who won 10 games. They added some nice pieces in the draft, most notably DT Nick Fairley. He is going to team with All-Pro DT Ndamukong Suh and they have the potential to have one of the toughest defensive lines in the NFL.
If QB Matthew Stafford can finally stay healthy, this team has a chance to compete for a playoff spot. They have been the most impressive team in preseason this year.
The Minnesota Vikings are only a year removed from the NFC Championship Game loss, but things have changed since that tough loss. QB Brett Favre played his 20th NFL season, but had only 11 touchdowns and 19 interceptions. The knee-jerk reaction would be to assume the he was the only problem and the addition of veteran QB Donovan McNabb could lead to a successful season.
The left side of the Vikings line has become old over the last couple of seasons. T Bryant McKinnie is no longer a Pro Bowl player and was released. G Steve Hutchinson is in decline. The defense put up good numbers last year, ranking ninth in passing yards allowed, ninth in rushing yards allowed and eighth overall. That run defense was their lowest rank since 2005.
This feels like a team whose window has closed and is going to have to make significant changes if they want to return to playoff form.
The Favorites: Arizona Cardinals and St. Louis Rams
I do not know if there can be a favorite in the NFC West, with the division being won by the Seahawks and their 7-9 record last season. The Arizona Cardinals were the back-to-back champions in 2008 and 2009 only to slip in 2010, due to some free-agency losses on defense and the retirement of QB Kurt Warner. Derek Anderson tried to replace him, as did John Skelton and Max Hall.
The trio combined for just 10 touchdown passes and 18 interceptions with Anderson leading the group in completion percentage (51.7) and QB rating (65.9). That prompted the Cardinals to trade for QB Kevin Kolb in the offseason. If he can bring stability to the offense, the Cardinals have enough other pieces to win the NFC West.
The St. Louis Rams had a chance to win the division last year, but lost the final game of the season to the Seattle Seahawks, which gave them a 7-9 record. The Rams figure to compete for the division this year, but they have a number of challenges. The only notable receiver they have added to date is Jacksonville Jaguars free-agent Mike Sims-Walker. They also drafted TE Lance Kendricks in the second round.
My fear is that with RB Steven Jackson turning 28 years old and approaching 2,000 career carries that he will not hold up for a full season. If he struggles with injuries this year, that is going to put a lot of pressure on Bradford to carry this offense.
The Dark Horses: Seattle Seahawks and San Francisco 49ers
I think the Seahawks have had a dreadful offseason. Anytime your team not only signs QB Tarvaris Jackson, but installs him as the starter, problems are on the way.
They did a nice job of adding WR Sidney Rice, but they gave him $18.5 million guaranteed to a player that has been injured in three of his four years in the NFL. The only season he stayed healthy was also the one season he had a good quarterback in Brett Favre. I think he is going to struggle to live up to that contract with Jackson as his quarterback.
I expect the Seahawks to have the same problems Arizona had transitioning from Warner to Anderson. QB Matt Hasselbeck is older and injury-prone, but he is infinitely better than Jackson.
The San Francisco 49ers are one of the big victims of the lockout. They were not able to land a veteran quarterback with West Coast experience and their veteran is the dreadful Alex Smith. The future is with second-round pick Colin Kaepernick. He probably will not be ready to start until halfway through the season. I think head coach Jim Harbaugh was a good hire, but it is going to take him a season or two to install his offense and move this team in the right direction.
Playoff Predictions: Seeds
1) New Orleans Saints (13-3)
2) Green Bay Packers (12-4)
3) Philadelphia Eagles (11-5)
4) Arizona Cardinals (8-8)
5) Atlanta Falcons (11-5)
6) Detroit Lions (10-6)
NFC Playoff Predictions
The Saints basically have the same roster as last year and the same coaching staff. They made some big improvements in their running game by drafting Ingram and adding Darren Sproles in free agency. They have a tough game at Green Bay to start the season, but even if they lose that game, I think they will be the class of the NFC. I look for the Saints to not only win the NFC South, but also finish with the best record in the NFC.
It is hard to believe that Rodgers has won a Super Bowl before winning a NFC North division title, but the Packers have been a Wild Card the last two years. I look for that to change, as this is one of the best young teams in football and the sky is the limit for them. They should win their first division title since 2007 and earn the other bye.
I think the Eagles have made a lot of great moves to put themselves in position to capture one of the top seeds in the NFC. The Eagles were 10-6 last year and a late-season collapse prevented them from capturing the second seed. As a result, they opened the playoffs against eventual Super Bowl champion Green Bay, instead of hosting the Seattle Seahawks in the second round.
The weakness for the Eagles was their defense and they went all out to improve that area. My concern is the offensive line and that QB Michael Vick is going to miss games this year. I think those concerns keep them from earning a first-round bye.
I had to pick someone to win the NFC West; it is hard to say there is a favorite when a 7-9 team won the division last year. I like what the Cardinals did by adding Kolb in free agency as they were already competitive in that division with Anderson.
The Rams are going to be the sexy pick with Bradford and some people are not going to realize how detrimental it will be for the Seahawks to have Jackson at quarterback. He will do for them what Anderson did for the Cardinals last year. I like the Cardinals to survive in this division.
I had a hard time picking the Wild Cards. I think there are five teams that you could pick to earn these two spots. The Chicago Bears were 10-6 last year, but their defense is another year older and I think they benefited from having no major injuries last year. I look for them to take a step back. The New York Giants were 10-6, but they are too careless with the football and make too many mental mistakes for my liking.
The Buccaneers are a 10-6 team that is on the rise, but they have a brutal schedule playing the Falcons and Saints twice and the NFC North. In addition, the AFC South does not have any free games on the schedule. The Buccaneers were only 1-5 against teams with winning records last year; I think the easy schedule inflated their record last year.
That leaves the Falcons and the Lions as the Wild Cards. The Falcons had the best record in the NFL and will take a step back with the tougher schedule. I still like them to earn a playoff spot; the addition of rookie WR Julio Jones should help the offense.
I am going out on a limb picking the Lions, but they won their last four games and made great improvements over the course of the season. They have been unbelievable in the preseason and appear ready to take the next step. They need Stafford to stay healthy, but I think the Lions are a team on the rise and will finally break through and earn a playoff spot.
In the playoffs, I like the Saints to host the Packers in the NFC Championship Game. I think the Saints prevail in that matchup; that is a tough team to play in the Superdome and I think the Saints will be able to run the ball better than the Packers in that game, which has the chance to be an epic one that goes down to the wire. Home field will be key; if the Packers earn the top seed and host the Saints, I predict the Packers to win that game at home.
That leaves me with a Super Bowl showdown between the Patriots and Saints, two teams that have veteran quarterbacks and coaching staffs that are very similar to last year. I think that continuity will serve them well in a regular season that is going to be impacted by the lockout.
The Patriots will be able to put up points against the Saints, but the Saints have the better secondary. I like the Saints to be able to put up a few more points and capture their second Super Bowl in three years. Brees will cement his place in Canton by beating the top two quarterbacks of this era is Super Bowls: New England’s Tom Brady and Indianapolis’ Peyton Manning.
NFC and Super Bowl Champion: New Orleans Saints
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