Here is my division by division breakdown of how things are going to end up in the NFC:
Green Bay: 10-6
How I See It:
Hampered by an injury-plagued season, off-field distractions, and growing pains at QB, the Packers lost seven games in 2008 by a touchdown or less, finishing with a disappointing 6-10 record.
This year, buoyed by a healthy Ryan Grant, who will have a breakout year, Aaron Rodgers, who will be nominated for MVP, and an ability to fly under the radar (due to the expectations heaped onto the Bears and Vikings), Green Bay will win the division.
Dom Capers has come in to implement the 3-4 defense, and though preseason success is not a great indicator, the transition appears to be seamless and effective. I'm big on The Pack this season.
Call me crazy, but I don’t believe all the hype surrounding the Vikings.
How will the players react when they win a few games and Brett Favre gets all the credit? Is there really a schism in the locker room fueled by angry Tavaris Jackson supporters? Can they trust a then-40 year old Favre late in the season after skipping training camp and offseason conditioning?
Not to mention the guy STILL HAS A PARTIAL TEAR IN HIS ROTATOR CUFF, which, common sense tells me, will probably have an effect on his throws. Too many questions; too much turmoil.
It would not surprise me to see the Vikings completely implode and have Favre leave behind another disaster at the end of the season. But with one of the best O-lines in the game, an elite running back with Adrian “All-Day” Peterson, and a defense that you can’t run on, the Vikes will be on the playoff bubble down the stretch.
The Bears have added another gunslinger to the division in Jay Cutler, who they hope will give them the big play ability that Kyle Orton could not provide.
Greg Olsen is going to have a monster year and Matt Forte should be great again, but Cutler doesn’t have the WR weapons he had in Chicago, and he has a "throw-now, think-later" attitude.
The Bears D is no longer amongst the league’s elite, so I see a solid team that will compete for the wild card, but no world-beating division winner that some predicted when Cutler arrived.
After an 0-16 season and everything negative surrounding the Lions lately, I figured I’d start with some positives. [Insert corny joke about how the Lions will win more games than they did last year.]
Calvin Johnson (aka Megatron) is an absolute freak, they have a franchise QB, and Kevin Smith is an underrated back. But they have no defense whatsoever, questions on both lines, rookies at the QB, Head Coach, and GM positions, and a lack of “big uglies” to win the little battles in the trenches.
When a team fails to win a game, it makes sense to clean house and bring in new players to change the culture. What I don’t understand is why the Lions would turn over almost 30 roster spots to veterans from other teams.
If you are going to rebuild, get some young, hungry players you can mold; don’t get veteran cast-offs from the trash heap to tide you over. All this spells another futile season in the Motor City—they won’t win any division games, but they should win a few overall.
New Orleans: 10-6
How I See It:
Last year this division featured three great offenses—the league’s leading passer, a rookie QB who shattered expectations (and now has more weapons), and a John Fox-coached team with a nasty two-headed running attack.
The only certainty here is that Tampa Bay will finish last; other than that you could make a case for any of the other three winning the division.
Since their run to the NFC Championship game in 2006, the Saints have not been back to the playoffs; you can’t blame it on a lack of offense…theirs might be the best in the league.
Drew Brees throwing to a healthy Marques Colston, Pierre Thomas becoming a top tier back with the shifty Reggie Bush catching passes out of the backfield, a healthy Jeremy Shockey to compliment the deep-passing attack of Devery Henderson and Lance Moore…sick.
Greg Williams was brought in to take over the defense and help this team become playoff-caliber, and though Charles Grant and Will Smith, both starting defensive ends, are suspended for four games, a manageable schedule early on should help them get through it mostly unscathed.
You can’t say enough about the emergence of Matt Ryan last year, as he led the Falcons on a helluva run to the playoffs.
Michael Turner became a stud at running back, Roddy White emerged as an elite WR in his third year, and in the offseason they added one of the best tight ends ever in Tony Gonzalez… plus I love the nickname “Matty Ice” because it reminds me of college binge-drinking.
This team will be fantastic on offense, but I'm not 100 percent sold on their defense, mainly because John Abraham almost single-handedly created their pass rush last year. The secondary is also without playmakers, and there is a general lack of depth.
The Panthers will look to a familiar formula to win games this year: run the ball and play good defense. DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart (currently somewhat hampered by an Achilles injury) provide a formidable rushing attack, and Steve Smith is one of the best big-play receivers in the game.
But in this high-scoring division, the pressure will be on Jake Delhomme to perform with a dearth of options (other than the aforementioned Smith). Delhomme had a looooong offseason to think about his absolutely dreadful playoff performance against Arizona last year.
The essential questions are:
1) Can he rebound enough to keep pace with Drew Brees and Matt Ryan?
2) Can the Panthers stay healthy enough to make up for a lack of depth? I say not enough in either case—they will miss the playoffs.
The Buccaneers are a mess: they fired their offensive coordinator a week before the regular season, their QB situation is dreadful (Byron Leftwich holding down the starting gig until the coach decides it’s time to give Josh Freeman the reigns), and they have nothing remaining from the once-dominant defense that was largely responsible for their success.
Cadillac Williams, Derrick Ward, and Earnest Graham make for a great backfield, but how do you spread out those carries? Not to mention that without a passing game, they will see eight in the box all season, and may not win a division game.
New York: 10-6
How I See It:
The NFC East is perennially a tough division to predict, with three conference powerhouses that usually account for two playoff spots. This season I like the uber-talented Eagles to take the crown.
The only knock on Brian Westbrook, ever-present on the injury list, is usually his ability to stay healthy.
So Philly went out and spent a second round draft choice on LeSean McCoy, the shifty, wildcat-running tailback out of Pitt. He is a perfect complement to Westbrook, and gives an offense that already featured Donovan McNabb and speedster DeSean Jackson even more options.
I don’t want to overstate Michael Vick’s presence, because I don’t think he will be able to regain his Pro Bowl form this season, but he will definitely be someone defense's will have to account for at all times, and will provide the Eagles with a significant boost to their red zone offense.
The defense will have to overcome the passing away of former defensive coordinator Jim Johnson, and will be without a staple in Brian Dawkins, but I think the group will rally and be effective as usual.
The Giants feature one of the best defenses in the league, a downright scary front-four, and a running game anchored by the smash-mouth Brandon Jacobs and the electrifying Ahmad Bradshaw.
Eli Manning has turned into a reliable and steady QB, and needs to continue to make smart decisions and be patient with a young receiving core lacking a legit No. 1.
Look for Manning to turn to TE Kevin Boss in the red zone, and the Giants to play the field position game and wear down opponents with a punishing D and solid special teams. My only concern is who they will turn to when they need a big play late in an important game.
I see the Cowboys as a less talented version of the New York Giants—they are going to try to win with defense and a running game, but I just don’t think they are as good.
They probably do have a better receiving core with Jason Witten and Roy E. Williams, and a comparable running game with Marian Barber and Felix Jones, but I just don’t trust their defense enough, and Tony Romo perennially has a meltdown in December.
In another division they might be able to get into the playoffs, but in this one they will end up on the outside looking in.
Another team that could potentially contend in a weaker division is the Redskins. They upgraded an already above-average defense with Albert Haynesworth, but they just don’t have enough on offense to do much damage against the big boys.
Clinton Portis will be solid as usual (did you know he had almost 1,500 yards and nine TD’s last year?), and TE Chris Cooley is a great short option to balance the speedy deep threat in Santana Moss, but then when you remember that Jason Campbell is the QB and the O-line is inconsistent, you will nod your head in agreement that this team will finish last in the division.
San Francisco: 7-9
St. Louis: 4-12
How I See It:
The Seahawks are due good karma after last year's debacle. Plagued by so many injuries that they considered calling Keanu Reeves after his convincing performance in “The Replacements,” Seattle is healthy again, and reloaded their offense with some ammunition.
This team is stacked with receiving options after adding TJ Houshmandzadeh (holy crap that is hard to type), to go along with John Carlson, who had a breakout year, Deion Branch, and Nate Burleson.
I worry a bit about the running game with Julius Jones and Edgerrin James, but their division rivals are weak against the run, and a passing game with the potential to be lethal should open up lanes.
The Cardinals surpassed all expectations last year with a surprising run to the Super Bowl, catapulting Larry Fitzgerald into super-stardom, and enabling Kurt Warner to shatter the all-time record for most live television shoutouts to God.
First round draft pick Beanie Wells will team with Tim Hightower to improve their running game, but their defense will again be their Achilles heel. My beef with the Cards is my inability to trust the 38-year old Warner to stay healthy, and the lack of a competent back-up QB.
Don’t get me wrong, I’d love to party and down beer-bongs with Matt Leinart, but I wouldn’t want the fate of my team resting in his hands. I think Warner gets banged up, the D is below-average, and Fitzgerald sees double coverage the second he gets off the team bus.
The 49ers are a potential sleeper this season if things go their way with their new game plan and attitude under Mike Singletary.
Frank Gore and Glen Coffee will be the workhouses in the new, run-first offense, as the underrated Shaun Hill (7-3 as a starter) will be asked to manage the game rather than air it out like last year under Mike Martz. Not to mention the Niners will be in most games because of their defense.
The question mark will be whether they can punch the ball in the end zone when they need to, and if they have the firepower to rally and come back from an early deficit. I like them to hang around and be a tough team to play, but I can’t predict a .500 season for a team lacking overwhelming talent on both sides of the ball.
Rookie coach Steve Spagnuolo will be looking for baby steps in his first season with the Rams.
Steven Jackson is a great back, but has missed four games in each of the past two seasons. QB Marc Bulger has deep threat Donnie Avery at WR, but he will now see double coverage and they have no other weapons to speak of.
Spagnuolo, known for his defensive genius with the extremely talented New York Giants, is going to have his work cut out for him with a weak secondary and a lack of a top tier pass rush. He may change the culture in St. Louis and improve some little things, but I don’t think it will translate into a boost in the standings.