Thursday, September 8, 2011

NFL Preview Part 2: NFC Edition

Time for Part 2 of my NFL Preview.

The NFC is a completely different conference than the AFC. In the AFC, there is really only 7 or 8 teams that have a shot at making the playoffs. The NFC is much different. As a matter of fact, the only teams I'd guarantee won't make the playoffs in the NFC are the Washington Redskins, Carolina Panthers, Minnesota Vikings, and San Francisco 49ers. All the other teams in the NFC West have a shot at winning the division, that's why I didn't include them. The NFC is full of a handful of powerhouse teams, and a lot of young and up-and-coming teams like the Rams, Buccaneers, and Lions. All of those teams will be looking to get to the playoffs this year. All of the division races are open except for maybe the NFC North, the Packers look to have a stranglehold on that one. So, lets get right into the preview.

NFC East
1. Philadelphia Eagles
-There's a lot of hype surrounding this team this year. Vince Young called them the "Dream Team." That may be taking it a bit too far. It'll be interesting to see if all of these stars in one place will be able to gel together. Mike Vick will be the key to all of it. Vince Young is a question mark as a back-up. If Vick can stay healthy the team will succeed. DeSean Jackson is a playmaker at WR and always finds a way to make a big play. Ronnie Brown will be a good compliment to LeSean McCoy at running back. Defensively, if this was Madden, nobody would be able to throw on their secondary. Nnmandi Asomugha, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, and Asante Samuel make up one of the best trio of cornerbacks ever assembled. The team also added Jason Babin and Cullen Jenkins to beef up the defensive line. There's no reason the Eagles shouldn't win the NFC East this year with all the talent they have. It all depends on everyone gelling as a unit, remaining healthy, and Andy Reid not making questionable coaching decisions. But there my pick in the NFC East.

2. Dallas Cowboys
-The Cowboys went through a less than stellar season last year. A season ending injury to Tony Romo pretty much ended their season. With Romo back, and Jason Garrett now the permanent head coach, the Cowboys look to rebound this year. Romo has all of his primary weapons back. He should rely on his solid WR combo of Miles Austin and Dez Bryant heavily. Felix Jones will now have to shoulder the load at RB with Marion Barber gone, and there are questions about if Jones can handle that. The Cowboys brought in Rob Ryan to run the defense and hopefully shore up the holes that were exposed last year, especially in the secondary. The addition of safety Abram Elam should help that. The pass rush will remain strong with DeMarcus Ware in the fold. The defense returns 10 of 11 starters, so the Cowboys hope a change of attitude with Ryan will be enough to turn things around. The Cowboys will obviously be better than last year, but I still think they fall just short of the playoffs.

3. New York Giants
-The Giants are already dealing with a ton of injuries, especially on defense. There secondary is depleted, they already lost DT Marvin Austin, and DE Osi Umenyiora won't be ready for Week 1. That could mean trouble for the defense early on, even with LB Mathias Kiwanuka returning from last year's neck injury. Defensive Coordinator Perry Fewell has a lot to deal with. On offense, Eli Manning lost two of his favorite targets in WR Steve Smith and TE Kevin Boss. The Giants hope WR Mario Manningham can step up and fill the void left by those departures. The Giants return the RB combo of Ahmad Bradshaw and Brandon Jacobs and hope they can continue their 4.5+ yard per carry average. If the Giants don't make the playoffs this year, which I think they won't, there will be some people calling for Tom Coughlin's head, and Bill Cowher or Jon Gruden to replace him.

4. Washington Redskins
-The Redskins completely overhauled their offense this off-season. Out are QB Donovan McNabb and RB Clinton Portis, in our QB Rex Grossman and RB Tim Hightower. Grossman won the QB battle over John Beck in training camp. That doesn't mean he will hold onto it. Grossman has a history of inconsistent play. Hightower shined in the pre-season after being stuck behind Beanie Wells in Arizona. WR Santana Moss is the only reliable staple of the offense. TE Chris Cooley didn't play all pre-season due to injury, so he may be rusty early on. The defense is anchored by Pro Bowl LBs London Fletcher and Brian Orakpo. The Redskins gave up the worst yards per game average in the NFC last year, mostly due to their transition to a 3-4 defense. They could struggle again, because the defense has four new starters this off-season. The Redskins will struggle because the NFC East may be the toughest division in football. Six wins for the Redskins may be considered an achievement.

NFC North
1. Green Bay Packers
-This pick was easy for me. The defending Super Bowl champs return almost every starter from last season. They also have a ton of guys coming back from injury that missed the Super Bowl last year. RB Ryan Grant and TE Jermichael Finley will be added pieces for QB Aaron Rodgers to play with this year. Rodgers has an array of WRs at his disposal at well, including Greg Jennings, Donald Driver, James Jones, and Jordy Nelson. The offensive line is a bit of a question mark. LT Chad Clifton is getting up there in age and has knee issues. Rodgers scrambled a lot last year and there's always a concern of injury with a shaky O-Line. The only loss on defense for the Packers was DE Cullen Jenkins, but that's only a small piece. LB Clay Matthews, CB Charles Woodson, and DT B.J. Raji all are Pro Bowl level players that at times seem unstoppable on defense. The Packers should continue to have one of the best teams in the NFL and tere's no reason to think they can't repeat as Super Bowl Champions. They did with a lot of injuries last year, who knows what they can do with a fully healthy team.

2. Detroit Lions- Wild Card
-Lots of people like the Lions this year. I usually don't like hoping on a hype team's bandwagon, but I'm part of the bandwagon this year. The Lions, IF they can stay healthy, will be a force to be reckoned with this year. Everything, however, rests on the right shoulder of QB Matthew Stafford. Stafford has struggled to stay healthy his whole career. But he's the main piece to the puzzle. If Stafford plays a full 16 game season, there's no reason to think the Lions can't compete for a playoff spot. It helps having WR Calvin Johnson as your primary weapon as well. The team hopes TE Brandon Pettigrew continues to improve, and WR Nate Burleson builds on his strong pre-season. RB Jahvid Best, like Stafford, needs to stay healthy as well after rookie RB Michael Leshoure was lost in training camp to a torn Achilles. The defense will be vastly improved as well. Second year DT Ndamakong Suh looks like a beast inside, as long as he doesn't continue his questionable hits. Rookie DT Nick Fairley will also help when healthy. The Lions also added LB Stephen Tulloch and LB Justin Durant to shore up that position. If all the pieces fall into place, the Lions will surprise a lot of people this year and compete for a playoff spot. I think it happens.

3. Chicago Bears
-Despite making it to the NFC Championship game last season, the Bears had a bit of a tumultuous off-season. They released 14 year C Olien Kreutz, which caused some people in the locker room to speak out. Then RB Chester Taylor said he was disgruntled and was released. Now, LB Lance Briggs has asked permission to seek a trade, and RB Matt Forte and the organization have cut off contract talks for the rest of the year. One has to think that might be a distraction this year. Oh, and lets not forget QB Jay Cutler and his knee injury dilemma from that NFC Championship game. It could all finally add up this year for the Bears. WR Roy Williams was brought in to help Cutler but has pretty much already lost his starting job after disappearing in the pre-season. The Bears defense should remain strong, but they are also getting up there in age. Briggs, LB Brian Urlacher, DE Julius Peppers, DE Israel Idonije, and DB Mike Adams are all 30+ in age. I think the Bears take a step back this year, especially with the Lions looking better than ever.

4. Minnesota Vikings
-Sorry Vikings fans, but not even Adrian Peterson can save you guys this season. I'm of the believe that QB Donovan McNabb doesn't have a whole lot left in the tank. You could make an argument that he is the worst QB in the league. I would not be surprised to see rookie Christian Ponder by the end of the year. The Vikings also lost WR Sidney Rice this off-season, which will allow more teams to focus on Adrian Peterson. If Percy Harvin struggles with migraines again, McNabb will almost no weapons at his disposal. Charlie Johnson replaces Bryant McKinnie at LT, but that may not be too much of an upgrade. The defense got rid of NT Pat Williams, and DT Kevin Williams is suspended for the first two games. DE Jarred Allen will be the key to the pass rush. The Vikings just seem like a team with one star player, and a bunch of aging veterans who are just there to fill in the gaps temporarily.

NFC South
1. New Orleans Saints
-I like the Saints to bounce back from their early playoff exit last year. Drew Brees shouldn't lose a step at all. He's still one of the elite quarterbacks in the league. The Saints upgraded their backfield this season, adding rookie runner Mark Ingram and former Chargers speedster Darren Sproles. The Saints also have a plethora of WRs and TEs and Brees disposal. The Saints defense failed them in their playoff game last year, and the Saints added some pieces there via free agency. They beefed up their defensive line by adding Shaun Rogers and Aubrayo Franklin. The Saints have a rough early 3 game stretch, starting at Green Bay then home games against Chicago and Houston. They'll need to start strong and not falter early on, otherwise it could be a long road back.

2. Atlanta Falcons: Wild Card
-The Falcons offense is just as good as the Saints is. Matt Ryan is not Drew Brees, but he is a very effective and efficient passer. And just like Brees, Ryan has an array of weapons at his disposal. RB Michael Turner shoulders a good load of the work on offense. He's usually a 20 carry a game back. WR Roddy White is one of the best in the league, and he should have some pressure taken off of him this season with rookie Julio Jones opposite him. Jones could be a game breaker for the Falcons. The team added DE Ray Edwards on defense to help John Abraham put more pressure on the passer. The Falcons will also look for improved play from their secondary, which was torched badly by the Packers in the playoffs last year. I expect the Falcons to be right there with the Saints for the division crown, but in the end, I think the Saints have a few more weapons then the Falcons. Falcons still get in as a Wild Card though.

3. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
-The Bucs are one of those young up-and-coming teams I talked about in the intro. They have young players QB Josh Freeman, RB LeGarrette Blount, and WR Mike Williams. That is a talented trio to build around in Tampa. Add in TE Kellen Winslow and that is a pretty good offense. The Bucs offense won't surprise people anymore so they will have to up their game this year. The Bucs spent their first two picks in the Draft on rookie DEs Adrian Clayborn and Da'Quan Bowers. If Bowers stays healthy he could be a steal in the second round. They should help DT Gerald McCoy on the defensive line. The Bucs have a tough schedule this year, including home prime time games against Indianapolis and Dallas. The Bucs should still be competitive this year, but I think they're still one year away from division title contention.

4. Carolina Panthers
-The Panthers have some weapons on offense, including RBs DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart, and WR Steve Smith. But they also have a starting rookie QB in Cam Newton. While Newton could be good down the line, he will more than likely struggle this season as most rookie QBs do. Newton should show flashes of his play making ability that made him the #1 overall pick. Newton will also benefit from having one of the best offensive lines in the league, anchored by Jordan Gross and Jeff Otah. The defense is expected to be more blitz heavy under new coach Ron Rivera. They spent a lot of money to re-sign Charles Johnson, Jon Beason and others. The Panthers may struggle early on, but if they come together late, they may surprise a few teams late in the season.

NFC West
1. Arizona Cardinals
-It is more than likely now or never for coach Ken Wisenhunt. He has a veteran QB back with him in Kevin Kolb. Kolb should be able to connect easily with WR Larry Fitzgerald, who signed a monster contract this off-season. The Cardinals also added TE Todd Heap to give Kolb an extra weapon. Kolb connected with TE Brent Celek a lot in Philly, he should do the same with Heap here. The Cardinals also just added RB Chester Taylor in case Beanie Wells falters or gets hurt again. Smart move on their part. The Cardinals are hoping the defense rebounds after a poor year. The defensive line remains strong with Darnell Dockett and Calais Campbell. Safeties Adrian Wilson and Kerry Rhodes should be helped by the addition of rookie CB Patrick Peterson. I like the Cards slightly better than the Rams here.

2. St. Louis Rams
-The Rams have a bright future ahead. With QB Sam Bradford at the helm, things have to look good. A healthy Steven Jackson will help Bradford out, as should new offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels. One player to watch here is TE Lance Kendricks, who has had a stellar pre-season. The Rams should also have a strong offensive line this season. The defense is lead by youngsters Chris Long and James Laurinaitis. The Rams will also need their secondary to step up their game this year. The Rams also have a brutal schedule to start, with home games against Philly and Baltimore, and a road game sandwiched in against the Giants. If the Rams start slow, they could be doomed.

3. Seattle Seahawks
-The Seahawks won the division last year at 7-9, but they may be worse this year. Tavaris Jackson is the team's new QB, and he may be worse than Matt Hasselbeck. The Hawks also added WR Sidney Rice to help Jackson, but Rice is already battling an injury this season. If Marshawn Lynch can build off his big playoff performance, he should be able to help take some pressure off Jackson. The Seahawks defense was torched in the playoffs last year, and they will need to be better all around. With two good QBs now in the division, they will need to improve or there will be a lot of shootouts in the future.

4. San Francisco 49ers
-New coach John Harbaugh has a lot on his plate. Alex Smith was named the starting QB, but don't be surprised if rookie Colin Kapernick is in there by years end. Smith hasn't proven anything in the league and has yet to put together a complete, solid season. Frank Gore is expected to shoulder a good load of work at RB. Smith will look to TE Vernon Davis the most. Patrick Willis is one of the best LBs in the league and leads the defense, but they also added and subtracted a lot of personnel this off-season. Gone are CB Nate Clements and LB Takeo Spikes, in are S Madieu Williams and CB Carlos Rogers. The 49ers may benefit from being in a weak division, but they're the weakest of the bunch and I expect them to struggle, especially early.

Wild Card Round
Atlanta Falcons over Arizona Cardinals
New Orleans Saints over Detroit Lions

Divisional Round
Philadelphia Eagles over Atlanta Falcons
Green Bay Packers over New Orleans Saints

Conference Championship
Green Bay Packers over Philadelphia Eagles

Super Bowl
Baltimore Ravens over Green Bay Packers

Thursday Night Pick
New Orleans Saints vs Green Bay Packers
Both teams have strong defenses, but I'm expecting a shootout here. Offense always outshines the defense early in the season. Both teams are equally as strong across the board, but the home field advantage will help the Packers here, so I'm taking them.

Green Bay 31  New Orleans 24

That's all from me. I'll have my normal wrestling column up Saturday, as well as the rest of my Week 1 picks.

Until next time,
Justin C
Follow Me on Twitter @JCWonka

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