NFC PREVIEW: Cause previews the NFC
Let’s start with the NFC. Plenty of off season stories out of the NFC: how much can Michael Vick help an Eagles team that came close to firing their coach and dumping their starting quarterback? Can the upstart Cardinals repeat their bottled magic or will they continue the streak of Big Game losers who miss the playoffs the following year? Oh, and just who is this number 4 starting for the Vikings? (Because surely it can’t be John David Booty…)
This might be the most over rated division in football. Yes, all the teams are decent. I could make the case for every team to win. But do you really want to hitch your Super Bowl wagon to any of them? Like dating Lindsey Lohan, there are plenty of strengths, but it’s the lingering questions for each team that really bring down the overall quality. But someone has to win, so…
1) Philadelphia Eagles – Andy Reid gave Donovan McNabb the hook in a game down the stretch of last season. But instead of it being one of the last meaningful coaching decisions of his long tenure in Philly, it actually inspired them as a team. They were a dangerous team heading into the playoffs. But luckily for their opponents, the real Andy Reid showed up. The one who can’t run the ball or manage the clock and they were bounced.
THE SWEET: (I can’t even believe I’m going to write this…) Michael Vick. If Vick went somewhere like Buffalo, there’s no way he makes an impact. (Especially not in a “Pop Warner offense.”) But in Philly, Reid can come up with schemes and tricks that could give defensive coordinators nightmares on Saturday nights. They have a firmly entrenched QB, despite one half last season, so there is no concern over a controversy. He just needs to be a solid citizen. And who can’t envision that?
THE NASTY: The loss of defensive coordinator Jim Johnson. He was the heart and soul of each and every blitz the Eagles ran. He is the reason the Eagles made it to 4 straight NFC Title games. And this is not the same thing as Rex Ryan leaving the Ravens to take the head job in NY. Johnson died. I think this is one of the most over looked developments for the Eagles heading into the season.
PREDICTION: I don’t love the Eagles, but I think they have the most complete team in the division. Health is always a factor, but at least there are some younger options in place if Brian Westbrook and McNabb have their annual flirtation with the Injury Whore.
2) NY Giants – Despite the cries of certain fans (cue the “We were the best team…” quote), the Giants were not the best team last year. It’s hard to rebound when your best WR shoots himself in the leg in a club as you enter the stretch run of the season. Not that it was a distraction in the media capital of the world. No, No…Not at all. Good thing they have the highest paid quarterback in the league. Sorry. The highest paid PLAYER in the league. The same player who is owned in 75% in FoxSports.com leagues and whose average draft position is…107. Good luck, Giants fans.
THE SWEET: D-fence. Their defensive line is scary good. With Osi Umenyora back, along side Justin Tuck, tackles around the NFC should buckle up that chin strap extra tight. They will constantly force offenses to keep a fullback in to block and keep the pressure on opposing QB’s. The linebackers are fast and mean and make up for an average defensive backfield. But get used to the terms, “quick release” and “quarter back hits” while watching Giants games.
THE NASTY: Wide Receivers. Some heralded group. It’s like the Giants front office watched film of the Eagles NFC Championship Game runs and said, “We can do that!” Who’s the #1? The slot? The breakaway threat? They picked Hakeem Nicks early in the draft, hoping he’d be the guy and not one report has him as the next Plaxico. Or the next Amani Toomer, for that matter. You pay all that money for Eli Manning to stay, and then give him a bunch of stiffs to throw to. And let’s face it, its not like Manning is an open receiver finding machine…
PREDICTION: The Giants will reach double digit wins this year by playing old school, visually-boring, grind-it-out football. Lots of running and lots of defense. Will that be enough in January? Probably not. But Eli can fan himself on a tropical island with $100 bills to get away from it all.
3) Washington Redskins – Jim Zorn wasn’t the first choice for the job here. He probably wasn’t the 5th choice, but he’s the guy. And he knows he needs to get off to a good start and have a good season to prove he belongs in the league. This season they take a small, but meaningful step to saving his job. Unless Bill Cowher wants it…
THE SWEET: Albert Haynesworth. Each year the ‘skins make a big free agent splash. And each year that player plays…ok. Haynesworth will not be just ok. He will transform that defense. He gives them a backbone. He can provide the kind of stops that invigorate an offense to get back out there and put up some points. Speaking of…
THE NASTY: Quarterback Confidence. Zorn hasn’t made it a secret that Jason Campbell isn’t his guy. He went after almost every QB this offseason under the age of 28…and got…Jason Campbell angry. Is he the kind of player who thrives on that or crumbles? He will FINALLY be playing under the same offensive system two years in a row, which should help immensely. But at the end of the day, he’s still Jason Campbell and is that going to be enough.
PREDICTION: The Redskins could be one of those teams that you don’t want to play late. I bet there will be a lot of face saving in November and December, but that will still add up to 8-8 at best.
4) Dallas Cowboys – This could be the Perfect Storm of ComBUSTion. I’m going on the record here and saying it: The Cowboys will be the NFL’s version of the New York Mets. New stadium? Check. A roster full of “stars” that have yet to really prove anything in the league? Check. A huge stretch drive collapse from the previous season to try and overcome? Check. A retread, uninspiring head coach? Check. What’s missing? Only the injuries…
THE SWEET: Jerry Jones. I know. I know. How could Jerry Jones be the best part of this team? The stadium he has built is supposed to be the Taj Mahal of Football. Who cares if you can’t punt in it. Jerry Jones loves the Cowboys. He will do anything for the players. They will be taken care of better than almost any other player in the league, and with his money and an uncapped year coming up, could put the Cowboys in a league all by themselves.
THE NASTY: Jerry Jones. Yup. Just put on the headset already. You know he’s dying to coach this team too. GM Jerry Jones is seduced by the big name. He wants to show everyone that he’s the smartest guy in the room. But this team has only been successful on his watch when someone else was REALLY making the personnel decisions, i.e. Jimmy Johnson and Bill Parcells. Roy Williams isn’t the answer, just like TO didn’t work. Or Pacman Jones. GM Jerry Jones is owner Jerry Jones’s worst nightmare. Luckily, he knows someone in the owner’s box.
PREDICTION: After the 6-10 season that Romo and Company are about to put up this year, Wade Phillips will be interviewing for defensive coordinator positions and I’ll be looking forward to the Mike Shanahan era in Big D.
1) Green Bay Packers – This is almost the same team that was an overtime interception at home away from the Super Bowl 2 seasons ago. There’s just one thing that’s different. Hmmm, trying to think of it… Well, anyway, Aaron Rodgers got his year of seasoning out of the way, while Ryan Grant got his “plummet back to Earth” out of the way. In a wide open division, the Pack is back.
THE SWEET: Let’s call it, Motivation. Or “Brett-Farve-wants-a-piece-of-us-does-he?-Well-F-him!” Or BFWAPOUDHWFH, for short. (Oh, hey, that’s what’s different. I knew I’d remember.) If every one of those players doesn’t hit a little harder, run a little faster, and throw a little farther this season, I’ll be shocked. And at least twice this season, Mike McCarthy is going to have to give a little speech to the team settling them down…
THE NASTY: Defense. The offense is fine, but the defense is switching to a 3-4. How much will that affect this team and its personnel? Most notably Aaron Kampman. This division has traditionally been about power running and with the running backs that are currently playing (AP, Matt Forte, and…well…ok Kevin Smith, you can come along too…), the Pack will have to sure up the 5th worst power rushing defense in the league.
PREDICTION: This could be a fun team to watch in the NFC. Aaron Rodgers set out to prove that he deserved the high draft choice and the opportunity to be the QB of this team. He has 2 great weapons in Greg Jennings and Donald Driver and Grant has to prove he wasn’t just a one-hit wonder. Double-digit wins and a deep run in the playoffs looks good for Cheeseland.
2) Chicago Bears – Matt Forte and Brian Urlacher led this team back to relevance after the inevitable stumble in their post-Super Bowl season. But the keys to the destiny of 2009 are in Jay Cutler’s hands. He was brought here to be the MAN. Now, if only he had someone to throw to…
THE SWEET: Stability at QB. The adage in baseball is that if you have 2 closers, you don’t have any. Same at quarterback. (Really, Eric Mangini. I’m not kidding.) No longer do Bears fans have to suffer through a pre-season QB battle between Kyle Orton and Rex Grossman. (Cleo Lemon and Gus Ferotte can’t get in on that?) Now the Bears have an unquestioned leader and franchise QB under center. However…
THE NASTY: Wide Receivers. The front office was so excited to get Cutler they forgot about a crucial ingredient: the 2nd half of a completion. So Devin Hester and his 51 receptions and 665 yards receiving are the number 1. Let’s face it, TE Greg Olsen is the number 1, but unless he tears off his helmet and reveals he’s Tony Gonzalez this season, the Bears will have to put a lot of pressure on Forte. Again.
PREDICTION: Cutler will find a way to spread the ball around, but Forte is the offense. Urlacher and Lance Briggs make for a very unpleasant Sunday afternoon for NFL offenses. This has become a very competitive division and the Bears battle for one of the 2 wild card spots.
3) Minnesota Vikings – In the hands of a better coach, this Brett Favre fandango would be a great idea. Tarvaris Jackson is awful. Dan Orlovsky thinks Tarvaris Jackson stinks. And to fix this situation, in February, they traded a 4th round pick for…Sage Rosenfels. (That would be like Shawne Merriman hiring OJ to run his PR campaign this week.) Shockingly, season ticket sales did not shoot up, so the Vikings made the Farve move. Can’t blame them. The Vikings sold over 3,200 season tickets and over 10,000 single game tickets in the 24 hours following the Farve signing. For a team that won the division last year! Everything is in place for a deep postseason run. And that’s the problem.
THE SWEET: Trench warfare. Adrian Peterson is a beast. Hand him the ball and watch him go. And this defense is one of the best in football, especially against the run, and super especially (which is right after especially) now that the Williams-es can’t be suspended by the NFL this season under a court order. If they played outside, I think they’d have an even bigger advantage. They could be the best 3 yards and a cloud of dust team in the NFL on both sides of the ball.
THE NASTY: Brett Farve. You wanted it, you got it. A 40 year-old quarterback with a surgically repaired arm, who has basically said, “I’m so good I don’t need training camp,” and divided the clubhouse. Hope the ticket sales were worth it. Now, a savvy, veteran, well-respected coach would have gotten ahead of this situation, rallied the team. Which is why Brad Childress is on top of everyone’s Coaches to be Fired list. There are stories filtering out that Farve may not just want to be a turnstile for AP. How many check off, Hail Mary INT’s have to happen to destroy what should be a Super Bowl contending team? We’re about to find out.
PREDICTION: A single injury to Farve or Adrian Peterson and this team is done. Barring that, they still are going to be one of the most disappointing teams of the 2009 season. I’m feeling 7-9, with the Farve Ironman streak over by week 10, either because of injury or “injury.”
4) Detroit Lions – Here’s the thing, they will be better than last year. (What? I won?!?! For being the 1,000,000th person to use that joke?!?!? Oh, wow. This is…just…I’m stunned. So many people to thank…) I even think they will be better than most people think. New coach. New quarterback. New uniforms…? Well, new shoulder on the Lion anyway…
THE SWEET: Hope. Matt Millen is gone. While some of his draft choices are still there, most are not. Neither are his coaches. So a fresh start has settled over Ford Field. The important thing is that new head coach Jim Schwartz and Matthew Stafford weren’t there for last season’s debacle. Not knowing is half the battle there. And talk about house money, since it can’t get any worse!
THE NASTY: 0-16. They still have a lot of the guys from an O-and-16 season. And until win number 1 is one the board, that monkey grows ever larger. Further complicating it is starting a rookie quarterback. It’s the right move, since the Lions aren’t going anywhere this year. But not everyone has Matt Ryan/Joe Flacco seasons. In fact, only Ben Roethlisberger can even sit at their table in the history of rookie QB’s in the NFL. But all that is secondary. Get that first win and exhale.
PREDICTION: It may be crazy talk, but I don’t think 6 wins is out of the question. 6 just feels right.
1) New Orleans Saints – I love the Saints. Drew Brees is capable of another 5,000 yard season. A healthy Reggie Bush, with Pierre Woods doing the heavy lifting! Three years ago, they gave us a little taste. But now it’s time for a second helpin’ of jambalaya!
THE SWEET: Creative Offense. I’m guilty. I love to see finely-turned offenses running at a high level. I love to see innovative coaching utilize talent. That’s what’s happening in N’Awleans. Sean Peyton knows this team now. They’re fast. They’re athletic. They can go deep or play small ball. This could be one of the most dynamic offenses in the NFL.
THE NASTY: Overall Defense. Injuries and a defense that allowed more points than all but 6 teams held this team back last year. Their pass defense was particularly bad, which is where 1st round pick Malcolm Jenkins hopes to improve. Gregg Williams is a lousy head coach, but he sure can coordinate a defense, and his schemes alone should improve the Saints.
PREDICTION: Time to dress up the Superdome for an NFC Championship party. I think they are that good. The Packers and Saints should vie for the title of class of this conference.
2) Atlanta Falcons – Last year, the Falcons were a surprise. They shook of the Bobby Petrino defection, put the Vick distractions in the past and rallied around a rookie head coach and a rookie quarterback. But they will not sneak up on anyone this year. Matt Ryan is poised to make the leap into elite status. As long as there isn’t a sophomore slump all around.
THE SWEET: Belief. This team won last season against almost every prediction. How can you not believe you can win again? Especially when you add the greatest TE of all time in Tony Gonzalez, who still has plenty of tread left on the tires.
[So this is where I left off when I was in the middle of the preview. From here on out, week one has already happened… Hey, I have a toddler. That’s my excuse and I’m sticking with it…]
THE NASTY: Overachievement Hangover. This happens frequently in the NFL. The seemingly out of nowhere team that rises up, takes a step back the next year. The Falcons are certainly in danger of that, but the addition of Gonzalez, as not only a great player, but also as a clubhouse leader, should be insurance against complacency. The defense will need to prove that last year was no fluke as well.
PREDICTION: Another step by Ryan. Another Pro Bowl for Gonzalez. And another wild card birth for the Dirty Birds.
3) Carolina Panthers – If you look at this team on paper, there’s almost no way they could miss the playoffs. But games are played on flat screens in HD, so you can see this season’s major underachievers in crystal-clear clarity. And the Panthers are on the top of that list.
THE SWEET: DeAngelo Williams and Steve Smith. These two are some of the best skill position players in the game, as they almost single-handedly willed the Panthers to a 12-4 season last year. (I know. I had both of them on my fantasy team last year.) When these two are firing on all cylinders, they are hard to beat.
THE NASTY: The rest of the offense. Jake Delhomme is a problem. And not just because he threw 4 picks in week one. He’s just not that good. AND Carolina gave him a contract extension this offseason. That’s a 5 year/$42.5M contract, $20M of which is guaranteed. For 34 year-old Jake Delhomme. And if he gets hurt (which has been a major possibility over the last few years) or becomes so ineffective you have to bench him (which again has become a major possibility), your QB options are Matt Moore and newly signed AJ Feeley. Depth on offense all around is a problem. Mushin Muhammed has had a great career, but at 78, he should retire. Jonathan Stewart was supposed to outright take the job away from Williams, and he can’t stay on the field.
PREDICTION: How’d they ever go 12-4 last season is the real question. They have a harder schedule and play in one of the toughest divisions in football. 12-4? Try 8-8.
4) Tampa Bay Buccaneers – At least they’ll have beautiful weather at home… There is very little to like about this team. There was more to like when Jon Gruden was running it, but I’m sure a guy who has 2 years experience as the defensive backs coach is ready to captain the ship.
THE SWEET: Um…Fast Defense? Weather? Casino nearby? Ok, I’ll go defense. They have several young, fast options on defense. Ronde Barber, while 146 years old, can still play while Aqib Talib can lock down the other corner spot. Up front Gaines Adams will have to step up his play and justify his high draft choice. Barrett Ruud is one of the more underrated linebackers in the game and he will have to make his name known to make up for the loss of Derrick Brooks.
THE NASTY: Offense. After all the quarterbacks that Gruden collected over the years, how does this team have a stable of Byron Leftwich, rookie Josh Freeman, and Josh Johnson to choose from? That’s asking for a QB by committee, when they will be already employing a RB by committee. At the top of the RB list is Cadillac Williams, bionic knees and all. The fact that Derrick Ward did not come in as a free agent and take that job outright is…not exactly a vote of confidence. And they have to hope that Kellen Winslow becomes a soldier again, so he can save Leftwich’s privates.
PREDICTION: 5 wins would be about right for this team. They also look like they could be in a lot of games and lose them down the stretch. So look for this team to be the darling pick NEXT year.
1) Seattle Seahawks – If there was a division winner in the NFC that I would bank on, it’s the Seahawks. Last year was a disaster on the injury front. Quarterback, top 3 WRs, most of the defense. All decimated by injuries. Yet, they still played hard down the stretch for a head coach they knew would be leaving. So now they’re back and eager to prove that last year was a fluke.
THE SWEET: Best Home Field in the NFL. Not only do they play in one of the worst divisions in football and have for the better part of this decade, Qwest Field has morphed into a major advantage for the sickly-green Hawks. Seattle is 38-18 at Qwest field in the regular season since it opened in 2002, and 6 of those home losses came last season when they had half their team. That is almost 6 guaranteed wins this season, just rolling out of bed.
THE NASTY: The Ghost of Injuries Past. We saw how this team’s depth was exposed last season. But any team’s would be. They have made strides in that department, but signing TJ Houshmandzadeh, Edgerrin James, and drafting Aaron Curry. This team will run, if Jim Mora’s tenure in Atlanta is any indication, but Seahwks fans hope it isn’t to the trainer’s room.
PREDICTION: Between home field and this division, it’s hard to see anything less than 11-5. A healthy Matt Hasselbeck with targets to throw to and a 3 headed running back tandem should be a healthy foe for NFC opponents in the playoffs.
2) Arizona Cardinals – Its time to find out what this team is REALLY made of. Was it smoke and mirrors last year or is this team a force to be reckoned with. Kurt Warner has colored his hair, so he’s ready to compete…and try and be just the 2nd team this decade to lose the Super Bowl and make the playoffs the next year.
THE SWEET: Offense for days. Larry Fitzgerald is the MAN. Anquan Boldin might be the toughest man alive, playing WR with a smashed face last year. Warner has been doubted so many times before his team mates should call him Gwen Stephani. And the running game gets an upgrade with another year of experience for Tim Hightower, with rookie Beanie Wells joining him. They’ll put points on the board, especially at home, its whether the D can hold the other teams down.
THE NASTY: Super Bowl Loss Hangover. So much worse than Overachievement Hangover. Especially when it’s Overachievement Super Bowl Hangover. (That’s the worst kind.) The biggest actual hurdle the Cards have to overcome is the loss of both coordinators. (Their loss is the Chiefs’ gain?) Their week one performance is an indication that neither side of the ball is ready to be back where they were last season. If the Cards don’t have that explosive offense, then their defense can’t play the same way. And if they want to get back to the promised land, they will have to play better on the road, since they will surprise no one this year.
PREDICTION: An inevitable slide. 8-8 feels right and the trend continues.
3) San Francisco 49ers – I have no idea what to make of this team. Mike Singletary’s first game as head coach last year did…um…not end well. Tirades and banishment of one of your better players is one strategy. But it may have worked for him in the end. He’s a tough guy and he wants his players to be in his image. They seem to have an odd collection of players, but Singletary will have to make it work.
THE SWEET: Low Expectations. I’m not sure anyone knows what to make of this team. You can’t get amped up to play them, and you can’t dismiss them as an automatic W. Vegas put their over/under at 7 since THEY have no idea what to do with them. All of those things work in the 49ers favor. They can play tough, hard-hitting football, grind out some wins and hope for the best – in a terrible division.
THE NASTY: Lack of talent. If you really look at the talent level on this team, it’s Frank Gore and a bunch of guys who are dressed alike. Vernon Davis has been a bust. But even Vernon Davis can say that Alex Smith is a bust. Shawn Hill has beaten him out twice for the starting job. Shawn Hill! He’s Mike O’Malley in a helmet. Isaac Bruce at the age of 49 is their number one wideout, thanks to all that great advice Michael Crabtree is getting. I can’t look at this roster and think it’s a playoff team.
PREDICTION: Even at 7 wins, looking at the talent on this team, I have to take the under. Just too many questions and not enough talent.
4) St. Louis Rams – Now I was fully ready to pick them last here last week. But I thought they might surprise a little. Maybe win 5-6 games and get into the sexy 2010 pick range. Then they put up a big fat donut on Sunday and suck the hope right out of the arch. Just move back to Los Angeles already…
THE SWEET: Steve Spagnuolo. The high touted former Defensive coordinator and architect of the NY Giants defense has taken his shot. In St Louis. (How bad must it be to work for Daniel Synder, since Spagnuolo turned down the Redskins job and TOOK the Rams job! Yikes!) He is innovative, quick, and savvy. Will any of that translate to the top spot? At least their defense should be better…
THE NASTY: Everything else. (And don’t tell me, “Look out for Steven Jackson.” I didn’t like him coming out of college and I haven’t liked him since. All hype.) Looking at their roster (which is tough by the way, since the website isn’t loading correctly and half of the roster doesn’t appear above the bottom header…), Laurent Robinson is their number 1 receiver. I bet you learned something just then. (And yes, I did have to look that up.) Donnie Avery is number 2. And as it turns out, I’m number 3. (I had no idea. I better get in shape.) Maybe it’s better on defense. Let me see…Leonard Little is still there. So is Howie Long’s kid. And…um…yup, that’s about it. If that doesn’t add up to 3 wins, I don’t know what does. Oh, Marc Bulger is back at quarterback too. Maybe Bill Clinton can go to St Louis and liberate him too.
PREDICTION: This team will be in the hunt. For the top spot in the draft. Again.
NFC East – Philadelphia
NFC North – Green Bay
NFC South – New Orleans
NFC West – Seattle
NFC Wild Card – Atlanta; NY Giants
NFC Champion – New Orleans