Will the NFC ever again rival the AFC? What’s happened to this conference? When you consider that the best teams in the NFC barely crack the overall top ten you realize just how enormous the gap between the two conferences has become. The only real Super Bowl contenders remain the Chicago Bears and Seattle Seahawks: with the Cowboys and Eagles a good distance behind. Don’t forget though, this is the NFL where things can change quickly. The 49ers look ready to compete as do the Rams and perhaps Panthers. Here’s a look at each division.
DALLAS COWBOYS — Wade Phillips takes over for Bill Parcells and with Tony Romo firmly entrenched at quarterback (not to mention a much happier Terrell Owens) look for the Cowboys to dominate right from the start. The defense is potent and even with question marks in the secondary, a soft NFC East schedule should pave the way for another post-season appearance.The Cowboys end up 10-6.
PHILADELPHIA EAGLES — Donovan McNabb MUST REMAIN HEALTHY. If he does the Eagles should be able to keep pace with the Cowboys. Defensively, Philly is quietly among the toughest units in the conference. On offense, although they still lack a high profile receiver, Brian Westbrook is the multi-faceted answer to any problems. Expect them to go 10-6.
WASHINGTON REDSKINS — Last year proved to be disastrous for Joe Gibbs and the ‘Skins. Injuries to Clinton Portis and most of the defense kept the Redskins from ever getting untracked. Now with Jason Campbell firmly established at quarterback, as well as defensive upgrades, the Redskins will give teams trouble at times but, ultimately, lack the depth necessary to play in January. 8-8.
NEW YORK GIANTS — Unless Eli Manning makes dramatic strides this team is in deep trouble. The retirement of Tiki Barber, serious question marks along the O-line and the inability of Burress and Shockey to stay healthy for a full season may conspire to sink this once talented team. In the past, the Jints have looked to the defense to carry the load but the ’07 Giants come in ranked mediocre at best. Antonio Pierce is the only reliable linebacker, the secondary will be young and somewhat untested and the defensive line (particularly if Strahan has reached the end) may starve for sacks. 5-11 at best and could be MUCH WORSE.
CHICAGO BEARS — The loss of Thomas Jones may hurt more than some realize. Cedric Benson hasn’t proven he can carry a full load. Still, the Bears will have a chance to thrive against the Packers, Vikings and Lions and should pick up right where they left off last year. In his first full season as a starter, Rex Grossman looked great at times and miserable at others. With another year under his belt he should improve. The defense has remained intact and will, once again, be the best in the NFC. Forget last year’s Super Bowl stomping at the hands of the Colts, this is a very good football team who should be able to finish 12-4.
GREEN BAY PACKERS — How the rest of this division shakes out is really anyone’s guess so why not start with Brett Favre and Co.? Those who call for Favre to retire are simply wrong. He’s the best quarterback in the division and can still put up points when needed. Over the last few years, Favre has tried to carry the team on his back. This year, look for him to trust an improved offensive line to give him the time he needs. Defensively, the Packers are much more formidable than people realize and can shut down the opposition, particularly in the red zone where they ranked 4th in the conference last year. Some improvement but a lot of question marks keep the Packers at 9-7.
DETROIT LIONS — The Lions will have a chance to get wins early against Oakland and Minnesota. This could boost the young team’s confidence and make them a dangerous team to play. Roy Williams and Georgia Tech standout Calvin Johnson could become one of the top receiving tandems in the league. Question, of course, is — who throws them the football? Jon Kitna will keep the reins for now but expect Drew Staunton to be the team’s quarterback of the future. He’s big, possesses a cannon for an arm and is considered a great student of the position. Running back is an issue for second year coach Rod Marinelli. Kevin Jones is healing and Tatum Bell looks better on paper than he does on the field. As for defense … what defense? They were below average in every category last year and did little to improve in ’07. Some gutty wins combined with losses makes the Lions 7-9.
MINNESOTA VIKINGS — Winning in the NFL usually starts with the quarterback — well, except in Chicago. The Vikings will open the season with either Tarvaris Jackson or Brooks Bollinger. Neither is ready to strike fear into anyone unless it’s their own fans. The wide receivers flat out stink and running back of the future, Adrian Peterson, should be a year or two away. The defense did a nice job last year against the run but stunk it up against the pass. This is not a good football team folks and they’ll be lucky to go 5-11.
CAROLINA PANTHERS — Injuries to Steve Smith and several defenders hurt the Panthers last year and Jake Delhomme may have finally been exposed as the "average at best" quarterback that he is. Enter David Carr. We’re going out on a limb here and saying that by mid-season Carr is the starter and Delhomme is holding the clip board. The Panthers are on a mission and John Fox won’t let them disappoint again. Figure them for 11-5.
NEW ORLEANS SAINTS — America’s new team will be exposed this year. The defense is, quite frankly, horrid. Drew Brees is one of the top quarterbacks in the league and the combination of Bush and McAllister will lead to offensive explosiveness. We’re not saying the Saints will stink this year, they just won’t be quite as impressive. They go 10-6.
TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS — What helped Jon Gruden’s team more? The fact that they picked up Jeff Garcia or the fact that Michael Vick won’t be around the division any time soon? The answer is both. However the strength of this team has always been defense and, as guys begin to age, expect some drop off. They’ll surprise a few teams along the way but won’t be ready for the post season until ’08. We think Chuckie’s team is going 7-9.
ATLANTA FALCONS — They should’ve kept Matt Schaub and benched Vick. Now they’re stuck with Joey Harrington and a team playing without one of its on-the-field leaders. A new coach, a traumatic offseason, a suspect defense and a running game that no longer exists spells DISASTER in Atlanta. They’ll be lucky to go 4-12.
SEATTLE SEAHAWKS — Say what you will about the improvement of the other teams in the division and you still have to figure the Seahawks are the strongest team. Deion Branch will be fully integrated into the system this season and gives Hasselback the "A" list receiver his offense has been lacking. A healthy Shaun Alexander, the best offensive line in the NFC and a defense that should regain ’05 form makes Seattle perhaps THE best team in the entire conference. We’ll be surprised if they don’t wind up 13-3.
SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS — An explosive offense with a quarterback in Alex Smith who is just coming into his prime gives the 49ers an opportunity to compete in the pass happy NFC West. Defensively there’s still room for growth but upgrades on the defensive line and one of the conference’s better linebacker corps makes San Francisco a team that might challenge all season long. Tough to figure but we’ll be optimistic and make them 10-6.
ST. LOUIS RAMS — Marc Bulger gets a big contract, Stephen Jackson has become one of the top three yardage machines in all of football and Tory Holt is still Tory Holt. It’s a shame about the defense but the Rams can strike quickly and often. They’ll play in a lot of high-scoring games and will come out on top in more than their share. They should go 9-7.
ARIZONA CARDINALS — Every year the Cardinals are touted as a team on the rise. Are they finally ready to compete? New coaching and some much needed help along the offensive line are the story here. If Edgerrin James has anything left at all then Leinart and Co. should be impressive. Defense? We don’t need no stinkin’ defense! At least not in the NFC West where the Cardinals will remain close and wind up 8-8.
Before we all just go ahead and annoint the Patriots this year’s AFC Super Bowl representative, let’s make sure we remember there are at least five other teams who deserve SERIOUS consideration. The Colts (of course), the Ravens, the Chargers, the Broncos and possibly even the Bengals all have the potential to dominate this season.
NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS — The addition of Randy Moss might be the "sexiest" move of the offseason but the real difference maker could prove to be free agent linebacker Adalius Thomas. Thomas is one of the top defensive players in all of football and gives the Patriots a run stopper, pass rusher and pass defender all in in one. Defensively, this still isn’t the best Patriots unit but with the potential for major offensive production New England is easily the class of the division. Look for them to go 13-3.
NEW YORK JETS — Last year the Jets were one of the surprise teams in the AFC. Eric Mangini did a fantastic job with a less than stellar cast. This year the Jets WON’T be overlooked. Pennington, when healthy, is a quarterback who knows how to win football games and the addition of running back Thomas Jones gives New York the solid running back they’ve been missing since Curtis Martin. On the defensive side of the ball, last year was a disappointment. However a good draft and some positional upgrades should improve a squad that was among the lowest ranked in the league. With spirited play, a somewhat soft schedule and a bit of Mangini magic, the Jets will go 9-7.
MIAMI DOLPHINS — In past years any conversation about the Dolphins started with the strength of the defense. Not anymore. Jason Taylor is coming off a great season and Zack Thomas is still one of the best linebackers around but there are major holes on this squad including a secondary that might yield a lot of yardage. Trent Green is an upgrade at quarterback and with a healthy running back in Ronnie Brown as well as a talented, albeit unheralded trio of wide receivers expect the Dolphins to put more points on the board than in recent seasons. They’re probably a year away from being playoff contenders but still go enough to go 9-7.
BUFFALO BILLS — Another team that’s still a year or two away.Marshawn Lynch will be a quality running back in the NFL but still needs a better offensive line. Defensively, the Bills are solid but unspectacular. Expect them to win some games they shouldn’t but lose too many games to be a factor. We’re picking them 6-10.
BALTIMORE RAVENS — The Ravens are the best team in what could turn out to be a dominant division. Free agent running back Willis McGahee adds punch to a running game that took a step backwards last season. QB Steve McNair has another year in the system and wideouts Mark Clayton, Derrick Mason and Demetrius Williams are solid. We all know about the Ravens defense and don’t expect much drop off from last year’s record-breaking season. Assuming key players stay healthy the Ravens can beat anyone in the league and should end up 11-5.
CINCINNATI BENGALS — The team everyone forgets about. Carson Palmer begins the season healthy and armed with terrific wide receivers. Add Rudi Johnson as the running back and you have the best offense in the division and one of the best in the league. Off-the-field troubles aside, Marvin Lewis will have this team ready to compete. The Bengals defense lives and dies on turnovers and while no match for the great defense of Baltimore or Pittsburgh can hold their own. We think they could be a surprising 10-6.
PITTSBURGH STEELERS — For the Steelers to compete Qb Ben Roethlisberger will have to regain his ’05 form. New coach Mike Tomlin has high expectations but we think the Steelers will need a year to regroup. The linebacker corps, traditionally the strength of the Steel Curtain, is not up to previous standards and this year’s Steelers team WILL give up points. Can Roethlisberger, Willie Parker and Hines Ward outscore the opposition? Sometimes. But not enough. The Steelers end up 7-9.
CLEVELAND BROWNS – Yeah, yeah we know. Brady Quinn will be the savior. Actually, it’s Wisconsin offensive lineman Joe Thomas who really adds soemthing in Cleveland. Still this team is in trouble. Romeo Crennel managed to hold onto his head coaching job last year but ownership isn’t going to tolerate much more losing. Too bad for Crennel who won’t be around to see Quinn mature in ’08. The Browns will give some teams a hard time, but end up 5-11.
INDIANAPOLIS COLTS – The Super Bowl champs come into ’07 with some serious question marks but enough talent to lead the division. Dominic Rhodes is gone and running back Joseph Addai will get a full workload this season. Is he up for the challenge? We believe he is but it’s certainly not a foregone conclusion. Defensively, the Colts were fairly awful during the regular season last year and begin this season with an even less talented squad. The Colts won’t repeat as champions but in a division that’s weak, they manage to go 11-5.
JACKSONVILLE JAGUARS — Byron Leftwich is out and David Garrard is now the starting quarterback. It’s the right move for a team desperately seeking offense. Jack Del Rio has done a great job coaching a team without too many marquee players but, if the Jaguars hope to make the postseason, the offense must become more consistent. On defense, expect another good year from a squad capable of forcing turnovers and stopping the run as well as any team in the league. Put Jacksonville in the NFC and you have a playoff contender. Too bad they’re not, because in the AFC they end up 9-7.
HOUSTON TEXANS — Matt Schaub takes over at quarterback for David Carr who will probably end up the starter in Carolina. Last year the big story was the Texans decision to draft defensive end Mario Williams ahead of Reggie Bush or Vince Young. In order for Houston to improve, Williams and the rest of the defense must do so as well. The Texans are not a team to take likely and Matt Schaub’s quick release can help hide the deficiencies in the offensive line. This team is scrappy and will finish out the season at 7-9.
TENNESSEE TITANS — The Titans played very well in the second half of the season last year and hoped to capitalize on that momentum. Unfortunately, the suspension of Pacman Jones as well as other offseason losses spell trouble for a team that will take a step backwards. Vince Young will be a winner in the NFL. There’s no doubt about that but he needs weapons around him and, quite frankly, he has none. His is a pretty bad team, folks. We think they’ll go 5-11.
SAN DIEGO CHARGERS — We’re putting them at the top of the division but do so with some trepidation. Norv Turner takes over as head coach for Marty Schottenheimer and has never proven to be a "winner" in the NFL. Sure, he’s an offensive genius but that’s really not what the Chargers need. They’ve got, arguably, the best talent in the league and just require someone to let the wheels roll. LaDainian Tomlinson is the best running back in football — one of the greats of all time. But what about Phillip Rivers? Can he repeat the success he had in ’06? Probably. The defense is phenomenal. Even the special teams kick ass. Unless Norv Turner is cursed (and we’re not saying he ISN’T), San Diego should go 13-3.
DENVER BRONCOS — Quietly, the Broncos have assembled a Super Bowl contending team. RB Travis Henry will benefit from an offensive line and a blocking scheme that churns out yardage at an amazing clip. With Jay Cutler firmly entrenched at quarterback, the Broncos will roll through some teams. The defense is talented at all positions although there’s some question about the defensive line. Doesn’t matter. This is a VERY GOOD football team who will fight it out with the Chargers all season long. They’ll end up 12-4.
KANSAS CITY CHIEFS – They managed to sneak into the playoffs last year with Damon Huard at quarterback for most of the season. That won’t happen again. It’s not that the Chiefs won’t be good, they’re just not good enough. Larry Johnson can’t keep running the ball 25 times a game and the defense, although improved, is no match for the top defenses in the conference. It could be a tough season for head coach Herm Edwards as the Chiefs will win a few games handily but, ultimately end up 9-7.
OAKLAND RAIDERS — A very underrated defense but a team in need of major offensive upgrades. Daunte Culpepper and JaMarcus Russell might be bigger than some of the offensive lineman and that’s not good. The Raiders simply have no real offensive firepower, lack depth and are forced to play the teams in their division six times. They could lose all of those games enroute to a pitiful record of 4-12.