Conventional wisdom says the NFC is the league’s “weaker” conference. Yet, it is coming off a season where a wild card team toppled arguably the greatest team and inarguably the greatest offensive juggernaut the league has ever seen. Going into this season, the division that produced last year’s champions has three of the top six teams in the conference, and should produce the NFC’s Super Bowl representative yet again.
Here is a breakdown of the conference, complete with projected records, and key players for each team.
Dallas Cowboys (12-4)
The Cowboys could be considered the NFL version of baseball’s Yankees; despite their extremely talented roster, and likely strong record, if they don’t produce again in the playoffs, the season won’t be considered a success. That said they have to be the favorite to win their division, and produce the best record in their conference this season.
– Quick analogy. Yankees :: Cowboys, as A-Rod :: Tony Romo – if Jessica Simpson’s boyfriend struggles again down the stretch, how much leeway does he have?
– Everyone knows TO will produce. But if Patrick Crayton, who was streaky last season, doesn’t continue to improve teams may be able to key in too much on Owens, who at his age can’t beat a double team like he used to.
– Marion Barber gets the spotlight, but Leonard Davis and the rest of the offensive line holds the key to Barber dominating in his first season as the clear starter.
New York Giants (10-6)
The defending champs probably won’t win their division; but last year proved that that makes no difference if they find their spark in the playoffs. The injury to Osi Umenyiora will hurt, but their defense is strong enough to be effective even without him.
– With Osi out for the season, Justin Tuck’s role becomes even more prominent. He will have to at least match his 10 sacks, and 16 tackle for losses to make up some of the difference.
– Eli already has the same number of rings as his older brother. He needs to build on his newfound confidence, and have a regular season similar to his 854 yard, 6 TD playoff performance last season.
– Aaron Ross has the chance to join the leagues elite corners after a strong showing last season.
– Kevin Boss played well last year after Jeremy Shockey broke his leg. His ability to draw coverage will play a big part in Eli’s success, as well as that of a receiving group with some injury concerns.
Philadelphia Eagles (9-7)
The Eagles have one of the best defenses in the league, and the best pass-catching RB hands-down. After a disappointing year, they are looking to bounce back, and could surprise it the chips fall right.
– Donovan McNabb says he’s finally healthy, and that is a big plus if it’s true. He needs to stay healthy, and use his feet like when he was younger.
– Considering Brain Westbrook is the teams #1 receiver, Kevin Curtis had a remarkable year last season, catching 77 passes for over 1100 yards and 6 TDs. If he can come even close to matching that, teams won’t be able to cue in on Westbrook.
– Asante Samuel joins what may be the best cornerback trio in the league, and should help with the surprisingly low interception total.
Washington Redskins (8-8)
The Redskins aren’t all that bad, but they play in possibly the most competitive division in the league. They would have a shot at the playoffs in a lot of other divisions, but six of their games coming against these division-rivals are just too much to overcome.
– DE turned dancer Jason Taylor is better than people seemed to give him credit for during the off season. He had 11 sacks last year, and if his ailing knee heals as fast as he says it will, he provides a big boost to a below-average pass rush.
– QB Jason Campbell showed promising glimpses last season. How he adjusts to yet another new system will play a big part in the ‘Skins success.
– Carlos Rogers recovery from knee surgery was astonishing, and he might play opening day. The more he is on the field, the better, as the Redskins are thin at CB beyond him and Shawn Springs.
Green Bay Packers (11-5)
Did you hear that Brett Favre retired, tried to come back, and ended up with the Jets? It didn’t receive very much coverage, so if you weren’t paying really close attention, you could have easily missed this story. But despite the Vikings receiving all the attention, I have more faith in Aaron Rodgers than in Tavaris Jackson. The deep receiving core and strong defense should help keep this team atop the division.
– Aaron Rodgers is stepping into an impossible situation. Even if he breaks Tom Brady’s passing records from last season, cheese heads will probably still cry out for Favre. But Rodgers has shown poise, accuracy, and smarts in his limited relief work, and in the preseason.
– Ryan Grant was a revelation last season, and figures to carry a bigger load this year with a more balanced offense likely.
– Donald Lee came out of nowhere last season to be one of the most productive tight ends in the league. He’ll need to be strong again this season, as tight ends often are a safety net for young QBs.
Minnesota Vikings (10-6)
Many people are picking the Vikings to win this division. They have the games next great player in Adrian Peterson, who will soon supplant LaDanian Tomlinson as the best weapon in football. They have a big play defense, with an almost impenetrable NT duo, and newly acquired Jared Allen at DE. But if Peterson hits a sophomore wall, they don’t have enough other weapons on offense to pick up the slack.
– Tavaris Jackson holds the key to the Vikings season. If he plays even slightly above average, the Vikings could easily leap-frog the Packers and win the division.
– Visanthe Shiancoe (I never heard of him either) will need to step up his play at TE to give Jackson a better shot at improving. An underwhelming receiving core and below-average pass-catching RB don’t offer quite enough upside.
– Pat Williams is a monster in the middle of the defensive line. However, he will turn 35 this season and if his play declines, the defensive front immediately gets downgraded, although only slightly.
Chicago Bears (6-10)
Even this may seem too generous, but Matt Forte is impressing a lot of people at RB, and the defense will continue to be strong if they can stay on the field. They won’t make the playoffs, but they might take a step forward this year.
– FS Mike Brown would give the entire defense a boost if he managed to stay healthy all season. His absence last season due to injury was painfully difficult.
– Matt Forte, a rookie RB, is receiving early ROY buzz. He will be the feature back, but this offense figures to be among the league’s worst, no matter who the QB of the week is.
– Tommie Harris is a very good DT, and posted 8 sacks last season. But he needs some help on a line that was 24th in run defense last season.
Detroit Lions (6-10)
The Lions had shown some good signs in the past few years, but fell a bit short last season. They have a dependable QB, depth at receiver, and a solid secondary. But they still are a few years away from a winning season. They might have enough offense to beat out Chicago for third place, though.
– Ernie Sims is by far the team’s best defensive player. He will need to stay healthy, because the team is extremely thin at line backer.
– Rookie RB Kevin Smith is under a lot of pressure to contribute quickly. But a less-than-stellar offensive line leaves a challenge ahead of him.
– With Shaun Rogers now in Cleveland, Cory Redding needs to step up at DT and produce on a bigger scale than he has in recent years.
New Orleans Saints (11-5)
After injuries sabotaged any hope the Saints had last season, they are looking to rebound in a big way this year. The made some key additions on defense, and will once again have an explosive offense. They should be a playoff team, and could even challenge for a Super Bowl berth.
– Jonathan Vilma and Sedrick Ellis add big-play potential to a defense that struggled last season. A healthy Brian Young at DT will also give a big boost.
– Deuce McAllister is returning from a serious knee injury, and the Saints need him to stay healthy. Reggie Bush just isn’t a feature back, and thrives when used in conjunction with McAllister.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers (9-7)
The NFC South last season was like the NL West is this season: bad. The Bucs won it by default in 2007 with a 9-7 record, and a similar record this year won’t be enough with the Saints likely to improve.
– Earnest Graham was a nice surprise last season. Warrick Dunn is getting all the attention now that he is back in Tampa, but I don’t know why. Graham can be a three down back, and can rack up 20-25 carries a game because of his size and toughness.
– Antonio Bryant and Michael Clayton need to step up their WR play, especially with Ike Hilliard and Joey Galloway getting on in their years.
– Jeff Garcia must continue his efficient, unspectacular QB play if the Bucs have a chance of sneaking into the playoffs again.
Carolina Panthers (5-11)
The Panthers may finish better than that, but they aren’t off to a good start. Their best player, WR Steve Smith, will miss the first two games of the season due to a suspension, and one can’t help but wonder what effect his training camp fight with teammate Ken Lucas had on the chemistry of this team. Aside from all that, they just aren’t all that talented.
– QB Jake Delhomme needs to remain healthy. While he isn’t a superstar, he manages the game well, and is a strong leader on a team that sorely needs one.
– Rookie RB Jonathan Stewart is expected to take over the starting job quickly if he doesn’t start the season as the starter.
– Julius Peppers had a disappointing season in 2007, and a boost to his 2 1/2 sack output would be tremendous.
Atlanta Falcons (3-13)
They might be the conference’s worst team this season. They have huge question marks at most positions, and lack a big-play threat on both sides of the ball. This season is basically an extended preseason for rookie QB Matt Ryan.
– Roddy White emerged as the team’s top wide out in 2007 and will likely be Ryan’s top target this year.
– Michael Turner is out to prove he can be more than LT’s backup. His size keeps defenders at bay, and the feature back job is his to lose.
– Grady Jackson on the inside coupled with John Abraham on the outside could lead to an improved defensive front.
Seattle Seahawks (10-6)
The Seahawks are the clear favorite to win this division. Matt Hasselback is the most under-appreciated QB in the NFL. He has been consistently among the top echelon at the position for several years. While they have some questions at running back, that didn’t stop them from making the playoffs last season, and along with their strong defense, it won’t stop them this year either.
– Newly acquired Julius Jones is out to prove he is, in fact, a NFL starting RB. He had success previously in Dallas, but lost time to Marion Barber. Here, the job is his to lose.
– Walter Jones is a perennial Pro-Bowler, and one of the best OTs in the game. His strong play could lead to improvement from the aforementioned Jones.
– The drop off in catches between team leader Bobby Engram and the rest of the team was 45. Someone, namely Nate Burelson or Deion Branch could help out a lot by stepping up into a consistent #2 role.
Arizona Cardinals (9-7)
Thy made a wise decision in naming Kurt Warner their starting QB. The team always looked better when he ran the show, and for a team with reasonable playoff hopes, this isn’t the time to allow a young QB with questionable commitment to find his groove. They have a ton of talent, and should challenge for a wild card berth this season, and could be an elite team a few years down the road.
– Kurt Warner was terrific last season, and he makes the teams elite receivers better.
– Edgerrin James is getting on in years, and he consistently racks up around 300 carries. Nonetheless, he is tough, and is a perfect grind-it-out back to compliment the big-play passing game.
– Adrian Wilson is one of the best players in the game. If he could increase the number of big-plays he makes, he could propel this already solid defense to the next level.
St. Louis Rams (5-11)
The Rams will definitely be better than they were last season, when they were decimated with injuries. But the Cardinals will also be better, and the Rams still run a strong risk of dealing with similar injuries this season.
– Marc Bulger absolutely must stay healthy. He can still be one of the top QBs in the NFL when he is firing on all cylinders, and when he has all of his weapons around him.
– La’Roi Glover will miss suspended DT Claude Wroten. Glover is 34, and is still a very good player, but benefited from the rest Wroten afforded him between downs.
– Randy McMichael should provide increased production from his TE slot, especially with the departure of WR Isaac Bruce.
San Francisco 49ers (4-12)
They have a few stars, but are not close to putting it all together. They have a journeyman QB as their likely starter, no offensive weapons aside from RB Frank Gore, and a below-average defense. They will almost certainly finish last in the division.
– Jonas Jennings will be counted on at left tackle, although he has missed 27 games the past three seasons. Overall, the O-line has seem too much upheaval and has not had time to adequately gel.
– Bryant Johnson is being counted on at WR. He could be a decent mid-range player; the bigger issue is: who will throw him the ball.
– Justin Smith, picked up in free agency brings an average of 5 or 6 sacks per year to what was a poor pass rush in 2007.
Dan Mason is an accountant who day-dreams about being in the wilderness. He was just married in August to his girlfriend of 3 1/2 years. You can read his other work at http://www.helium.com/users/432252/show_articles.
Dan Mason is an accountant by trade only – he would much rather write. He constantly daydreams about being in the woods or on the water, in the middle of nowhere. He resides in the Rochester, NY, area and is thankful the Adirondacks are only a few hours’ drive away. He is happiest when there is a pen (read: keyboard) or a canoe paddle in his hand.