By: Chris Dagonas
Yesterday, I did some Deion Sanders high-stepping through the AFC, making some fairly obvious projections (the Broncos are good), and some bold ones (Chiefs! DOLPHINS!!!) Today, I turn my attention to the NFC, where the 49ers currently hold the title, but will have to hold off several hard-charging contenders. Let’s take the plunge!
NEED TO KNOW ON OFFENSE: What can be written about Tony Romo that hasn’t already been written? He’s a franchise quarterback, he’s a bum, he’s a late-game hero, he’s a late-game goat. He is consistently inconsistent, and that is just not good enough in this division, let alone the league. He is blessed with some dynamite receiving options, starting in pro-bowler Dez Bryant and his partner-in-crime, Miles Austin. Tight end Jason Witten is in the elite tier of his position, and is a big target in the red zone. Running back DeMarco Murray is still unproven, but had a decent year despite missing 6 games last season, and can at least scare a defense enough into not playing purely against the pass.
NEED TO KNOW ON DEFENSE: DeMarcus Ware is a non-stop pass-rushing machine and Sean Lee is quietly becoming an excellent middle linebacker. But, there is not much else to brag about on this defense. They were very generous against the pass last season, and have done little to improve their secondary.
PREDICTION: The .500 record from last season might cause some to believe that the Cowboys have a chance at improving this season. I don’t buy it. They were 5-7 in the conference, and 3-1 in non-conference games. That means that they played their best against teams that they won’t meet again this season. With the improved Eagles and still daunting Giants on the slate two times each, the Cowboys drop to 6-10 this season, and coach Jason Garrett is looking for a new job come February.
NEED TO KNOW ON OFFENSE: The obvious issue here is Robert Griffin’s return from an ACL tear. Is he fully healed? Will the Redskins be able to use him as much, and in the same capacity, as they did last season? Griffin loses some effectiveness, though not all of it, if he is forced to stand in the pocket rather than run the read-option offense. That means that second-year running back Alfred Morris will see a greater share of the ball, and could explode this season, or get injured and miss a chunk of the season. I don’t like to predict injuries, so let’s say that Morris has a big season. Wide receiver Pierre Garcon is a potential star, but has also had his fair share of injury problems. In short, there are a lot of question marks on this offense.
NEED TO KNOW ON DEFENSE: The returns of linebacker Brian Orakpo and safety Brandon Meriweather from injuries will help tighten up a loose defensive unit, and Barry Cofield is a stellar nose tackle. The secondary still lacks a quality coverage cornerback, which means they are susceptible to big plays from top-tier receivers.
PREDICTION: A seven-game winning streak to end the regular season last year vaulted the Redskins from 3-6 to 10-6. There is no chance of that happening again, while Griffin and the offense have a lot to prove this season. The ‘Skins fall to about 7-9 this season.
NEED TO KNOW ON OFFENSE: Apparently, quarterback Michael Vick is playing like his old self in the preseason, which bodes well for his team’s chances, as backup Nick Foles is not league-worthy. LeSean McCoy and Bryce Brown form the conference’s best running back duo, and give the defense no plays to ease off. DeSean Jackson is talented, but frustratingly inconsistent, and seems to take plays off. With Vick playing at a high level, Jackson has a chance to revive his game this season. Tight end Brent Celek is one of Vick’s favourite targets, and has earned that respect with several seasons of consistent play. New head coach Chip Kelly is an offensive innovator from the college ranks, but steps into his first NFL head coaching position this season. His high-tempo offense plays right into Vick’s hands. Lastly, remember the Riley Cooper n-word incident this summer? We do, and we suspect his teammates do too.
NEED TO KNOW ON DEFENSE: This unit gave up the second-most points in the conference last season, but the addition of defensive tackle Isaac Sopoaga from the San Francisco 49ers will help seal their porous running defense. Also, the inevitable double teams Sopoaga will draw should lead to more sack opportunities for ends Fletcher Cox and Cedric Thornton. Linebacker DeMeco Ryans is a stalwart who was asked to do too much last season, and ended up having one of his worst statistical seasons. Ryans will be able to focus on play-calling and play disruption this season, and should bounce back. Cornerback Cary Williams, newly arrived from the Baltimore Ravens, will also add some expertise, and aid in the loss of Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Nnamdi Asomugha.
PREDICTION: Matchups against the AFC West will help bump the Eagles significantly from last season, but the defense must improve dramatically and quickly in order to have a shot in an always-tough division. The Eagles finished 4-12 last season, but should jump to about 8-8 this season.
NEW YORK GIANTS
NEED TO KNOW ON OFFENSE: Quarterback Eli Manning returns to lead what might become the division’s best offense this season. Victor Cruz and Hakeem Nicks are a potent receiving duo, although Nicks was ineffective for most of last year while struggling with injuries. The offensive line provides stout protection for Manning and running back David Wilson, who replaces the departing Ahmad Bradshaw. Scouts and critics expect big things from Wilson, as he has more running back tools than Bradshaw.
NEED TO KNOW ON DEFENSE: The defensive line, featuring Justin Tuck, Jason Pierre-Paul and Mathias Kiwanuka, will make quarterbacks’ lives miserable all season. The secondary is able to jump on all sorts of poor quarterback decisions, and rarely have to cover a receiver for long. The weakness here is at linebacker, where journeymen Dan Conner and Keith Rivers are in charge, but fall short of the lofty expectations set by the supreme defensive line.
PREDICTION: The Giants take advantage of a solid defense, and borderline explosive offense, to make a big push back to the division title and playoffs. They finish at 10-6, with a division title in hand.
NEED TO KNOW ON OFFENSE: Is it too early, or too bold, to say that Matthew Stafford is one bad season away from being washed up? His touchdown totals plummeted from 41 in 2011 to just 20 in 2012, and his QB rating from 97.2 to 79.8. Maybe it’s too early, fine, but it may become a storyline as the season wears on, if Stafford is not able to right the ship. He still has the world’s best wide receiver in Calvin ‘Megatron’ Johnson, and has just been given the versatile Reggie Bush to replace Mikel Leshoure and Joique Bell. So, I think it’s fair to say that if Stafford is unable to get back to his 2011 form, the Lions can start thinking about the possibility of replacing him.
NEED TO KNOW ON DEFENSE: The addition of safety Glover Quin and defensive end Jason Jones are both big additions to a disastrous defense. Incumbent star, and controversy lightning-rod, Ndamukong Suh, will be glad for the help. They should be able to reduce their points allowed this season by a significant margin.
PREDICTION: The Lions were 0-6 against their division last season, and I can’t see that happening again. They also get to meet the Arizona Cardinals and the Cleveland Browns. They are likely to end the season somewhere around 7-9.
NEED TO KNOW ON OFFENSE: Star running back Adrian Peterson is unlikely to repeat his almost record-breaking 2012 campaign, but how far back will he regress? He is just 28 years old, and is still running behind an excellent offensive line. Even if he does not reach the heights of last season, he is still one of the league’s best, and barring injury, should have a good shot at another rushing title. The Vikings have added wide receiver Greg Jennings from the division rival Packers, which should help spread the field and give young quarterback Christian Ponder a legitimate target man. Ponder is the key man in this offense. I think he can progress nicely this season, and while he may never be an Andrew Luck or Robert Griffin, if he can find his niche as a steady hand making smart decisions, and using the powerful tools around him, the Vikings have to like their chances.
NEED TO KNOW ON DEFENSE: Defensive end Jared Allen gets the press, but tackle Kevin Williams is an equally intimidating lineman. While Allen chases quarterbacks all day, Williams plugs up the holes for running backs, and the combination forces opponents into a series of 2-yard runs and inaccurate throws. The secondary is a weakness, as cornerback Antoine Winfield was released in March and has moved on to the Seattle Seahawks, leaving a group of young, unproven players.
PREDICTION: If everything clicks on offense, the Vikings once again could secure a wild-card berth and could challenge teams in the playoffs. I like them for a 9-7 record, which is sometimes good enough for the playoffs.
NEED TO KNOW ON OFFENSE: First off, I think it’s pretty cool that the Chicago Bears hired former Montreal Alouettes head coach Marc Trestman to be their head coach. It can only be good for the CFL to have its players and coaches plucked to work in the NFL. Trestman’s first season in Chicago will be tough, as he has been handed a talented but underachieving bunch on offense. Quarterback Jay Cutler is on a similar career path as Tony Romo (see above), meaning that he has moments of great performance, followed sometimes instantaneously with moments of absolute trash. His career completion percentage sits at 60 percent, and his QB rating at 84.0, which are both extremely average numbers. He does have Brandon Marshall to throw to, which is a nice option, and tight end Martellus Bennett emerged as a quality tight end last season with the Giants before joining the Bears in the off-season. Running back Matt Forte has long been a star, but will be counted on as a receiver more this season than in previous years.
NEED TO KNOW ON DEFENSE: It’s a very good defense. Veteran defensive end Julius Peppers is still a force, recording 11.5 sacks last season. Linebacker Lance Briggs was a 2012 pro-bowler, and is the driving force in the middle of the defense. Cornerback Charles Tillman, in a position known for interceptions, has actually made his mark on the league by forcing fumbles with incredible frequency. Look for him to continue to wreak havoc on receivers and running backs by punching the football out of their grips.
PREDICTION: Trestman plans to install a West Coast offense, meaning quicker, shorter throws and more use of the running backs as pass-catchers. If Cutler and the offense can adapt to this new system, the Bears may have an outside chance to challenge the Green Bay Packers for the division title. They should get to at least 9-7 or 10-6, and earn a wild-card berth.
GREEN BAY PACKERS
NEED TO KNOW ON OFFENSE: Quarterback Aaron Rodgers lost receiver Greg Jennings to the Vikings, but the depth at wide receiver is still extraordinary. Jordy Nelson, Randall Cobb and James Jones form an impressive trifecta, and tight end Jermichael Finley is a reliable red zone threat as well. The question mark here is rookie running back Eddie Lacy, who is slotted to start the season as the number one runner. Lacy had a tremendous college career, but that does not always translate to NFL ability, particularly in year one. Luckily for Lacy, he won’t be asked to carry an offense the way Trent Richardson was last season, and should see plenty of gaps to run through as defenses will focus on taking away the pass. That will spotlight just how ready Lacy really is.
NEED TO KNOW ON DEFENSE: The defensive line is deep and effective, with veterans BJ Raji and Ryan Pickett stuffing gaps in the middle. Linebackers Clay Matthews and AJ Hawk are both monsters at chasing the ballcarrier, and both will be fully healthy when the season starts. Free safety Morgan Burnett is entering his fourth season, and is coming off a season where he played every snap, so he’s definitely an influential part of the defense. He should lead the team in interceptions this season.
PREDICTION: They were great last season, and have not changed much. The loss of Jennings won’t be a problem, as Cobb and Jones step up their game, and the Packers roll to 12-4 and a division title.
ST LOUIS RAMS
NEED TO KNOW ON OFFENSE: Quarterback Sam Bradford has shown a quiet consistency, although he has been cursed with a pretty meagre offense in his time in St Louis. The receiver group is just not that strong this season, with rookie Tavon Austin expected to be the best of the bunch. Left tackle Jake Long should be able to protect Bradford better than his predecessors, but the loss of Steven Jackson means that second-year running back Daryl Richardson will be the primary ballcarrier, and unless he can instil fear in opposing defenses, Bradford will have to face many 7 or 8-man coverage units.
NEED TO KNOW ON DEFENSE: Defensive end Chris Long is a standout, and middle linebacker James Laurinaitis played every down last season, and is earning a reputation as a defensive captain and excellent tackler. Cornerback Cortland Finnegan is known for antagonizing opposing receivers, but that won’t be enough to stop most teams from passing on them pretty regularly.
PREDICTION: The long rebuild continues in St. Louis, and in a tough division, the Rams fall to 4-12 this season.
NEED TO KNOW ON OFFENSE: The addition of quarterback Carson Palmer will bring stability to a fairly disastrous situation, where the Cardinals cycled through three “quarterbacks” and stumbled to a 5-11 record. This season, the offense has to be better, and pro-bowl receiver Larry Fitzgerald will be grateful for Palmer’s arrival, as it will allow him to forget about 2012. Also, he was on my fantasy team last year and did very poorly, so he owes me one. The running back situation is unclear, but I expect Rashard Mendenhall to get the lion’s share of the carries, with Ryan Williams spelling him off.
NEED TO KNOW ON DEFENSE: This was actually a pretty good defensive unit last season, doomed to poor field position and way too much time on the field because of the shoddy offense. Those 5 wins, most of which came early last season, can be almost entirely attributed to the defensive unit. Best name in football, Frostee Rucker, and partner Darnell Dockett, bring heat on quarterbacks, and inside linebacker Karlos Dansby returns after a stint with the Miami Dolphins to lead the unit. The secondary is still very good, featuring cover corner extraordinaire Patrick Peterson and rookie safety Tyrann ‘Honey Badger’ Mathieu.
PREDICTION: They were a bad-but-not-terrible 5-11 last season, so with some improvements at quarterback and defense, it’s not unreasonable to expect a 6-10 season.
NEED TO KNOW ON OFFENSE: Quarterback Russell Wilson silenced his critics with an excellent first season, and worked his way into the rookie of the year discussion with Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin. He was blessed with the most talented team of the three, as I wrote last season, but that means the stakes are higher for Wilson this season. Of the three quarterbacks mentioned, his team is the one I like the most to repeat last season’s success. Running back Marshawn Lynch is still a threat to score on almost any play, and the receiver group, even without the injured Percy Harvin, has a fair share of talent. That includes tight end Zach Miller, who emerged as the team’s best receiver in last season’s playoffs. Worth mentioning is this stellar offensive line, that allows Wilson and Lynch time and space to do their work.
NEED TO KNOW ON DEFENSE: The league’s best unit. They allowed the fewest points last season, they are stacked at every position. Standouts include defensive end Chris Clemons, who has made a career of chasing quarterbacks all over the field, and cornerback Richard Sherman, widely considered the league’s best coverage corner. That’s a formula for takeaways, and the Seahawks were second only to the Bears in that department last season. While the Bears had a freakishly good season by that measure, many expect them to regress, while the Seahawks totals seem to jell with what everyone expects.
PREDICTION: A soft schedule will provide a boost to the Seahawks, who get to meet Arizona and St. Louis twice, as well as the Titans and Jaguars once. The week 2 match against the 49ers will be an early season highlight. Look for the Seahawks to gather 10 wins and earn a wild-card spot, and provide a stiff challenge for the division title.
SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS
NEED TO KNOW ON OFFENSE: Third-year quarterback Colin Kaepernick will look to build on his glowing rookie campaign, in which he replaced the injured Alex Smith in week 10 and guided the 49ers to the Super Bowl. This season, he faces the prospect of starting the year without Mario Manningham or Michael Crabtree, both of whom are dealing with long term injuries. The arrival of Anquan Boldin will help, and tight end Vernon Davis is still an elite option, but running back Frank Gore, though still a talent, is no longer the wrecking ball he used to be. This offense might take some time to synchronize this season.
NEED TO KNOW ON DEFENSE: The Smith boys, Justin and Aldon, are two dangerous tacklers who can disrupt plays and force turnovers. Middle linebacker Patrick Willis is the league’s best, plain and simple. He can do everything a middle linebacker should, and more; he reads plays, he tackles sideline to sideline, he can rush the passer or drop into coverage with equal skill. The secondary, which was already very strong, added free agent Nnamdi Asomugha, who may no longer be a quality number one cornerback, but will shine as a nickel corner on inside coverage.
PREDICTION: This is still the most talented team, top-to-bottom, in the division, but they should be looking over their shoulder for the hard-charging Seahawks. They finish 11-5 with a division title.
TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS
NEED TO KNOW ON OFFENSE: Quarterback Josh Freeman is in the “Has A Lot To Prove” category of quarterbacks. He is two seasons removed from his pro-bowl calibre 2010 campaign, and the Bucs have not reached the playoffs during his tenure there. Running back Doug ‘Muscle Hamster‘ Martin had a dynamite first season, but will try to improve on that this season, and may have to in order for the Bucs to even have a sniff of a .500 record. Receivers Vincent Jackson and Mike Williams are reliable workhorses, but need more from Freeman.
NEED TO KNOW ON DEFENSE: Darrelle Revis. He jumped from one sinking ship (the Jets) to another in the off-season trade to the Buccaneers. Free safety Dashon Goldson is another new secondary arrival, meaning the Bucs aim to be much stronger against the pass this season. Defensive tackle Gerald McCoy is a hard-nosed run-stopper, but Isimply don’t know about the linebacker group.
PREDICTION: The Bucs are on the decline, as their best games came against non-conference opponents that they won’t see this season. I expect a 5-11 season, and the Bucs may be looking to replace Freeman.
NEED TO KNOW ON OFFENSE: Quarterback Cam Newton is a dynamic playmaker, but has had his bouts with immaturity in the past. He famously sulked on the sidelines during a Panthers’ loss last season. The Panthers have wisely chosen to limit his rushing attempts, a move the Redskins would be smart to replicate with RG3. He has not missed a game in two seasons, and his QB rating improved slightly last season from the year before. These are signs of a quarterback finding his game, and that can only make the Panthers feel excited about the prospect of an older, wiser Newton leading their offense. They also have a good supporting cast, including DeAngelo Williams at running back and a very powerful offensive line. They have filled the wide receiver depth chart with questionable veterans Ted Ginn and Domenik Hixon, but Steve Smith and Brandon LaFell are a strong combination, while tight end Greg Olsen is consistently solid.
NEED TO KNOW ON DEFENSE: The linebacker group is tremendous. Jon Beason, Thomas Davis and Luke Kuechly are an imposing trifecta that can make all the plays on defense. They are joined in the front seven by Dwan Edwards and Greg Scott, who fill the traditional run-stuffer and pass-rusher roles admirably. The secondary is young, but the unheralded safety Mike Mitchell will turn some heads with his play this season.
PREDICTION: This team is a prime candidate for a bounce-back season. They were sub-500 at home, which almost never happens with .500 level teams (even the Cardinals were 4-4 at home!), and ended the season on a 4-game winning streak. Look for a 9-7 season, with wild-card potential.
NEW ORLEANS SAINTS
NEED TO KNOW ON OFFENSE: Perhaps most importantly, head coach Sean Payton returns from a season-long suspension in 2012 over awarding bounties to defensive players who caused injuries, or “Bounty-Gate“. Payton is an offensive-minded coach, who will want to guide the Saints’ creative offense to a playoff berth. Quarterback Drew Brees is as good as it gets, and he has plenty of target men to choose from, the most important being tight end Jimmy Graham. Marques Colston and Lance Moore are respectable receiver options, but the situation gets cloudy at running back, where the Saints still have the combination of Darren Sproles, Pierre Thomas and Mark Ingram to utilize. They each have their strengths, but Sproles deserves the majority of the action in my opinion, while Ingram is a goal-line back and Thomas can be used to spell Sproles.
NEED TO KNOW ON DEFENSE: I guess the absence of bounty motivation caused the defense to soften up considerably, as they allowed the most points in the conference last season. Jonathan Vilma and Curtis Lofton form an imposing inside linebacker duo, while defensive end Cameron Jordan will look to pressure quarterbacks. The secondary is strong, with veterans Roman Harper and Jabari Greer leading the way.
PREDICTION: They’ve looked very good in the preseason, and the defense will have to improve from last season. Payton’s return means that the offense will get creative, although even without him it performed perfectly well. They face a tough matchpu in week 1 against the Falcons, but they can almost coast into their bye week after that. I’m looking for a 10-6 season, with a wild-card berth.
NEED TO KNOW ON OFFENSE: A top-tier offense replaced the aging Michael Turner with the aging Steven Jackson. While Jackson is not the force he was in his prime with the Rams, he will add some variety to the Falcons’ offense, particularly as a pass-catcher out of the backfield. Matt Ryan will have plenty of choices, with Julio Jones and Roddy White both healthy, and a rejuvenated Tony Gonzalez playing for a Super Bowl. There is a lot to like about this booming offensive unit.
NEED TO KNOW ON DEFENSE: Defensive end Osi Umenyiora arrives from the Giants, bringing with him a pass-rushing angle that has been somewhat lacking on the Falcons in the past few seasons. Sean Weatherspoon is the key linebacker and defensive captain, and the secondary features the steady Asante Samuel, and safety Thomas DeCoud, who famously played the “Meow Game” during an interview last season.
PREDICTION: The Falcons still have a lot going for them, even if some critics believe the defense has regressed from last season. With only the Saints to watch out for in their own division, and some easy pickings against the AFC East, the Falcons should hold on to their division title with a 12-4 record.
Here is a rundown of my projected conference standings, with their projected records;
1. Atlanta Falcons (12-4)
2. Green Bay Packers (12-4)
3. San Francisco 49ers (11-5)
4. New York Giants (10-6)
5. Seattle Seahawks (10-6)
6. New Orleans Saints (10-6)
7. Chicago Bears (9-7)
8. Carolina Panthers (9-7)
9. Minnesota Vikings (9-7)
10. Philadelphia Eagles (8-8)
11. Washington Redskins (7-9)
12. Detroit Lions (7-9)
13. Arizona Cardinals (6-10)
14. Dallas Cowboys (6-10)
15. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (5-11)
16. St. Louis Rams (4-12)
Offensive Player Of The Year – Aaron Rodgers, QB, Green Bay Packers
Rookie Of The Year – Tavon Austin, WR, St Louis Rams
Defensive Player Of The Year – Patrick Willis, LB, San Francisco 49ers
Coach Of The Year – Pete Carroll, Seattle Seahawks
There you have it. Two conferences, eight divisions, thirty-two teams all broken down, analyzed and predicted. Tonight, the Broncos and Ravens open the season, so sit back and enjoy, as I will, with a box of Triscuits and some Silversmith Black Lager.