Following on from my AFC preview yesterday, here are my predictions for the ultra competitive NFC and the upcoming season, complete with rookie of the year and conference champion predictions. So just who do I think will produce the goods this year? Keep reading to find out..
San Francisco 49ers
There’s not a lot between the niners and Seattle in the west, but for me San Fran’s performances in the play-off’s last season along with their stellar D gives them the nod. Colin Kaepernick was simply breathtaking on his NFL debut last season, with his most impressive performance being his almost single handed destruction of Green Bay at Lambeau Field in January. Patrick Willis and Navarro Bowman are also the best inside linebacker combo in football. I have doubts about the 49ers ability to get back to the Superbowl because playing in such a tough division may take its toll, and Superbowl runners up have an infamous track record of failing to get back to the big game the following season (the last team to do so were the Buffalo Bills in 1994).
Russell Wilson joins Kapernick on the list of most promising quarterbacks in the league following his dazzling rookie season, and he also has the luxury of being able to hand the ball off to the bruising Marshawn Lynch. Pete Carroll has built a very good defense in Seattle, although it’ll be interesting to see how that unit fares without Gus Bradley running that side of the ball. The trade for Percy Harvin was supposed to give Wilson a legit deep threat but his subsequent injury means he won’t play until week seven at the earliest.
St. Louis Rams
Coach Jeff Fisher began rebuilding the Rams last season and the teams 7-8-1 record was quite an achievement following the 2-14 debacle in 2011. QB Sam Bradford has been given a new weapon after Fisher drafted WR Tavon Austin eighth overall, although running back Steven Jackson’s departure for Atlanta will leave a hole at running attack. The defense has also been rebuilt through the draft in recent years, with first round picks spent on Alec Ogletree (linebacker), Michael Brockers (defensive tackle), Robert Quinn (defensive end) and Chris Long (also DE) since 2008. Unfortunately for Fisher and the Rams the Seahawks and 49ers will be difficult to ocompete with at this moment in time, although the second wild card spot is within reach.
The Kevin Kolb era was mercifully ended this off-season when he was jettisoned to Buffalo (where he unfortunately suffered another concussion) However the man brought in to replace Kolb, Carson Palmer, has an equally unimpressive record since he came out of ‘retirement’ one and a half seasons ago. The Cardinals are very much in rebuilding mode and new coach Bruce Arians will know that his squad is in for a long season.
Green Bay Packers
In some ways, there are a lot of parallels to be drawn between the Patriots and Green Bay. Both have recent Superbowl success, an excellent coach and a future hall of famer behind centre. However both have also struggled to add another ring over the past few seasons in large part due to porous defenses, an issue the Patriots have done more to fix than the Packers. Green Bay does still have enough on both sides of the ball to remain perennial play off contenders, and while Greg Jennings loss isn’t ideal the Packers still retain a wealth of recieving options led by Jordy Nelson.
Though the Lions stumbled to a 4-12 record in 2012 they actually started the season 4-4 before they capitulated and lost eight on the spin. Matt Stafford had a real down season which I expect him to bounce back from, and Calvin Johnson remains a monster of a receiver for him to target in the passing game. Ezekial Ansah was added in the draft to give the D a pass rushing threat, and combined with the duo of Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley the Lions should have a fearsome defensive front. Their indiscipline sometimes holds them back, but it also makes them one of the most entertaining teams to watch in the NFL.
The Bears probably won’t win as many games as they did last season (10), especially after they opted to surprisingly part ways with head coach Lovie Smith. Brandon Marshall is the teams one true weapon on offense and he’s been struggling with injury this summer. The team couldn’t reach agreement on a contract extension with long time linebacker Brian Urlacher, leading to his retirement. Chicago probably needs a couple of years to reload before they can think about rubbing shoulders with the leagues elite teams.
Yes, I know the Vikings made the play-offs in 2012. And yes, I know they have one of the best running backs in NFL history in Adrian Peterson. But as good as Peterson is he’ll struggle to replicate his historical season, and Christian Ponder figures to continue to struggle at QB. Add Percy Harvin’s departure to the mix and the Vikings could struggle to win half of the ten games they won a season ago.
Robert Griffin III has been declared fit for the Redskins season opener on Monday night against Philadelphia, and though his playing style may well result in further injury down the line his understudy Kirk Cousins looks to have all the ingredients to succeed in the NFL. Alfred Morris was a revelation at running back last seasonand combined with RG III there aren’t many more potent ground games in the NFL. Brian Orakpo is one of the better rush linebackers in football.
Miles Austin is reportedly healthy after he struggled throughout last season with various leg issues, giving Tony Romo another stellar target opposite Dez Bryant. Defensively the team isn’t as strong as it once was, with Jay Ratliff a shadow of his former self and the rest of the players adjusting to a new system (the team is moving from the 3-4 to the 4-3). It remains to be seen how Anthony Spencer and DeMarcus Ware adjust to playing defensive end as opposed to outside linebacker, although they both remain elite pass rushers.
The Eagles finally parted ways with Andy Reid at the end of last season, hiring former Oregon supremo Chip Kelly to replace him. Kelly will be hoping that Michael Vick can return to his old self after he won a quarterback battle with Nick Foles as the team operates Kelly’s patented up tempo offensive system. LeSean McCoy and Bryce Brown might be the best one-two punch at running back in the NFL. The defense will struggle, but expect points galore from the Eagles offense.
New York Giants
I don’t think the Giants will be terrible this season, but in a competitive division often compared to college footballs SEC in some quarters two or three wins could be the difference between worst and first. Eli Manning gives them a chance to win most weeks, but he’s not his brother Peyton so asking him to carry a team on his own is a step too far.
Matt Ryan and co. won 13 games a year ago with an absolute stacked offense, which could be even better this time around. Julio Jones, Roddy White and Tony Gonzalez are joined by former Ram Steven Jackson who’ll add punch to the ground game that Michael Turner could no longer provide. Osi Umenyiora was added to the D line and he’ll have plenty of opportunities to rush the passer as opposing teams play catch up.
New Orleans Saints*
Sean Peyton is back as coach following his suspension for the bounty gate scandal and as a great coach with a Superbowl ring he’ll make the world of difference to New Orleans. Last year was practically a write off as the team dealt with Peytons absence amongst others, but Peyton and quarterback Drew Brees reunion should lead to a return to the Saints former offensive prowess. Defensively they were disgustingly bad last season, I mean some of the play would make you vomit. But the stability of the returning coach should help the unit gain at least some respectability.
After beginning 2012 3-9 the Panthers won four straight to finish just below .500, which could prove a mirage heading into this season. Cam Newton is an exciting player but he’s showed immaturity during his NFL career and the defense is very average with the exception of Luke Kuechly, who is already one of the best defensive players in the league.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The Bucs also finished 7-9 last season, but unlike Carolina I see little upside on their roster. Josh Freeman has been a mediocre QB since he entered the league and the rest of the team is little better. Unfortunately I can’t see an improvement this year in Tampa, and it’s unlikely that they’ll make too many waves in this campaign.
Rookie of the Year
Tavon Austin is an exciting player with supreme speed and with Sam Bradford chucking him the football he’ll be in a great position to make an immediate impact in the league. Lane Johnson looks primed to have a solid debut season in Philly so he’s another candidate for the award, while Ezekial Ansah should do well in Detroit.
NFC Conference Winner
That wraps up my predictions for the coming season and all that remains to be said is I hope this season provides as many memorable moments as the last one did (Superbowl power cut notwithstanding!).