|Can Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly help his team retain the NFC South crown?|
With the NFL season due to kick off in Seattle next Thursday when the Packers come into town to take on the defending Superbowl champion Seahawks, it’s time to look at who’ll be competing in the play-offs come January and who’ll be on the golf course. American Football Focus will start proceedings by looking at the NFC – can anyone dethrone the “12th Man” of Seattle?
The defending NFC East champs should return to the top of the pile in 2014, despite releasing speedy receiver DeSean Jackson. Nick Foles established himself in 2013 as one of the top Quarterbacks in the league, and with the Eagles players more comfortable in head coach Chip Kelly’s system than they were a year ago it figures that Philly should improve on the 10-6 record that saw them win their division.
Speaking of Jackson, the diminutive wideout was signed by the Redskins new coach Jay Gruden in a bid to give Robert Griffin III a legitimate deep threat in the passing game. The Washington offense should improve under the guidance of Gruden, who’ll also have running back Alfred Morris at his disposal. The defense, however, was porous in 2013 and it figures to be similarly disappointing this time round with the secondary looking particularly weak.
2013 was a poor year for the ‘boys, and with Quarterback Tony Romo’s back playing up again this off-season it could be another long season in Big D. The offense could still be effective with Dez Bryant beginning to fulfill his potential, however much like Washington the defense leaves much to be desired and with Jason Garrett still in charge nothing figures to change as they look likely to battle New York for the NFC East wooden spoon.
New York Giants
Eli Manning is still a bad Quarterback and unfortunately the talent around him isn’t up to much either, which isn’t good news for Giants fans. The wheels really fell off in the Meadowlands last season despite the best efforts of coach Tom Coughlin to keep the side competitive, and although cornerback Domonique Rodgers-Cromartie should improve the play in the defensive secondary the pass rush was non-existent in 2013. After two Superbowl titles in four years between 2008 and 2012 the Giants could be in for a fairly lengthy rebuilding period unless Manning unexpectedly bounces back.
Green Bay Packers
Green Bay returns Aaron Rodgers, who alongside Peyton Manning and Tom Brady is one of the best players at his position in the NFL, and any time you can boast a top QB your chances of making the play-offs are pretty good. The discovery of running back Eddie Lacy gives Rodgers someone who he can hand the ball off to 20 times a game, while Jordy Nelson has developed into one of the better receivers in football. How far this team goes depends on the defense and Clay Matthews in particular – especially with division rivals Chicago emerging as an offensive powerhouse.
Chicago Bears (Wild Card)
Marc Trestman’s troops nearly won the division in his first season in charge, but even though they failed to make the play-offs there were positive signs for the Bears going forward. Jay Cutler may not be universally liked but he’s been a consistent QB for a while now and if he can stay healthy he’ll have the dynamic duo of Alshon Jeffery and Brandon Marshall to throw to. Matt Forte is still a more than capable back, and while the defense is a concern (much like in Green Bay) the offense is high octane and could lead to a wild card berth for the Bears.
Is this the year that Matthew Stafford finally puts it together? I’m not so sure, even if he does have Calvin Johnson at his disposal. The Lions also added tight end Eric Ebron in the draft and still have Reggie Bush at tailback, but a defense that can’t seem to put it all together is holding the Lions back. New coach Jim Caldwell has pedigree as the offensive co-ordinator on the Colts team that won Superbowl XLVII, but as head coach in Indy Caldwell saw things unravel when Peyton Manning went down with injury in 2011. Not all coaches get a second chance in the NFL; Caldwell has been given one and he’s got a fantastic opportunity to make the most of it with plenty of offensive talent at his disposal in Detroit.
The Vikings play outdoors at the University of Minnesota this year as their new stadium is completed in time for them to move into it next season, and while the move won’t affect star running back Adrian Peterson it could have dire consequences for Matt Cassel, who is set to start the season at QB. The Vikings are more-or-less in rebuilding mode and with the three teams above them all clearly more talented and possessing better Quarterbacks it doesn’t look promising for Minny.
Last years Superbowl champs return largely intact, with defensive standout Richard Sherman and star QB Russell Wilson both set to lead the team back to the post-season. The greatest threat to the Seahawks crown probably lies in the form of their division rivals San Francisco, who despite being a good team don’t the same homefield advantage and title winning pedigree that the ‘hawks posses. Seattle also has an uncanny ability to come up clutch in the big moments and coach Pete Carroll will know back-to-back championships is an achievable goal.
San Francisco 49ers (Wild Card)
The Niners were so close to making it to the big game last year, but Colin Kaepernick’s untimely interception in Seattle ended their season in dramatic fashion for the second straight year. NaVarro Bowman’s gruesome knee injury sustained in that game sets the defense back a fair bit as he’s one of the premier defensive players in football, however the offense remains an effective unit and it would be a massive surprise if the 49ers failed to make it back to the playoffs in 2015.
The “Ugly Sister” of the top three teams in the NFC West, Arizona actually had as good a defense as San Fran a season ago but was let down by inconsistent play from Quarterback Carson Palmer. Palmer, however, has looked much improved this summer and with Larry Fizgerald in tow he could be primed for his best season in years. If Palmer does enjoy a renaissance then the play-offs are a possibility for the Cardinals, providing the defense (led by Patrick Peterson) can replicate its stellar play from 2013.
St. Louis Rams
With QB Sam Bradford already done for the year with a knee injury this season figures to lost for St. Louis, who despite a number of high draft picks in recent years have failed to be competitive in the NFL’s best division. The defensive line is menacing with the likes of Chris Long and Robert Quinn rushing the passer, but offensively the cupboard is bare although mighty mite Tavon Austin could break out in his second professional season.
New Orleans Saints
The Saints aren’t the juggernaut they once were, but they still have Drew Brees under centre and maintain a huge homefield advantage at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. The addition of safety Jarius Byrd in free agency from Buffalo should also go a long way to shoring up a previously suspect secondary, however the rest of the defense leaves a lot to be desired after it’s record breakingly poor performances during the previous two campaigns. Keep an eye out for rookie wide receiver Brandin Cooks, an explosive playmaker in the mould of former Saint Darren Sproles who could tear it up on the Superdome turf.
Cam Newton finally matured into a top-10 NFL Quarterback last season and with his dynamic blend of arm strength and immense physical stature it figures Newton will stay there for years to come. The loss of Panthers legend Steve Smith will hurt, however, and after finishing last in the NFL in plays over 20 yards in 2013 Carolina will need to generate more big plays if they’re to retain their NFC South crown. The defense is one of the NFL’s best, led by middle linebacker Luke Kuechly and defensive end Greg Hardy, making Ron Rivera’s unit a tough nut to crack.
After last years 4-12 debacle head coach Mike Smith will be hopeful of a bounce-back season from Matt Ryan and co as Atlanta attempts to regain its status as one of the NFC’s premier teams. Injuries decimated this team in 2013 and if the likes of Julio Jones and Roddy White can return to the field and be as effective as they were before the Falcons will be capable of putting up points in bunches, something they were unable to do a year ago. The offensive line is porous, however, and the defense isn’t much better so it’ll be difficult for Smith’s men to overtake the Saints and Panthers in what is shaping up to be a very strong division.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Former Bears coach Lovie Smith was recruited in Tampa Bay to turn things around after the mess left by former head honcho Greg Schiano. Schiano oversaw an undisciplined and ultimately unsuccessful regime, highlighted by the dire attitude and performance from former first round pick Josh Freeman, who was released half-way through last season. Josh McCown is a solid replacement at QB and Doug Martin has the potential to be a top running back in the league so there is hope for Tampa; it’ll take a couple of seasons before they’re competitive in the NFC South again, however.
Rookie of the Year – Brandin Cooks, New Orleans Saints
MVP – LeSean McCoy, Philadelphia Eagles
Who do you think will make the play-offs from the NFC this season? Will Seattle be able to defend their Superbowl title? Leave a comment or tweet @fredjstanley to have your say