Will Tony Romo finally lead America’s team back to the playoffs? (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
By KELTON BROOKS
This is part two of the series of preseason predictions. Last week was the AFC divisional predictions, this week is the NFC, who has won the Super Bowl four of the last five seasons.
1. Detroit Lions (11-5)
Last season was a tale of two different teams for the Detroit Lions. The Lions started off hot with a 6-3 record, only to lose six of the last seven games. In those first nine games, quarterback Matthew Stafford threw 19 touchdowns to seven interceptions. His first brilliant nine game stretch was quickly forgotten after throwing 10 touchdowns to 12 interceptions the remainder of the season.
Inconsistency as a team and inconsistency from a player whose job is to lead the team.
Now comes new Lions’ coach Jim Caldwell whose job is to do just that, add consistency. Caldwell knows how to work with quarterbacks. When he was the quarterback coach in Baltimore, the Ravens demoted offensive coordinator Cam Cameron and named Caldwell to the same position. The Ravens never looked back and Caldwell helped lead the Ravens offense and quarterback Joe Flacco to a historic postseason run ending in a 34–31 victory over the San Francisco 49ers in Super Bowl XLVII.
Caldwell works well with talent under center. He led Peyton Manning and the Colts to a 14-2 record and one of the top offensive in the NFL in 2009. On a team with Stafford, the best wide receiver in the NFL in Calvin Johnson, recently acquired receiver Golden Tate and the rookie, athletic tight end Eric Ebron, the Lions may have the best passing attack in the league. Not to mention Reggie Bush slipping out the backfield. If the Lions’ secondary improves from last year, then this team will be dangerous throughout the season.
2. Green Bay Packers (10-6)
The Packers finally developed a running game in snagging running back Eddie Lacy who turned out to become the Offensive Rookie of the Year. Aaron Rodgers has been sacked 71 time the past two seasons and he only appeared in nine games last season due to a collarbone injury. The presence of Lacy was a sigh of relief to take the load off Rodgers, but the Packers still have a leaky offensive line.
Green Bay is seen as a finesse team who lack physicality. Nothing has been done to wipe away this notion as San Francisco ended their playoff run in back-to-back seasons rushing for a combine 490 yards.
The Packers are in a talented yet vastly underrated division. They have elite offensive weapons and are poised to make the playoffs lead by Rodgers, but if their defense doesn’t catch up, they will endure another one-and-done in the postseason.
3. Chicago Bears (8-8)
This team is an enigma. Putting your trust in Jay Cutler is like putting your trust in a blind man telling you to stick your hand in a bucket of hissing water hoses. On arm talent alone, Cutler is arguably the best quarterback in the NFL. But it’s something about him that’s always missing.
Last year, I pondered over whether the Bears could represent the NFC in the Super Bowl. In all fairness, Cutler only played 11 games. Josh McCown, who is now the Buccaneers starting quarterback, played admirably is Cutler’s absence, but even he couldn’t succeed in an offense with two 6-foot-4 towers on the outside in receivers Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffrey.
The offensive line is much improved lead by second-year guard Kyle Long and left tackle Jermon Bushrod. Chicago has one of the most versatile running backs in the NFL in Matt Forte. They have a talented front seven on defense led by Jared Allen, formerly with the division rival Vikings, and breakout linebacker to watch Jon Bostic. Tim Jennings and Charles Tillman will continue smother receivers on the outside.
The downfall of this team is at safety. Rookie Brock Vereen is currently listed at the starting free safety and the acquisition of Ryan Mundy who came over from the Giants, at strong safety. An unproven player and a player who has plateaued.
You never know what you’re going to get out of the Bears.
4. Minnesota Vikings (4-12)
It’s hard watching future Hall of Fame running back Adrian Peterson’s talent washed away on a mediocre team. The Vikings have bright spots in some areas in highlight reel receiver Cordarralle Patterson and Pro Bowl tight end Kyle Rudolph. But who will throw them the ball?
Matt Cassell has proved he’s only a quick-fix at the position and Christian Ponder is the forgotten man. Minnesota traded back up in the first round to select Louisville quarterback Teddy Bridgewater. The former Heisman hopeful and consensus preseason lock for the No. 1 overall pick watched his stock nose-dive after a poor pro day workout.
On the defensive side of the ball, Minnesota drafted the pass rushing linebacker Anthony Barr out of UCLA ninth overall, but even he alone can’t fix the Vikings 31st ranked defense from a year ago. The Vikings defense gave up 30 points per game last season, giving up 397.6 yards a game. In a division with the Bears, Packers and Lions high-powered offenses, the Vikings don’t have the manpower to stop them. Or keep pace in scoring for that matter.
1. New Orleans Saints (13-3)
The only team stopping the Saints from winning the South is the Saints. The pass-happy Saints will continue to follow the lead of quarterback Drew Brees, tight end Jimmy Graham, wide receiver Marques Colton and lighting rookie in a bottle Brandin Cooks. It’s pass first, second and third in New Orleans—ranked second overall in 2013 in passing but 25th in rushing at 92.1 YPG—but when you have a record breaking quarterback in Brees and an offense tailored around his skill-set, the Saints will march down the field on any team.
Rob Ryan catapulted a poor defense to fourth overall in 2013, giving up 305.7 yards per game and a stifling 194.1 through the air (2nd). The defense has only gotten better adding All-Pro safety Jarius Byrd to pair him next to last year’s standout rookie Kenny Vaccaro. New Orleans also added veteran, future Hall of Fame cornerback Champ Bailey into the mix. Bailey is a shell of himself at this point in his career, but he’s still an upgrade nonetheless.
The road to the NFC South crown is through New Orleans.
2. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (9-7)
I’m not sold on the newly acquired Josh McCown, but I am sold on the talent around him. Drafting Johnny Manziel’s favorite target at Texas A&M in Mike Evans to pair with Vincent Jackson on the outside—the Bucs’ have re-created a Brandon Marshall-Alshon Jeffrey duo that McCown grew so accustomed to, lobbing the ball up in jump ball situations. The Bucs’ will welcome back a healthy Doug Martin at running back, who hasn’t been the same since his 1,000 yard rookie season.
On defense, Tampa Bay essentially rented shutdown cornerback Darrelle Revis for a season as he abandoned ship to take his talents to Foxboro. The Bucs’ replaced Revis with physical corner Alterraun Verner, adding another piece to a defense already loaded with defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, linebacker Lavonte David and safeties Mark Barron and Dashon Goldson.
If McCown takes form, the Bucs could become a surprise team in the NFC.
3. Carolina Panthers (7-9)
From first to third. Unless Carolina plans to win every game by a score of 14 to 10, the Panthers won’t duplicate last year’s success. Aside from Ben Roethlisberger, Cam Newton is one of the few big bodied quarterbacks who can sustain the constant physical abuse in the NFL, but the Panthers’ star is hampered by an ankle injury that may linger over into the regular season.
The defense will remain intact behind a dominant front seven, featuring reigning Defensive Player of the Year Luke Kuechly. D’Angelo Williams will lead the rushing attack that ranked 11th in 2013, but beyond Williams, the offense might come to a standstill.
Greg Olsen is the only respectable and known commodity of the Panthers’ receiving group, and he’s a tight end. Jason Avant and Jerricho Cotchery? Mediocre, mid-level players at best. Tiquan Underwoon and Marvin McNutt? Players who have yet to make a name for themselves in the NFL, aside from Underwoods’ hair catching headlines.
The only answer Carolina has at wide receiver is first round draft pick Kelvin Benjamin. The rookie has hauled in tough catches in the preseason, but unless the 6-foot-5 receiver has a Randy Moss-like rookie season, the Panthers won’t have any help on the outside.
4. Atlanta Falcons (6-10)
The Falcons have fallen from grace, and fast. Before an abysmal 2013 season dropping to 4-12, Atlanta previously went 36-12 between 2010-12. Those days are long gone, even after a one year fall. Several perennial playoff teams have gotten better, with up-and-coming teams like St. Louis, Arizona and Washington jockeying for divisional supremacy.
From a team perspective, Atlanta has no running game (32nd ranked in ’13) as All-Pro running back Steven Jackson, who has been a bust acquisition, is still battling soft tissue injuries. To make matters worse, the Falcons have lost starting left tackle Sam Baker for the season with a torn patellar tendon, and as a result, rookie right tackle Jake Matthews will make the switch to left tackle. Atlanta couldn’t stop the run either, giving up 135.8 yards per game on the ground (31st).
Future Hall of Fame tight end Tony Gonzales has retired and Julio Jones saw his first live game action since week 5 of the 2013 season as he recovered from foot surgery. Best case scenario for the Falcons is becoming the team “nobody wants to play” at the end of the season because of their attempts to keep other teams out the playoffs like themselves.
1. Philadelphia Eagles (10-6)
Chip Kelly’s offense was a success last season. He’s either a quarterback guru or Nick Foles channeled his inner Randall Cunningham. A 27:2 touchdown to interception ratio is a rarity from any quarterback, let alone a quarterback coming off his first full season as a starter. Foles will have to play to last year’s level to convince spectators around the league if he’s the answer in Philadelphia. LeSean McCoy, Jeremy Maclin, Riley Cooper, rookie receivers Jordan Matthews and Josh Huff, the speed and talent on offense is undeniable.
The Eagles are primed to repeat as division champs, especially in a weak NFC East. But with so much speed and finesse and lacking in physicality, there have been whispers of labeling the Eagles as a soft team. The only knock on the Eagles is their lackluster pass defense. Philadelphia ranked dead last in 2013 (32nd) opening airways for opposing quarterbacks, nearly allowing 300 yards a game through the air.
2. Washington Redskins (9-7)
A rebound season for Robert Griffin III is in order after coming back prematurely from a torn ACL. The hiring of former Bengals offensive coordinator Jay Gruden was a brilliant move as he will look to better protect his star quarterback with quick three to five step drops and deviating away from the zone-read.
Washington is only a year removed from a 10-6 season after losing to the Seahawks in the divisional round in 2012. This team isn’t getting the notoriety it deserve from a talent perspective. Jordan Reed is a bright, young star at tight end, bringing over DeSean Jackson from the Eagles is an enormous addition and Alfred Morris has had back-to-back 1,200+ yard seasons. Pierre Garcon’s productivity will only grow with Jackson opposite of him.
If Brian Orakpo and Ryan Kerrigan continue to rack up sacks and the secondary continues to improve, then the Redskins could very well win this division. It all depends on the health and maturation of RGIII.
3. New York Giants (7-9)
In one week, the Giants look like a surefire Super Bowl contender. In the next week, they look like they’re prepping themselves for the No. 1 overall pick.
When the Giants won their two Super Bowls against the New England Patriots, they prided themselves on getting to the quarterback early and often. New York had 53 sacks in their 2007 championship year and 48 in 2011. They only had 33 in 2012 and 34 in 2013 (tied for 25th). Jason Pierre-Paul and former Broncos defensive end Robert Ayers will have to lift this group back to prominence. Second-year end Damontre Moore and veteran Mathias Kiwanuka will also have to provide an impact.
But it’s a quarterback driven league. It’s doesn’t matter if you’re a two-time Super Bowl winning quarterback, if you throw 27 interceptions in a season, you won’t win many games, if any. The Giants hired Ben McAdoo, who is well respected for his work with Aaron Rodgers in Green Bay the last two seasons as the team’s quarterbacks coach. Switching to a west coast offense to get the ball out of Eli Manning’s hands quickly is the plan to curb the interceptions, but his preseason performance hasn’t looked promising.
Manning has talent at wider receiver with Victor Cruz, Ruben Randle and first round pick Odell Beckham Jr., but from early indications, this team will miss out on the playoffs.
4. Dallas Cowboys (5-11)
Statistically, the Dallas Cowboys had one of the worst defenses in NFL history in 2013. The Cowboys gave up 425 points last season (30th). They allowed 71 passing plays of 20+ yards (32nd). Dallas gave up 2,368 yards after the catch (30th). And teams scored in the redzone 64.5 percent of the time.
They couldn’t stop a nose bleed last season.
With injuries to linebacker Sean Lee, cornerback Orlando Scandrick missing the first four games due to violating the league’s substance abuse policy and first round bust Morris Claiborne still dwelling on the roster, the Cowboys may be even worse this season.
All hopes lies on Tony Romo. Those who have watched Romo play over the past eight seasons knows placing all your hope in the fluky quarterback is comparable to landing on tails on a two-headed coin with heads on both sides. The connection of Romo to Dez Bryant will occur early and often, but it won’t mean a thing if they can’t stop the other team from scoring.
1. San Francisco 49ers (12-4)
San Francisco is one of the deepest teams in the NFL. To revamp the 30th ranked passing offense, they’ve surrounded Colin Kaepernick, fresh off a signing a six-year, $126 million contract extension in June, with wide receiver Brandon Lloyd, Stevie Johnson and rookie Bruce Ellington. The 49ers also get a healthy Michael Crabtree for a full season and Anquan Boldin returns after a 1,179 yard season.
Part of the 49ers passing woes is attributed to their run-first offense. But a backfield consisting of Frank Gore and second round rookie Carlos Hyde, is a luxury San Francisco can afford. Even if it means less production through the air.
Their biggest concern is at corner with Tramaine Brock and Chris Culliver, who have benefited from a dominant front seven. Also, starting right guard Alex Boone has been involved in a lengthy contract holdout. Teams have been acquiring about the Pro Bowl guard and there have been no indications that he will commit to a long term deal unless the price is right. This is a major issue for a team surrounded by top defensive lines throughout the division.
2. St. Louis Rams (10-6)
Speaking of defensive lines, the best D-Line in the NFL belongs to the St. Louis Rams. A line featuring pass rushing specialist Robert Quinn, who terrorized quarterbacks with 19 sacks last season, the locomotive Chris Long, an underrated Michael Brockers and first round rookie Aaron Donald has caused for some to resurrect the nickname of the “Fearsome Foursome” to describe this line.
The Rams have finally grabbed receiver help in the signing of Kenny Britt. Third year wideout Brian Quick has been stepping up throughout practice and the preseason and the electrifying Tavon Austin returns for his second season. Stedman Bailey has reportedly been the most productive receiver in camp, but he will miss the first four games for violating the leagues substance abuse policy. His return will only bolster the group.
It all comes down to quarterback Sam Bradford who is returning from ACL surgery. The fifth year quarterback has played a full 16 game season only twice in his career. He got off to a hot start last year throwing 14 touchdowns to 4 interceptions before going down to injury in week 7, albeit, nine of those touchdowns coming against teams that ended up with losing records.
If Bradford has a successful and healthy season, the Rams will claim the Wild Card in the NFC.
3. Seattle Seahawks (10-6)
The hunter will now become the hunted. This brass team will welcome any dog fight from opponents, but Seattle was ravaged by free agency this offseason. Seattle lost receiver Golden Tate, defensive linemen Red Bryant and Chris Clemons, and defensive backs Brandon Browner, and Walter Thurmond, They also have an unhappy Marshawn Lynch at running back after holding out briefly for a contract.
The Seahawks Achilles Heel is their offensive line who experienced a number of injuries last season. This group, who recently added president of the NFLPA, Eric Winston at right tackle, gave up seven sacks to the Rams in week 8 in 2013 and sacked 44 times overall. Aside from Percy Harvin, the Seahawks don’t have a reliable target at receiver. A 10-6 record would mean a waltz into the playoffs in any other division in the NFC, but I expect Seattle’s 4-2 division record to drop in 2013, causing them to miss the playoffs.
4. Arizona Cardinals (7-9)
A talented team trapped in the toughest division in the NFL. They have a top-5 secondary with shut down corner Patrick Peterson on the outside, adding Antonio Cromartie opposite of him. The Cardinals drafted safety Deone Bucannon to pair with Tyrann Mathieu, who is is expected to be activated from the PUP list after tearing ACL and LCL last December.
Arizona recently lost Darnell Dockett for the season with a torn ACL and MCL. Linebacker Daryl Washington was suspended for the entire 2014 season for violating the league’s substance-abuse policy. He was suspended four games last season for violating the same policy. Injuries and suspensions are beginning to decimate the roster.
On offense, a Carson Palmer to Larry Fitzgerald and Michael Floyd trio will put points on the board. Second-year running back Andre Ellington will enter the season as the full-time starter after a promising rookie campaign. Palmer is creeping up in age at 34-year-old and hasn’t proved to be a big time difference maker in his career. If the Cardinals get off to a bad start, don’t be surprised if rookie quarterback Logan Thomas comes unto the field.