Will the Seahawks be the first team to win back-to-back Super Bowls since Tom Brady and the Patriots pulled off the feat a decade ago?
Can Aaron Rodgers live up to the hype that’s calling him the “best” football player in the NFL and the most likely to win the MVP award in 2014?
Are the Niners in danger of ending their playoff streak? Will the Cardinals step up and fill the void?
Is it Drew Brees’ turn to etch his name into the record books?
Here’s what to expect from the NFC in 2014.
1st – Philadelphia Eagles: For much of last year the NFC East was a division that nobody wanted to step up and take control of. It wasn’t until Chip Kelly’s boys started putting up monster numbers on offense that the Eagles emerged as the front runner.
However, Philly still needed a clutch Week 17 victory at Dallas to clinch the division.
In 2014, the crown will be decided long before the last game of the season.
Kelly shocked quite a few people when he let DeSean Jackson go to division rivals the Redskins, but it’s hard to argue with a man who has made so much of an impact in just one NFL season.
Armed with a legitimate franchise quarterback in Nick Foles and arguably the top running back right now in the league (LeSean McCoy), we’re going to see a lot of yards and a lot of points hitting the scoreboard in Philadelphia.
Don’t expect Foles to replicate his 27-2 touchdown to interception ratio, but he’ll be good, very good.
2nd – Washington Redskins: If RGIII can find a way to regain his pre-injury form while learning to become a pocket passer, there’s a good chance that the Skins will give the Eagles a run for their money.
But honestly, I just don’t see it happening.
I see Griffin carving out a decent NFL career, but now that defenses (and offensive coordinators) have bottled up the read-option, I am not so convinced as I once was that RGIII is a superstar in the making.
Either way, Washington’s got playmakers in DeSean Jackson, Pierre Garcon, Jordan Reed and Alfred Morris. They’ll easily take second place in the league’s second worst division.
3rd – Dallas Cowboys: The Cowboys’ defense looked awful in the preseason, just as they looked awful all last year. In 2013 they ranked32nd in Total Defense, giving up 415.3 yards per game. No other team gave up an average of 400+ yards.
But Tony Romo is a winner stuck on a losing franchise. For all the Romo jokes that surface each and every year, no quarterback wins more games with a mediocre team than #9.
Along with Dez Bryant, the QB-WR combo will rise to the challenge and win several games all on their lonesome.
But the thing is, “several games” won’t be enough.
The Cowboys have enjoyed a ‘win and you’re in’ scenario in Week 17 of each of the past three seasons, but that streak will end in 2014 as Dallas finishes with a losing record.
4th – New York Giants: Tom Coughlin and Eli Manning have quietly won two Super Bowl rings over the past decade but the end could be nearing for the head coach and franchise QB.
Last season Manning was awful, throwing three interceptions for every two touchdowns. He could bounce back and prove me wrong, but I believe that Manning’s best days are behind him.
It’s hard to call a two-time champ overrated, but Manning has never been exceptionally consistent and he’s very prone to throwing INTs.
The Giants boasted a top-10 defense in 2013 and added help in the secondary with Walter Thurmond and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, but their success in 2014 depends entirely on which Manning shows up to play.
1st – Seattle Seahawks: Never should too much be gleaned from the preseason, but Russell Wilson led all NFL starters with a QB rating of 133.8.
Why is this significant?
Because the Seahawks won the title last season courtesy of their defense. Should the Hawks post a top-10 offense to boot, they’re going to be really tough to beat.
Seattle OC Darrell Bevell will open the playbook wide open this season to prove that Wilson is hardly a game manager but a strong armed gunslinger more than capable of throwing for 300+ yards, especially if Percy Harvin is able to stay healthy for the entire campaign.
Unlike the Ravens of 2013, this Super Bowl championship team is mostly intact and they should repeat as champs in the toughest division in football.
But with Green Bay and New Orleans on the rise in the NFC, anything could happen come playoff time.
2nd – Arizona Cardinals: As the only team to win a game in Seattle last season, you have to give credit where credit is due.
Carson Palmer has renewed his career in the desert and will boast one of the top wide receiving corps in the NFL. Larry Fitzgerald is back in All-Pro form, Michael Floyd is on the verge of superstar status, and rookie John Brown looked to be the real deal in preseason.
The only question surrounding the Cards is how their defense will hold up after losing a number of key players to free agency, injury or suspension.
I still like their chances to supplant the 49ers as the division’s second-best club.
3rd – San Francisco 49ers: Colin Kaepernick is truly an enigma. When he struggles he really struggles, but when he’s on he’s as dangerous as any quarterback in the league.
It’s still far too early to tell where his career will head, as evidenced by San Francisco’s heavily conditional contract extension that gave #7 very little in the way of guaranteed earnings, but I don’t see Kaepernick taking huge strides forward in 2014.
It may be harsh to knock down a team that’s been to three straight NFC Championships, but all good things must end and there’s no question that the Niners’ vaunted defense won’t be nearly as scary in the season to come. NaVorro Bowman and Glenn Dorsey are both out with injuries and Aldon Smith has been suspended for nine games.
How Kaep handles the adversity of having fewer games won by his defense will tell the fate of the Niners in 2014. So far, the young signal caller has shown to be less than mature when things don’t go his way.
4th – St. Louis Rams: Robert Quinn and Chris Long are perhaps the top pass-rushing duo in the NFL and on their backs alone the Rams kept a lot of games close last season when the offense wasn’t putting a whole lot of points on the board.
I still had St. Louis sitting here in last place before Sam Bradford went down for the count, and so now with Shaun Hill at the helm a spot in the cellar is more or less a guarantee in the NFL’s best division.
Before the Rams can truly compete in the NFC West they’ll have to find a long term solution under center. Bradford was promising, but he may have proven to be too fragile for the job of franchise quarterback.
1st – Green Bay Packers: If the Packers can keep Aaron Rodgers upright and healthy they might just ride his coattails all the way to the Super Bowl.
Now that the Pack has got a legitimate running threat in second-year back Eddie Lacy, defenses won’t be able to key in solely on the pass which will in turn open up play-action opportunities for Rodgers.
The team extended Rodgers’ favorite target, Jordy Nelson, to a big-money deal, so don’t be surprised to see #12 join the 5,000-yard club this year.
On defense Clay Matthews leads the charge along with Mike Daniels, Mike Neal and a revived Julius Peppers. Let’s also not forget that the game plan is drawn up each and every week by defensive mastermind Dom Capers.
2nd – Chicago Bears: Ask Brandon Marshall and he’ll say, “I see your Aaron Rodgers and raise you a Jay Cutler.”
With Matt Forte and Alshon Jeffery to round out the attack, there truly is no reason why Cutler shouldn’t have a career year in 2014. The question still remains, though, whether or not they can beat the Packers.
I see the Bears earning a wild card slot and a participating in a surprising number of shoot-outs in the historically defense-oriented NFC North.
If Lamarr Houston and Jared Allen can shore up the defensive line, Chicago could be a very good team.
3rd – Detroit Lions: The Lions have an incredible stash of weapons.
Matthew Stafford now has Golden Tate across from Megatron and two solid change of pace backs in Joique Bell and Reggie Bush. They should amass a ton of yards and score points at will.
But … haven’t we seen this before?
Until the Lions find a way to get it done, we’re just going to presume that they blow it. Detroit has been to the playoffs just once in the past 14 seasons no matter how great they look on paper.
You know your mate who is perfectly good-looking with a bundle of charm but can never seem to get laid?
That’s the story of the Detroit Lions.
4th – Minnesota Vikings: A.P. has high hopes for the Vikings’ offense and I think that we’re going to see a much improved team in Minneapolis … but, instead of All Day running all the way to the playoffs, I see a decent team losing a lot of close games.
Mike Zimmer will have his team competing and right in the thick of things in 2015, but he’ll need one more season to fully right a ship that was headed for disaster.
1st – New Orleans Saints: I’ve already gushed here about how good the Saints will be in 2014, but to recap:
Drew Brees + Sean Payton + Jimmy Graham + quality wide receivers = an unstoppable offensive juggernaut.
Rob Ryan + Kenny Vaccaro + Jairus Byrd = second-best safety tandem in the NFL.
Not only will New Orleans take back this division, they’re going to run away with it.
2nd – Carolina Panthers: The Panthers have put all their receiving eggs in one basket – and that basket is a rookie. First-round pick, 6’5” Kelvin Benjamin out of Florida State, looks like a future star thus far, but asking a rookie to be a #1 receiver out of the gate is a big ask, especially when he’ll be going up against the top defensive backs in the league.
Cam Newton is “Superman” and the Carolina front seven is ferocious but I still see the Panthers taking a step back in 2014.
In fact, the second through fourth spots in the NFC South really could go any which way, with the three clubs hovering around the .500 mark as they beat each other and all wind up out of the playoff hunt.
3rd – Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Again, let me reiterate that I’d really prefer to toss the Panthers, Bucs, and Falcons all into one giant 9 and 7 stew, but since I can’t, let me put the Bucs here in third place because of one man: Lovie Smith.
Smith isn’t the sexiest coach but if you look at his résumé from his days in Chicago … he found a way to win with mediocre teams.
The two wild cards that will make or break this team are oldie but (maybe) goodie Josh McCown and running back Doug Martin. Both players have the ability to be brilliant, or brilliantly disappointing.
4th – Atlanta Falcons: Matt Ryan, Julio Jones and Roddy White would have a lot to say about this fourth-place prediction, but I think that their 4-12 record from last season is less of a fluke and more of a sign that this is an incomplete team that has truly fallen from grace.
The Falcons will be better this time around but they’ll hardly be back to where they were two years ago, when they went to the NFC Championship.
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