What’s a lockout? About a month after one of the most depressing times to be an NFL fan, we’re just a few short days away from a steady dose of football every Sunday. Pre-season football means a lot of speculation, which means everybody has their prediction about how the season is going to turn out. We’re no different. Without further adieu, I give you how I think the NFC is going to finish, with playoff and Superbowl predictions coming later in part 2.
1. Philadelphia Eagles
Offensive line issues may prevent the Eagles from playing in February, but they are still far and away the class of the NFC East. Fresh off his $100 million contract extension, Michael Vick will look to show his critics he can stay healthy and consistently perform like the 2010 Michael Vick. A revamped defense featuring Nnamdi Asomugha and Jason Babin will help Juan Castillo avoid the same fate as former defensive coordinator Sean McDermott.
2. New York Giants
Here’s where the NFC East gets a bit tricky. The gap between the second place team in the division verses the last place team in the division might not be as big as most think. Of the three teams remaining in the division, the Giants have the most potential to be a second team in the playoffs. Don’t see it happening, as the team will need to rely on Eli Manning to perform like an elite quarterback.
3. Dallas Cowboys
Every year the Cowboys prove to be everyone’s favorite over hyped, yet under performing franchise. Predicting injuries is tough, but asking Tony Romo and Felix Jones to both be healthy most of the year is a tall order. On defense there are concerns with the secondary, which teams will be uncountably exploit. However, Jason Garrett and Rob Ryan shed some optimism on the Cowboys playoff chances. Both are outstanding coaches, and Ryan seems to be the type of coach that could squeeze talent out of players. All things considered, a third place finish is in order.
4. Washington Redskins
I was very tempted to move the Redskins up a few spots. Mike Shanahan is not as bad of a coach as his record in 2010 suggests. He will look to not only improve the Redskins in 2011 but also save his job. John Beck appears to be the starting quarterback, which can’t make anyone feel good about the Redskins chances in 2011. However, Tim Hightower is an underrated back the the ‘Skins might be able to ride to a few surprise wins this season. Plus they always play their division opponents tough.
1. Green Bay Packers
Much like the Eagles in the NFC East, the NFC North is the Packers’ division to lose. Barring any major injuries, the team will likely finish atop the division again. With Aaron Rodgers quickly establishing himself as one of the best quarterbacks in the league, a dynasty is in the making in Wisconsin. Furthermore the Philadelphia Eagles, one of the league’s best run front offices, went out and signed the best cornerback in free agency with an eye focused on the Packers’ dangerous passing attack. Things are looking good for the Cheeseheads.
2. Detroit Lions
A flashy pick to be a surprise team in 2011, Detroit needs to turn a blind eye towards the past and focus on a new era of Lons football. Much of the team’s success is contingent on Matthew Stafford staying healthy for most of the year. Obviously one could make an argument that any team’s success is really dependent on the health of their starting quarterback. However, the Lions case is different in that Stafford has struggled to stay healthy as a pro. Jahvid Best will hope to prove last season was an aberration, as he limped through the year with turf toe.
3. Chicago Bears
A team that overachieved in 2010, I can’t really see the Bears moving forward in 2011. Jay Cutler could be improved, but the team is in dire need of a real receiving threat. A baffling move to trade Greg Olsen didn’t make things better in Chi-town.
4. Minnesota Vikings
Donovan McNabb is a nice veteran quarterback to throw out there while Christian Ponder develops, but he does not make the Vikings a viable Superbowl contender. The defensive line in Minnesota is still impressive, and Adrian Peterson and Percy Harvin are still two solid play makers, but a better quarterback is needed.
1. New Orleans Saints
Two years removed from the start of their magical Superbowl run, the Saints are more ready than ever to make another run. I love what the Saints did in the offense, particularly through the draft where they added Cam Jordan and Mark Ingram. Both players are primed to make an impact. Add Aubrayo Franklin to the mix and the Saints are going to be more improved in 2011 than most think. Drew Brees will lead an offense that will be explosive as always. Big things from the Saints this year.
2. Atlanta Falcons
Despite an off-season signing Ray Edwards and drafting Julio Jones, there still are some question marks about the Falcons. Mainly, how is Edwards going to play without Jared Allen on the other side. Additionally, relying on a rookie wide receiver for consistent production might be asking too much. The Falcons get off to a brutal start (Chicago, Tampa, Philly, Green Bay are four of their first five opponents), so they need to start off crisp. However, that being said, Matt Ryan is developing into one of the best quarterbacks in the league. They’ll get to the playoffs, but I’m not buying into the lofty Superbowl expectations.
3. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Not completely sold on the Buccaneers making big improvements in 2011. Their defensive line is built for the future, but the young defensive ends might have their struggles early. Josh Freeman is flying under the radar and will be a lot better than people think. However, look for next year (2012) to be the Bucs’ year to transition into legitimate Superbowl contenders.
4. Carolina Panthers
Cam Newton has regressed in the pre-season. He still has the athleticism to make plays as a rookie, and should probably get the start, but thinking the Panthers will be vying for a playoff spot with Newton at the helm is foolish. There’s a lot of talent on the Panthers roster, and Ron Rivera was a formidable choice as a head coach, but the Panthers will struggle to get out of the basement in this tough division.
1. St. Louis Rams
Looking for the Rams to make a major jump this year and take control of the NFC West. The Rams are poised to field one of the most explosive offenses in the league led by one of the league’s top young signal callers in Sam Bradford. In addition, the Rams’ defense could prove to be one of the toughest in the league. James Laurinaitis, Chris Long, and newly acquired Quintin Mikell anchor a potentially tough unit.
2. Arizona Cardinals
In 2010 the NFC West struggled to send a respectable team to the playoffs, in 2011 they’re going to send two. Kevin Kolb, Beanie Wells, and Larry Fitzgerald form a formidable trio of play makers. In fact, the Kolb to Fitzgerald combination is one that will strike fear into opposing defenses on a weekly basis. Wild card birth for the Cardinals this year in their return to the post season.
3. San Francisco 49ers
Jim Harbaugh’s number one goal as 49ers head coach should be finding a way to land Andrew Luck. Seriously. Alex Smith is a solid quarterback, but he is not going to be winning Superbowls anytime soon. Colin Kaepernick? Who knows. While listening to Colin Cowherd’s show the other day he suggested that the 49ers tank the season to get Luck and I tend to agree with him on this issue.
4. Seattle Seahawks
1. New Orleans Saints (bye)
2. Green Bay Packers (bye)
3. Philadelphia Eagles
4. St. Louis Rams
5. Atlanta Falcons (Wild Card)
6. Arizona Cardinals (Wild Card)
NFC Championship: Saints over Packers