Although were getting a little closer to the new NFL season, we are currently in some what of a quiet period after the craziness that was free agency and the completion of the now 3 day long NFL draft. Since the Giants lifted their second Lombardi Trophy in 4 years back in February we have seen Peyton Manning get cut, Tim Tebow get traded and Mario Williams get paid.
We have also witnessed the freefall of the New Orleans Saints thanks to ‘Bounty Gate’, players and coaches were banned, lawsuits have been filed and we most certainly haven’t heard the last of it. This scandal also in turn hurt the unlucky or naive St Louis Rams who had just hired former Saints defensive co-ordinator Gregg Williams only for him to be suspended indefinitely. Coincidently this season’s Super Bowl is in New Orleans.
It is of course still a little early in regard to deciding who the main contenders are for Super Bowl XLVII, or is it? The decisions that have been made since March and will continue to be made up until the season opener in September by front offices and General Managers all over the NFL will shape the season to come. These are the months that teams are built or in some cases just tweaked in order to become the next World Champion. With the best available free agents all now signed and the draft done and dusted the 32 NFL teams are starting to take shape. Some teams do of course need more work than others but baring a major injury that could put a rather large dent in any team’s hopes, especially if it’s an injury to the starting QB, we pretty much already know who this season’s contenders will likely be.
There is little doubt that the NFC is currently the stronger of the two conferences, with NFC teams winning 4 of the last 5 SuperBowls. The defending champions the New York Giants will be amongst the front runners again but that’s provided they can get to the playoff’s which is when they seem to come alive. The G-men play in the tough NFC East and very nearly didn’t make it out last year, losing twice to the worse team in the division the Washington Redskins and posting an un-impressive 9-7 record. If they can get to the playoffs, no one will want to play them, but the big question is can they get there? The main part of their team has remained so the talent is still there but Victor Cruz will not be taking anyone by surprise this year.
The Philadelphia Eagles will want to forget all about last season and their ‘Dream Team’ tag. The Eagles have had a much calmer off season than last year. The main focus being to re-sign De Sean Jackson but the pick up of Linebacker DeMeco Ryans is a huge one, and will improve their main area of concern, their Linebacker core. The Eagles will live and die with Michael Vick but in Coach Andy Reid they have the right man to get the best from Vick, minimise the mistakes and hopefully put Vick in less situations were he could get hurt and miss games. The big question mark will again be on defensive co-ordinator Juan Castillo who has kept his job despite a poor year with a defense packed with talented individuals, another poor start to the season could see a quick change at this position but overall it’s hard to not see the Eagles making the post season but then we said that last year.
The Dallas Cowboys seem to be flying under the radar, which is a little unusual for ‘America’s Team’. Time would appear to be running out on Romo and Co but having Miles Austin and Felix Jones 100% healthy will be a huge bonus and the additions of Cornerbacks, Free Agent Brandon Carr and Rookie Morris Claiborne give the Cowboys a legitimate defensive backfield that they have been missing since the days of Deion Sanders. The big question is, can the Cowboys stop finding ways of beating themselves like they always seem to do?
The worse team in the East last year, the Redskins have made some moves in order to bridge the gap, starting with making the blockbuster trade to move up in the draft to get Quarterback Robert Griffin III to see in a new era in DC. Free agent Pierre Garcon was also brought in but their receiver core remains weak although the return of Tight End Chris Cooley from injury will be a huge plus. Despite those moves it’s the Skins Defense that remains their strength and the addition of Safety Brandon Merriweather will soften the blow of losing LaRon Landry in Free Agency. The Redskins will need Griffin to hit the ground running in the same way Cam Newton did for the Panthers last year because on paper the Redskins have a hard schedule.
The Saints have dominated the off season headlines thanks to the afore mentioned ‘Bounty’ scandal which has seen head coach Sean Payton suspended for the season along with middle linebacker and defensive play caller Jonathan Vilma. The Saints have gone from being one of the league’s golden boys to being they’re most disgraced bunch of misfits in the space of 3 months. The Saints will have to adopt an ‘us against the world’ type attitude if they aim to play in the season finale that their stadium will host. The Saints have benefited from some favourable officiating calls in the recent past especially at home but with the Saints and the league seemingly at war that slice of good fortune may have come to an end. Although the team still has talent especially on offense it could be a long hard season and a lot will depend on the start that they make because if it’s a losing one the towel could well be thrown in and the excuses will start to flow.
The team best placed to take advantage of the Saints woes are the Atlanta Falcons. After a 13-3 record in 2010/11 the Falcons lost their identity in 2011/12. Trading up in the draft to acquire wide receiver Julio Jones just seemed to confuse then play caller Mike Mularkey. The Falcons have largly the same roster as last year but more significantly have changed both co-ordinators. Although a seemingly an un-inspired choice of Dirk Koetter as offensive co-ordinator he has vowed to return to the power running game that was so successful during that 13-3 season. It’s time for Matt Ryan to take the next step and the Falcons really must win a playoff game this year at the very least but should really be aiming much higher than that. Mike Nolan can vastly improve a defense that has talent.
The two other teams in the South, the Carolina Panthers and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers will make this division tough as ever. Cam Newton’s debut season was a huge success and the Panthers will win games if he can continue were he left off last year, however their defense could cost them as it hasn’t really improved much on last year when it was a problem. The Bucs have made some significant moves in free agency including both Vincent Jackson and Dallas Clark but a question mark remains on new head coach Greg Schiano as coaches that come from the college game have often struggled in the NFL.
You could make a good argument for the NFC North being the best Division in the NFL right now. The Green Bay Packers season ended earlier than they expected after going 15-1 and at one point looked like going un-beaten. The relative ease of the Packers schedule outside of their division actually hurt the Packers and they became distracted by trying to stay un-defeated. The Packers haven’t made any major moves this off season but then they didn’t really need to and should be one of the main contenders in the NFC.
The Chicago Bears started the season at 7-3 before injuries to Quarterback Jay Cutler and finally Running Back Matt Forte took their toll and they ended the season 8-8. The Bears signed wide-out Brandon Marshall via a trade but much will depend not only on the form of a sometimes erratic Cutler but their ageing defense. They have the potential to go deep in the playoffs but at the same time it wouldn’t be a huge surprise if they went 8-8 again.
There is no doubt that the Detroit Lions are making progress after making the playoffs last season for the first time since 1999. However a closer look at the Lions record shows that the lost to all the good teams they played Packers (twice), Saints (twice, including playoffs), Falcons and the 49ers. Their defense needs a vast improvement although their offense put up huge numbers last year and their schedule looks favourable for another 10-6 season.
The weakest division in the NFC if not the NFL is the NFC West. The San Francisco 49ers surprised everyone by going 13-3 and hosting the NFC Title game only to lose to eventual SuperBowl winners the Giants. There is no doubt the strength of this team is it’s defense and that will be no different this year. Despite a breakout year from QB Alex Smith questions marks still remain, enough so that the 49ers courted free agent Peyton Manning in the off- season. Randy Moss is back after a year in the wilderness in what will either be a move of pure genius or an absolute disaster. It is extremely unlikely that the 49ers will win as many as 13 games but 10 is a realistic target and will be enough to win the West.
The Seattle Seahawks will be looking to improve on 7-9 record that they have posted in the last two seasons. Matt Flynn was brought in to compete with Tavaris Jackson at Quarterback. They have a reasonable schedule but will rely on their home form and that vaunted 12th man to help them compete for the West as only the Division winners will get to the post season from this division. The St Louis Rams are in rebuilding mode and had a ridiculous amount of injuries last year. Jeff Fisher is the new coach but Gregg Williams lasted about a month as defensive co-ordinator before his suspension. The one thing the Rams do have is a legitimate QB in Sam Bradford but they have a lot of work to do after going 2-14 last year despite being tipped by many to win the Division.
My NFC Playoff teams are:
Philadelphia Eagles, Atlanta Falcons, Green Bay Packers, San Francisco 49ers, New York Giants, Dallas Cowboys.
My AFC preview will follow soon.
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