An NFC Preview
By Adam Hoff
Hopefully you all got a chance to check out the AFC Preview. Today we turn our attention to the NFC in an attempt to predict what should be a wild season in that conference. The Eagles are facing a "put up or shut up" season, the Seahawks are being heralded as the new West Coast power, and a plethora of teams have a legit shot at reaching the Super Bowl. And I didn't even mention the defending NFC champs in Carolina. Buckle up.
Philadelphia Eagles. It seems like it was just yesterday that people were raving about the quality of the NFC East. Now? Nobody likes anybody in this division. Things have gone south (or East, I guess) faster than a Pat Conroy novel. And Philly seems to have taken the worst hits. After trading for Terrell Owens and signing Jevon Kearse during the offseason, the Eagles were being touted as the prohibitive favorites in the NFC. The Super Bowl was theirs for the taking! However, now that the dust has settled, the Eagles are being tossed into the scrap heap. There are three reasons for this: 1) People don't give Donovan McNabb enough credit. 2) The Eagles lost two of the best cornerbacks in the game. 3) Nobody wants to admit that T.O. could ever make a difference.
Starting at the top, I'm not really sure where the anti-McNabb sentiment comes from. Okay, he's not a terribly accurate passer. I can understand that criticism. But what else is there? He's tough (once threw four touchdown passes on a broken leg), he's a leader, he can create with his legs and with his arm, and he's a winner. Two years ago he threw for 230 yards per game with 17 touchdowns (versus only six picks) and ran for almost 50 yards a contest with six scores on the ground. I'm not sure where all the backlash is coming from. As for the secondary, I will admit this is a huge concern. Brian Dawkins and Michael Lewis still man the safety spots, but Bobby Taylor and Troy Vincent will be nearly impossible to replace on the corners. Then again, they hardly played last year anyway, due to all of their injuries. Finally, forget about T.O.'s personality flaws. He's a big time receiver that will be part of a perfect scheme. He fills Philly's biggest need. Period. Chalk him up for 1,300 yards and 12 touchdowns.
Prognosis: The Eagles are going to be good this year. I stop short of calling them the conference favorites because of their thin secondary and the fact that Correll Buckhalter's injury leaves them no real backup behind tailback Brian Westbrook. Regardless, they should be able to win this division with an 11-5 mark.
Washington Redskins. The Skins were another team being hyped beyond belief after Joe Gibbs returned as the head coach. There were segments on PTI, articles all over ESPN.com, and even a mention in the President's State of the Union Address. (Okay, that last part wasn't true, but you get the idea.) However, it was only a matter of weeks before the flaws were being pointed out and the wind went out of the sails. Why do people always jump the gun? Maybe it had something to do with the fact that the Redskins are the most profitable team in sports.
As for the team itself, I like Washington's offense with Mark Brunell at quarterback and Clinton Portis going crazy in the backfield. However, they still don't have a deep threat to stretch the field and open things up for Laverneous Coles. Rod Gardner just isn't the answer. On the other side of the ball, the defense looks a bit suspect. Fred Smoot is a great corner but the middle of the defense is pretty average. If rookie Sean Taylor can come of age in a hurry and anchor that secondary from his strong safety spot, things could turn around quickly. Honestly, he's probably going to have to be the difference if they are to make the playoffs.
Prognosis: If Shawn Springs and Sean Taylor are at top form in the secondary, the Skins will make the playoffs. I'm guessing that those two players just barely miss the mark and that Washington just barely misses the playoffs. Let's call it 9-7.
Dallas Cowboys. Here we've got yet another NFC East team that has lost its luster. All the "second year of Bill Parcels" talk has gone out the window in favor of "Vinny Testeverde is the starting quarterback?" The Cowboys have arguably the best defense in the NFC, yet they still look like a six-win team. Why? Simple: their quarterback and running back are the combined age of 142. Vinny looks like Dikembe Mutombo in the pocket and Eddie George has averaged at less than 3.8 yards per carry in each of the last three seasons. Keyshawn Johnson and Terry Glenn make the best wideout tandem in football ... if "best" means "most problematic." The only hope for this offense is that some of the young players step up huge. If Jason Witten can become a dominant force at tight end, rookie Julius Jones can emerge as a legit tailback, and Antonio Bryant can fulfill his potential and unseat Glenn ... well, then maybe this offense will have some life.
Prognosis: First of all, it says here that they'll fail to score a touchdown in at least five games this year. However, even with the worst offense in the league, they should still finish ahead of New York on the strength of their attacking defense. I've got them down for 7-9. (Side note. If everyone can hang in there and wait for Drew Henson to develop at quarterback, they won't be half bad in a few years. The defense is young and they've got the aforementioned young studs on offense as well. This team just needs some time.)
New York Giants. Okay, you've got a team that is just crumbling to pieces. Add in a quarterback controversy between a guy that's not ready (Eli Manning) and a guy that's finished (Kurt Warner). Mix in what is quite possibly the worst defense in the NFL. Sprinkle in a head-case tight end with ongoing injury problems. Lump in a tailback who fumbles like crazy. And top it all off with a control freak of a coach. Sounds like the recipe for a disaster to me.
Prognosis: This team is going to suck. They'll be lucky to make it to a November 7 home date with Chicago at 1-6. I'm going to mark them down for 4-12, which is probably a bit too low, but oh well.
Minnesota Vikings. Here's your bounce-back team for 2004. They didn't have an awful 2003 season, but it certainly qualified as heartbreaking. An extremely promising start went up in flames, culminating with that disastrous loss to Arizona on the final play of the season. It was an ending that was about on par with when that Noah guy got tore up by the creepy little girl in "The Ring." This year, there won't be anything left to chance. Seriously, the Vikings are loaded. They have the most improved defense in the NFL as they bring in a new coordinator, two impact rookies (end Kenechi Udeze and linebacker Dontarrious Thomas), and a top-notch cornerback in Antoine Winfield. Now a defense that was already making big plays will actually be able to make the consistent plays as well.
On offense they have the best quarterback-running back-wide receiver combo outside of Indianapolis. Daunte Culpepper threw for nearly 3,500 yards with 25 touchdowns and a 96.4 QB rating despite playing half the season with a broken back. Randy Moss is the best receiver on the planet. Michael Bennett is one of the fastest backs in the NFL and if he can get (and stay) healthy, his 5.0 average yards per carry should translate out to at least 1,200 yards. Not only that, but the Vikes have terrific depth at the skill positions. Moe Williams is a bruising runner and a goal line threat. Onterrio Smith seems to be deeply troubled but is an incredible talent at running back. Nate Burleson is coming into his own as a wide receiver. Marcus Robinson might be the best third receiver in the league. I'm telling you, this team is stacked.
Prognosis: 12-4, the best record in the NFC, and home field advantage throughout the playoffs. I'm jumping onto the Vikings' bandwagon with both feet.
Green Bay Packers. Here's a team that hasn't changed much. They still feature Brett Favre running the offense and Ahman Green running the ball. What more do you want? As long as those two guys are doing their thing, the Pack Attack will be at least a .500 team. Now, the bad news. Favre is getting old. He's amazing, but at some point, he's going to slow way down. Also, Green fumbles too much. So right there, even the two best players have issues. Then you factor in the inconsistent nature of the receiving corps, the loss of Gilbert Brown on the defensive line, the Mike McKenzie holdout, and a pretty tough schedule out of the gates (at Carolina, at Indy, and hosting Tennessee on MNF in the first five weeks), and you are looking at an uphill climb.
Prognosis: I think they make the playoffs on the strength of a big win at Washington in week eight. 9-7 gets them back into the postseason yet again.
Detroit Lions. I have to say, I'm pretty excited about this Detroit team. And no, it's not because of all the talent on offense (although that is pretty intoxicating). Rather, it was the acquisition of safety Brock Marion that did it for me. I feel he's one of the best and most underrated players in the game and that he will change the face of that defense. Throw him into a secondary with above-average corners Fernando Bryant and Dre' Bly and you are looking at a pretty good team against the pass. They'll still have a tough time up front, but Shaun Rogers looks like a stud and Dick Jauron should make an impact as the new coordinator. On offense, they've got all the skill position players in the world, but no one to block. Joey Harrington needs to put up big numbers this year or the critics are going to start howling. But will he get the time to throw? He certainly has great targets in Charles Rogers and Roy Williams and a potentially devastating back behind him in Kevin Jones.
Prognosis: I think they'll get to 7-9 and keep moving forward. Things are looking up for the Lions in Motown.
Chicago Bears. I live in Chicago now and to hear the local reports, Rex Grossman is the next Joe Montana, Thomas Jones is the next Priest Holmes, and David Terrell is Randy Moss. It's hilarious. But hey, they love their Bears. Unfortunately, none of the above comparisons are true (although Jones could be a great fantasy sleeper in this scheme) and the Bears' faithful won't be loving the results. The defense is too young to fully realize their potential and the offense just doesn't have enough talent yet.
Prognosis: I've got the Bears down for more moral victories than real ones: 5-11.
New Orleans Saints. Most NFL previews that I've seen have the South as a one-horse race that feature a lot of separation, with Carolina playing the role of Smarty Jones. I see the opposite. This season is the Belmont and I've got New Orleans as my Birdsong. I think that the Saints represent the one team that everyone is tired of banking on. They've been such a disappointment the past three seasons that they are being written off. I think this is the year that they put it together, simply because it's the year that no one thinks they'll put it together. Get it? Go Birdsong, go!
To be honest though, it all rides on Aaron Brooks. If he can make a big step forward as a quarterback, the Saints will be a winning team. The thing is, he had great numbers last year. His 3,500+ yards and 24-8 TD/INT ratio were terrific. Now he just needs to improve his accuracy and late-game decision making and I think he'll get to the next level. Deuce McAllister is coming off a 1,641-yard season and will be even better this year. 2,000 yards seems a distinct possibility. At receiver they have the steady Joe "Cell Phone" Horn and everybody's favorite fantasy sleeper, Donte' Stallworth. They also have one of the best tight ends in the game in Boo Williams, so it's safe to say they'll score points. On defense, things look pretty much the same as last year. I just believe they will play differently. Call it a hunch or a guess or wishful thinking, but I honestly feel that this will be an entirely new group. And if you doubt me, know that I predicted Bill would win The Apprentice after the first episode. Nailed it. (And yes, I'll be tuning in to the second season this Thursday. I can't wait.)
Prognosis: Despite all of my praise, I don't think that the Saints will be a juggernaut by any stretch of the imagination. I just think they will emerge from a serious scrum in the NFC South. Give them 9-7 and the division title.
Carolina Panthers. The Panthers won't make the playoffs. Yup, you read that right. Maybe I just simply refuse to give them the credit they deserve, maybe I hate their uniforms, I don't know ... but I'm going with the bold prediction. I love their defense and their running game and I think that those two Ravens-esque elements immediately get them to .500. However, to move past 8-8, the Panthers need either some luck or some terrific play from Jake Delhomme. Why? Because their schedule is a monster. They could easily be 1-4 after five games. They host Green Bay, go to Kansas City, relax with a home game against Atlanta, but then go to Denver and Philadelphia. I'm not doubting this team's talent or heart, but they got a tough, tough draw.
Prognosis: They lose critical games at New Orleans and Tampa Bay late in the season and finish at 8-8, on the outside looking in.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers. I've seen them projected as bad as 4-12. What? Any team with Jon Gruden at the helm is going to win more than four games. Granted, they are older than dirt, but didn't the Raiders reach the Super Bowl with the All-Seniors Squad in 2003? Sure, they tanked the following year, but the point is that old doesn't necessarily mean bad. Ronde Barber, Brian Kelly, Derrick Brooks, Shelton Quarles, Booger McFarland, Simeon Rice, and Ian Gold are all back to anchor what is still a very good defense.
On offense, they should still be okay. Charlie Garner and Tim Brown are reunited with Gruden and should be much better than people expect. In fact, the skill position players in Tampa Bay are eerily similar to the guys Oakland rolled out during their Super Bowl season (the team that Gruden helped put together, if not actually coach that year). Brad Johnson is a Gannon-type quarterback; all pocket presence and short passes and mistake-avoidance. Tim Brown plays the role of, well, Tim Brown the possession receiver. Michael Clayton is the gutsy inside receiver that runs great routes (the role Jerry Rice played). Joey Galloway plays the role of Jerry Porter and will stretch defenses with his speed. Charlie Garner plays the role of Charlie Garner. Doesn't anyone else see this? Of course, not one of these guys is as good as his 2003 Raiders counterpart (even the ex-Raiders have lost at least a step), but they can't be much worse either. On top of all that, the Bucs have Mike Alstott to add power in the backfield and a tight end, Ken Dilger, that is better than anyone the Raiders had at that position. 4-12?
Prognosis: I think they are dangerous and could actually make the playoffs, especially when you consider that they have one of the easiest schedules in the NFL. I'll stop short of that and put them at 8-8 like just about everybody else in this division.
Atlanta Falcons. This is a tough one. If Michael Vick stays healthy, they appear to have a lot of weapons on offense. He'll finally get to play a full season with Peerless Price, they've added Dez White on the other side of the field, Warrick Dunn and T.J. Duckett are a great one-two punch in the backfield, and Alge Crumpler is one of the best tight ends in the game. The key will be getting protection up front and keeping Vick on the field. Even if everything goes perfectly on offense though, can they stop anybody? They have an undersized corner (Jason Webster) on one side of the field and a rookie (DeAngelo Hall) on the other. Plus, their defensive linemen and linebackers are mediocre with the exceptions of Patrick Kearney on the left end and Keith Brookings at outside linebacker. Two proven defensive stalwarts aren't going to get it done.
Prognosis: The good news is that only two of their first six games are against probable playoff teams. If they can get off to a fast start, maybe that will propel them forward and give the defense some confidence. The bad news is that they will play away games outside of their division at Denver, Kansas City, and Seattle three of the best offensive teams in the NFL. This defense will have to improve in a hurry. And of course, Vick has to stay healthy. I'm going to straddle the fence and make Atlanta my third 8-8 team in the division. I told you it's going to be a scrum in the South.
St. Louis Rams. The defense is decomposing and I think they will suffer some losses in the 38-24 neighborhood this season. They have a complete lunatic for a head coach. Their time has come and gone. Yet I've still got them winning the NFC West. Why? Because their offense is still incredibly dangerous. And with the distracting presence of Kurt Warner in New York, Marc Bulger should be able to play at a much more comfortable level this year. He simply needs to cut down on mistakes. He completed 63% of his passes, threw for over 3,800 yards, and connected on 22 TD passes ... he just happened to throw 22 picks as well. If he can get that ratio somewhere around the 25-12 mark, he'll be everything they need. Tory Holt (117 catches for 1,696 yards and 12 touchdowns) is the most underrated receiver in the game. I think he's right there with Moss and Harrison. Isaac Bruce is no longer in his prime, but he's still a terrific second receiver. Marshall Faulk has had a hard time staying healthy, but that's no longer a huge problem now that they have wrecking ball rookie Stephen Jackson to back him up.
(Watching Jackson at Oregon State, I couldn't help but notice the similarities to another former Northwest collegiate star, Corey Dillon. The way they both came out of nowhere after backing up big stars [Napoleon Kauffman at UW and Ken Simonson at OSU] , the running style, the huge numbers that were amassed while flying under the national media's radar, that sort of thing. And I think that Jackson has a better attitude and work ethic than Dillon and will have an even better NFL career. What a pick by the Rams. How could someone like the Jets or Browns have passed on him?)
Prognosis: The Rams play a tough schedule, but benefit from getting four divisional games against San Francisco and Arizona. They also lucked out with some road games at Miami and Buffalo, teams that should have been better than they are turning out to be. If they get those six games, it looks like they'll simply need to split with Seattle and win three of their remaining eight games to reach the playoffs. I think that's exactly what they will do to go 10-6 and win the division.
Seattle Seahawks. I honestly can't believe the hype surrounding this team. Having grown up in the Northwest, I find it all a little bit disconcerting. I personally don't think they are the new NFC power, but they should at least contend with the Rams for the division title. The offense is obviously terrific. Aside from his ridiculous prediction/interception against Green Bay in overtime last year, Matt Hasselbeck had a coming out party in 2003. He threw for over 3,800 yards with 26 touchdowns against 15 interceptions. He could easily go for 4,000 and 30 this time around. And the pieces around him! Shaun Alexander is one of the top five running backs in the league and is coming off a 1,435-yard, 16-touchdown campaign. Plus, he might be the nicest guy in all of professional sports. The receivers Darrell Jackson and Koren Robinson are big and fast and so is the tight end Jerramy Stevens for that matter. They even have a great pass catching tight end for a backup in Itula Mili. Needless to say, they are going to score a ton of points. But will they stop people consistently enough? Shawn Springs is in Washington which leaves the mediocre (at best) Ken Lucas to team with emerging stud Marcus Trufant on the corners. They aren't big or fast up front and the linebacking corps is thin. I think they'll definitely lose a few 31-27 games.
Prognosis: It's amazing how similar the Rams and Seahawks are. They both have outstanding skill people on offense, marginal defenses, and tough schedules. Yet most people are picking Seattle by a wide margin. Why? Because they are younger? Hipper? I don't really get it. I do think Seattle has a slight edge because Mike Martz is not their coach, but I think the experience of the Rams balances things back out. I see Seattle getting upset in its first two games (at New Orleans and at Tampa Bay) and spending the rest of the year playing catch-up. 10-6 and a wild card birth.
San Francisco 49ers. I know a lot of Niners fans and none of them are very happy right now. Honestly, what do they have to feel good about this year? Kevan Barlow is awesome and should run for 1,200 yards if he stays healthy. That's good. Brandon Lloyd looks like an emerging talent at wide receiver. Unfortunately, he's being asked to become the number one guy already. The defense is young and improving and has an attacking secondary, but they are still a year or two away from being able to carry a team. What else is there? Tim Rattay? A crappy offensive line? Dennis Erickson? To my friends let me just say, I'm sorry.
Prognosis: Kevan Barlow and the secondary will win some games by themselves, but not nearly enough of them. It looks like a 5-11 season for the former powerhouse by the Bay.
Arizona Cardinals. This was going to be an exciting team to keep an eye on. The talented Marcel Shipp was set to take over as the featured back and young Josh McCown was going to get a spread field and three incredibly talented young receivers to throw to. They weren't going to the playoffs, but this team was ready to score some serious points, both on the scoreboard and in the entertainment column. Unfortunately, that's all been put on hold. Last year's rookie of the year, Anquan Boldin, is out for eight weeks. Shipp is out for the entire year. Rookie Larry Fitzgerald and young wideout Bryant Johnson are both banged up. Add in the three rookies they are starting on defense and it's going to be a long first year for Dennis Green and company.
Prognosis: Not only do the Cardinals suck, they have the fifth hardest schedule in the league. Talk about your bad breaks. Chalk them up for a 4-12 season.
Seahawks over Saints The Saints melt down at the worst time and lose their first home playoff game in recent memory as Seattle salvages an up-and-down season by advancing to the divisional round.
Rams over Packers Another disappointing finish for the Packers as yet another Dome team gets the better of Brett Favre in the playoffs.
Eagles over Rams The bye week gives McNabb and Westbrook the rest they need as Philly wins a tough game in below-freezing temperatures.
Vikings over Seahawks The Vikings win a wild shootout in the dome. The Seahawk cornerbacks have no answer for Randy Moss.
AFC Championship Game.
Vikings over Eagles Wouldn't this just be awful? If the Eagles lose in the NFC Championship game for a fourth straight year? Yikes. However, the Vikings are my jam this year, so I've got to take them all the way.
Vikings over Patriots The Patriots are a tough team to beat in the big one, but Minnesota is going to be the team of destiny this year. After the awful 2002 season that was plagued by the death of Korey Stringer and the retirement of Robert Smith, and the crushing way that last season ended, Minnesota is due for some good luck. And when you combine luck with the skill they possess, you have to like their chances.
Adam Hoff is a columnist for WhatifSports.com and a member of the Fantasy Sports Writer's Association. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by sitemail at adamo112.