By Mike Ivcic, UltimateCapper Contributing Writer
Yesterday we took a look at the AFC, so today it only makes sense to run down the NFC. That’s the kind of logic and forethought you can expect all season long, right here at the Ultimate Capper!
Before we get to the NFC picks, though, you may have noticed in yesterday’s AFC preview that I picked three of the four division winners from last year to repeat, as well as five of the six playoff teams overall to once again reach the postseason. On average, the NFL experiences about a 4-6 team turnover with regards to playoff teams from year to year, and I’ll remove just a little suspense for readers here – I have the exact same numbers for the NFC this year, too. Maybe we’ll have some big surprises and a team will come from way back to make the playoffs, but I actually think that the perceived “parody” is diminishing slightly, so maybe this will be the year where the playoff teams remain relatively unchanged. I do see, however, one exception, with that being…
Washington Redskins (10-6)
Philadelphia Eagles (9-7)
Dallas Cowboys (9-7)
New York Giants (6-10)
Two years ago the Redskins, with a healthy RGIII, were the class of the NFC East. Last year, the Eagles and first-year head coach Chip Kelly rode a newfangled offense and a near-perfect year from Nick Foles to a division title. The Giants have won two Super Bowls in the last seven years, and Dallas… well, they have a big stadium. In what I think will probably be the division with the smallest separation between first and last place as far as final record is concerned, any of the four teams could capture the top spot, but assuming everyone stays healthy – and in a preseason preview, it’s impossible to project injuries – I think the Redskins are actually the most talented team. Eli Manning is coming off arguably the worst season of his career, Tony Romo hasn’t figured out how to get over the hump and win a big game, and Foles is due for a regression from his 27 touchdown, 2 interception performance in 2013. Add that all up, and it’s almost Washington by default.
That’s not to say, however, that Philly and Dallas are slouches. I actually like the direction the Eagles are going (that sentence was really hard to write) and the Cowboys have been just about a .500 team for the last half-decade. Either one could win 11 games and the division, but I think 2015 is the Eagles year and Dallas still has too many questions at offensive line to truly feel comfortable picking them to win. Then, there are the Giants, who remain a gigantic mystery to just about every NFL pundit. It’s almost as if they’ve managed to fly under-the-radar as the number one team in the country’s largest media market, but somehow no one seems to know exactly what’s going on for New York’s original football team. They could just as easily go 4-12 and they could 12-4, though I think the 6-10 mark above is probably about the most accurate assessment of their overall talent level. Toss in a total of 12 games between these four teams that will almost assuredly be split for just about each team, and it’s hard to see how more than one playoff team emerges. I think Philly’s harder schedule for finishing first is enough for a one-game swing – and enough to put DC back into the postseason.
Green Bay Packers (12-4)
Chicago Bears (9-7)
Detroit Lions (8-8)
Minnesota Vikings (2-14)
With apologies to the Vikings, this is a three team race for what could very well once again be just one playoff spot. Last year the Packers inched past Chicago and Detroit, and as you can see from above I think that gap actually widens. The tricky part about this division is that both the Lions and the Bears have the potential to put together a 12-win season based upon the roster composition of each team. But, much like the Cowboys mentioned above, neither seems quite capable of doing it over the course of a full season. Inevitably, it seems like both teams either come up short against the top tier teams or, should they manage to pull off a victory over the likes of the Patriots, 49’ers, Seahawks, Broncos, Ravens, etc., they follow that up with a poor performance against a perennial cellar dweller and give the game right back. That’s not how championship teams operate, and until one of those two teams proves otherwise, I have to go with Green Bay.
Perhaps another reason to lean towards the Pack is that for as good as both Matthew Stafford and Jay Cutler can be, they’re not Aaron Rodgers. It was clear from the Wild Card game against San Fran that Rodgers wasn’t healthy, and that slight injury was all the Niners needed to edge out a win. Had the Packers QB been 100%, though, I really do believe they would have beaten Colin Kaepernick and the 49’ers, which may have had the potential to totally reshape the NFC playoff picture and ultimately the Seahawks championship. There are very few players who are so elite that their presence – or lack thereof – can alter an entire season to that degree, but Rodgers is one of them. Assuming he remains injury-free (this seems to be a common theme of the current NFL), it’s foolish to think that Green Bay won’t be playing meaningful football in January. If you want a Vegas darkhorse while every is focusing on the two teams out west in the NFC and the two Hall of Fame QB’s in the AFC, it might be worth looking into putting a little something down on the ol’ Lambeau leap.
New Orleans Saints (12-4)
Carolina Panthers (10-6)
Atlanta Falcons (9-7)
Tampa Bay Buccaneers (2-14)
Cam Newton and the Panthers stole the show last year, which forced the Saints to go on the road for the postseason. Despite winning in Philadelphia, the Saints never looked comfortable in the playoffs last year, and were off their game just enough – especially offensively – that they couldn’t pull off the win in Seattle after a fairly valiant effort. Rest assured Sean Payton, Drew Brees, and the rest of the New Orleans contingent are going to go after home field advantage in the playoffs with a renewed vigor, because they have the only building that can rival Seattle’s as far as atmosphere and psychological edge. Add in a slightly easier schedule than the Panthers, and the South should swing back in the Saints favor this year.
For me, the most interesting (and difficult) team to project this year is Atlanta. The Falcons were absolutely riddled with injuries last year almost from day one, nixing any plans they had of repeating as the top overall seed in the NFC as they were in 2012. Without Tony Gonzalez, Atlanta will need someone to fill a major leadership void in the locker room, but beyond that this is a team that still very much resembles the one that had so much success two seasons ago. I have to imagine that Matt Ryan learned a tremendous amount suffering through a rough year, and since unlike Houston the coach and QB are both still in place, a quick rebound may be on the horizon. I think the rest of the conference is too difficult to actually see the Falcons putting together a season that lands them a playoff berth, but stranger things have definitely happened in the NFL.
Seattle Seahawks (14-2)
San Francisco 49’ers (12-4)
St. Louis Rams (6-10)
Arizona Cardinals (5-11)
And finally, we come to the division that has produced the last two NFC champions and houses the defending Super Bowl champion. The NFL has always had some tremendous rivalries – Colts and Patriots, Packers and Bears, Steelers and Ravens all come to mind as premier battles over the last decade – but right now it’s almost unquestioned that the league’s fiercest, most bitter rivalry is between Seattle and San Francisco. They are clearly two of the best five teams in the league, and both should put together impressive seasons. Sure, there are questions as to whether the league’s new rules limiting contact from defensive backs will hinder Seattle’s ultra-aggressive secondary, and the Niners have had more than their fair share of off-field distractions and problems since the end of last season, but it would be downright silly to think either of these two teams will miss the playoffs. In fact, I think the 49’ers would probably win any other division in the league except the AFC West, and yet based upon my projection of each and every game this season, they will once again be forced to chart a path to the Super Bowl that doesn’t include any home games. They were 2-1 when faced with that task a year ago, but there’s something about having to win a playoff game in Seattle that causes pretty much every team in the league just a little extra anxiety. I still don’t quite get how the Seahawks offense is as good as it is – or maybe they’re not good, they’re just opportunistic and willing to let the defense do the heavy lifting. Either way, I think they’ll set themselves up for another round of home cooking in the 2014 postseason.
The Rams and Cardinals, meanwhile, are actually decent football teams stuck in a meat grinder of a conference. They could both be playoff teams in the AFC, which really seems to drop off after Denver and New England. Instead, assuming the top two remain on their respective perches, St. Louis and Arizona would be battling the likes of Philadelphia, Dallas, Carolina, Atlanta, Chicago, and Detroit for a playoff berth. It’s safe to say that at least 10 of the top 16 and 12 of the top 20 teams reside in the NFC, meaning these two teams have a major uphill battle to reach the postseason. It’s the primary reason why I think that, except for the NFC East, the conference playoff picture remains the same – it’s just too hard to envision a team making a 4-win or 5-win jump to climb over a full handful of teams and into the playoffs. With the progress each of these two teams are making, combined with RGIII at full strength, another year of improvement from Cam, and the arrival of Chip Kelly’s new offense, there’s definitely a new guard developing in the NFC, but for now it’s still the big four of Seattle, San Francisco, New Orleans, and Green Bay – and I’ll keep picking that way until my eyes tell me otherwise.
Be sure to check out yesterday’s AFC Preview tomorrow, and check back tomorrow for the Playoff preview and opening night pick, the full Week One picks on Friday, and weekly picks every Thursday for the rest of the season, only at ultimatecapper.com.