Column: NFC Season Preview: Divisional Dilemmas
Published: Wednesday, September 4, 2013
Updated: Wednesday, September 4, 2013 00:09
Upon getting out of bed Thursday morning, I’m half expecting to stumble into the family room in our apartment and run smack into a spruce, most likely tripping over the ornaments and falling face-first onto the heap of presents underneath. If, instead of a tree, it’s my roommates who greet me, don’t you worry–I’ll still feel like a kid on Christmas morning. The reasoning behind this should be easier to figure out than the Saints defense: The NFL is once again about to dominate our lives.
To prepare you for what is to come over the next several months, I have decided to go division by division in the NFC, tackling the biggest question mark in each and making sense of the madness. As a special treat, the division breakdowns will also feature gutsy predictions from yours truly. So kick back, mentally prepare yourselves for Ravens-Broncos, create a drinking game in which a shot must be consumed whenever Ray Lewis is mentioned, and make sure to brush up on the greatest league known to man before the coin toss at Mile High Stadium.
NFC NORTH: Is this division best described as “the Packers and everyone else?”
Home to the best quarterback (Aaron Rodgers), running back (Adrian Peterson), and wide receiver (Calvin Johnson) in the entire league, the NFC North has no shortage of star power. What it does lack, however, is a consistent, legitimate threat to challenge the Green Bay Packers. After going 10-6 and making the postseason in 2011, the Lions won just 4 games last year–with QB Matt Stafford seeing his touchdown total drop from 41 to 20. The Vikings, who would probably be better off with ESPN analyst Samantha Ponder under center rather than husband Christian, would need a miracle to duplicate their 2012 success. The same goes for AP, who will still run for 1,500-plus yards despite nine defenders in the box. That leaves Chicago to try and dethrone Green Bay and, if you go strictly off what Windy City aficionados are saying, new coach Marc Trestman and his quick-hit, innovative passing attack is exactly what Jay Cutler needs to get over the hump. I’m not buying into the hype, although I do admire the love fest between Cutler and top target Brandon Marshall. The NFC North belongs to one man and one man only, and that’s Rodgers.
Prediction: Green Bay runs away with the division, as neither Detroit, Chicago, nor Minnesota reach double-digit wins.
NFC EAST: Who will affect the standings more: Chip Kelly or RGIII?
It wouldn’t be too bold of a prediction if I forecasted the NFC East coming right down to Week 17 again, which it seemingly does every time. It’s as if the Giants lost a key player every day in training camp, be it safety Stevie Brown or his brother from another, goal line patroller Andre Brown. Down in the Big D, all eyes are still on Tony Romo to see if he will ever deliver in a big moment. Both the Giants and Cowboys’ seasons may be resting on the shoulders of their two dominant defensive ends: New York’s Jason Pierre-Paul, who is healing from back surgery, and Dallas’s DeMarcus Ware, who is making the position change in Monte Kiffin’s 4-3 scheme. While Pierre-Paul and Ware could change the landscape of the entire division, no one has more pull than Robert Griffin III or Chip Kelly right now. If the knees hold up, RGIII will be primed to claim his second NFC East title in as many years. Standing in his way is former Oregon coach Chip Kelly, the “new kid on the block” who thinks he has the offense to take his Eagles to new heights. If you ask me, I think Kelly will look brilliant some weeks, while other Sundays he will take the load off of Riley Cooper and serve as Philadelphia’s Public Enemy No. 1. Be sure to clear your schedule for December 29th as soon as possible, when the Redskins visit the Giants in the season finale.
Prediction: If RGIII plays in at least 14 games, Washington may not even need Week 17 to win the division again; should the knee act up again, the Giants are there to pounce on the crown.
NFC SOUTH: Will the return of Sean Payton push the Saints deep into the playoffs?
The NFC South was formed in 2002, and over a decade later there has astonishingly never been a team to win consecutive division titles. Take the last couple of campaigns, for example: in 2010, the Saints won en route to a Super Bowl victory. In 2011, it was the Falcons who claimed ownership of the division trophy. New Orleans returned to the top in 2012, while last year Atlanta had the South all but wrapped up in October. So, following the pattern, it should be the Saints time to shine again, right? Well, with all due respect to Drew Brees and absolutely zero due respect to defensive coordinator Rob Ryan, it’s going to be a major uphill battle for the Saints to keep the Falcons from repeating. Head coach Sean Payton returns from his yearlong bounty sentencing, and that will surely light a fire under Drew Brees and the offense–but then again, offense never really has been an issue for this squad. It’s on the defensive side of the ball, the one that is coming off allowing an NFL single-season record 7,042 yards of total offense. If the “D” fails to significantly improve, New Orleans might not even be runner-up in the NFC South. That honor could go to the Buccaneers, who acquired Darrelle Revis and Dashon Goldson to anchor the secondary, or the Panthers, who possess the best young linebacker in football, Luke Kuechly.