1)Who rules the Conference?
The New York Giants won their second Super Bowl in the Eli Manning era last year, and dismantled a seemingly unbeatable Packers team along the way. Green Bay was clearly the better team for most of the season, as they rolled to a 15-1 record, becoming just the sixth team in history to win at least 15 regular season games. Meanwhile, the Giants had an up-and-down regular season at 9-7, sneaked into the playoffs, and peaked at the perfect time. So which team will be better in 2012?
The Packers essentially have everyone back and should be slightly improved in a few key spots, including center (Jeff Saturday) and running back (Cedric Benson), and on defense (rookie DE Nick Perry, et al.). Even so, it would be a feat in and of itself for QB Aaron Rogers to duplicate his magnificent 2012 season, when he threw for 4,643 yards, 45 TD against 6 interceptions, and an NFL record 122.5 rating. And let’s not forget that the truncated preseason a year ago very well may have contributed to opposing defenses’ inability to slow their offense down.
The Giants lost three key players in Super Bowl hero WR Mario Manningham, CB Aaron Ross, and RB Brandon Jacobs. Factor in the fact that every team will be gunning to beat the defending champs, and New York return to the playoffs can’t be considered a guarantee, especially in an improved NFC East. However, Tom Coughlin and Co. have proven before that you don’t need to dominate the regular season to win championships, and if they do qualify for January football, they like their chances against anybody.
2)Eagles: Potential dynasty or underachievers in denial?
The NFL community’s show of support for Andy Reid in the wake of his son’s sudden and tragic death has been remarkable. This is especially in Philadelphia, where the fans showed their passion for the Eagles goes much beyond wins and losses. Reid is truly beloved by them, his fellow NFL coaches around the league, but especially by his own players. It all came together last Thursday as an otherwise meaningless preseason game turned into a rousing 24-23 come-from-behind victory for the home team, their courageous coach returning to the sidelines for the first time since the funeral.
Could it be that the uber-talented collection of players that the front office boldly assembled over the last few seasons needed something to rally around? A re-committed DeSean Jackson would do wonders for this offense, and there’s enough talent on both sides of the ball to easily improve from their 8-8 mark a year ago. Obviously, it will all ride heavily on QB Michael Vick’s health, but this team owes it to their coach to work as hard as possible to realize their potential in 2012.
Will they? Probably not.
3)Saints They’re Not: End of the road or merely a speedbump?
Commissioner Roger Goodell dropped the hammer on the New Orleans Saints for the now infamous bounty scandal. In case you’ve forgotten: One-year unpaid suspension for head coach Sean Payton, forfeiture of second round picks in ’12 and ’13, eight game suspension for GM Mickey Loomis, assistant coach Joe Vitt suspended for six games, $500,000 fine. The team was one of the very best in the NFL for the last three years, including winning the Super Bowl in 2009. How will they respond?
History shows they very well will be just fine. In 2007, the Patriots were caught spying on other teams’ signals and were given a hefty does of fines and lost a second and third pick in the following draft. However, the big difference in the penalties was that their coaching staff (and GM) were not suspended, and so there really was no immediate punishment to affect the on-field product. New England proceeded to go 18-0 before losing in the Super Bowl. It could be argued that the entire team found motivation from the punishment, gave a big “eff you” to the NFL, and produced the most impressive non-championship run in league history.
Could the Saints find the same motivation? They certainly have a chip on their collective shoulder, as Drew Brees’ recent comments about the commish seem to reflect. The biggest question will be how much they miss having Payton around the team, and how much the remaining coaching staff can continue to manage the team in practice and on game day. To that end, don’t count out Brees and his ability to rally this team. He’s the heart and soul of that Saints team, no disrespect to Payton.
Edge: Speed bump
4)RG3 and the Redskins v. Marcus Claiborne and the Cowboys: which rookie will have the bigger impact on their team?
Sorry, Osi Umenyiora, Robert Griffin III is here to stay. Sure, he hasn’t proven anything yet in the NFL, but he has injected energy into the Redskins and hope into a fanbase that’s been praying for a savior. Washington got basically nothing from their passing game last year, so even the fact that RG3 poses something for defenses to have to prepare for is an improvement. But early signs show that his passing ability is already an upgrade, and he hasn’t even flashed any of his electric running ability yet.
The Cowboys took a risk in trading up to take the freakishly athletic corner out of LSU, especially after not even working him out before the draft. The Cowboys’ window for success is closing a bit with several key players nearing the end of their primes (see Romo, Tony), and sure could have used a mid-2nd round pick. However, Dallas’ greatest need was in the defensive backfield, and Claiborne has the potential not only to shore up the position but prove to be a game-changer. However, he has been nursing a sprained MCL sustained in training camp, and is already hearing it from the front office to “get back on the field.” Stay tuned.
5)Three playoff teams from NFC North?
Even wildly optimistic Minnesota Vikings fans would be cautious in predicting much success from the upcoming season. Adrian Peterson is coming off a gruesome knee injury, the unpredictable (and still green) Christian Ponder is under center, and their horrid defense remains largely unimproved upon. However, the Vikings’ fate this season will surely have an effect on the NFC playoff outlook, even if they are excluded from play for the third consecutive season.
Why? Green Bay is a lock to be back in the postseason, and highly favored to win the division. Detroit is coming off a playoff birth from a season ago, and the Chicago Bears, just two seasons removed from a heartbreaking loss in the NFC Championship game, looks to be the most improved team in the division. So the question becomes: will the Vikings be the divisional whipping boys they were a year ago, or will they spoil one of their rivals’ chances at the second season?
It really all comes down to AP. If he’s healthy, most every game is at least winnable for the Vikings, especially as fields get cold and sloppy in Green Bay and Chicago late in the season. If not, more pressure falls to Ponder and that unmentionable defense, and the rest will take care of itself. My bet: don’t count out Peterson, who just came off the Physically Unable to Perform list and will start practice this week.
Edge: Bears in, Lions out.
NFC North: Packers
NFC East: Giants
NFC West: 49ers
NFC South: Saints
Wild Cards: Bears, Eagles
Wild Card round: Saints over Bears, Giants over Eagles
Divisional round: 49ers over Saints, Packers over Giants
NFC Championship: Packers over 49ers