It’s almost here – the biggest game in America is just a day away.
Now it’s time for the bruising but brilliant NFC.
See who the runners, riders and rubbish are as the NFL gets set for its big kick-off.
By Dave Squires – Lead NFL Writer – @davefalcon90
The NFC Title Contenders
Green Bay, Seattle, San Francisco, New Orleans and Atlanta
With Aaron Rodgers back at the helm, Green Bay will be dangerous. The Packers will hope that the signing of Julius Peppers will improve a pass rush that has been non-existent of late and a defense which has also struggled to stop the run. Although the secondary is a strong point and one that’s capable of creating take-aways. The time when this offense had five or six threats at receiver and tight end have also gone.
Repeating as champs has a proven history of failure and Seattle’s attitude is perhaps their biggest question mark. The bulk of the roster from 2013 remains but has less depth on the D-line so any injuries here could be costly. If receiver Percy Harvin can stay healthy then this will add another weapon to an offense that lost Golden Tate in free agency. Seattle will look to continue to get solid play from quarterback Russell Wilson and work running back Marshawn Lynch.
Having been to the NFC title game for the last three years it seems strange to think that the 49ers are the one team that could fall out of this bracket. Early off-season talk surrounding head coach Jim Harbaugh’s future and how he handles the players has been forgotten for now but will soon re-appear if things start to go wrong on the field. The loss of Aldon Smith for the season and Navarro Bowman for at least half of it will hurt the defense. The NFC West is a tough division and if they don’t start well this could be the year that the 49ers fall away.
New Orleans remain a contender in the NFC mainly thanks to the partnership of Drew Brees and head coach Sean Payton calling the plays. The defense is built to create turnovers and will be aided by free agent Jairus Byrd at safety. The early part of their schedule is favourable however the back end is not and the Saints must win more games on the road than they have been doing. The Saints will be aiming for home field advantage in the playoffs because, as bad as they can be on the road, they seem unbeatable at home.
Atlanta are out to prove that the 2013 season was an anomaly after previously having five winning seasons. With key players returning there is no reason to think they can’t get back to the sort of play that saw them win 13 games in 2012. The O-line looks much more sturdy in both the run and the pass but question marks remain of the defense – especially their ability to rush the quarterback. Although the run defense has been significantly upgraded. Like the Saints the Falcons must be better on the road.
The NFC Playoff Hopefuls
Philadelphia, Chicago, Arizona and Carolina
Philadelphia seems to have a clear run at a weak NFC East division and will be hoping that Nick Foles can continue the form he showed in 2013. If Foles fails to reproduce or gets hurt then the Eagles could struggle with Mark Sanchez as the alternative. Although they have made some upgrades to the defense it’s still an average unit and will cost them against the better teams.
The worry for the Bears is the defense, which is ageing and struggled badly in 2013. The offense has weapons but the Bears lack depth at quarterback and if Jay Cutler gets hurt, which he often does, then they will have a problem. Otherwise expect this offense to air it out with Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffrey on the outside. The first half of their schedule is tough and it could cost them.
You could make a strong case that Arizona has the best defense in the league and the Cardinals were unfortunate to miss the playoffs last year with a 10-6 record. Much depends on an average offense led by Carson Palmer. The O-line is still shaky despite the addition of Jared Veldheer in free agency and the Cards will hope that running back Andre Ellington lives up to the hype to help the offense.
Carolina seemed to have regressed from 2013 which saw them win 12 games behind a very good defense. However several key losses, including tackle Jordan Gross, center Jeff Byers and wideout Steve Smith, have left holes on the roster which could not be fixed due to lack of salary cap space. The receiving core looks weak and the Panthers could easily drop back to seven or eight wins in 2014.
The NFC Inbetweeners
NY Giants, Detroit, St Louis and Tampa Bay
Even in the two recent Giants Super Bowl winning years they might have been classed somewhere close to this category but a run at even a playoff spot in 2014 would be over achieving. The Giants have done little to improve the roster from last year despite plenty of comings and goings. Running back Rashad Jennings could be an excellent pick up but the Giants offensive line looks terrible and the defense isn’t much better.
The Lions have a new head coach in Jim Caldwell and this offense has the potential to score a lot of points but quarterback Matt Stafford has to limit the mistakes. The defense is set to play a more aggressive scheme but, personnel wise, is still lacking quality and this will likely be the downfall of this team. Any more than seven wins will be an achievement.
The Rams had an excellent draft and have possibly the best D-line in football but the struggles will continue on offense, especially as QB Sam Bradford is once again lost for the season. That leaves Kellen Clemens at the controls in a division that is dominated by defense. If the Rams can establish a running game with Zac Stacey and rookie Tre Mason they may have a shot at going 8-8 or perhaps even 9-7.
Many people are high on the Buccaneers this year due to the hire of former Bears head coach Lovie Smith and the acquisition of free agent quarterback Josh McCow. However, at closer inspection, Smith has only made the playoffs once in the last six years whilst head coach in Chicago and McCown has been a back up for the last nine seasons. That said, the Bucs have improved their roster but 8-8 should be seen as progress.
The NFC Basement
Washington, Dallas and Minnesota
The Redskins only managed three wins in 2013 and almost everything is reliant on quarterback Robert Griffin’s health and performance. The offense has help in the form of former Eagles receiver DeSean Jackson but other than that the roster is no better than last year. Rookie head coach Jay Gruden would seem to be the right man for the job but it will take time to improve his team.
Joining the Redskins in the basement are their division rivals the Dallas Cowboys. The Cowboys are sticking with both Jason Garrett at head coach and Tony Romo at quarterback although Romo has had two back surgeries in as many years. Garrett has rightly passed on the play calling duties to offensive co-ordinator Scott Linehan. If the offense can stay healthy then maybe the Cowboys can win enough games to compete in a weak division but the defense has been terrible and did not get any better this off-season. It also seems that the Cowboys will never lose that ability to beat themselves.
Take Adrian Peterson out of Minnesota and what do you have? The answer is not much so the Vikings will ride Peterson as much as physically possible. Matt Cassel gets the start at QB for now but it may not be too long before we see rookie Teddy Bridgewater. The defense was terrible last year and figures to be much the same this time around. With the Vikings having a new stadium built they will play outdoors at the University of Minnesota and that means very cold weather that they could use to their advantage. Coaching changes will also help revitalise this team but they just need to build a better roster.
NFC Playoff Teams
NFC East: Philadelphia
NFC North: Green Bay
NFC West: Seattle
NFC South: New Orleans
Wild Card teams: Atlanta and Chicago