The 2014 NFL season is about to begin. On Thursday night, Sept. 4, 2014 the Seattle Seahawks will host the Green Bay Packers in the first game of the NFL season. Last season, the Seahawks' unrelenting defense putting a real whooping on the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl XLVIII by a final score of 43-8. Now begins the Seahawks quest to repeat. Just a little history, the last eight Super Bowl winners did not win a playoff game the following season. That said, let's take a look at the the four NFC divisions.
Philadelphia Eagles (10-6 last season) This will be the second season in Head coach Chip Kelly's uptempo offense. This will also be the second full season for starting QB Nick Foles, who started 13 games last season. The Eagles lost speedy WR Desean Jackson, but added multi-purpose RB Darren Sproles. The question is whether Nick Foles can build on the success of last season, or might he take a step back, as opposing team's defensive coordinators have now had a full offseason to study him. If Foles continues along the same path as last season, the Eagles will be just fine.
Dallas Cowboys (8-8 last season) Having finished .500 for the third straight season, the Cowboys may have reached critical mass. QB Tony Romo missed the final game of the 2013 season, due to his ailing back. He had offseason surgery, and was used sparingly in the preseason. The team did not add any strength in the offseason, and in fact lost strength from their already questionable defense. LB Sean Lee is done for the year due to injury, DL Demarcus Ware is now with the Denver Broncos, and CB Orlando Scandrick has been suspended for the first four games of the 2014 season. They will need a little luck just to maintain their streak of .500 seasons.
NY Giants (7-9 last season) Just a couple of season removed from their big win in Super Bowl XLVI, the Giants missed the playoffs for the second straight season. QB Eli Manning has thrown 42 interceptions in the last two seasons, and their once formidable defense, has not been scaring anyone lately, nor has their rather anemic running game. This is a "wait and see" type season, as the team now has a new offensive coordinator, and the team will be running a more 'West coast' style offense. There are some new pieces on the defensive side as well. One of the biggest questions, is whether or not DE Jason Pierre-Paul can get back to being the unstoppable force he was just two seasons ago when he had 16.5 sacks.
Washington Redskins (3-13 last season) Coming off a season where they lost their last 8 games, and had their coach fired, the Redskins are looking to bounce back. QB Robert Griffin III has had problems both with injuries, and adjusting to the limitations of playing the game at the NFL level. He has a new weapon, with WR Desean Jackson having come over from the Eagles in the offseason. The deep threat of Jackson should loosen up opposing defenses, but there is still a lot of work to do. There will be tremendous pressure on rookie Head coach Jay Gruden. Washington was 0-6 in division play last season.
Prediction - Philadelphia wins division
Seattle Seahawks (13-3) Last season, the Seahawks finally ascended the mountain. After a thrilling win over the rival 49ers in the NFC championship game, they steamrolled Super Bowl XLVIII. The team did lose a few parts, like starting CB Brandon Browner on defense, and on offense, WR Sidney Rice retired due to concussion issues. The foundation is still in place. Russell Wilson is still the QB, and RB Marshawn (Beast mode) Lynch should still be on his game. The keys will be how well the defense adjusted to the NFL's new "touch me not" rules, and also how well Lynch plays, in what may be his final season as a member of the Seahawks.
San Francisco 49ers (12-4) Had a lackluster start last season, but then finished off the regular season, with six straight wins. The team is built much like Seattle, with a strong running game, and strong defense. RB Frank Gore is still in his prime, but the team will face a massive challenge defensively. As far as the defensive front, three starting defensive linemen are out for various reasons - Glenn Dorsey-torn biceps, Aldon Smith-9 game suspension (personal conduct), Ray McDonald-domestic violence charges pending, LB NaVorro Bowman-reconstructive knee surgery. Of those front seven, Dorsey is expected to miss the season, or be back very late, Bowman will miss at least the first six games. Missing from the defensive backfield, Carlos Rogers is now with the Oakland Raiders, and Donte Whitner is with the Cleveland Browns. This will be the most trying season of the Jim Harbaugh era. The Niners have been in the last three NFC championship games.
AZ Cardinals (10-6) They have a legit QB in Carson Palmer, and a superstar WR in Larry Fitzgerald. On defense, Patrick Peterson is the best CB in the league, not named Richard Sherman. The Cards are in a nice window right now, and barely missed the playoffs last season. They will need to overcome the loss of DL Darnell Dockett. Dockett had only missed two games in his 10-year NFL career, before going down with a torn ACL in the 2014 preseason. Dockett is lost for the season, but the season itself is not lost. AZ still has the pieces in place to make a playoff run. Last season, AZ had the sixth ranked defense in the NFL.
St Louis Rams (7-9) Last season, QB Sam Bradford was lost to a torn ACL. This season, he tore the same ACL in a preseason game, making it his second such injury in nine months. This also likely marks the end of the Bradford era in St Louis. Bradford never did prove himself worthy of being the long-term QB solution he was thought to be, when the Rams drafted him number one overall in the 2010 draft. So it will be veteran Shaun Hill under center when the Rams open the season against the Minnesota Vikings on Sep 7th. All hope is not lost, after all, looking at how spotty the play of Bradford was, when he was healthy, who's to say Hill will not be at least as effective as Bradford ? We will all know a lot more after the Rams have played four games or so.
Prediction - Seattle wins the division
Green Bay Packers (8-7-1) Last season, QB Aaron Rodgers only started nine regular season games, due to injury. This goes to show just how dominant the Packers are in this division. If a team's starting QB can miss almost half the season, and that team still wins the division, there is an undeniable gap between that team and the rest of the division. Such is the case with the Packers. It remains to be seen if they are strong enough to make a deep playoff run, but they still like the class of the division. Their recent shortcomings have been on the defensive side of the ball, and that may continue, though they did pick up Julius Peppers in the offseason. Balancing that out though, is the loss of DT B.J. Raji to a torn biceps in a preseason game.
Chicago Bears (8-8) Enigmatic QB Jay Cutler continues along the sideways path in his NFL career. He has been getting paid on his potential, for years now. Still showing the occasional flashes of brilliance, amidst head-scratching lapses in concentration. The same could be said for his primary target, WR Brandon Marshall. Forget the flash of the long pass, in order to be successful, RB Matt Forte must be the focal point. On the other side of the ball, this once ball-hawking defense has struggled of late, as they seemed to be willing to live and die by the big play. CB Charles "peanut" Tillman rose to prominence in the 2012 season, when he alone forced 10 fumbles during the regular season. Last season, he only appeared in 8 games, and forced 3 fumbles. In the end, with the big play eliminated, and the defense forced to honestly play defense, they struggled.
Detroit Lions (7-9) Much like the Bears, the Lions offense is built around a QB who has shown more potential than actual results. Matt Stafford is the QB in question. His uneven play is forgotten, every time he hits a big play downfield to WR Calvin Johnson. The team's late season swoon in 2013 cost Head coach Jim Schwartz, his job. Now, in steps Head coach Jim Caldwell to try to steady this ship. One of his other main concerns will be getting the true potential out of DL Nick Fairley. The Lions seemed to be in hog heaven when they made Fairley a first round draft pick in 2011. With Fairley and Ndamukong Suh up front, they have what should be the nucleus for one of the best front fours in the NFL, but it really hasn't lived up to expectations. Between the distractions caused by Suh getting fined or suspended on a regular basis, and Fairley proving he has the work habits of Albert Haynesworth, the defense has never been anchored the way it should be. Also, Suh is entering a contract year, and there is much speculation that his days in Detroit are numbered. Fairley will be playing for a new contract as well. It should be an interesting, tumultuous season.
Minnesota Vikings (5-10-1) Though they were in the playoffs just two seasons ago, it has been awhile since the Vikes were truly a competitive team. As it stands, this team is beginning to resemble the Detroit Lions during the Barry Sanders era. Spectacular RB Adrian "All Day" Peterson is playing the role of All-World running back Barry Sanders, who was a one-man show for many seasons, while hoping all his mighty efforts would result in a .500 season. The Super Bowl was never a realistic hope. In drafting QB Teddy Bridgewater, Minnesota is hoping to avoid that same fate. The only problem is that Peterson has already been in the league seven seasons, and has carried the ball more than 2000 times. By the time Bridgewater develops into a true NFL QB, it may be too late. Peterson averaged 131 ypg in 2012, but dropped to 90 ypg last season.
Prediction - This is still Green Bay's division
Carolina Panthers (12-4) Last season was a breakout year for QB Cam Newton. Newton showed a previously unseen poise, as the team won the division, and saw postseason action for the first time in the Newton era. Newton played with Nick Fairley on Auburn's 2011 National championship team, and was the #1 overall pick in 2011. Alhough Newton is coming off of offseason ankle surgery, and cracked a rib during a 2014 preseason game, one cannot negate the progress he made last season, and the injuries may work in his favor, as he learns to not be so dependent on his mobility. The 6'5" 245 lb Newton is a superb athlete, but playing QB is a thinking man's position. In his rookie season, Newton ran for 706 yds. In his second season, he ran for 741 yds. Last season, he ran for 585 yds, but his team made the playoffs. If he continues to make his athleticism secondary, he may develop into a fine QB. Carolina's defense is strong as well, with Greg Hardy and Charles Johnson on the defensive line, and phenomenal linebacker Luke Kuechly backing them up. Longtime WR Steve Smith is now a member of the Baltimore Ravens starting roster.
New Orleans Saints (11-5) Drew Brees is hardly the physical prototype for today's NFL QB. Though he stands just 6'0" 209 lbs, he has been very durable, only having missed one start since coming to New Orleans in 2006. He has thrown for more than 5000 yds in each of the last three seasons. He also outdueled Peyton Manning when it mattered most; in Super Bowl XLIV. Head coach Sean Payton is firmly back at the helm, with the scandal of 'Bountygate' in the rear view mirror. All-Pro tight end Jimmy Graham recently signed a new multi-year deal. The Saints appear ready for ascent.
Atlanta Falcons (4-12) Last season was a disaster. After coming in with high hopes, the Falcons were decimated by injuries. RB Steven Jackson was not healthy for pretty much the whole season, though he suited up for 12 games. Roddy White and Julio Jones, their dynamic pair of wide receivers, had injury problems as well. White managed to play 13 games, but clearly was not his usual self. Jones played in only 5 games. Worst of all, this unfortunate turn of events wound up nullifying the last season of the storied career of tight end Tony Gonzalez. It's anyone's guess just how much gas Steven Jackson has left in the tank, as he nurses a hamstring injury with the start of the 2014 season at hand.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers (4-12) 2013 was a big disappointment, as what appeared to be a breakthrough season, quickly went south. QB Josh Freeman went from being considered the long-term answer, to being out of the NFL. The Bucs started 0-3, and that was really the last we saw of Freeman. He was cut by Tampa, and then awkwardly signed by Minnesota, but released at season's end. As of this moment, he is still an unsigned unrestricted free agent. Head coach Greg Schiano is gone as well, as Lovie Smith now takes over. Much of Tampa Bay's 2014 season will rely on the production of third year RB Doug Martin. The "Muscle Hamster" had a great rookie campaign in 2012, gaining 1454 rushing yards, but last season only suited up for six games. If he can stay healthy, the Bucs may be okay. It also remains to be seen, what Josh McCown can really do as a full-time starting QB. It's a little "iffy" in Tampa, but if some pieces fall into place, they could surprise some folks.
Prediction - The Saints go marching in
Bottom line prediction - The Seattle Seahawks are still the most complete team in the Conference. If their "legion of boom" defense is allowed to play as aggressively as they have, there is a good chance for them to make another deep playoff run. The officiating will be a big factor, as the NFL continues heading toward what may be flag football at some point in the future. With the NFL continuing to go pass-happy, no team is better equipped than the Saints. Brees is fearless, and Jimmy Graham is a beast. Look for either Seattle or New Orleans to represent the NFC in Super Bowl XLIX