With the 2013 NFL season in full swing, let's take a look at the NFC divisions.
San Francisco 49ers - They came within one play of becoming Super Bowl champs. They did not skip a beat this offseason. They did lose WR Michael Crabtree to a torn ACL, but acquired WR Anquan Boldin. Boldin was a key component of the Super Bowl champion Ravens last season. RB Frank Gore continues to be a force, and will keep defenses from focusing solely on QB Colin Kaepernick. The defense led by dynamic LB Patrick Willis remains amongst the best in the entire NFL. Nobody will look forward to playing them.
Seattle Seahawks - Last season, sensational rookie QB Russell Wilson came out of nowhere to lead the Seahawks to 11-5 record. They ended the season with five straight wins, and a playoff berth. They would defeat the Washington Redskins 24-14, and then lose a 30-28 heartbreak to the Atlanta Falcons. Much like the 49ers, this team is anchored by a stout defense. On offense, RB Marshawn Lynch can make tough yardage as well as any back in the league. Seattle is next to invincible in their home stadium, and if Wilson can avoid the dreaded sophomore jinx, they could go far.
Arizona Cardinals - Though he has not been vocal about it, this must have been an extremely frustrating situation for All-Pro WR Larry Fitzgerald. Ever since Kurt Warner retired after the 2009 season, he has led a rather nomadic existence as a great WR without a QB capable of getting him the ball with any regularity. The offseason acquisition of Carson Palmer could change all that. Palmer is a legit NFL QB, and with the addition of RB Rashard Mendenhall, a suddenly effective offense could surprise some teams this year.
St Louis Rams - QB Sam Bradford has had a rough rollercoaster ride of a career since being drafted first overall in 2010. This looks to be another season of flux and change. Gone are both reliable slot receiver Danny Amendola, and incumbent RB Stephen Jackson. Head coach Jeff Fisher continues to put his stamp on this team, but Bradford is gonna have to be patient for a little while longer. There is light at the end of the tunnel.
Predicted division winner - Seattle Seahawks
NFC East -
Washington Redskins - The big question will be the health of QB Robert Griffin III. Coming off reconstructive knee surgery, He is ready to play. Much has been made of Head coach Mike Shanahan's decision to play the rookie QB last season when it was clear he was injured. Will this lead to more tentative play, or playcalling ? We will have to wait and see. In order to again be competitive, RB Alfred Morris will need to run effectively. On defense, LB Brian Arakpo will need to stay healthy, LB London Fletcher will need to again defy father time, and DB DeAngelo Hall will need to concentrate on playing football, and avoid the temptation to take untimely penalties. It could all come together again.
Dallas Cowboys - The most overanalyzed .500 team in recent memory, the Cowboys again have their sights set on the Superbowl (and if you believe Jerry Jones, they have the right stuff). QB Tony Romo still is mentioned among the best QB's in the league despite his continued failings in big moments. To date, the Romo-led Cowboys still have only one playoff victory since he began his tenure. RB Demarco Murray is hailed as the next big thing (as was Marion Barber). The real significant changes this season have been strategic coaching changes. Defensive coordinator Rob Ryan is gone, and Monte Kiffin (architect of the famed Tampa Bay Bucs defense) has taken his place, and changed from a 3-4, to a 4-3 defensive front. Also, Head coach Jason Garrett has been stripped of offensive playcalling duties. Will it all work ? Your guess is as good as mine.
New York Giants - The Giants still have the ability to come out of nowhere, and get hot at the right time. This season will be challenging, as they face uncertainties at the running back position, and also have a shaky defensive secondary. Athletic DE Jason Pierre-Paul is coming off back surgery, and is in a contract year. If he is fully healthy, the Giants should have a great pass rush. WR Victor Cruz did the salsa all the way to a big contract this offseason - If the team is to have success, he will need to prove himself worthy of those big dollars. Eli Manning is great when the game is on the line, but he will need to pull out more than a few close games this year. It's gonna be quite a task.
Philadelphia Eagles - The big news is rookie NFL Head coach Chip Kelly bringing his up-tempo style of offense to the team. Kelly made his name in College football while coaching the Oregon Ducks. There is still a question of whether or not it will translate at the Pro level. If so, the Eagles may be in business. With an offense featuring the combined speed of Michael Vick, Lesean McCoy and Desean Jackson, the potential is there. Look for a significant improvement upon last season's dismal 4-12 record.
Predicted division winner - New York Giants
Atlanta Falcons - 2012 finally saw regular season success translate over into the playoffs. Coach/QB combo of Mike Smith and Matt Ryan finally won their first playoff game, as did Future Hall of Fame TE Tony Gonzalez. The Falcons look to be even stronger this season, as they parted ways with inconsistent RB Michael Turner, and added steady power RB Stephen Jackson. At WR, Roddy White and Julio Jones may be the best tandem in the NFL. Last season, Atlanta lost in the NFC championship game. This could be the year they go to the big dance.
New Orleans Saints - 2013 will mark the return of the banished leader. Head coach Sean Payton has served his suspension for his part in the "bountygate" scandal, and is now back at the helm. Look for a reenergized team to make a strong playoff push. RB's Mark Ingram and Darren Sproles complement each other quite well, and we all know about QB Drew Brees. Come January, Bourbon street will be alive with the smell of Jambalaya and playoff football.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers - This will be the sophomore season for both Head coach Greg Schiano, and RB Douglas Martin. Last season saw a team which was very good at times, and not-so-good some other times. This may also be make or break time for QB Josh Freeman, who is entering his fifth season. He threw for over 4000 yds last season, but was not consistent. The team opened the season by losing 3 of 4, followed by winning 5 of 6, followed by a 5-game losing streak, before winning their final game against an uninspired Atlanta team. Bucs are not yet ready for primetime.
Carolina Panthers - The Cam Newton saga continues. Also, how long can undersized WR Steve Smith continue ? As long as Newton seems so much more comfortable being the off-field persona which is "Cam Newton", as opposed to being a leader on the field, this team is going nowhere. When Cam decides to relish the combat, and also take ownership for the team he is supposed to lead, there may be some hope. It is unlikely any of that will happen this season.
Predicted division winner - Atlanta Falcons
Green Bay Packers - Still the class of this division, the Aaron Rodgers-led Pack started last season 2-3, and then went 9-2 to finish the season. After defeating Minnesota in the postseason, they ran into a buzzsaw in the next round as they had no answer for the Super Bowl bound 49ers. The offseason focus was clearly on improving the defense. The goal is the Super Bowl, and they know that road may well go thru San Francisco. LB Clay Matthews seems extra focused this season. Rodgers is the best QB in football, the Pack will be heard from before all is said and done.
Chicago Bears - We could be witnessing the end of the Jay Cutler era. The Chicago QB who famously begged out of a playoff game against the Packers two years ago because of a knee injury in which he suffered no structural damage, may now truly be on his last leg. There is a new Head coach in Marc Trestman, and Cutler is in a contract year. The defense bailed this team out many times last season, before it all capitulated and the team lost five of it's last eight games and missed the playoffs. Add to that, the retirement of longtime defensive leader Brian Urlacher, and it makes for even more uncertainty heading into the 2013 season.
Detroit Lions - QB Matt Stafford was rewarded with a huge contract extension this offseason. The team also signed free agent RB Reggie Bush. The roster still also includes WR Calvin Johnson aka "Megatron". The fierce defensive front is led by Ndamukong Suh, who though effective, constantly teeters that fine line between tough play and dirty play. This team may not be Super Bowl ready, but it is time to at least make the playoffs. If not, Head coach Jim Schwartz may face a rather uncomfortable offseason. This team has way too much talent to justify ending up with another 4-12 disaster like last season; a campaign which was closed out with eight losses in a row.
Minnesota Vikings - It is really about RB Adrian Peterson. The team will go as far as his legs can take them. The jury is still out on whether or not QB Christian Ponder can be an effective NFL signal-caller. The defense is still fairly solid with Jared Allen up front, but unless Ponder can begin finding his targets with more regularity, it may all be for naught.
Predicted division winner - Green Bay Packers