Last season the New York Giants stunned the NFL by once again sweeping through the NFC playoffs as a heavy underdog and ultimately beat the Patriots in the Super Bowl. With two Super Bowl titles under their belts over the last four years, the Giants look to make the NFC theirs in 2012. However, with a deep conference, it will be tough for Big Blue to repeat. As the Giants get set for kick-off on Wednesday, let's look at the rest of the NFC.
N.Y. Giants (11-5): It will be tough for the defending champions to repeat. The Giants have a tough schedule and clash with the Philadelphia Eagles and Dallas Cowboys twice this year. Sure it's tough, but that's when the tough get going, n'est pas? The G-Men have been there and done that: In 2008, they came off the high of a Super Bowl title to capture the league's number one seed; however, I never felt that team could repeat because they were riding the high of 2007 all year. This year's version is focused and ready to rock and roll.
Eli Manning is in the prime of his career and could have an MVP year, with the likes of Victor Cruz, Hakeem Nicks, a healthy Ahmad Bradshaw and David Wilson around him. Keeping Eli upright will be key this year, especially with a makeshift offensive line.
On the defensive side of the ball, expect Big Blue to have one of the best pass rushes in the NFL, with Jason Pierre-Paul, Justin Tuck, Osi Umenyiora and company leading the way. The big issue is the secondary with its loss of Terrell Thomas (ACL) and Prince Amakamura, who is expected to be back real soon.
With a more focused approach in 2012, expect the Giants to win this division.
Philadelphia (10-6): Andy Reid is on notice. Weeks after the tragic death of his son before training camp opened, Reid learned that owner Jeffery Lurie expects the Eagles to not only win but to win big this year, or Reid could be looking for a job next winter. Last season the Eagles were infamously dubbed the Dream Team by Vince Young, and Philly went ahead and put up a stinker of a season in 2011. Now they HAVE TO become the Dream Team.
The key for the Eagles this season is Mike Vick. Vick was beaten up in pre-season and was even injured. Keeping Vick upright is the most important factor for the Eagles this year. Two years ago when he was healthy, he made the Eagles a formidable factor in the NFC. He will have to reclaim that mojo again in 2012. This is also a big year for wide receiver DeSean Jackson, who played poorly last year, mostly due to contract issues. Now happy, Jackson is expected to pick it up this season.
Expect the Eagles to be right there for the division title; the pressure is on. The Eagles will defiantly be a playoff team this year.
Dallas (8-8): Speaking of pressure, the Dallas Cowboys know something about that. Jason Garrett is under pressure to get this Cowboys team moving. After two years this team still has underachieved in the eyes of its fans and wacky owner Jerry Jones.
Big question: Can Tony Romo get the monkey off his back? Romo is a good quarterback, but he has been plagued by bad luck, poor decision making in crucial situations and brutal losses to the Eagles and Giants over the years. If Romo and the Cowboys can exorcise the demons, it could be a successful year in Big D, but that might be asking too much.
Washington (6-10): With the addition of Robert Griffin III, the Redskins have a renewed hope for the future with a brand new franchise quarterback. Griffin is a gifted athlete who can both run like a running back and throw the football with the best of them, at least that's what people say. However, the NFC East is not the Big 12. Defenses are much bigger and tougher in this division, and Griffin will get beaten up this season for sure.
This is a big year for coach Mike Shanahan. He has to not only win this year, but he has to pave the way for Griffin to become a top quarterback in this game. If neither happens, Shanahan could be out.
The ground game will also be key for Washington this year. They have mixed and matched with Roy Helu and rookie Alfred Morris. Someone has to step it up and take the load off of Griffin's shoulders this season. Eventually, the Redskins will be good, but it might be a couple years away.
Green Bay (13-3): No team was more disappointed with the outcome of 2011 than the Green Bay Packers. The Pack was 15-1 last season, had the best offense in football, and looked poised to repeat as Super Bowl Champions. However, a flat performance against the Giants in the NFC Divisional playoff cost them a chance to repeat.
The Pack is back with the same cast on offense. Aaron Rodgers is the best QB in the game. Jordy Nelson, Greg Jennings and James Jones lead the most lethal passing attack in football. The addition of Cedric Benson in the backfield makes Green Bay that much more formidable.
The key for Green Bay is their defense. The Packers were 32nd in the NFL in pass defense. They gave up big plays at the most inopportune times and had a hard time getting to the quarterback. This was surprising for a unit that has guys like A.J. Hawk, Clay Matthews, and Charles Woodsen. This unit has got to play better if the Packers are to have any chance of getting back to the big show.
Chicago (11-5): The Bears are looking really good right now, on paper. The team added receiver Brandon Marshall to team up with his former Broncos teammate, quarterback Jay Cutler. Marshall's best days were in Denver when Cutler was the team's quarterback. With these two now together again, many expect the Bears to be a huge contender this season. Keep in mind, however, that Cutler has a propensity to be inconsistent, and Marshall has a propensity for dropping passes.
The ground attack is awesome. The combo of Matt Forte and Michael Bush give the Bears arguably the best running attack in football. Not many teams can say they have two 1,000 yard rushers on their team.
Of course, the Bears are about defense. Like the Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers, the Bears could be showing age on D. Brian Urlacher missed most of camp after recovery from knee surgery. If he returns to full health, it will only help this team. This is also a big year for coach Lovie Smith, who is the second longest tenured coach in the NFL behind Andy Reid. Smith has been in Chi-Town for a long time and has one Super Bowl appearance to show for it. Now is the time.
Detroit (10-6): The Detroit Lions are a very talented and very combustible group. Their offense is dynamic led by quarterback Matthew Stafford and receiver Calvin Johnson; however, a rash of on- field and off-field distractions give people pause. Led by troubled defensive linemen Ndamukong Shu, the Lions have to get the knuckleheads under control if this team is going to be successful. That responsibility falls at the feet of coach Jim Schwartz. Expect Detroit to put up a ton of points, give up a ton of points, and hover around .500 as the year's biggest bust.
Minnesota (5-11): The Vikings are going nowhere. Amazing to think this team was in the NFC title game as recently as 2009! Outside of running back Adrian Peterson and defensive end Jerod Allen, the Vikings are devoid of great talent. Christian Ponder is still a project, and time could be running out on coach Leslie Fraizer. Keep in mind the Vikings are about to build a new stadium, so bigger days are ahead after this season.
New Orleans (11-5): Yes, I am taking the Saints to win the South. Even with all of the bountygate hoopla in the background, the Saints are still a team with which to be reckon. The defense might be missing a few guys, most notably Jonathan Vilma who is suspended for the season. With Steve Spagnolu taking over as the defensive coordinator, the Saints will get past the dark days of Greg Williams and bountygate. Spags coaches a physical brand of defense, and remember, he did his best work as a defensive coordinator when he was with the Giants.
Offensively, the Saints still have Drew Brees and an offense that can put up big numbers all season. Many have pointed out that Brees and the Saints offense will miss the presence of coach Sean Payton, who was also suspended for the year because of the bountygate fiasco. However, last year, when Payton missed time with an ACL injury, it was offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael called the plays to great success. In short, the Saints should be fine.
The main issue is head coach. With Joe Vitt and Aaron Kromer sharing head coaching duties, too many voices could become an issue. The Saints will miss Payton's command on the sidelines this season.
Atlanta (10-6): Can we trust the Falcons? This is supposed to be their year, especially with the Saints dealing with all of these bountygate issues, but this is a Falcons team that has yet to win a playoff game in the Matt Ryan era and has been pretty soft in recent years. Sure the Falcons have the talent to win the South and get deep into the playoffs, but at some point, they have to actually do it. I'll believe it when I see it.
Carolina (7-9): Another team with high expectations. Quarterback Cam Newton broke onto the scene last year, making Carolina one of the most dynamic offenses in the sport. Newton can throw like Peyton Manning, and he can run like Mike Vick, which makes him a very difficult person to defend. With Newton, the ageless Steve Smith, and combo of DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart, the extended troika makes the Panthers very scary.
However, the Cats can't defend. They could have easily been 10-6 last year, but were 6-10 because they couldn't close games out. The Panthers defense has to shore up things this year, and Newton has to reduce the turnovers. The Panthers are good, but I think they are another year away from the Promised Land.
Tampa Bay (5-11): Former Rutgers coach Greg Schiano takes over a Bucs team that is looking to rebuild. Josh Freeman needs to have a big year at quarterback to convince Schiano that he is the franchise. The Bucs already determined that Doug Martin is a better back than the very large LaGarrett Blount. There will be plenty of growing pains for Schiano in year one.
San Francisco (10-6): The San Francisco 49ers are a carbon copy of the Baltimore Ravens. Not only are both coached by a Harbaugh, but both teams feature top defenses, a top ground attack, and a quarterback that makes its own fanbase queasy.
No defense was better than San Fran's last year. Justin Smith became a household name with his play. NaVorro Bowman also had a year to remember with 143 tackles. The Niners have the D to get it done and keep them in contention for the NFC crown.
However, they don't have enough fire power on offense. Alex Smith was asked to manage the game, and he did just that, but when he was asked to win the game, Smith just didn't have it. He is not a franchise quarterback, and the 49ers even tried to get rid of him for Peyton Manning this year. Plus, the talent is not great. Frank Gore is getting out, and outside of Michael Crabtree and Vernon Davis, there isn't a second and third option at wide receiver. This team will struggle to score, so the D better be there again.
St. Louis (7-9): There is no way in "h-e-double hockey stick" that Jeff Fisher is going to stand for a 4-12 season for the Rams. It's not happening. This is a coach who found a way to make the Tennessee Oilers/Titans into a top franchise in this league in the late 90's and early 00's. He will find a way to do it again in St. Louis. Fisher has a franchise quarterback in Sam Bradford; he has a top back in Steven Jackson; however the Rams still need help on the line and at wide receiver. This will be a rocky year, but a step in the right direction for the Rams.
Seattle (6-10): Everyone now loves Russell Wilson. Careful, people; remember, Wilson was having great success in pre-season. Wilson, the 5'10" slash quarterback, ironically has taken the job away from Matt Flynn, who was a highly touted back-up quarterback to Aaron Rodgers in Green Bay over the past few seasons. Flynn came to Seattle with great fanfare but lost out to Wilson this summer. This better work for Pete Carroll. Not only are the Seahawks hard to watch because of their uniforms, but if they stink, it could get ugly.
Arizona (5-11): Ken Whisenhunt can't make a decision. Go with Kevin Kolb, or go with John Skeleton. Make a pick already. The Cardinals coach could be in trouble; it's been four years since the Cardinals stunned the world and made it to the Super Bowl. Since they have not replaced Kurt Warner and outside of receiver Larry Fitzgerald, there is not much there.
NFC Playoff picture:
1) Green Bay 13-3
2) N.Y. Giants 11-5
3) New Orleans 11-5
4) San Francisco 10-6
5) Chicago 11-5
6) Philadelphia 11-5