If you read my columns regularly, you know I whiffed last year on the NFC. COMPLETELY. I didn’t see the Eagles on the rise, nor did I sense how much better the Saints would be with a balanced attack. This year I think that four of the top five teams are coming from the NFC, so I’d better be right about at least a few of these.
Winner: Minnesota Vikings. While I don’t love the move to get the far more expensive (and not much better) Kirk Cousins to replace Case Keenum here, I don’t see a lot of chance for any of the other teams in the division to really challenge them. That purple people eater defense is as good as any unit and the combination of Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen was really hard to cover last year. None of that is changing, plus they went out and got former Bengal standout George Iloka to shore up the safety position. Even if they hit some early bumps in the road as Cousins adjusts to his new teammates, this should be an eleven or twelve-win team. That’ll get the job done. The Packers are still too soft defensively, full stop. The Bears got more interesting, adding Khalil Mack, but are still learning the ropes on offense with Mitchell Trubisky. The Lions will do what the Lions do. Look good on paper but lose at least three or four winnable games. The Vikings are the kings in the North.
Hot Seat: Mike Zimmer. Bear with me. I know that I just said the Vikings would win the division. Here’s the thing. Every other team in the division has some lowered expectations and the Lions and Bears just brought in new coaches. If the Vikings DON’T win the division after trading away the QB that got them near the top of the NFC, Zimmer might, and should be out of a job.
Winner: New Orleans Saints? I’d love to be more definitive here, but I just don’t know in the most loaded division in the NFL. The emergence of Alvin Kamara last season turned too- dependent-on passing offense into a deadly, unpredictable unit. With Mark Ingram missing the first few games, will Kamara end up with a larger role? I think so. More Kamara probably won’t be a bad thing…Can the Panthers challenge them? Absolutely. Last year’s Panthers were just a few plays away from being next level good. Maybe Norv Turner calling the shots is the key? And the Falcons handled their Super Bowl collapse better than expected last year, I can see them contending as well. Can the Buccaneers compete, too? Probably not.
Hot Seat: Jameis Winston. Tampa Bay will be without their star quarterback for the first few games and have already indicated that if backup Ryan Fitzpatrick gets the team off to a good start, they might not make the switch back. It will be a tough pill to swallow for Winston, but the guy should be extremely happy he isn’t facing criminal charges for the incident that earned him the suspension. With that being said, Tampa Bay opens up the season with New Orleans, Philly, Pittsburgh and Chicago. So, 1-3 is a very likely scenario for the first four games.
Winner: Philadelphia Eagles. Not exactly needing a crystal ball for this one. The Eagles have held together the core of the team that won it all last year. The Giants should be better with the addition of Saquon Barkley and a healthy receiving corps, but they’re still a mess on defense. Dallas will again be a mediocre mess with talented players and no direction. Losing Dez Bryant can’t possibly be an improvement. Washington chose the road less interesting, bringing in Alex Smith for what is likely the final chapter of his career. I doubt that he can bring a charge to the nation’s capital that Kirk Cousins couldn’t.
Hot Seat: Jason Garrett. If the Cowboys slide any further from the excitement of their 13-3 2016 season, I’m guessing that Garrett will likely end his time in Dallas. An 8-8 campaign or worse would likely be enough to shake loose the ties that bind Jerry Jones to his man at field level.
Winner: LA Rams. My pick to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl. Probably my pick to win it all as well. This team was beyond exciting to watch last season with young players making splash plays all over the field. They’ve re-signed the game’s best defender in Aaron Donald and then brought in Patriots receiver Brandin Cooks to stretch the field and snatched Marcus Peters from the Chiefs to shut down opposing receivers. The Rams realized that they were close last year, and don’t want to play second fiddle again this year. I don’t think they will. A sleeper pick in this division might be the Niners, and hopes are sky-high in the Bay, but unless Jimmy G really is the second coming of Joe Montana, I don’t really see this squad making the playoffs. I’m thinking a respectable 9-7 season would be a great start to the Jimmy G era in San Francisco.
Hot Seat: Pete Carroll. The walls are closing in on Carroll as his offense becomes one dimensional and anemic and the defense that once spread fear to all corners of the league has become a joke. The stalemate with Earl Thomas might be over, but the trouble in Seattle almost surely isn’t. If they dip below .500, the rebuild in Seattle will start in earnest.
Editor’s note: Click here to read Tom’s AFC predictions.
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