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2010 NFL Predictions – NFC

“I would have to say right now there’s more anticipation and joy in thinking what we had ahead of us this year than at any other time since I’ve joined the Cowboys”

In the last decade, the AFC reigned supreme. They provided seven of the eventual Super Bowl champions. But spurred on by New Orleans’ triumphant campaign last year the NFC looks set to start the decade as the most talented conference. Green Bay, Minnesota, Dallas and New Orleans will all hope to rock up in Dallas for next year’s Super Bowl but there are plenty of others on the periphery hoping to be there too.

NFC North

Green Bay Packers (13-3) – Three summers on from Brett Favre’s retirement and Aaron Rodgers is finding Favre’s large shoes very snug indeed. Many people are excited about Green Bay and much of this is testament to Rodgers. But there has to be concerns about a defense which conceded over 30 points on six occasions last year. They were completely obliterated by the wily veterans Favre and Kurt Warner and will need to tighten up. If they don’t, they had best hope their offense simply scores more points.

The Subplot: Can Rodgers stay upright?

Rodgers had a terrific season last year but a combination of his desire to keep hold of the ball for too long and a creaky o-line meant he was hit all too often. Ironically it was a hit on Rodgers which led to the Packers’ play-off departure. Drafting Bryan Bulaga will help but Rodgers needs to learn to release the ball quicker.

Minnesota Vikings (12-4) –Now that Favre has ultimately decided to return, the Vikings can be considered a legitimate contender once again. The Vikings have an experienced quarterback, arguably the league’s finest running back and some of the league’s most devastating defensive lineman. Wide receiver Sidney Rice has incurred an injury which may upset the offense especially with the injury worries which plague Percy Harvin.

The Subplot: Can Favre reproduce last year’s form?

Favre’s season last year dumfounded plenty of sceptics who believed the old man was finished. Another off-season of uncertainty culminated in his return but he is another year older which has poignancy when you’re 40 years of age. Favre will also start the season without his accomplice Rice. The opening fixture against New Orleans has all the drama that Favre craves; expect him to hog the limelight once again.

Rodgers and Favre will duel again

Chicago Bears (7-9)

– Coach Love Smith is entering the last chance saloon with a Bears team which has talent but question marks too. They made a huge move in getting Jay Cutler last summer and for the most part, Cutler struggled. This year they have paid Julius Peppers big bucks and are hoping that Cutler can rekindle the form which made them trade for him.

The Subplot: Will the receivers flourish under Martz?

When the Bears hired Mike Martz as offensive coordinator to appease Jay Cutler, the receivers in the Windy City knew they would be in for a busy year. As yet though, nobody in Chicago has established themselves as a recognised number one receiver. Cutler has the arm but does he have the supporting cast?

Detroit Lions (4–12) – The Lions continue to improve but they have had to come back from rock bottom. There is plenty of promise with the pick ups of rookies Ndamukong Suh and Jahvid Best who excited plenty of people in college. They are in a difficult division and although they are moving in the right direction, they are still some way of challenging for divisional honours.

The Subplot: Will Matthew Stafford suffer a sophomore slump?

Providing one of the most courageous moments of last year, Matthew Stafford showed he possesses heart, poise and determination in hours of need. Playing for an extremely bad team, he did have moments of brilliance. History tells us that rookies tend to suffer a sophomore slump and Stafford will be hoping to buck the trend.

NFC East

Dallas Cowboys (13-3) – There is much to like about this Dallas team. The offense is loaded with ability, the three-headed running monster of Felix Jones, Marion Barber and Tashard Choice is the perfect compliment to the array of aerial talent that quarterback Tony Romo has at his disposal. On defense, DeMarcus Ware is unstoppable; meanwhile Keith Brooking, Jay Ratliff and Mike Jenkins are all reliable elements. Now this current regime has experienced its first play-off win, the sky is the limit.

The Subplot: Can they become the first team to win a Super Bowl on home turf?

It seems the only thing that can stop Dallas is fate itself as they aim to become the first team to win the Super Bowl on home turf. Any other team might not welcome the distinction but this is big D where pressure is part of the job. All eyes will be focused on Dallas, particularly as the season wears on, can they handle it?

Philadelphia Eagles (9-7) – Philly have been getting younger in almost every department. As the Patriots found out last year, it is the winning pedigree and the championship experience which is not easily replaceable. Last year Philly struggled to find anyone to fill the void left by Brian Dawkins, now they must find replacements for Brian Westbrook and McNabb. Some have called it a rebuilding year but the Eagles roster is still stacked with talent.

The Subplot: Is Kevin Kolb the real deal?

The Eagles clearly think so and are hoping Kolb will tread a similar path to Rodgers. The Donovan McNabb era is over and expectation is high for Kolb. Of all the younger components in this team, Kolb must be the first to provide leadership and experience. Like Rodgers last year, the master will face off against the apprentice when Kolb plays against the Redskins. Will the parallels stop there?

Kolb is ready to step out of McNabb's shadow

New York Giants (9-7) – The Big Apple’s premier team have been relegated to the shadow of their noisy neighbours. It is not the Giants but the Jets who are shouting from the rooftops of the New Meadowlands. The Giants are a good football team but their NFC East rivals seem to carry more threats than they do.

The Subplot: Will the secondary improve?

The obvious answer to this one is yes. A new defensive coordinator, the return of Kenny Phillips and the arrival of Antrel Rolle show clear signs of improvement. But the bigger question will be, was the secondary the element that held the Giants back last year? They were middle of the road in almost every category and it is unclear how a new secondary will improve other dimensions.

Washington Redskins (4-12) – Whilst the Eagles opted for youth, the Redskins adopted the other end of the spectrum. Mike Shanahan and Donovan McNabb are too experienced not to improve the Redskins’ on field fortunes but a tough schedule will not provide them with much relief. McNabb will be itching to prove to the Eagles he has what it takes and that fixture has a real edge to it.

The Subplot: Can McNabb function with considerably less talented receivers?

Although the City of Brotherly Love wasn’t always hospitable to McNabb, his talent is unquestionable. The Redskins clearly recognised his value when they traded for him. Sadly they couldn’t bring DeSean Jackson, Brent Celek and Brian Westbrook with McNabb so he will have to make do with what he already has. McNabb should improve what is there but somebody needs to have a breakout year if he is to be truly successful.

NFC South

New Orleans Saints (12-4) – Everyone wil fear the Super Bowl champs as they attempt to repeat last year’s Cinderella story. Propelled by a high powered offense, few could live with the Saints last time out. Most of the cast have returned for the next series but repeating 2009’s heroics will be a different task entirely.

The Subplot: Can they repeat?

Arguably the finest offense in the league, it was the Saints’ defense which eventually proved the difference maker last year. Consistently making key plays and turning turnovers into points were their specialities. They were afforded a great deal of luck but Gregg Williams deserves credit for getting the defensive unit to be so productive. As Super Bowl champs everyone will want to beat them and they must raise their game once again.

Brees is back for another crack at glory

Atlanta Falcons (10-6)

Last term the Falcons posted first back-to-back winning seasons for the first time in franchise history. However they failed to make the play-offs, mainly due to the Saints’ outstanding year. Quarterback Matt Ryan went down and Michael Turner toiled with injuries but there are plenty of encouraging signs.

The Subplot: Will the defense step up?

The offense contains an assured quarterback, a powerful running back and an elite tight-end and wide receiver, but the defense failed to make the grade last year. They didn’t hurry the quarterback and they ranked near the bottom of the league in pass defense too. If the Falcons are to eclipse Drew Brees and the Saints they need to improve on the defensive side of the ball.

Carolina Panthers (4-12) – Jake Delhomme was cast aside at the end of last year and Matt Moore proved a more than compotent quarterback. Whether he is the long term answer remains to be seen. The defense is working through a transition but they have to be taken seriously with the best running back duo in the league.

The Subplot: How will the defense cope without Julius Peppers?

If pre-season is anything to go by they’ll be just fine. Last year their passing defense was impressive and they ranked near the top in both total defense and interceptions. However their main problem was that they struggled to get to the quarterback. Their most potent pass rusher has now departed and others like Everette Brown must raise their games.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers (2-14) – Two years ago it seemed as though this division was anyone’s for the taking, since then one team has really developed and the other two remain contenders. Tampa Bay however have plummeted backwards. Rather than contending for the play-offs they look set to be fighting it out for the number one pick next year.

The Subplot: Will Josh Freeman be able to carry this team?

With little in the way of acquisitions, much will hinge on how Josh Freeman performs. Overshadowed by Matthew Stafford and Mark Sanchez, Freeman still had some promising moments last year. But the team’s reluctance to go after anyone on the trade block or in free agency has left the squad looking thin. Freeman has few targets and his rookie wide-outs may need to grow up fast.

NFC West

San Francisco 49ers (9-7) – The 49ers are hotly tipped to take the West and much of this is to do with the division’s relative weakness. The Cardinals are not the force they once were and the other two teams remain in rebuilding mode. Despite this there is plenty of talent for the 49ers on both sides of the ball.  

The Subplot: Can Alex Smith finally justify his draft selection?

This may be the last chance for Smith. A previous number one pick overall his time in San Francisco hasn’t been entirely successful. Memories of Joe Montana and Steve Young are still fresh in Niners’ fans memories and Smith has a lot to live up to. He has the weapons and the team spent both of their first round selections on the offensive line.

Arizona Cardinals (9-7) – It’s been a crazy off-season in the desert. Kurt Warner retired and apparent heir to the throne Matt Leinart has been cast aside. Derek Anderson was hit and miss in Cleveland but he didn’t have Larry Fitzgerald to throw the ball to. They may have enjoyed a relatively easy time in this division in the past but those days appear to be over.

The Subplot: With four established veterans gone, can they still challenge?

Losing Kurt Warner was bad enough but Karlos Dansby, Anquan Boldin and Antrel Rolle have sort pastures new too. Joey Porter will provide pedigree but he is a fading force. The Cardinals may be rebuilding and Beanie Wells’ bruising running style will become more familiar to Cards fans. Ultimately they have had one of the league’s worst off-seasons and bouncing back could prove difficult.

Can Bradford justify his massive contract?

Seattle Seahawks (5-11): A strange trade for Charlie Whitehurst and the retirement of Walter Jones were the biggest personnel stories for Seattle this off-season. TJ Houshmandzadeh is out after a poor season spearheading the wide receiver core. After being out of football for two years, Mike Williams will now be thrust into the spotlight. Pete Carroll’s job will not be easy, sharing a division with the St. Louis Rams will be a small crumb of comfort.

The Subplot: How will Pete Carroll get on?

Carroll will need all of his experience to inspire the Seahawks because the fact remains that he may have had more talent around him at USC. His previous forays into the NFL haven’t been too successful but he comes back much older and wiser this time around.

St. Louis Rams (2-14) – The league’s worst team are trusting that a rookie quarterback can turn matters around. The loss of number one wide out Donnie Avery won’t have helped matters. They benefit from being in one of the weakest divisions and it may be possible that they don’t finish as the worst side next time out. Don’t expect too much more.

The Subplot: How will Sam Bradford fare?

Last year we were treated to three rookie quarterbacks starting, the season before there were two. This year’s group has only produced one and Sam Bradford will be flying the flag for last year’s worst team. Losing Avery will hinder the rookie’s development and unlike Sanchez, Flacco and Ryan before him, Bradford’s supporting cast doesn’t have the same strength. Steven Jackson can be expected to be run into the ground once again but Bradford will probably find life difficult this year regardless.

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