NFL Preview: NFC runs through strong East division

NFC East

New York Giants

2016 Record: 11-5, lost in Wild Card Round to Packers

Outlook: Under first-year head coach Ben McAdoo, the G-Men returned to the playoffs for the first time since their Super Bowl XLVI run. The same team returns with a couple of additions, most notably 6-time Pro Bowl receiver Brandon Marshall (14 TD in 2015). With Eli Manning at quarterback and Odell Beckham Jr. (1,367 rec yards) and Marshall at receiver, the Giants look dangerous on offense, while the defense emerged as one of the league’s stingiest last year. If New York can establish a running game and improve its offensive line play, an NFC East title could be coming the Giants’ way.

2017 Projection: 12-4, lose in NFC Championship

 

Dallas Cowboys

2016 Record: 13-3, lost in Divisional Round to Packers

Outlook: In 2016, Dallas was boosted to the best record in the NFC by two rookies, quarterback Dak Prescott (104.9 passer rating, 3rd in NFL) and running back Ezekiel Elliott (1,631 rush yards, 1st in NFL). But in a division that hasn’t seen a repeat winner since the Eagles in the early 2000s, the Cowboys will have a tough time matching that win total. Given Elliott doesn’t receive a lengthy suspension for off-the-field issues, the Cowboys will field one of the best offenses in the NFL, but the Dallas defense will have to hold up despite a lineup that is full of suspensions and no-namers. The offense will keep the Cowboys near the top of the NFC, but it’ll take another improvement from the defense to lift Dallas to Super Bowl contention.

2017 Projection: 10-6, lose in Super Bowl LII

 

Philadelphia Eagles

2016 Record: 7-9, missed playoffs

Outlook: Quarterback Carson Wentz (16 TD, 14 INT) had his ups and downs in his rookie season, but with a revamped offense and underrated defense, the Eagles are hoping Wentz can emerge into a franchise quarterback like his NFC East counterpart and fellow sophomore Dak Prescott. After an astounding start to his career, Wentz struggled in the final half of the season as Philly failed to reach .500. Another year in coach Doug Pederson’s system and the additions of receivers Torrey Smith and Alshon Jeffery and running back LeGarrette Blount (18 TD) should help Wentz turn things around. Look for Philly to be on the playoff cusp, but a tough conference and inexperienced quarterback could mean that the Eagles come up short.

2017 Projection: 7-9, miss playoffs

 

Washington Redskins

2016 Record: 8-7-1

Outlook: The Redskins are Exhibit A on how to unintentionally dismantle a contender. At their best the past couple years, Washington was a dangerous playoff team with one of the most exciting young offenses in the game. With the firing of general manager Scot McCloughan and release of receiver DeSean Jackson, paired with the contract disputes between the Redskins and their first true franchise quarterback in decades in Kirk Cousins (4,917 pass yards, 3rd in NFL), the Redskins seem to be falling back into the pit of incompetence after a promising run. Yes, the Skins could make a playoff push, but don’t be surprised if Washington continues its descent.

2017 Projection: 5-11, miss playoffs

 

NFC North

Green Bay Packers

2016 Record: 10-6, lost in Conference Championship to Falcons

Outlook: In the second half of last season, Aaron Rodgers (40 TD, 1st in NFL) and his Packers teammates went on a surge for the ages, winning eight games in a row before suffering a rout at the hands of the Falcons. Rodgers will have another shot at the Super Bowl this season in a wide-open NFC. The receiving corps, which saw Jordy Nelson (97 rec) and Davante Adams (12 rec TD) enjoy bounce-back years, added tight end and Super Bowl champion Martellus Bennett to the mix. The Packers are clear favorites to win their division, but the defense, which ranked in the 20s in yards and points allowed last season, must take a step forward.

2017 Projection: 10-6, lose in Wild Card Round

 

Minnesota Vikings

2016 Record: 8-8, missed playoffs

Outlook: Before last season, I picked the Vikings to win the Super Bowl on the legs of Adrian Peterson, the arm of Teddy Bridgewater, and strength of a top-tier defense. Bridgewater suffered a season-ending injury in the preseason and the Vikes dropped 8 of their last 11 games. Now, the franchise’s greatest player, Peterson, is gone and Bridgewater may not see the field again this season. The team’s defense is still intact and flies under the radar, but the team’s success will largely depend on quarterback Sam Bradford (71.6 comp pct), who is in the last year of his contract and has yet to make good on his Rookie of the Year selection from 2010. He’ll have help with new running backs Dalvin Cook and Latavius Murray (12 rush TD), though the offensive line is a big question mark. With the division’s best defense and a potential franchise quarterback, Minnesota will be in the playoff hunt, but a deep playoff run is beyond the Vikings’ reach.

2017 Projection: 9-7, miss playoffs

 

Detroit Lions

2016 Record: 9-7, lost in Wild Card Round to Seahawks

Outlook: Quarterback Matthew Stafford (4,327 pass yards) played at an MVP level for most of last season, but the Lions failed to get past the Wild Card round and prove themselves as a contender. The team bulked up its offensive line and reshuffled its defensive pieces, but on paper Detroit doesn’t look like a team that could challenge Green Bay for the division. On offense, the Lions lack a game changer at running back, and the defense isn’t special except for defensive end Ziggy Ansah (14.5 sacks in 2015). Stafford will keep the Lions close to the playoffs, but a fall from last season’s postseason berth should be expected.

2017 Projection: 7-9, miss playoffs

 

Chicago Bears

2016 Record: 3-13, missed playoffs

Outlook: The Bears had a whirlwind of an offseason, overpaying for a quarterback who is 5-13 in his career as a starter (Mike Glennon) and then investing the second pick in the draft in a rookie with one year of experience (Mitch Trubisky). The experiment may work, but it won’t be pretty this year. Whoever starts under center will have a dynamic rusher to work with in Jordan Howard (1,313 rush yards, 2nd in NFL), but an unimpressive offensive line and a receiving corps that took a big hit with the loss of Alshon Jeffery in free agency. Chicago’s nearly a shoo-in for fourth in the NFC North, but they’ll still need to make some strides for coach John Fox to keep his job.

2017 Projection: 3-13, miss playoffs

 

NFC South

Carolina Panthers

2016 Record: 6-10, missed playoffs

Outlook: What a fall. Just one season removed from a franchise-best 15 wins and a Super Bowl appearance, the Panthers fell to 6 wins and missed out on the playoffs. 2015 MVP Cam Newton (16 turnovers) played horrendously with career lows in completion percentage, passer rating, and rushing yards, though his offensive line was no help. Carolina should be back in contention this season, thanks to the selections of running back Christian McCaffrey and receiver Curtis Samuel. On defense, the Panthers still have the makings of an elite unit and are anchored by Defensive Player of the Year Luke Kuechly. For Carolina to wrestle back the NFC South, they’ll need their offensive line to play at a 2015 level and give Newton time to work his MVP magic.

2017 Projection: 13-3, lose in Divisional Round

 

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

2016 Record: 9-7, missed playoffs

Outlook: Last season, I made a bold prediction that Tampa Bay would reach the playoffs for the first time since 2007. I was wrong, but the Buccaneers came within a slim margin of the postseason and surprised much of the football community. The Bucs have found their first true franchise quarterback in Jameis Winston (4,090 pass yards), who could be the next NFC South quarterback to win the MVP award. Winston will benefit from the additions of receiver DeSean Jackson and rookie tight end O.J. Howard and has already established remarkable chemistry with top target Mike Evans (league-high 175 targets, 12 TD). On defense, the Buccaneers have stars on each level- Gerald McCoy (7 sacks) on the defensive line, Lavonte David in the linebacking core, and Brent Grimes in the secondary. For Tampa Bay to climb into the playoffs, they’ll need to protect Winston and provide a rushing attack to keep defenses honest.

2017 Projection: 10-6, lose in Wild Card Round

 

Atlanta Falcons

2016 Record: 11-5, lost in Super Bowl to Patriots

Outlook: The Falcons came so close to their first Super Bowl title and recovering from their 28-3 blown lead in the Big Game will be a tough task. That task will be even more difficult with new coordinators on offense and defense, especially with the loss of former OC Kyle Shanahan. But the Falcons have a ton of talent on both sides of the ball and could exceed last year’s win total. Quarterback Matt Ryan and receiver Julio Jones (1,409 rec yards) are the best passing duo in football and the tandem of running backs Devonta Freeman (1,541 total yards, 13 total TD) and Tevin Coleman are the best at their positions. Atlanta’s defense took a quantum leap forward last season and should improve with the addition of defensive tackle Dontari Poe and return of corner Desmond Trufant. The Falcons enter 2017 as the team to beat in the NFC. But is a hangover inevitable?

2017 Projection: 9-7, miss playoffs

 

New Orleans Saints

2016 Record: 7-9, missed playoffs

Outlook: New Orleans has been stuck in a rut the past few seasons, finishing 7-9 each of the past three campaigns. With quarterback Drew Brees (5,208 pass yards, 37 TD) now 38, New Orleans’ time in contention is running out. The addition of running back Adrian Peterson as a backfield mate to Mark Ingram (1,043 rush yards) is intriguing and the offense will certainly be potent, but the defense is what has held the Saints back the past few years and will continue to do so. The Saints finished 31st out of 32 teams in points allowed and didn’t make any big moves to better the unit, so barring a total defensive rejuvenation, the Saints could be staring at another sub-.500 season.

2017 Projection: 7-9, miss playoffs

 

NFC West

Seattle Seahawks

2016 Record: 10-5-1, lost in Divisional Round to Falcons

Outlook: The Seahawks have fallen from dynasty status, but fortunately for them, their decline has been matched by a deterioration of the NFC West, once the NFL’s toughest division. Seattle has failed to get past the divisional round each of the past two seasons, but with an elite quarterback in Russell Wilson (4,219 pass yards), a top-five defense, and an established head coach in Pete Carroll, the Seahawks are still the class of the division. If the Seahawks can find a running game, they’ll be a threat to return to the Super Bowl. In 2016, the Seahawks’ rushing totals dropped from 3rd in the NFL to 25th, so it is imperative that either Thomas Rawls or former Packer Eddie Lacy channel their inner Beast Mode and give Wilson a consistent option in the backfield.

2017 Projection: 12-4, lose in Divisional Round

 

Arizona Cardinals

2016 Record: 7-8-1, missed playoffs

Outlook: After Teddy Bridgewater went down last preseason, I switched my Super Bowl pick from Minnesota to Arizona. The Cardinals were even worse, dropping from 13 wins to 7 and missing out on the playoffs. Arizona’s Super Bowl window is rapidly closing, as quarterback Carson Palmer is now 37 and franchise cornerstone and top receiver Larry Fitzgerald enters his 14th season. The defense is still solid and running back David Johnson (2,000+ total yards, 20 total TD) is one of the best players in the NFL, but the Cardinals’ foundation is shaky and could fully collapse in 2017.

2017 Projection: 7-9, miss playoffs

 

Los Angeles Rams

2016 Record: 4-12, missed playoffs

Outlook: So much for a warm Los Angeles welcome. In their first season in L.A., the Rams lost 11 of their final 12 games and finished with only four wins. Former coach Jeff Fisher is replaced by offensive guru Sean McVay, who inherits a roster full of talent but lacking in results. Running back Todd Gurley (10 TD in 2015) and defensive tackle Aaron Donald (8 sacks) are All-Pro level talents, and don’t forget new defensive coordinator Wade Phillips, the genius behind the Broncos’ Super Bowl winning defense. McVay’s main focus will be working his magic on former number one pick quarterback Jared Goff, who couldn’t win a single game as a starter the second half of last season. There are intriguing pieces on the Rams’ roster and the team should steal a few games from their division rivals, but a playoff berth is a long, long shot.

2017 Projection: 4-12, miss playoffs

 

San Francisco 49ers

2016 Record: 2-14, missed playoffs

Outlook: This season marks the start of the Kyle Shanahan era in San Francisco. The offensive-minded coach earned his first-ever head coaching gig after masterminding the Falcons’ high-flying offense last year and is tasked with turning around a 49er team that fell to new lows last year under Chip Kelly. The turnaround won’t be immediate, but the 49ers have cultivated a lot of talented young players that could breakout this year. Running back Carlos Hyde (988 rush yards) will benefit from Shanahan’s system and the addition of fullback Kyle Juszczyk, and the defense is loaded with first round picks, including third overall pick defensive end Solomon Thomas. The 49ers could pull off a couple upsets, but without a franchise quarterback or an experienced roster, San Francisco will again be near the bottom of the NFC.

2017 Projection: 3-13, miss playoffs

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