Feb. 14, 2018
Who will rise in the NFC?
The AFC, by recent history tends to be the easier of the conferences to predict. With the Patriots dynasty still plodding along, and the Steelers continuing to make strides to another Super Bowl appearance under Mike Tomlin and Ben Roethlisberger, the rest of the conference tends to sit back and watch. The Ravens and Broncos had their short glory, and the Raiders and Chiefs will want to create some glory of their own in 2017. But in the wider picture, there have always been two teams in the AFC that have been the best over the past 10 years or so.
The NFC though has a range of interesting sides that enter 2017 with high hopes. The Packers have yet to reach their full potential since Super Bowl 45, the Saints have improved their offence and have the potential to return to the playoffs, the Falcons have the opportunity to build on their success and 'what if' moments of 2016, and the Seahawks still have the core of that menacing 'Legion of Boom' to possibly get back to the Super Bowl. Amongst the top dogs, the big boys who will battle it out in late January, sit a host of contenders who will look to redeem themselves and make some noise of their own.
The Packers will meet, and exceed expectations
Key Games: vs Seahawks, @ Falcons, Cowboys and Steelers
Predicted Record: 12-4, Division Title and Super Bowl berth
I said a similar thing about the Packers last year. They had the potential to win 13 to 15 games, with an easy schedule and welcoming back Jordy Nelson. Without Nelson, Rodgers still managed to take his team to 10-6 and advance as far as the Divisional round, with B grade receivers. Though what was promise turned into be embarrassment, as the team fell to 4-6 and looking likely to miss the playoffs for the first time since 2008. With the now famous quote 'running the table', Green Bay managed to turn their season around and win their final six games to finish 10-6 and win the North Division. Rodgers put up terrific numbers to jump into the MVP conversation, and carried that form into the playoffs. By dismantling the Giants' defence and taking down the number one seeded Cowboys in Arlington, the Packers made it to the Conference Championship against the Falcons. Now it is time to go one, or maybe two better and bring the Lombardi Trophy home.
Green Bay have no question marks, everything is relatively set in place. Their offence is terrific, and their defence is average. As long as Aaron Rodgers is on the field the offence will click, and adding Martellus Bennett gives him an added potent option. With receivers Jordy Nelson, Randall Cobb, Davante Adams and Jeff Janis, and a solid running game featuring Ty Montgomery and Christine Michael returning, all components are there for the Packers' to produce a top five offence. The way Rodgers's numbers peaked in his final seven games of the season; he should be in the MVP conversation once again. Throwing 18 TDs and 0 interceptions, while increasing his average yards per game from 267.8 to 288.3 during the final stretch allowed the Packers to win eight straight before falling to the Falcons in the Championship game. The offensive line remains an issue with the need of repair, now with both Josh Sitton and T.J. Lang departing. Adding Jahri Evans from the Saints helps the line out, though considering how the Packers' succeeded with an average line late last season shows that some good form should be enough to keep Rodgers' comfortable.
Therefore, the defence is the one to look at, in particular the secondary. Losing Micah Hyde is a huge low, but given Ha Ha Clinton-Dix's great season in 2016, and drafting a promising corner in Kevin King gives the team something to build on. Against the run, the Packers lost veteran Julius Peppers to the Panthers. Line-backers Blake Martinez and Jake Ryan will partner the experienced Clay Matthews, creating a promising trio as well as the likes of Nick Perry and tackle Mike Daniels being in the defensive side. Under Dom Capers the defence has ranged from 2nd overall in yards allowed, to as low as 32nd since 2009, so the coaching is there to deliver an above average defence and improve on last season, assuming the personnel play well enough.
Teams have been able to win big games and get to the Super Bowl with average defences and terrific offences, and vice versa. For Green Bay, there is no reason it should be any different.
The Giants will return to division glory
Key games: vs Seahawks, Chiefs and Cowboys, @ Cowboys, Raiders and Cardinals
Predicted Finish: 11-5, Division Title
The New York Giants flew under the radar for a while last season, then when people released they had won nine games it started to become a big deal. A great first year for Ben McAdoo ended in Green Bay thanks to the talents of Aaron Rodgers, but his second season looks even brighter.
The Giants defence was addressed during the summer of 2016, by adding five rather big names. That defence delivered what was expected, ranking 4th in yards allowed against the run, and a respectable 10th overall in defence (a defence that previously ranked 29th and 32nd in 2014 and 2015 respectively). Considering the talent in the secondary, with the likes of Janoris Jenkins, Landon Collins and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, they have the tools to be top five in covering the passing game. The big pieces are still there, so there is no reason for the Giants to fall on the defensive side of the ball.The offensive line, like most teams in the NFL it seems, is the issue that has been mildly addressed. D.J. Fluker was signed from the Chargers, a former first round pick. Other than that nothing has changed, and looking at an offence that did not produce what they were capable of last season, maybe this issue will result in the Giants under-performing in 2017.
Nevertheless drafting the promising Evan Engram at Tight End and adding former All-Pro wide out Brandon Marshall gives Eli Manning a mouth-watering core of game breakers to choose from. Manning will need to improve his decision making more than his skill. What makes him a risky man in the pocket is passing the ball to covered receivers and getting picked off. Similar to Brett Favre, Manning gets restless in the pocket and forces the issue when it is not needed. On the other hand, when it has mattered he has peaked in performance and is known as one of the greatest clutch quarterbacks of his generation. If his turnovers can be stopped, or limited at least, the production from Manning and the offence will rise.
The Cardinals will bounce back, easily
Key games: vs Cowboys, Seahawks and Giants, @ Seahawks
Predicted record: 11-5, Wild Card/Division Title
The Cardinals were pound-for-pound, one of the three best teams entering last season. Their 2015 campaign was impressive, with Carson Palmers' best season to date, along with great performances from David Johnson and Larry Fitzgerald on offence and effectively the entire defence. Their offence ranked first, with Carson Palmer averaging the second most passing yards behind Drew Brees during the season. The defence ranked fifth overall in yards allowed, and an impressive 8th overall in points allowed. Adding Chandler Jones to that group, logically, would have made them that little bit better and maybe enough to get to the Super Bowl.
Unfortunately it was all too good to be true; Arizona struggled from the opening kick-off with a close loss to the Patriots, and from there never managing to find themselves. Palmer's form dropped dramatically compared to his MVP-like 2015. The offensive line at times struggled to hold out the opposing front seven, making Palmer far more exposed. Regardless of David Johnson’s terrific numbers and cementing himself as arguably the best flex-back along with Le'Veon Bell in the game, the offence fell to ninth overall in passing offence and yards per game overall. The team though remains relatively unchanged since 2015, aside from the loss of Michael Floyd. As long as the offensive core stays healthy, and Palmer is up for possibly his last season, the Cardinals will be strong in moving the chains.
Defensively Arizona has talent spread across the field, and that unit was still one of the best in 2016. Patrick Peterson and Tyrann Mathieu lead a good secondary, who ranked fourth in yards allowed a season ago. Chandler Jones now controls the front seven with Calais Campbell departing for Jacksonville, though Haason Reddick is a great draft pick and has been labelled as one of the biggest rising starts in the country. Assuming he can deliver and fill (part of) the void Campbell left, the Cardinals will still have a strong defence.
The Cardinals have been on the verge of success the last four seasons, since the arrival of Bruce Arians. They are always a tough one to pick out, but with a lot to prove this coming season, expect big changes in Phoenix.
The Panthers will right their wrongs
Key games: vs Falcons and Packers, @ Saints and Buccaneers
Predicted Record: 9-7, Wild Card contention
Oh the Panthers, so much to talk about. Like another side in the Arizona Cardinals, they fell dramatically in 2016 due to their quarterback. But like both teams it was not directly the quarterback's fault. The Panthers had arguably the worst Super Bowl hangover ever, falling to a 1-5 start and slumped home 6-10. The losses though were clear off two problems, mixed with a tougher schedule than their 2015 season.
First off Cam Newton took a lot of hits, more than ever. When you look at his level of production, it has remained relatively consistent since being drafted in 2011. But the Panthers have not, with records ranging from 6-10 to 15-1 during the Newton years. Therefore regardless of Newton's production, the Panthers should be good/bad based off the rest of the team's form? Sort of. The Panthers' offence relies squarely on the shoulders of Newton, with both passing and running being his forte. With the ball primarily being in his hands, defences tended to blitz the Panthers more last season, pressuring the offensive line and getting to Cam a lot more than previously. This was something the Broncos did in Super Bowl 50, so everyone else caught on. With an offensive line that was in and out of form, the Panthers' offence really struggled with this change. Their core players of the offensive line, 2015 All-Pros Ryan Kalil and Trai Turner both return for this season, along with former Pro-Bowler Matt Kalil (brother of Ryan) from the Vikings, and rookie Taylor Moton from Western Michigan added to the roster. Those additions will cover the loss of Michael Oher being released, as well as preparing better for another season of 'Smash Cam!'
Another issue was Carolina's secondary. Having All-Pro Josh Norman depart for Washington would no doubt deplete your defensive system, but filling that void with two rookies is not going to be a fitting replacement at first pop. The Panthers ranked 29th in pass yards allowed per game with 268, falling from 11th in 2015 with only 234 yards per game. Carolina did not exactly address this problem, only signing former Panther Captain Munnerlyn and drafting Corn Elder. Munnerlyn is experienced, but in no way a Pro-Bowl calibre player. Luke Kuechly will return from injury, and adding the aging Julius Peppers will still give the team some needed depth to the front seven. The defence has the potential to be terrific, but like their last six seasons, consistency will prove to be the issue.
An easier schedule to last season, mixed with players and coaches needing to prove some points like the Cardinals, will help the Panthers improve.