NFC North: Are the Packers still the team to beat?
Three teams earned double-digit wins in this division last year. At 11-5, the Packers beat the Vikings at home in the Wild Card round while Chicago sat at home, rueing their December 2 home collapse to Seattle. Last year’s strongest division looks promising again this year, each team entering training camp with profound strengths countered by areas of uncertainty.
The Bears welcome new coach Marc Trestman, formerly the head coach of the CFL’s Montreal Alouettes. Trestman’s biggest challenge will be to tame his quarterback Jay Cutler. For all his ability, the Bears passing attack ranked 29th in yards per game last season. Much of that can be blamed on the revolving door offensive line Cutler operated in front of last season. The addition of Pro Bowl left tackle Jermon Bushrod should shore up the blind side while much attention will be focused on rookie right guard Kyle Long. If the aerial scheme and blocking improves, Chicago could be a serious contender.
For all the awesome efficiency an Aaron Rodgers led offence will operate with, Green Bay will only go as far as their defence takes them. For years the Green Bay defence has thrived with a lead but has worn down in tight games. Health on defence will be Green Bay’s biggest concern.
The only team with three first round picks in this year’s draft, the Vikings are strong in every area except secondary and under centre, which is bad news in a passing league. A quarterback battle of lowest ineptitude is brewing between Christian Ponder and Matt Cassel, and whoever wins will spend much of his time turning around to hand the ball to 2012 MVP and preternatural freak Adrian Peterson.
NFC South: Will Atlanta break through?
Following consecutive one and done trips to the playoffs, Atlanta knocked off the scorching hot Seattle Seahawks last year before falling to NFC champion San Francisco. The Falcons replaced running back Michael Turner with Steven Jackson and return tight end Tony Gonzalez after he flirted with retirement. Last year’s fifth best scoring defence brings in some new faces, with rookie Desmond Trufant expected to start at corner. Will this be the year the Falcons piece it all together in the postseason? The rest of their division, all coming of 7-9 records, look to give them a tougher go.
The Saints defence couldn’t stop a nose bleed last year, but they hope a change to the 3-4 defence and the addition of rookie safety Kenny Vaccaro will take some pressure off Drew Brees.
Revis Island floated down the East Coast to Tampa this offseason, and along with free agent Dashon Goldson, Tampa’s secondary should drastically improve from it’s league worst performance last year.
Carolina will look for quarterback Cam Newton to take the leap beyond his sophomore season, which was essentially a repeat of his rookie year with less touchdowns.
NFC East: How’s that knee, RGIII?
Washington’s offence was a purist’s dream last year, running the ball down opponent’s throats without abandon. However, Robert Griffin III paid the price for his scrambling last season, tearing his right knee. The Washington offence returns every key piece. While most of the medical attention will surround RGIII’s knee, Washington will also return pass rusher Brian Orakpo, who played his last game in Week 2 after tearing his left pectoral muscle.
While much of the attention in Philadelphia will be about Chip Kelly’s ability to transfer his speed game from Oregon to the pros, the biggest challenge will be improving on last year’s -24 turnover differential.
New York looks primed for another year of big wins, perplexing loses and late season talk about how no one wants to play them in the Wild Card, if they make it.
Somewhere in Dallas a running game is hiding. The second worst team on the ground last season, the Cowboys must create some holes for DeMarco Murray to improve on last season’s 8-8 mark. Jerry Jones began addressing the issue with his selection of centre Travis Frederick from Wisconsin in the first round.
NFC West: Who is leading the arms race?
The talent depth in this division is unmatched. After falling short in last year’s Super Bowl, the 49ers added Anquan Boldin, Glenn Dorsey and 11 draft picks. The 49ers roster is the envy of every team in league.
Except perhaps in Seattle. One year after a stunning 11-5 season, the Seahawks added game breaker Percy Harvin to an already explosive offence and defensive end Cliff Avril arrived from Detroit in free agency. Seattle’s home game in Week 2 against the 49ers on NBC Sunday Night Football will be an early must-watch.
Perhaps the best under the radar team in the league, St. Louis looks prepared to break through. The Rams went from 2-14 to 7-8-1 last season. Despite their gruelling division, the Rams, behind a bevy of young talent, could easily be this year’s surprise playoff team.
The Arizona Cardinals will go as far a quarterback Carson Palmer will take them. Palmer had a solid 2012, throwing for over 4,000 yards with 22 touchdowns. While the Cards won’t contend, it will be fun to watch a secondary featuring LSU standouts Patrick Peterson and Tyrann “Honey Badger” Mathieu.
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