Yesterday I plopped down me preview for the AFC. Today, the NFC.
Dallas Cowboys :
Over the past couple of years, the Cowboys have quietly rebuilt their offensive line into one of the better units in the NFL. This has helped rejuvinate the career of future Hall of Fame RB Emmitt Smith, who enters this season with a chance to break RB Walter Payton's all-time career rushing record. The question for this squad is not the running game, but the passing game. Can young QB Quincy Carter take command? One of his weapons, WR Raghib Ismail is out for the year, and WR Joey Galloway has not produced for the team yet.
The Cowboys feature a young and talented defense that has gotten better and better over the past couple of seasons. With a solid linebacking core led by LB Dexter Coakley, and a solid young secondary, the Cowboys should have one of the top defenses this year.
The Cowboys feature an improved young team, but one with big offensive question marks. They also play in the conference's toughest division. The team has the talent to make a run at the playoffs, if everything comes together. If not, it could be another long season in Dallas.
New York Giants :
Two years ago QB Kerry Collins rejuvenated his career and led the Giants to the Super Bowl. Last year, he fell back into mediocrity and fumbled the ball 23 times. The question for this year, which Collins will show up? As for the running game, dynamic RB Tiki Barber returns. His versatility always gives the Giants a chance on offense. If RB Ron Dayne can start producing as well, the Giants may have something going in the running game.
The Giants solid defense returns, headed by single-season sack champion DE Michael Strahan. However, the linebacking core lost LB Jesse Armstead, and CB Jason Sehorn has struggled in recent years.
The Giants should rebound after a difficult season last year, but the rest of their division has improved. The Giants will need to play much better than last year to make a run at the playoffs.
Philadelphia Eagles :
Talented QB Donovan McNabb will continue to be a dominant force for the Eagles offense. The question is, will he have a solid running game to complement his running talents? RB Deuce Staley is one of the better running backs in the league, when he is healthy. But that is the problem, as Staley has been prone to injuries.
The Eagles have a solid defense, one worthy of a Super Bowl contender. They feature a strong secondary, a must if they are to have any chance of defeating the likes of St. Louis or San Francisco. Gone from the defense is talented LB Jeremiah Trotter.
The Eagles fell just yards short of Super Bowl XXXVI last year. They are talented enough to make up those yards this year, but only if their luck holds out in regards to injuries.
Washington Redskins :
New head coach Steve Spurrier brings a new offensive philosophy to the Redskins: Just sling it around. However, the QBs on the Redskins roster have had little professional success. QBs Danny Wuerffel and Shane Matthews both had successful college careers with Spurrier in Florida, but have yet to produce in the NFL. Added to the mix is rookie QB Patrick Ramsey. As far as the running game goes, the 'Skins still have RB Stephen Davis, one of the better backs in the NFL. The biggest question is: How will Spurrier's offense work at the NFL level?
The Redskins upgraded an already strong defense, adding LBs Jeremiah Trotter and Jesse Armstead to go along with talented young LB Lavar Arrington. This combination gives them, hands down, the most talented linebacking core in the NFL. In the secondary, talented young CBs Champ Bailey and Fred Smoot return, along with 20-year veteran CB Darrell Green. Also added was the mind behind the Ravens' dominant defense, Marvin Lewis. The Redskins defense could be among the NFL's elite this year.
Prospects are good in Washington. Even if Spurrier's Fun 'N Gun offense should falter in the NFL, the defense should keep them in just about any game. If Spurrier's offense comes together, the Redskins could be dominant force in the NFL. The biggest question: Can owner Daniel Snyder stay out of the way let his team succeed?
Chicago Bears :
The Bears offense will likely not be one of the dominant ones in the NFL. But, it should be solid. Last year rookie RB Anthony Thomas proved a big part of the Bears' division championship. If he can avoid a sophomore slump, the same may be true this year. Talented WR Marcus Robinson returns this year after missing most of last year. Complementing him is WR Marty Booker, who emerged as a star in Robinson's absence. QB Jim Miller is solid, if not spectacular. He should keep the offense running smoothly enough.
The Bears defense was the best in the NFC last year. It should probably be the same this year. With big bodies like DT Ted Washington clogging the middle, and dominant young LB Brian Urlacher patrolling the middle, the Bears will be hard to score on.
The Bears have a chance for playoff success for the first time since the mid 80's. However, the NFC features some dominant teams, so the road to the Super Bowl will be a difficult one for the Bears.
Detroit Lions :
The biggest problem for the Lions' offense is inexperience. Starting QB Mike McMahon only has only started a few games in his career, coming late in 2001. His backup, and potential replacement this season is rookie QB Joey Harrington. While impressive thus far, Harrington is a rookie and will make mistakes. In the running game, RB James Stewart returns. He had some success last year, but overall was disappointing. He looks to improve this year.
The Lions defense last year wasn't all that good. There were no major additions on this side of the ball, so the outlook for the 2002 defense isn't all that better.
The Lions will probably struggle through a few more bad seasons before their young team matures enough to win.
Green Bay Packers :
QB Brett Favre, one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL, looks to lead the Packers back to glory. He may be, however, a bit short on weapons. Last year's receiving core, WRs Antonio Freeman, Corey Bradford, and Bill Schroeder are gone, replaced by moody WR Terry Glenn, and young WRs such as Donald Driver. TE Bubba Franks returns to add some stability to a developing unit. The running game, however, is much more stable, as RB Ahman Green returns.
The Packers' defense was solid last year, and should be the same this year. The Packers feature a strong young secondary, that should further develop this year.
The Packers have a solid team, and a certainly a playoff contender. However, the NFC is rife with strong teams, so punching through may be a difficulty.
Minnesota Vikings :
The Vikings feature a potent offensive combination: the strong, fast, and cannon-armed QB Dante Culpepper, and the incredible but moody WR Randy Moss. This combination should rack up quite a few yards and touchdowns. The running game suffered with the retirement of RB Robert Smith. RB Michael Bennett was not able to fill the hole last year, and will need to this year to provide some balance and clock management to this year's offense.
The Vikings defense was one of the weaker in the NFL last season. This year things don't look to change all that much.
The Vikings are dominant on offense and weak on defense. This combination tends to fail - take the 2000 Rams or 2001 Colts for example. Also, if the running game does not come together this year, defenses can just rear back and go after Culpepper and Moss to slow the Vikings.
Atlanta Falcons :
The Falcons' offense features one of the scariest (to defenses) players in the league: QB Michael Vick. With speed, agility, and arm strength to spare, Vick is a dangerous weapon for the Falcons' offense. He is, however, young and inexperienced, his only current drawback. To help him along, the Falcons should have a solid running game. RB Warrick Dunn and rookie RB T.J. Duckett should provide plenty of yards on the ground.
The Falcons have a solid young defense, that should be able to keep them in games.
The Falcons should improve this year, and play in a relatively weak division. They may have a shot at making the playoffs.
Carolina Panthers :
QB Chris Weikne comes into 2002 off a very disappointing 2001 campaign. He will need to improve greatly for the Panthers to put together a respectable passing game. Veteran TE Wesley Walls should make that task somewhat easier, as should talented WR Mushin Muhammad. In the running game, solid RB DeShaun Foster returns.
In addition to a weak offense, the Panthers last year had a weak defense. To address this, DE Julius Peppers was taken with the second overall pick. The defense should improve some this season, it was terrible last year.
It's almost impossible for the Panthers not to improve this season, their 2001 campaign was one of the worst in NFL history.
New Orleans Saints :
The offense lost a solid producer in RB Ricky Williams, who was traded to the Dolphins. Replacing him is RB Duece McCallister. McCallister has a difficult task ahead of him in attempting to replace the yardage which Williams provided. In the passing game, QB Aaron Brooks returns, with an improved physique. Talented WRs Joe Horn, Jake Reed, and Jerome Pathon return to provide offensive punch.
The Saints' defense has developed into one of the NFL's better units in recent years. It slipped a bit last year, after losing a couple of key players. It still remains a solid unit.
The Saints are a solid team in a division full of building teams. They, like most of the NFC South, have a chance at the playoffs this year.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers :
The Buccaneers offense has been weak in recent years. To correct this, players like QB Brad Johnson, and WRs Keyshawn Johnson and Jaquez Green, have been brought in over the past couple of years. It didn't work. This year, they changed coaches: John Gruden in, Tony Dungy out, as well as RBs: Warrick Dunn out, Michael Pittman in. Bruising FB Mike Alstott remains, as does a solid offensive line.
The Buccaneers' defense has carried them through recent seasons. The squad has a dominant line featuring DT Warrent Sapp, as solid linebacking core centered around LB Hardy Nickerson, and a talented secondary featuring CB Donnie Abraham and S John Lynch. It should be among the better defenses again this year.
The Buccaneers are a strong team in a weak division. Also, moving to the NFC South spares them from a couple of cold-weather games, which they regularly tank. Only one game on the schedule has prospects for weather below 40 degrees: Week 17 at Chicago.
Arizona Cardinals : The Cardinals' offense features a talented throw-catch combination: QB Jake Plummer and WR David Boston. While Boston has become a dominant force, Plummer has struggled. The loss of talented RB Michael Pittman can't help.
The Cardinals' defense has been weak for years, despite several No. 1 picks being thrown at it. Bad drafting has doomed the Cardinals' defense in years past, and the squad will probably remain weak this year as well.
The Cardinals haven't won a division title since 1975, and have only two playoff wins in their history. Don't look for either of those facts to change this year.
St. Louis Rams :
The Rams offense is one of the best in the NFL's history. The squad is loaded with talent, with QB Kurt Warner throwing to WRs Isaac Bruce and Torry Holt, and TE Ernie Conwell. RB Marshall Faulk provides an additional target for Warner, as well as plenty of yards on the ground. The Rams offense has been almost impossible to stop since 1999, and that shouldn't change this year.
In addition to a dominant offense, the Rams have a strong defense. Veteran CB Aeneas Williams and young S Adam Archuleta lead a talented secondary. The linebacking core is solid, spearheaded by LB Jamie Duncan. The defensive line is solid as well, featuring players like DE Grant Winstrom and DE Leonard Little.
The Rams were heavy favorites in Super Bowl XXXVI but came out second best. This year, they face more challenges within their own conference, from San Francisco, Chicago, and Philadelphia.
San Francisco 49ers :
The 49ers' offense experienced a revival last year. QB Jeff Garcia emerged as one of the best young quarterbacks in the league. Providing Garcia a weapon was, and is, the superbly talented WR Terrell Owens. Providing balance to the offense is RB Garrison Hearst, who returned last year after two years of injury to lead the 49ers back to the playoffs. Hearst is a very good runner, and should provide plenty of yardage for this team to complement the strong passing attack.
The 49ers' defense suffered through some lean years, while the young talent developed and came together as a unit. Last year, that process yielded a solid defense. That defense returns, and should only be better this year. A talented young secondary should help them cope with their biggest rival, the Rams.
The 49ers are a young team that has great things ahead of it. The question is, can they push past the Rams and other talented teams in the conference?
Seattle Seahawks The Seahawks offense struggled last year, as young QB Matt Hasselback struggled. This year, QB Trent Dilfer enters as the starter (though he may miss the first game). Dilfer is a solid if not spectacular quarterback who wins games. Providing the running attack is talented young RB Shaun Alexander.
The Seahawks feature a middle-of-the-pack defense, which will be a liability in their division.
The Seahawks are a solid team, but they are no competition for the superbly talented 49ers and Rams.
East Champion: Philadelphia Eagles
North Champion: Chicago Bears
South Champion: Tampa Bay Buccaneers
West Champion: St. Louis Rams
Wild Card 1: San Francisco 49ers
Wild Card 2: Washington Redskins
NFC Champion: San Francisco 49ers