We will now take a glance at the NFC, predicting the standings for each division. The AFC edition can be read here:
Washington Redskins (10-6) – In a division that was subpar and unpredictable last year, the Redskins, ended up taking the division crown. They appear poised to repeat as NFC East champs with way too many question marks for the other three teams in the division. QB Kirk Cousins played out of his mind in the second half of the season, and he returns a fantastic set of receivers headlined by TE Jordan Reed, who is arguably the best tight end in the league not named Rob Gronkowski. WR DeSean Jackson is the deep threat, Pierre Garcon the underneath possession guy, Tim Crowder the undersized slot dynamo, and first round pick Josh Doctson a potential red zone weapon. Running back is a concern, with a lot being expected of sophomore Matt Jones who is still relatively unproven. Washington boasts a solid, yet unspectacular front seven, and a sneaky good one-two punch at corner with newcomer Josh Norman and breakout candidate Bashaud Breeland. This isn’t a team that is going to wow anyone, but the pieces are in place for another division title.
New York Giants (8-8) – The Giants shelled out a ton of money to improve a sad sack defense, adding the likes of DE Olivier Vernon, DT Damon Harrison and CB Janoris Jenkins. The team is still quite thin at linebacker though and young and unproven at safety, but the defense really can’t be any worse than it was last year. Despite all the big splashy additions on defense, make no mistake: This team will still ride or die with the combination of WR Odell Beckham Jr. and QB Eli Manning on offense. The definition of a natural born playmaker, Beckham Jr. is a scintillating and explosive weapon that Manning will target relentlessly again this year. The Giants hope that rookie second round WR Sterling Sheppard can be an upgrade on Rueben Randle as the second receiver and produce when Beckham Jr gets double teamed. WR Victor Cruz is a wild card at this point, but he could make the Giants even more dangerous if he is 100% healthy. This wide receiver group will need to put up big numbers because the running game appears to be mediocre again, at best.
Dallas Cowboys (7-9) – It didn’t take long for things to get hairy in Dallas, as QB Tony Romo suffered a fracture in his back in the Cowboys third pre-season game against the Seahawks. Fortunately for the Cowboys, rookie fourth round QB Dak Prescott has looked lights out in the early going, giving the team a glimmer of hope at a position that has been a constant issue with Romo’s injury woes. Regardless of who is at the controls, the team drafted RB Ezekiel Elliott fourth overall for a reason. Running behind the best offensive line in the league, big things are expected from the former Ohio State star as the Cowboys look to re-create the success they had when DeMarco Murray had a career year two seasons ago. Dallas better be able to score, because the team still has a lot of issues defensively. Suspensions, injuries and an overall lack of depth are concerning at almost every position. Once DE’s DeMarcus Lawrence and Randy Gregory return from their suspensions, the team should be able to generate a decent pass rush, but it’s hard to find any other positives on that side of the ball.
Philadelphia Eagles (4-12) – Expectations weren’t overly high when QB Sam Bradford was expected to start the season again as the Eagles quarterback, but an unexpected trade of Bradford to the Vikings over the weekend drastically altered the course of the Eagles season before it even began. Second overall pick QB Carson Wentz is going to get a trail by fire, as he only was able to suit up for one pre-season game. Expect TE Zach Ertz to be targeted often as a safety valve for the rookie. WR Jordan Matthews is the Eagles best receiver, but behind him, things are quite barren. Philadelphia invested a lot of money in their defense over the off-season, and brought in a new defensive coordinator in Jim Schwartz so expectations for this group are quite high, and likely even higher now given what has transpired at the quarterback position. DT Fletcher Cox and DE’s Vinny Curry and Connor Barwin should be able to get after the quarterback and the safety tandem of Mike Jenkins and newcomer Rodney McLeod give the Eagles stability in the back end. The Eagles defense may keep the team in a lot of games, but expect a lot of growing pains in year one of the Carson Wentz era.
Green Bay Packers (13-3) – The usually high octane Packers offense was stuck in neutral most of last season due to the absence of WR Jordy Nelson. Coming off an ACL tear Nelson likely won’t be the same but he is by no means finished. QB Aaron Rodgers missed his top target last year, and having Nelson back should also help Randall Cobb bounce back as more of a secondary target instead of the go-to guy. The addition of TE Jared Cook to the offense also has the potential to give the Packers their first legitimate seam stretching tight end since Jermichael Finley was around. Throw in the fact RB Eddie Lacy is in the best shape of his career and the Packer offense should have no problems getting back in gear. OLB Clay Matthews likely will be kept outside most of the season after seeing time inside, and that makes the Packers defense that much better. Aside from Matthews, the Packers lack star power defensively, but are above average across the board and only really lack depth on the defensive line. Young CB’s Damarious Randall and Quentin Rollins will look to carry over their strong play as rookies into year two. A soft schedule, combined with the return of Nelson are going to make the Packers tough to beat.
Minnesota Vikings (10-6) – Everything was looking rosy in Minnesota with their brand new stadium opening this season and many pundits pegging the team as a legitimate Super Bowl contender. Things however took an ugly turn early last week as starting QB Teddy Bridgewater suffered a horrific knee injury in practice, dislocating his knee and tearing his ACL. The team acted quickly to replace Bridgewater, trading for Eagles QB Sam Bradford knowing that 36 year old Shaun Hill wasn’t going to cut it with the team potentially on the cusp of something special. Bradford isn’t a massive downgrade, but it’s enough to put the Packers back on top in the division. The Vikings will now have to rely even more on RB Adrian Peterson and a young, burgeoning defense to take the team to the promised land. DE Everson Griffin, LB Anthony Barr and S Harrison Smith give Minnesota an impact defender at each level of the defense. This team is absolutely talented enough to make the playoffs even without Bridgewater, but the Super Bowl might a bit of a stretch now unfortunately.
Detroit Lions (8-8) – The Lions are going to find out what life is like without retired WR Calvin Johnson roaming the field and striking fear in opposing secondaries, but it actually might not be as bad as some expect. QB Matt Stafford excelled when Detroit changed offensive coordinators last year, and should be even more comfortable in year two in Jim Bob Cooter’s system. WR’s Marvin Jones and Anquan Boldin were signed in the off-season to help Golden Tate and gives the team a respectable trio of receivers. RB’s Ameer Abdullah and Theo Riddick are also good receiving threats out of the backfield. The Lions defense front isn’t nearly as fearsome as it used to be, but DE Ziggy Ansah is quickly blossoming into a star. The return to health of LB DeAndre Levy would help provide a big boost to a unit that struggled often last year. CB Darius Slay is one of the top cornerbacks nobody knows about, however there isn’t much behind him. There will likely be more pressure on the offense sans Johnson this season, but it’s the performance of the defense that will ultimately make or break the Lions this year.
Chicago Bears (7-9) – If the Bears were in another division, it’s not out of the realm of possibility that they could challenge for second place, but from top to bottom, this is definitely the toughest division in the NFC. This is not a particularly deep team by any stretch, however in their second season under John Fox, expect the team to be much better, especially on the defensive side of the ball where the team had a bit of a mini makeover to help continue the transition from a 4-3 to a 3-4 defense. Chicago should be markedly better against the run with new inside linebackers Danny Trevathan and Jerrell Freeman and DE Akiem Hicks added in free agency, though cornerback could still be a problem area. Offensively, Jay Cutler and a hopefully healthy WR Alshon Jeffrey are a fearsome duo, and if WR Kevin White can prove his first round pedigree after missing his entire rookie season with injury, Cutler will have a couple of twin towers to target on a regular basis. RB Jeremy Langford is still relatively unproven, but has a lot of upside. The team will miss C Hroniss Grasu, who tore his ACL and will be replaced by rookie Cody Whitehair.
Carolina Panthers (12-4) – There hasn’t been a whole lot of roster changeover in Carolina and why would there need to be after running roughshod during the regular season and making it all the way to the Super Bowl last year? Aside from losing CB Josh Norman (which the team basically decided to do on their own), the team returns pretty much intact, and with WR Kelvin Benjamin now back from his torn ACL, QB Cam Newton will be that much more dangerous. A scary thought for NFL defenses. What makes Carolina so good is that they can beat you on the ground, and through the air. And what also makes them so good is their defense. They have an elite front seven that can help mask the weakness they have at cornerback, where they will likely be starting two rookies in James Bradberry and Daryl Worley. Luke Kuechly is arguably the best middle linebacker in the league and Kawaan Short and Star Lotulelei are a dominant tandem at defensive tackle. It would be quite an upset if the Panthers didn’t win the NFC South again. There is quite a wide gap between them and the rest of the division.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers (8-8) – While it seems like a lock the Panthers are going to be at the top of the division, the other three teams aren’t really separated by much. However, the team that seems to be trending in the right direction are the Buccaneers. The team did make a coaching change, but since it was in house (offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter was promoted to head coach), there will not be the typical transition that comes with most coaching moves. Second year QB Jameis Winston is comfortable in the offense and has a great rapport with WR Mike Evans, while RB’s Doug Martin and Charles Sims are one of the best tandems in the league. The offensive line is still quite green, but slowly getting better. Koetter brought in a new defensive coordinator in Mike Smith, who should be a great fit for a defense that might be ready to take a big jump this season. DT Gerald McCoy will still be the focal point of the defense, but the team has two budding stars in linebackers Lavonte David and Kwon Alexander. If new starters at cornerback Brent Grimes and first rounder Vernon Hargreaves are up to snuff, the Bucs may surprise this year.
New Orleans Saints (8-8) – There is a similar theme coming out of New Orleans again this season. The Saints will not have any problems scoring points, despite an offensive line that has more than its share of potential concerns. QB Drew Brees is showing no signs of slowing down and with Bradin Cooks, underrated Willie Snead and second rounder Michael Thomas at receiver and free agent addition Coby Fleener at TE to throw to, Brees has a smorgasbord of weapons at his disposal. RB Mark Ingram also gives the team a reliable threat out of the backfield. The big question is if their defense can improve from the swiss cheese level it was at last season. Losing first round DT Sheldon Rankins for the first half the season, along with the season ending ACL tear to OLB Hau’oli Kikaha doesn’t help matters, but the team does have Pro Bowl DE Cameron Jordan and brought in DE/OLB Paul Kruger after he was cut by the Browns. It’s the secondary that will be tested again in a big way. Second round S Vonn Bell has a lot of upside, but the reality is the Saints will likely be involved in a lot of shootouts again this year.
Atlanta Falcons (6-10) – The Falcons are a hard team to get a read on. They are a team that has some high end players at certain positions, but also an abundance of youth and inexperience across the back end of the defense. The biggest concern the team has though might be that QB Matt Ryan has peaked and is starting to show signs of a slow decline. They did give him some help by bringing in C Alex Mack and WR Mohamed Sanu, and he also has one of the best receivers in the game in Julio Jones. RB Devonta Freeman broke out in a big way last year too. However if Ryan can’t reverse what looks like a downward trend in his career, the Falcons offense could be troublesome. CB Desmond Trufant is the lone star on the team defensively, giving the Falcons a lock down corner to shadow opposing teams number one receivers. Beyond him, there is where the abundance of youth and inexperience starts to show, especially at linebacker where the team will be starting second year Vic Beasley and two rookies in De’Vondre Campbell and Deion Jones. The team should be alright on the defensive line where Atlanta has a lot of depth and experience, but bouncing back to the secondary, there isn’t much behind Trufant, though first round safety Keanu Neal has great potential. There just seems to be more to not like than like with the Falcons this year unfortunately.
Seattle Seahawks (12-4) – The Seahawks definitely have a sour taste in their mouth after the way their season ended last year. They were fortunate to have advanced in the playoffs against the Vikings and then were schooled by the eventual NFC Champion Panthers in the second round. Despite the finish, this team is still without a doubt in the upper echelon of the league going into the 2016 season, and it all starts with QB Russell Wilson and a suffocating defense. Wilson has seemingly improved each year of his career, despite playing behind an offensive line that is often a mishmash of retreads and unproven youth. RB Marshawn Lynch retired, but the tandem of Thomas Rawls and Christine Michael should be able to pick up the slack. Seattle’s defense is littered with stars all over the place, but the true strength of the team still remains in the secondary. The unit got off to a sluggish start last year, but with CB’s Richard Sherman, Jeremy Lane and S’s Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor all healthy now and not coming off off-season surgeries, they should be ready to dominate the league again and help make the team a Super Bowl contender yet again.
Arizona Cardinals (11-5) – Expectations in Arizona are high yet again, and when you look at the roster from top to bottom, it’s easy to see why. The offensive skill positions return every single player from last year, so continuity is not going to be a problem. This high octane offense led by QB Carson Palmer, RB David Johnson and WR’s Larry Fitzgerald, Michael Floyd and John Brown is scary on all levels and incredibly difficult to defend. OG Evan Mathis was brought in in free agency to add to an already solid group of lineman. The biggest move the team made in the off-season was trading for OLB Chandler Jones, who along with improving Markus Golden should give the team a big boost in the pass rush department. The team doesn’t have a whole lot depth in the secondary, specifically at cornerback. However they boast Pro Bowlers in CB Patrick Peterson and S Tyrann Mathieu, who should be ready to start the season after suffering a knee injury late last year. This might be the year that the Cardinals take another leap and make it to the Super Bowl after falling one game short last season.
Los Angeles Rams (7-9) – Is it going to be another 8-8 or 7-9 season for the Rams? Sadly, it looks like that is where the team is going to end up yet again. The team traded up to the top of the draft to take QB Jared Goff, but it appears as of right now that he is just not ready both physically and mentally to start and will start as the third quarterback on the depth chart. Case Keenum will handle the duties until Goff proves he is ready for the NFL. Regardless of the quarterback situation, RB Todd Gurley will be the focal point of the offense. It doesn’t matter if opposing teams know that either. Gurley is that good, and is only going to get better. There are a few concerns in the secondary after the departures of CB Janoris Jenkins and S Rodney McLeod. But as per usual, this team should be stout defensively, highlighted by a defensive line that excels in getting after the quarterback. DT Aaron Donald is borderline unblockable at times and DE Robert Quinn will look to bounce back after missing half of last season due to injury. It’s going to be an exciting year having football back in Los Angeles, but the team doesn’t appear ready to push for a playoff spot just yet.
San Francisco 49ers (2-14) – Playing in a division with the Seahawks and Cardinals is hard enough as it is, but given the overall state of the 49ers, it’s hard to envision them winning very many games this season. New coach Chip Kelly will use his up tempo pace to find a way to make the 49ers offensive respectable and productive, but beyond RB Carlos Hyde, this team is lacking talent in a big way offensively. QB Blaine Gabbert proved to better than expected when forced into duty last season, however the reality is he is below average quarterback. The team would love for QB Colin Kaepernick to round back into form. Whether or not that actually happens this year or ever again is questionable at best. Defensively the team has a little more talent, but that’s likely not going to be enough to compensate for a below average offense. LB Navarro Bowman is the star of the group, and combined with young DE’s Arik Armstead and DeForest Buckner, gives the team a lot of hope for the future. It will be tough sledding in the Bay Area this year, but the 49ers hope Kelly can get the team going in the right direction.
Division Winners: Washington, Green Bay, Carolina and Seattle
Wild Cards: Arizona and Minnesota
AFC Champion: Arizona