Joe Mellenbruch offers his predictions for the NFC.
When looking at the National Football Conference, it really is difficult to determine who will make the postseason, especially considering how tight last year’s race got toward the end.
Despite the difficulties that certain teams experienced in 2012 (Arizona, Detroit, Carolina, etc.), it seems that all NFC sides are poised to make a run at the playoffs this season, including the lowly Rams, who added some much needed firepower to their offense in April’s draft.
At any rate, here’s how I see the NFC panning out this season. Bear in mind, I’m a die-hard Vikings fan, but be assured that I will be completely objective with my predictions.
San Francisco 49ers (13-3)
No surprises here. The reigning NFC champions certainly haven’t lost any key members of last year’s Super Bowl squad. In fact, they’ve added to it (CB Nnamdi Asomugha, WR Anquan Boldin, K Phil Dawson). Asomugha will be an immediate and effective contributer to a defensive unit that ranked first in the league last season (294.4 yards allowed per game, 17.1 points allowed per game). That along with the return of Colin Kaepernick, a superstar in the making, to lead a high powered San Francisco attack, I predict yet another NFC West championship for the 49ers.
Seattle Seahawks (12-4)
The Seahawks would my overwhelming first choice to win any other division in the NFC, but unfortunately for them, they play in perhaps the toughest division in football. However, that isn’t to say they won’t have a good season, because they will. I still believe San Francisco is too deep and too talented to forfeit the division crown, but Seattle will have no problem making the playoffs this season, and if newly acquired WR Percy Harvin had stayed healthy for them, it would have made them a dark horse pick for a Super Bowl berth. Having Harvin out will hurt the Seahawks, but they are still loaded with offensive weapons, including impressive second-year QB Russell Wilson and Marshawn “Beast Mode” Lynch. Expect the Seahawks to comfortably capture the No. 5 seed in the NFC playoffs as a wild card.
Arizona Cardinals (7-9)
The Cardinals surprised a number of NFL fans last season with their surprising 4-0 start to the 2012 season. Then, reality set it. Arizona went on to lose 11 of its final 12 games in 2012, including a 9-game losing streak that lasted nearly three months. Much of that losing streak can be attributed to the team’s instability at the quarterback position, but they finally found a solution to that problem with the free-agent signing of QB Carson Palmer. The Cardinals will surprise people again this season, but they are cursed by the competition within their own division. A playoff push is certainly out of the question for Arizona.
St. Louis Rams (5-11)
St. Louis has been the whipping boy of the NFC for a number of years now, and I don’t see that changing. Sure, they added the most electrifying rookie in the draft, WR Tavon Austin, but there as still a few pieces yet to be filled in this puzzle before I even consider this team capable of accomplishing a winning season. Quarterback and former No. 1 overall pick Sam Bradford has still not quite lived up to expectations, and with the departure of Steven Jackson from their backfield, I can’t see this team competing for much at all. Look for the Rams to play out yet another lack luster season.
Green Bay Packers (11-5)
As much as it pains me to say it, Aaron Rodgers is completely unstoppable at times. Without him, the Packers could just as easily be 5-11, but the unavoidable truth is that as long as No. 12 is in the pocket for Green Bay, this team is a perrennial playoff lock. Bolstered by the addition of former Alabama running back Eddy Lacy in April’s draft, this team has the potential to become even more potent on offense. They still have a few kinks to work out on defense, but as long as they score more points than the other team, they’ll be just fine. And this team seems to be in the business of outshooting their opponents. The Packers will win the division again this year in what will be the most hotly contested division in football.
Minnesota Vikings (11-5)
The Vikings were a lot like the Packers last season: one-dimensional on offense, suspect at times on defense. But Minnesota has addressed their issues in the offseason on both sides of the ball, something that I predict will lead the purple and gold back to the postseason in 2013. The big-name signing of Greg Jennings and the first-round acquisition of explosive Tennessee rookie Cordarrelle Patterson, the Vikings’ woeful pass offense should fare better this year despite the departure of WR Percy Harvin. On defense, add names like Shariff Floyd and Xavier Rhoades to the mix, and you should see improvement to a young, talented defensive unit that only has potential to improve. And I haven’t even mentioned the reigning league MVP yet. Expect to see the Vikings back in the postseason as the No. 6 seed.
Detroit Lions (9-7)
2012 was a season to forget in Detroit. After making the playoffs the season prior, fans were expecting big things from Megatron and company last year, but they were sorely disappointed. WR Calvin Johnson was obviously the team’s star after breaking the NFL’s single season receiving yards record. That was about the only bright spot for the Lions as they finished an underwhelming 6-10. I expect the Lions to do better this year, but they won’t reach the level they had in 2011 that saw the team make the postseason.
Chicago Bears (7-9)
Of all the teams in the NFC, I think that Chicago is the most overrated to be quite honest. QB Jay Cutler always has potential for great performances, but he’s equally as likely to throw for 115 yards in a game as he is to throw 400. RB Matt Forte is a solid back, when he’s healthy, and he hasn’t been in recent years. Their defense is always a threat, but will it be the same without Brian Urlacher and former head coach Lovie Smith? There are just too many question marks for me on this Bears team, and because of that, I think they’ll disappoint this season. Don’t expect anything special from this group.
Washington Redskins (10-6)
RG3 is back. And he looks good. The Washington Redskins made a surprise appearance in the NFC postseason in 2012, due mostly to the efforts of their star rookie quarterback, but injuries hampered Griffin III throughout the season and eventually put an abrupt end to his season. The former Baylor playmaker and Heisman trophy winner sustained serious ligament damage to his right knee in a playoff game last January, and he’s been working tirelessly throughout the offseason (ala Adrian Peterson) in order to ensure his playing status for Week 1. Well, head coach Mike Shanahan has already professed that his star man will be on the field this Monday night to face the Eagles. If he stays healthy, I believe the Redskins will qualify once again for the postseason in 2013.
New York Giants (9-7)
The New York Giants are built for the postseason. Unfortunately, their mediocre play during the season’s first 16 games often costs them an opportunity to show their playoff composure. Sure, the Giants have won a few Super Bowl’s in recent years, but last season’s decline is evidence why this team won’t make the postseason this year. The Giants started last season with a 6-2 start, putting them in poll position to win the division, but a sub-par 3-5 finish, including bad losses at Cincinnatti (L, 31-13) and Atlanta (L, 34-0) swiftly removed them from the NFC postseason conversation. It’s true, they have a host of weapons on offense, but none as lethal as RG3. I expect New York to underwhelm Giant fans once again.
Dallas Cowboys (8-8)
It seems like the Cowboys are America’s favorite team to watch underachieve. Luckily for those fans, they’ve gotten all they can handle from Jerry Jones and the ‘Boys over the last few seasons. Dallas enters each season with supreme confidence, and each year, that confidence seems to get trampled on vigorously. QB Tony Romo just signed a new deal, and WR Dez Bryant and RB DeMarco Murray are always a threat for explosive plays, but they just aren’t good enough for this conference, this division for that matter, to make any real noise in 2013. I’m predicting an 8-8 campaign for Dallas. Average, a fitting description for this team.
Philadelphia Eagles (7-9)
The Eagles are another NFC team that seem to disappoint with consistency. Quarterback Michael Vick can’t stay on the field, and when he does, he can’t hold onto the ball. New head coach Chip Kelly should introduce a few new things to the Eagle offense that will suit Vick’s playing style, and admittedly, he’s looked good in preseason. But I don’t see this team making much of an impact this season. The loss of WR Jeremy Maclin presents a massive problem for this offense, which will now place it’s hope in the sporadic hands of DeSean Jackson, who hasn’t lived up to his potential these last few seasons. Chip Kelly can do good things with this group if given enough time. Unfortunately for the city of brotherly love, it’s not gonna happen this year.
Atlanta Falcons (12-4)
Atlanta finally got over the hump last season after defeating the Seattle Seahawks in the divisional round of the NFC playoffs. Considering how they dominated regular season play, another early exit from the postseason would have had Falcon fans calling for head coach Mike Smith’s head. But now that the team finally has a playoff win under its belt, it’s certainly going to be Super Bowl for this team, who have recorded an astonishing 56 wins since drafting Matt Ryan in 2008. Ryan, Julio Jones, Roddy White and the newly acquired Steven Jackson should spell out another strong run for the Falcons in 2013. Chalk up another division championship for Atlanta.
New Orleans Saints (10-6)
No one is expecting anything from the Saints this season. A true dark horse pick, New Orleans has its head coach back on sidelines and a serious chip on their shoulder after a disappointing 7-9 output in 2012. This team has always possessed a high powered offense since the arrival of Drew Brees, but what leaves me doubting this team is their defense, a unit that leaves a lot to be desired. Last season, the Saints finished dead last in the NFC across a number of defensive categories, including total points conceded (454), total yards given up (2,361) and touchdowns allowed (18). It goes without saying that this team will score a lot of points, but their defense will give up plenty as well. I expect the Saints to be in the playoff conversation for much of the year, but they’ll eventually fall short.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers (9-7)
Doug Martin, the muscle hamster himself, is primed for a big sophomore season with the Bucs, a team that showed spells of brilliance last season. But their inconsistent play brought them down in the end, and if this team is to make a playoff push, they’ll need to shore up their composure. The addition of Darrelle Revis from the New York Jets ought to help with that as they will feature a Pro-Bowl laden secondary this season that should have most NFC quarterbacks concerned. Tampa’s X-factor will be QB Josh Freeman, who will need to step up if his team is to make the postseason. I can see it happening in the future, but not this year in this conference.
Carolina Panthers (5-11)
Carolina fans are still waiting for Cam Newton to lead them to the promised land. Unfortunately for the Panther faithful, I think they’ll have to keep waiting. The Panthers have one of the most difficult schedules in the league this season, including six games against 2012 playoff teams, and six more who narrowly missed out. They have Newton, who we’ve all seen can be explosive, but he’s the only player on the Carolina offense worth mentioning. Steve Smith is now 34 years old and not as quick as he once was. Brandon LaFell has been a disappointment thus far. The team’s running game has been virtually nonexistant save Newton’s contributions during the last two seasons. I’m just not seeing a serious contender here. I predict a steady dose of underachievement for this team in 2013.
While San Francisco is the odds-on favorite to represent the NFC the Super Bowl for the second straight year, I’m picking their division rival, the Seattle Seahawks, to defeat the 49ers in the NFC Championship game 28-24, in San Francisco, and advance to the Super Bowl.