Path To Super Bowl Wide Open In NFC
By Michael Avallone
Last week I gave you my AFC picks (subject to change of course!!!). Now without further adieu…the NFC.
The pressure is on. The Eagles have ruled the roost in the NFC East over the past three seasons and now it’s time to get over the hump. Three consecutive losses in the NFC Championship game have left the Philly fans in no mood for patience, not that they had much to begin with. Bringing in DE Jevon Kearse and WR Terrell Owens makes them the NFC favorite to reach Super Bowl XXXIX.
The best offseason move for the Redskins was along the sidelines. The surprise return of coach Joe Gibbs will certainly stabilize a team that sees more roster turnover than the night has stars. The addition of Clinton Portis gives the Hogs the best back in the division and perhaps the entire conference, but will QB Mark Brunell hold up over an entire season?
Andy Reid, Bill Parcells, Joe Gibbs, Tom Coughlin. The NFC East head-coaching list could be used as boot camp instructors if so needed. For the Giants, Coughlin brings intensity and a desire to win that is second-to-none. QB Eli Manning is the future but Kurt Warner is the starter. Bet on the former taking over before the season runs its course.
Coming off their first playoff season in several years, the Cowboys seem to have regressed this offseason. QB Quincy Carter may or may not have failed a drug test but no matter, coach Bill Parcells dumped him in favor of 40-year-old ex-Jet Vinny Testaverde. Keyshawn Johnson may want the damn ball but it will take a lot more than that to help Big D.
A 6-0 start last season resulted in a 9-7 finish for coach Mike Tice and his Minnesota Vikings. A similar record this year and Tice will be without a job. WR Randy Moss looks fantastic, QB Daunte Culpepper is maturing, and the defense seems to be rock-steady. The difference between this year and last year is expectations. Win or else...
Any team with a leader like the Green Bay Packers’ Brett Favre is never far from contending. The likes of RB Ahman Green and the young but dependable WR trio of Donald Driver, Javon Walker, and Robert Ferguson lead the best all-around offense in the NFC. An improved defense will propel this team into the playoffs and if all goes right, a possible Super Bowl berth.
After looking more like lambs the past few years, the Lions seem ready to reach for the next level. Coach Steve Mariucci has assembled a young but potentially explosive offensive squad that could challenge for a .500 record. If they can figure out how to win on the road after an NFL-record 24 consecutive (and counting) losses, that is.
Coach Lovie Smith WILL demand excellence from the Chicago Bears. The rookie coach WILL instill a sense of pride for a once proud franchise. That being said, Smith is no miracle worker. It would take one and then some for this team to have a chance. The offense is a mess and the defense is average at best.
Let’s put the cards on the table: the 2003 Carolina Panthers were not a fluke. Will this team return to Super Bowl XXXIX? Probably not, but all signs do point to another division title for coach John Fox’s Panthers. The defensive unit is a beast, led by DE Julius Peppers and with QB Jake Delhomme proving his mettle in last year’s big game, the offense is in good hands.
The Falcons’ ‘03 season was essentially over when Michael Vick broke his leg during a meaningless preseason game. However, the problems went much deeper than just Vick. Atlanta had too much talent to fall as far as they did and the result was coach Dan Reeves getting the ax. With a healthy Vick, the Falcons will vie for a playoff spot in ‘04, but what are the chances of no. 7 playing in all 16 games??
The ‘Aints they ain’t, but New Orleans seems to be no better than a middle-of-the road team. Offensively, RB Deuce McAllister and QB Aaron Brooks make the Saints’ motor run, but a turnover-plagued unit (20 lost fumbles in ‘03) needs to hold onto the ball for New Orleans to have a chance.
Tampa Bay has turned into the Oakland Raiders of the NFC. Although the roster is laden with talented players (minus DE Warren Sapp and CB John Lynch), many are in their 30s. Less than two years removed from their Super Bowl victory, Jon Gruden and co. should hover around the .500 mark and perhaps make a push for the playoffs, but a championship team this is not.
Coming off their first 10-win season since 1986, Seattle should take home the NFC West crown. If they do not, coach Mike Holmgren’s tenure in the Pacific Northwest will surely come to an end. The offense is in good hands with QB Matt Hasselbeck and RB Shaun Alexander while the defense continues to improve under the guidance of coordinator Ray Rhodes.
The Rams are a team caught in between the glory of the past and the uncertainty of the future. RB Marshall Faulk appears healthier than he has been in years and with WR’s Tory Holt and Isaac Bruce on the flanks, QB Marc Bulger has the necessary components to succeed. A young and fast defense will be competent and while the playoffs are within reach, a long trip is not expected.
Much like the Redskins, the biggest acquisition for the Arizona Cardinals was hiring a new coach. Dennis Green will demand everything from his players, but even that will not be enough. With last year’s top rookie WR Anquan Boldin and incoming wideout Larry Fitzgerald, Green seems to be re-creating the Randy Moss/Cris Carter duo of 1998. However, a knee injury to Boldin and a suspect running game led by the quickly-deteriorating Emmitt Smith will hold this team back in its quest for a .500 record.
Gone are QB Jeff Garcia, WR Terrell Owens, and RB Garrison Hearst. In their place are Tim Rattay, Rashaun Woods, and Kevan Barlow. The look you have on your face right now speaks volumes. A once proud franchise will be lucky to win six games this season but with a young and potential-filled defense, San Francisco’s hole may not be as deep as some think.
Philadelphia Eagles: 12-4
Washington Redskins: 9-7
New York Giants: 7-9
Dallas Cowboys: 6-10
Minnesota Vikings: 11-5
Green Bay Packers: 10-6
Detroit Lions: 7-9
Chicago Bears: 5-11
Carolina Panthers: 11-5
Atlanta Falcons: 9-7
New Orleans Saints: 8-8
Tampa Bay Bucs: 7-9
Seattle Seahawks: 12-4
St. Louis Rams: 10-6
Arizona Cardinals: 6-10
San Francisco 49ers: 5 -11