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Tuesday, December 4, 2012

NFL Home Stretch: The NFC

Just before the start of the regular season, we previewed all 16 NFC and all 16 AFC teams. Twelve games into the season, we have some answers, some questions, and some surprises. The preseason commentary is in black; week 14 commentary is in blue. Enjoy!

NFC North

Green Bay Packers (8-4) – This team learned the hard way that an NFL team can have arguably the best quarterback in the game and the best offense in the game. When the calendar turns to January, teams have to be able to run with competence and stop the run with competence (not necessarily “excellence”, but competence). Incompetence in those areas combined with costly turnovers equal an early exit. I expect the Pack to improve in those areas in 2012.

This team is going to the playoffs and I think they have more in the tank down the home stretch than the Chicago Bears. They could be the team that flies under the radar, heading into the playoffs (if that's possible). They still have a huge hole in their running  game that should concern any Packers fan.   

Detroit Lions (4-8) – This team had a breakthrough in 2011 and as long as quarterback Matt Stafford remains healthy, they will be no one year wonder. If Kevin Smith stays healthy and resembles anything to himself in his first two years in the NFL, a deep Lions run through the NFC Playoffs is not far fetched.

No team has tasted more bitter waters of defeat than the Lions. This is a talented team that has piled up too many close losses in a game of inches. Seven of their eight losses have been by a touchdown or less, with three by three or less including two in overtime. Sunday's collapse on the final play of the game against the Indianapolis Colts was the coups de gras. 

Chicago Bears (8-4) – Speaking of “not far fetched” it is not far fetched for the Bears to be the third team from the NFC North to reach the playoffs. Their leaders on both sides of the ball are the “X” factors. If quarterback Jay Cutler stays healthy, the Bears will be in the discussion in December. Middle linebacker Brian Urlacher is a bigger variable than Cutler. Cutler, by all accounts, is healthy coming into the season, Urlacher isn’t. If 80% of Brian Urlacher is better than 100% of most linebackers, the Bears could be playing in January.

The Bears have looked like a Super Bowl contender all season, but their collapse in the final minutes against the Seattle Seahawks at home on Sunday raise a red flag on this team's ability to close out games against quality opponents. I think the Bears will reach the playoffs as a Wild Card but I don't think their offensive line is good enough to carry this team through a deep run in the NFC.

Minnesota Vikings (6-6) – Their strongest asset, running back Adrian Peterson, is a big uncertainty as he is coming back from a torn ACL. I expect quarterback Christian Ponder to go through more hard knocks in his sophomore season. I think the Vikings will be more competitive than they were last season, but I also expect them to finish in the cellar again.

This team is much improved. Big props to Leslie Frasier. The Cinderella carriage ride stops here. They've lost four of their last five and the losing will continue. If you can't throw, you can't win and the Vikings' December schedule is stout.

Adrian Peterson came back strong! Too bad the rest of the offense has yet to follow. 1
NFC South

New Orleans Saints (5-7) – Prior to this preseason, I would have picked the Saints to finish second in the division to the Atlanta Falcons. However, quarterback Drew Brees, in all of his first unit reps, appears to be worth every nickel of the $40 million he is going to earn this season. “Coach on the field” gets thrown around often when describing players with top flight leadership abilities. I am beginning the think that the label may literally apply to Brees. The paycheck certainly will.

To quote Bugs Bunny, "I could be wrong, you know!" I guess coaching really does matter. I am not convinced that this team is incapable of ripping off wins in its final four games against the New York Giants, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Dallas Cowboys, and Carolina Panthers. The problem for the Who Dat Nation is that the Seahawks, St. Louis Rams, and Washington Redskins control their own fates before the Saints do. 

Atlanta Falcons (11-1) – The coach, Mike Smith, is good. The quarterback, Matt Ryan, is good. The receivers, Roddy White and Julio Jones, are good. The home field advantage is good. I expect the Falcons to have a “good” year but, if they are playing ball in January, I expect a “grand opening…grand closing” playoff performance from this team.

They won the NFC South like they have every other season dating back to 2008. Big deal. Call me when they win a playoff game.

Carolina Panthers (3-9) – This team is the “wild card” of the division. A number of variables will need to come together, particularly the back seven on defense, for the Panthers to have a winning season. They are also stuck having to play the Saints and Falcons twice per year. However, I am “all in” on the stock of second year quarterback Cam Newton. Through him, all things on the gridiron are possible. Assuming Newton is healthy, this is going to be a very fun team to watch in 2012, playoffs or not.

This has been a fun team to watch, if they are your favorite team's opponent. This is the Hard Luck Loser of the Year in 2012, with seven of their nine losses coming by six points or less, often losing leads in the final minutes. This is not a team that anyone should want to play. Once they start figuring out how to close out games and win, they are going to be a very tough year.

Tampa Bay Buccaneeers (6-6) – Expect the house cleaning that began at the end of 2011 with former Head Coach Raheem Morris to extend to underachieving quarterback Josh Freeman if his play doesn’t turn around in 2012. Rookie Head Coach Greg Schiano has a monster of a turnaround job in front of him. A competitive 7-9 record could merit Coach of The Year consideration because the Bucs are that bad!

This has been my 2012 NFC Whiskey Tango Foxtrot pick. Greg Schiano has this team believing in itself and the offense has done a complete "180". Still their secondary is aging and/or injured and cannot stop anyone. I don't know who will take the second wild Card spot in the NFC, but it won't be the Bucs. 

December has often given Falcons Fan something to cheer about. January has been another tale. 2

NFC East

Philadelphia Eagles (3-9) – The NFC East is a beast! Philadelphia has had the most talented skill position players on paper since last season, but it took too long for everything to come together and the Eagles finished 8-8. Andy Reid is coaching for his job in 2012, but he’s coaching with a fully loaded, fully armored tank. The health of quarterback Mike Vick will decide this team’s fate. I do not expect Vick to start all 16 games, but I expect the Eagles to win enough games to win this division, however it comes.

What I don't know could fill a book and the NFC East could have an entire chapter in that book. Boy did I whiff on the Eagles! In my own defense, however, I said that the health of Mike Vick would decide this team's fate. His bill of health has been anything but clean and so has the Eagles' season. Andy Reid has had a great run during his 14 years in Philly, but all good things must come to an end. And his tenure will. 

New York Giants (7-5) – The defending Super Bowl champions are going to be a tough out this year. The problem is that defending champions, in recent years, have had such a big target on their backs that they only advance so far in the years following their super Bowl wins. In addition to wearing this year’s biggest bullseye, the Giants have to play the Eagles twice, the Cowboys twice, and the Redskins (who may not be a pushover with QB Robert Griffin, III) twice. They could win this division and they could make the playoffs. It will be very difficult, though.

The G-men are in a mini-funk, losing three of their last four. This is a team that sleepwalks until it can ill-afford to, then they blow everyone's doors off. I expect them to win the division and I expect them to be the toughest out in the playoffs. 

Dallas Cowboys (6-6) – I need to give this team an extra paragraph. This is the first time in five years I have entered the season not thinking that the Cowboys were the most talented team in the NFC. Last year, however, their weaknesses began to show. I cannot help but think that former Head Coach Wade Phillips, often the scapegoat for the postseason shortcomings of America’s Team, helped mask the deficiencies to the Cowboys defense.

DeMarcus Ware said in a radio interview last year that he thought he was the best player in the NFL. I am not convinced that statement is untrue, but I have to call the quality of the secondary into question. The receiving corps impressed me as being inconsistent and sometimes undisciplined. The bright spots on the offense are over-criticized quarterback Tony Romo and (should he remain healthy) running back DeMarco Murray.

This team is right in the thick of things, in theory. They are only one game back of the division lead, mathematically. Get ready for the Cowboys' Annual December Train Wreck starring Jerry Jones and co-starring Tony Romo. To borrow another Looney Tunes line from Sylvester, "Now sit back and watch the fun!"

Washington Redskins (6-6) – This team has some questionable management and coaching practices during the Mike Shanahan era. What has not been questioned is the wisdom of drafting quarterback Robert Griffin, III with the second pick in this year’s NFL Draft. He has not taken a regular season snap yet, but all pre-debut indicators could not be more promising for this future superstar. If Griffin does what I think he is capable of doing, I think he can will this previously hapless and dysfunctional team to a six win season, which would be progress.

If the Seahawks slip, I expect the Redskins to step in and take the final Wild Card spot. You heard it here first. The secondary, however, is just awful. To quote Redskins cornerback DeAngelo Hall, "It isn't rocket science." If you cannot stop the pass, you have to out-pass your opponents and as talented as Robert Griffin, III is, the Skins aren't at that level yet.

Not probable, but not (yet) impossible. 3
NFC West

San Francisco 49ers (8-3-1) – The East is a beast but the West is certainly not the best. The 49ers are loaded everywhere except at quarterback and wide receiver, possibly the most important two position combination is a pass oriented league. Alex Smith had a breakthrough in 2011, but it was more of a “don’t lose the game” breakthrough rather than a playmaking breakthrough. That is not enough to win a championship in the NFL. The addition of Randy Moss could prove to be interesting. But this Niners team is not built to be pass happy and Moss, while in great shape from all accounts, is on the wrong side of age 35.

I understand the excitement over quarterback Colin Kaepernick, but there is a reason Alex Smith was the starter at the beginning of the year. Sunday's fourth quarter meltdown against the St. Louis Rams is a textbook example of why the Niners, who are among the best in the NFL in every facet of the game other than the passing game, should stick with steady and experienced Alex Smith, in spite of his limited playmaking ability. Smith has not made mistakes during the past two seasons and the Niners need to be as mistake free as possible if they expect to make it to the Super Bowl this year.

Arizona Cardinals (4-8) – The Cardinals could be a sleeper for the Wild Card if Kevin Kolb or John Skelton can just play mistake free football. I could walk on to an NFL team at age 37 if I cut my body fat down to 8% and reduced my 40 yard dash time to 4.5. I’ll let you guys connect the dots.

Well, I may have had a side of crow with my dinner if you read this after the first month of the season. Instead the Cardinals became the first team in NFL history to post a 4-8 record after a 4-0 start. 

St. Louis Rams (5-6-1) – I expect this team to win six to eight games, but if Sam Bradford has the breakthrough that coaches expected him to have through his third season, the Rams could be a surprise team in the NFC. Bradford missed much of the season due to injury last year and the support he had while healthy was non existent. The Rams made some very high-value draft picks, including defensive tackle Michael Brockers out of LSU and former Florida cornerback Janoris Jenkins. This team is going to give some of the “better” teams some trouble this year.

So far, I hit the bullseye on the Rams. Jeff Fisher should receive some votes for Coach of the Year as he has quickly turned this team around. They have to be taken seriously and Fisher's defensive mind is clearly reflected upon his young players. The Rams only have one opponent with a winning record for the remainder of the regular season (Seahawks). A playoff appearance is not likely, but not completely far-fetched.

Seattle Seahawks (7-5) – This team could sniff .500 or already be on the clock for the first pick in the 2013 NFL Draft. The receivers are mediocre. The offensive line is mediocre. The defense is mediocre. Running back Marshawn Lynch is a monster, however, and rookie quarterback Russell Wilson has a high ceiling. The team will go as far as Wilson develops in his rookie year. Perhaps the Ocean Birds can exceed low expectations.

This team spent the first half of the season playing above its ability (and getting extremely lucky) and now they think they're a legit contender. Sunday's overtime win at Chicago is slowly making a believer out of me.The ball is in their court and, on paper, they only have one tough game remaining in the regular season, against the 49ers on December 23rd.

One questionable call has sent a ripple effect through the NFC playoff race. 4

Tomorrow: the AFC!
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