2012 NFL Preview: The NFC

Welcome to part one of my massive NFL preview column. Part one comes in at a hefty 3,733 words, but they go down smoother than a nice shot of Soco and lime, which I will be taking after hunkering down in my bunker and churning this out. The AFC part of this column will be up next week. I know I know it’ll be late, but my predictions won’t be affected by what happens week one, unless a major injury happens. So without further ado, here are my predictions for the NFC. The numbers in parenthesis are playoff seeds.

 

NFC West

1.) 49ers (12-4) (2)

2.) Seahawks (9-7)

3.) Rams (5-11)

4.) Cardinals (2-14)

 

49ers – Using the word monumental before the word  turnaround might actually be short changing what the Jim Harbaugh mentality has done to the identity of the San Francisco 49ers.

Since the turn of the century you could put the Niners and Cowboys in a group of teams that had success in the previous decade, but have failed live up to the hype as the years have gone by (the Broncos are the other team in this group). Now sure the Cowboys will always be more popular than San Fran, Dallas is after all “America’s team”, but the fans in southern California have desperately yearned for their team to have a semblance of an identity. Just look at the transition from Joe Montana, to Steve Young, to Jeff Garcia/ a young Terrell Owens, to era of Alex Smith. It’s amazing that the latter has lasted this long.

For so long the team was driven by their quarterback and that is still somewhat the case, but this team’s identity is its head coach with the sidekick being a defense that is going to do something this season that is more rare than a family guy joke that isn’t completely random; the starting eleven defenseman from last year’s NFC championship team are returning this season. That’s right not one person left for more money, or for a chance to chase a championship elsewhere. Everyone in that locker room has bought into what Harbaugh is selling and it’s hard to not believe that this team won’t be right back where they were last season.

Seahawks – When did Seattle become the trendy pick to win a wild card birth?  Sure their defense is going to be improved and I like what I’ve seen out of Russell Wilson, but who is he going to throw the ball to? Sure he’s got one of the few power workhorse backs in Marshawn Lynch, but the odds of Lynch eating Skittles at the rate he did last year are slim. Between the back problems, his running style, the fact that he’s the only back in town, and most importantly his workload I just don’t think he’ll be able to have a repeat of his magical run during the second half of last season. And let’s not forget that Wilson is after all a rookie who has a guaranteed eight figure quarterback on the bench chopping at the bit to prove that he was worth the money. What happens if Wilson struggles during the first three weeks? Who starts first Matt Flynn or Tim Tebow? How many times will I mention Tebow during this column?

Now I’m sure all of you reading this will say, “Well you picked Seattle to finish 9-7, which would mean that they’re tied with the Cowboys and Saints for the last wild card birth, so why are you just listing all of the negatives?” Well look at the schedule. They have three winnable games in September (@ARI, DAL, @STL) and a cake walk in November (MIN, NYJ, BYE, @MIA). I think they can pull off an upset against New England at home in week 6 due to the 12th man at Quest Field. Actually the more I think about Seattle the more intriguing they become, after all I have already begun to have a man crush on Russell Wilson because of his desire to be the best player in the league. 

Rams – I’m a tad worried that maybe Sam Bradford will be affected by the dreaded R word (regression). Last year was a come back down to Earth season for the former number one overall pick in 2010. Now it’s impossible to put all of the blame on him for these reasons:

1.) The red zone play calling was downright pathetic last season.

2.) John Skelton or Kevin Kolb would be afraid to play behind the Rams line of last season.

3.) Brandon Lloyd and Bradford never got on the same page.

4.)Bradford’s go to guy, Danny Amendola, was lost for the season after a freak arm injury in week one.

I’m always going to try to find a way to defend him because I’m a diehard Oklahoma Sooners fan, but even I have to admit that he looked like a shell of the player compared to the one who was one game away from making the playoffs in 2010. Bradford was tentative, but what was more alarming was his indecisiveness. You could make the case that Bradford needs a better comeback season in 2012 than Peyton Manning.

Jeff Fisher was the right hire to get this franchise back on track and this year will be the first step in the right direction. The key pieces are there (Bradford (if he doesn’t regress, that’s right I just went double parenthesis), James Laurinaitis, Chris Long, Janoris Jenkins, Steven Jackson), but there are some glaring holes that have to be filled in the future. There is only one other team in the league (Miami) that can rival St.Louis in terms of dearth at the skill positions, which is why I love Amendola as a late round sleeper in PPR fantasy leagues this season.

Cardinals – Prediction time! Larry Fitzgerald will be the most traded player in fantasy football this season, just like Chris Johnson was last season, but it won’t be Fitz’s fault. The Cardinals have no semblance of an offensive line. John Skelton and Kevin Kolb are having the worst quarterback training camp battle since Tavaris Jackson and Gus Frerotte fought for the Vikings job in 2008.

If there is one reason to think about keeping Fitzgerald this season on your fantasy team it’s this; Arizona will have plenty of garbage time this season because their defense isn’t going to stop anyone.

 

NFC South

1.) Falcons (11-5) (3)

2.) Saints (9-7)

3.) Panthers (6-10)

4.) Buccaneers (4-12)

 

Falcons – The regular season wonder that is the Atlanta Falcons will finally win a playoff game this season, but will still fall short of expectations. In an odd way this team reminds me of the two Jets teams that made it to the AFC title game in back to back seasons, except they’re are complete opposites. Lost? Didn’t make any sense? Let me try to explain:

Those Jets teams had an identity that was clear; the defense was going to force you to go three and out or throw an interception. They were going to run all over you, control the clock and give Mark Sanchez as little responsibility as possible. He was just there to make maybe two or three key plays a game. The formula almost worked.

This Falcons team has a clear identity; Matt Ryan is going to carve up your defense with the help of Julio Jones and Roddy White and control the pace of the game. Michael Turner and Jacquizz Rodgers will change the pace up just to keep the defense on their heels. The defense only has to make two or three key plays a game. The formula will almost work.

The Jets are now a shell of the team we knew them to be. They have no direction on offense, they’re more worried about putting asses in the seats (Tebow) than trying to get back to the identity that worked so well. The defense will still keep them in games because they’re too damn good not to.

Like New York’s offense Atlanta’s defense doesn’t have a clear identity. When all of your chips are on one side of the ball it’s hard to get over the proverbial hump. Like I said they’ll finally win a playoff game this season because the offense has the potential to be scary good, but it might be as far as this team gets in the near future.

Saints – It’s lunch time, you get all of the materials you’ll need for a classic PB&J, but when you open up the refrigerator you look down and realize that you forgot to buy jelly. So you get in your car to go to the grocery store, but when you get there you make a haunting discovery. The store is out of jelly. So you look for some Nutella, it’s a nice second choice, but they don’t have that either! WTF!? Now I have to just have a peanut butter sandwich!

If Drew Brees would have had his jelly (Sean Payton) this season I would have picked the Saints to win the division. I think that it will be impossible for the interim-interim head coach Aaron Kromer and interim head coach Joe Vitt to replicate the play calling genius that is Sean Payton. Brees will still have a wonderful season and make Jimmy Graham the best tight end in football, but the usual flow that New Orleans possesses in games won’t be there and when that happens they fall apart (see week 8 against the Rams last season).

Update: Now that the suspensions of the Saints players has been lifted… Nope not changing my pick. If Payton’s suspension was lifted I strongly reconsider my choice.

Panthers – Which Newton will show up this season, Cam or Scam? I don’t think he’ll regress too much from last season even though he won’t reach the endzone on the ground more than ten times, he’ll put up comparable stats everywhere else. That’s great for fantasy purposes, but can he drive 80 yards in less than two minutes on the road with the game on the line? When he becomes that kind of threat I’ll actually be a believer in him and the Panthers, but as of right now the parts are much better than the sum.

Look at the money that they’re throwing at running backs: DeAngelo Wiliams 5 yrs/$43 million ($21 mil guaranteed, Jonathan Stewart 6yrs/$37.5 mil ($23 mil guaranteed), Mike Tolbert 4yrs/$8.4 mil (only $2.7 mil guaranteed). Yes that trio makes one hell of a full house formation especially with Cam running an option, but how about some help on defense? As of now Carolina is a fun young team with upside, but if the defense doesn’t make some improvements in the near furture that upside won’t be there for long.

Buccaneers – As the months have gone by I’ve liked the Greg Schaino hire more and more. I’m a recent graduate of Rutgers University so I’ve seen how he turned a program from underneath the basement to having their own Nike Pro Combat uniforms. You know a college program has made “it” if Nike makes those uniforms for you.

If you would have asked me in April how long it would have taken for the Bucs to get their pro combat uniforms after the Schiano hire I would have said never, now I’m willing to say two years. Doug Martin will be used just like Ray Rice was in college and he will be a versatile weapon. Let’s not forget what Josh Freeman did two seasons ago and now he has a legitimate number one weapon in Vincent Jackson. Mike Williams now gets to take over as the number two receiver which suits him a lot better.

Running the offense won’t be Schaino’s primary responsibility however. During his tenure at Rutgers Coach Schiano focused on running the defense and he did a fantastic job, but in the 2009 season he took over responsibility of running the offense as well. That didn’t work out so well. He fell in love with the Wildcat and not surprisingly the offense became disjointed and the season quickly fell apart.

Another quick point about Schiano, I had a friend who worked on the Rutgers football team and he told me that the head coach admitted a couple seasons ago that he isn’t the best in game manager. Give him a week and he can come up with a solid game plan, but at halftime he struggles to make necessary changes. Keep an eye on the Bucs second halves this season.

Quick note: My favorite Schiano moment from this offseason is the fact that he was able to get Rhonde Barber, a 15 year veteran to switch positions from cornerback to safety. That’s amazing.

 

NFC North

1.) Packers (12-4) (1)

2.) Bears (11-5) (5)

3.) Lions (9-7)

4.) Vikings (3-13)

 

Packers – If you’ve ever seen The Exorcist the one scene that you’ll always remember is the little girl’s head spinning completely around. That’s what will happen this season to most defenses that have the unfortunate task of trying to stop Aaron Rodgers and his group of receivers.

Based on all of the reports that I’ve read leading into this season it appears that the Packers are going to run a majority of their plays using a no huddle offense, but this isn’t your momma’s old huddle. If your mom knows what a no huddle is you’re a lucky individual.

This is going to be a no huddle that runs on the sixth gear. Good luck to every defensive coordinator that has to come up with some type of scheme to stop the best ball distributer in the league. Seriously what can you do to stop Rodgers? And say he makes a couple of mistakes because everyone does, he can hand the ball off to Cedric Benson who will have a sneaky 1,000+ yd season.

The key to this team’s destiny is the defense. Last year they ranked dead last in passing yards per game (299.8), they were a decent 14th in rushing yards per game (111.8), and last in total yards per game (411.6). Somewhat surprisingly they finished 19th in points allowed per game (22.4), but when your offense putting up 35 pts/g everything is ok. Or at least it was okay last season. There are now two teams within the division that can hang with the Packers in a shootout (Detroit and Chicago) and one of those two teams actually has a defense that can you know stop drives.

Bears – I think this is the year that Chicago finally makes it back to the Super Bowl. To begin let’s start with the one big negative that could plague the team this season.

Brian Urlacher is not only still playing at a relatively high level, but he is the emotional leader for this team. That’s why this quote about his surgically repaired left knee could be a death blow: “(it) isn’t the same anymore. It’s never going to be the same.” Not exactly what you want to hear from the unquestioned leader of the franchise.

Yet the defense might still be alright even if Urlacher is only playing at 75%. Julius Peppers revived his career last season, barring injury there’s no reason to think that he will regress. Charles Tillman is a legitimate shut down corner. Lance Briggs is still relevant. There are pieces there, but the identity of this defense needs to follow the classic Jim Johnson motto, bend but don’t break.

The offense is out of excuses now. Matt Forte is an all-pro talent. Michael Bush is a perfect complement for Forte and could very well have a 1,000+ yd season. Jay Cutler now has his favorite target in Brandon Marshall. I think both of them are in store for career years. Alshon Jeffery might as well be Marshall’s twin on the field. Devin Hester can now cause havoc in the slot. Tight End Kellen Davis is the only skill player who has a question mark.

The key in the offense won’t be Mike Tice’s play calling, it will be the return of Jeremy Bates and Jay Cutler. Bates stepped away from Seattle to become the QB coach in Chicago this offseason. Cutler made his lone pro bowl in ’07-’08 after throwing for a franchise record 4,526 yards, his QB coach that season? Jeremy Bates.

Cutler is an enigma, he has to be kept happy if you want him to succeed and look at what the Bears have done this offseason. Mike Martz’s seven step drops are gone. Marshall, Cutler, and Bates have reunited. Matt Forte got paid. How much more do I have to talk you into my pick?

Lions – The Madden curse will strike the Lions, but it won’t strike Calvin Johnson. I think he will set the all-time record for receiving yards in a season in 2012 (the number to beat is 1,848). In every era there is one transcendent player at a position and I truly believe that Megatron is that player. Obviously he needs Matthew Stafford to stay healthy and I think he will be able to avoid the injury list yet again. I love Titus Young and Brandon Pettigrew as sleepers in fantasy football this season, but there are some glaring holes that will keep Detroit out of January football.

Who is the running back for this team? I hate predicting injuries, but Kevin Smith and Jahvid Best are high injury risk guys and that might be an understatement. Mikel Leshoure has potential, but he hasn’t had any actual in game action, but at some point he’ll be the starting running back. Stafford is good enough to make a one dimensional offense work, but that won’t be the reason why the Lions don’t return to the playoffs.

The front four of the defense is really really good, but for how good the lineman are; the secondary is that bad. Cornerback Chris Houston has shutdown potential, but the severity of his ankle injury is unknown and it appears he will miss week one against the Rams. This team is built to win shootouts, but two of the teams within their division are constructed in a way that makes me want to pass on the Lions this season.

Vikings – Adrian Peterson is a freak of nature, but there is no f’n reason to rush him back this season, even if he says that he is ready to play. All-Day has been my favorite player since his college days at Oklahoma, I have him on my fantasy team this season, so I really hope he’s able to get back on the field ASAP, but the Vikings aren’t going anywhere this season and could very well be involved in the Matt Barkley sweepstakes come mid April. There’s no reason to rush the face of your franchise back during a wasted season. See what I did there?

 

NFC East

1.) Eagles (10-6) (4)

2.) Cowboys (9-7) (6)

3.) Giants (7-9)

4.) Redskins (5-11)

 

Eagles and Cowboys – You’re damn right I’m combining both of these teams into one section. Both Jason Garrett and Andy Reid are sitting on the same boat that will be at the bottom of the ocean if they don’t make the playoffs. Much has been made about Eagles owner Jeffery Laurie’s quote of an 8-8 season being unacceptable, doesn’t that sound like a quote right out of Jerry Jones’ book? If the Cowboys go 8-8 this season and miss the playoffs you can bet your life savings that there will be a job ad in The Dallas Morning News for a head coaching position.

It’s not just the coaches that are on the hot seat. Can’t you see both owners wanting to take their franchises in different directions if the current plan doesn’t work. The Michael Vick experience would go down as a true part deux; there is an out in his contract after this season that Laurie would surely take if they do indeed finish at 8-8. I can’t see Jones getting rid of Romo, but if Dez Bryant falls apart this season he’s gone. Miles Austin could be gone if he fades away.

Now I don’t think either of those scenarios will take place. I won’t rehash thoughts from an older column, but again for the record I love what the Eagles have done this offseason, but when your entire season revolves around taking deep breaths every time Vick gets hit, disaster is just around the corner. It’s similar to how the Cowboys season revolves around Romo’s decision making. Both have the ability turn what looks like a negative situation into a positive play, but each have huge question marks.

Both teams went out and got players on defense that are supposed to fix a glaring hole (Demeco Ryans for the Eagles and Brandon Carr & Morris Clairborne for the Boys). We’ve already seen what looks like an improvement out of Dallas’ secondary on opening night, now let’s see if the Eagles can actually stop the run this season.

Both teams also have running backs that have potential to be stars if you don’t already consider LeSean McCoy a household name. In order for Jason Garrett’s offense to run smoothly Demarco Murray has to stay healthy. He makes the game so much easier for Romo. It’s amazing how similar these two teams really are.

Giants –This franchise reminds me of the San Antonio Spurs. There are no expectations for this team just a year after winning a championship. They’re able to go quietly about their business because the Jets have taken over the headlines during the offseason. The fan base knows that the team got hot at the right time and walked a tight rope into the playoffs last season and they could have a repeat of that this season. When you have a front four on defense that is as dangerous as the Giants do and you have an ELIte quarterback another title could be within reach, but the NFC East has two other teams who could just as easily done what the Giants did last season.

One more point about the Ggggggg-men: No more questions about Eli being an elite quarterback. You don’t drive 80 yards for a game winning touchdown, on the road in Foxborough and then do it again in crunch time against the same team on the biggest stage in sports without being one of the best in your profession. Eli’s goofiness is the reason why people don’t perceive him to be an elite quarterback, but is sitting at the same table with Rodgers, Brees, Ben Roethlisburger, and Peyton.

Redskins – Quick predictions: Bob Griffin will almost lead the team in rushing yards and he’ll lead the team in rushing touchdowns, but he won’t have the same impact as Cam Newton did last year. Fred Davis and Pierre Garcon will both be viable fantasy options for most of this season.

Check back in a couple days for part two, or the AFC half of this column. It will feature my full Super Bowl pick and playoff breakdown.

Follow me on twitter @scottdargis.

(Stats are from ESPN.com and NFL.com)

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