Got the AFC Preview out of the way before the first AFC game was played. (I’m feeling much better about my projections for Denver and Baltimore, although I may have actually underestimated the Broncos.) With less than 24 hours before kickoff, let’s go through the NFC teams:
New York Giants: 9-7. Much like the Texans, we know what this team is. Good play in the trenches, Eli and great receivers, terrible secondary, some baffling losses mixed in with some games where they look like the best team in the league. In the diffuse miasma that is the NFC East, 9 wins sounds about right.
Philadelphia Eagles: 7-9. I’m really excited to see what a Chip Kelly offense can do in the NFL. Unfortunately, I think concerns about Michael Vick’s health and decision-making, combined with the fact that the defense is very iffy (and its best players are 4-3 defensive ends playing in a 3-4), make it hard for me to project this team to win many games. Once they get more talent in place, though, I think the future can be bright.
Washington Redskins: 7-9. If I were a Redskins fan, I’d be appalled by what happened with Robert Griffin III in the Seahawks game. He was clearly injured, limping around the field for most of the game, and the coaching staff hung him out to dry. Even Dr. James Andrews was aghast at Mike Shanahan’s seeming lack of concern for RG3’s short- or long-term health.
Many advanced projections think Washington will be even better this year, probably projecting improvement from RG3 and the return of Brian Orakpo to considerably boost the defense. I am too worried RG3 will be injured again, either due to his style of play or to the reckless manner in which the coaching staff approaches his health. Those concerns lead me to downgrade my projections for the team.
Dallas Cowboys: 6-10. Your best defensive player is a 3-4 outside linebacker. You just used a top-six pick and a big free-agent contract on two talented man-coverage corners. So what do you do this offseason? Why, you hire a 72-year-old coach who hasn’t been in the league for five years as your defensive coordinator. You hire that guy because he’s famous for running a 4-3 defensive scheme where the cornerbacks are asked to play short zone.
Then, come draft day, you have a defensive tackle sitting on the board who would be a perfect fit for your new defenses. Your scouts love him. Your coaches love him. So what do you? You overrule them and trade down so you can draft a third-round center at the end of the first round.
This team’s talent base has been steadily eroding since Bill Parcells left. They’ll always compete with the talent they have in the passing game, but they don’t have much else. I think the coaching staff will be fired after the season, but it won’t matter until Jerry Jones fires himself and hires a real GM.
Green Bay Packers: 11-5. What’s to say? For whatever deficiencies they have on defense and on the offensive line, they still have a top-notch passing game built around an elite quarterback. They still have an elite pass rusher. They’re still the best team in the division with that alone. (And yes, I know how much this description sounds like the Cowboys, but the teams are night and day with their approaches to roster-building. Green Bay doesn’t have nearly the same holes Dallas does, and they actually use their talent optimally in their schemes.)
Chicago Bears: 10-6. Hard to say how they’ll do. I think Marc Trestman is more likely to be a legitimately innovative offensive mind (and he’s gotta be a more inspiring hire than another mediocre retread from the old-boy network). Jay Cutler will probably never develop into the QB we hoped he would– those years from 2009-12 were just brutal on him– but with an actual offensive coach who believes in the importance of an offensive line, the team is much more likely to perform up to its potential on that side of the ball. If the defense can continue at the same level, the playoffs could be back in the cards for the Bears.
Detroit Lions: 9-7. Discipline problems and inconsistencies notwithstanding, this Lions team has a lot of talent. Calvin Johnson. The best pair of defensive tackles in the league. Adding Reggie Bush should boost the passing game. Talent- and performance-wise, they were much closer to a 7-8 win team last year than a 4-win team, and I think the upgrades they made this offseason will push them into that contending area, if short of a playoff berth.
Minnesota Vikings: 6-10. Regression hits hard. As good as Peterson is, he really can’t carry the team by himself. This is a make-or-break year for Christian Ponder, and while he’s got enough talent that he could make the jump to legitimate starting QB, I still don’t think he’s consistent enough that he will. The defense is a little older in some spots and a little too young and inexperienced in others. Peterson will have another great season, but unless the passing game steps forward, a brutal schedule will keep this team firmly in the cellar.
New Orleans Saints: 10-6. Sean Payton is back! It’s a very competitive division he faces, but I think having him back on the sidelines and involved in gameplans will elevate the offense back to its old level. I don’t think Rob Ryan will make the defense an elite unit, but if he can even turn them into a capable one, rather than the abomination they were last season, this team is good enough to contend for the Super Bowl. I only gave then ten wins because this division is so hard.
Atlanta Falcons: 9-7. Oof. Not that I don’t think the Falcons are talented; they trot out almost the same team that won 13 games last year. But this year, the schedule is harder, and if injuries start to hit then their lack of depth will be exposed. This isn’t a knock on anyone involved in the organization: a 10-win team gets an easy schedule and some breaks one year to win 13 games, and the next year, the same teams gets a hard schedule and doesn’t get the same breaks, and wins 9. It happens all the time.
Carolina Panthers: 8-8. A popular pick for a sleeper team, because advanced stats love them and they shored up their weak interior defense last season. Cam Newton and Luke Kuechly are two of the best young players at their respective positions, so nice job with those first-round picks! I really like the additions of Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short in the middle.
Unfortunately, the head coach is the same guy who consistently made baffling late-game decisions to blow games last season, and the new offensive coordinator is a guy with no track record of football success. I think this team will under-perform its talent by at least two wins again this year, and that probably will get Ron Rivera fired.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: 8-8. One word: Uncertainty. Like so many teams I’ve picked to finish 8-8, the Bucs simply have a ton of questions. Is Darrelle Revis back? Will Gerald McCoy (or Carl Nicks, or Davin Joseph) stay healthy? The biggest one of all– is Josh Freeman the guy to lead this team?
The players just voted out Freeman as a team captain, which can’t be a good sign. The team is loaded with starting-lineup talent, but if injuries strike, their lack of depth will be revealed. If everything goes right, the Bucs could go 12-4, but I’m going to hedge on injuries and a tough division to pick them at .500.
Seattle Seahawks: 10-6. I don’t need to tell you how talented they are. I think they beat San Francisco for the division by virtue of a slightly easier schedule.
San Francisco 49ers: 10-6. Again, you don’t need me to explain that this is a top-5 team. IF Seattle and San Francisco’s records are projected to be worse than you think, it’s just because the NFC is so tough that I don’t think I can pick anyone in it to break out for a big 13-win season.
St. Louis Rams: 6-10. As I explained in my Five Questions article, I actually think the Rams will be better than they were last year, but a tougher schedule means they won’t win as many games. If Sam Bradford suddenly starts playing QB like a star, though, all bets are off.
Arizona Cardinals: 5-11. The injury bug has already hit. Losing Daryl Washington for four games to suspension is bad. Losing Jonathan Cooper for the season to a broken leg is worse. I’m not sure the talent on the roster is a good fit for Bruce Arians’ offense. Ray Horton is gone to Cleveland to coordinate their defense, which means this defense could take a significant step backward. Pair that stew with a glass of tough division, and it’s hard to see the Cardinals getting out of the cellar.
That’s it for now. I’d say I’ll come back with some playoff projections, but I’ll probably just end up picking the Saints to win the Super Bowl, like I like to do.