NFC PREVIEW: 49ers, Packers, Falcons and Giants gleam the brightest among many jewels

September 05, 2013 12:00 am  • 

Division-by-division, team-by-team, the Star breaks down the NFC's big picture. Who do you think will win your favorite division? Which relatively-unknown player will star in 2013? The conference is deep and features a ton of talent. Find your answers below.

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  • Teams in predicted order of finish

    1. SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS: Biggest, baddest team around

    • How they did in 2012: 11-4-1 (3-2-1 vs. West); in playoffs, beat Packers 45-31 in Divisional round, beat Falcons 28-24 in NFC Championship, lost to Ravens 34-31 in Super Bowl.
    • 2012 top performer: OLB Aldon Smith (Pro Bowl, 19.5 sacks)
    • Key losses: TE Delanie Walker, S Dashon Goldson
    • Key additions: S Eric Reid, WR Anquan Boldin
    • Why we picked them here: There’s plenty of talk about the Seattle Seahawks and the all-of-a-sudden top notch NFC West, and it is deserved. The reigning NFC champion 49ers will not have it easy in 2013. But if any team is built to withstand ever-increasing competition, it’s this collection of beasts. From stud pass rusher Aldon Smith (19.5 sacks in 2012) to Pro Bowl LB Patrick Willis to the big uglies on an OL that sprung runners for 5.1 yards per carry in 2012 to starting QB Colin Kaepernick, the 49ers remain the team to beat in the NFC.

    2. SEATTLE SEAHAWKS: New approach doesn’t mean soft

    • How they did in 2012: 11-5 (3-3 vs. West); in playoffs, beat Redskins 24-14 in Wild Card round, lost to Falcons 30-28 in Divisional round.
    • 2012 top performer: RB Marshawn Lynch (Pro Bowl, 1,590 yards, 12 total TDs)
    • Key losses: DE/DT Jason Jones, KR Leon Washington
    • Key additions: DE Michael Bennett, CB Marcus Trufant
    • Why we picked them here: Much has been made lately in the media of coach Pete Carroll’s always-positive, psychologically-boosting approach to team building. But don’t think that yoga and family-friendly language from the coaches means this team isn’t tough as nails. Behind RB Marshawn Lynch, the Seahawks ran it nearly as well as the 49ers in 2012 (4.8 yards per carry). And with the smarts, accuracy and running ability of QB Russell Wilson, the offense should continue to move the ball.

    3. ST. LOUIS RAMS: Fisher’s under-the-radar group

    • How they did in 2012: 7-8-1 (4-1-1 vs. West); missed playoffs.
    • 2012 top performer: RB Steven Jackson (1,042 yards, 4 TDs)
    • Key losses: RB Steven Jackson, S Quintin Mikell
    • Key additions: WR Tavon Austin, TE Jared Cook
    • Why we picked them here: You probably didn’t know that the team that won the intradivision schedule last year was Jeff Fisher’s Rams squad. They went 4-1-1, with a loss to Seattle and a tie with the 49ers. They’re not as big on defense as either of the two teams ahead of them, but the Rams feature a trio of sackmasters, Chris Long (11.5 sacks), Robert Quinn (10.5) and Williams Hayes (7), who make life difficult on quarterbacks. quietly, QB Sam Bradford started to live up to his No. 1 pick status by slinging it for 3,702 yards and 21 TDs.

    4. ARIZONA CARDINALS: Tough being decent in a great division

    • How they did in 2012: 5-11 (1-5 vs. West); missed playoffs.
    • 2012 top performer: CB Patrick Peterson (Pro Bowl, 7 INTs, 51 punt returns, 426 punt return yards )
    • Key losses: RB Beanie Wells, S Adrian Wilson
    • Key additions: QB Carson Palmer, CB Antoine Cason
    • Why we picked them here: Praise the football gods — there is a real QB once again in Glendale! By bringing in coach Bruce Arians and QB Carson Palmer, the front office is doing everything it can to make fans forget the John Skeltons of the world. Before anyone claims Palmer is washed up, consider that he threw for 4,018 yards and 22 TDs last season with the Raiders. Now he has good WRs, including future Hall of Famer Larry Fitzgerald. Now, the bad news. The offensive line is still a disaster.


    • Why we like him: The 6-5, 250-pound beast runs a sub-4.5-second 40-yard dash, and QB Sam Bradford has already built decent chemistry with the former Titan. On the fast track in St. Louis, he could catch 10-plus TDs.
  • Teams in predicted order of finish

    1. GREEN BAY PACKERS: King Rodgers of the great white North

    • How they did in 2012: 11-5 (5-1 vs. North); in playoffs, beat Vikings 24-10 in Wild Card round, lost to 49ers 45-31 in Divisional Round
    • 2012 top performer: QB Aaron Rodgers (Pro Bowl, 4,295 passing yards, 39 TD passes, 8 INTs)
    • Key losses: LT Brian Bulaga (knee injury, out for 2013), S Charles Woodson (cut), WR Greg Jennings (free agency)
    • Key additions: RB Eddie Lacy (draft, Alabama), DT Datone Jones (draft, UCLA)
    • Why we picked them here: In each of five seasons as Green Bay’s starting QB, Rodgers has thrown for 3,922 or more yards, tossed 28 or more TDs. In those five seasons, Rodgers has had 13, 7, 11, six and eight passes intercepted. With 171 TDs and 46 INTs over that stretch, the former Cal star and the Packers have won 11, 10, 14 and 11 games the last four years. We're well past debates about anyone in conversations with Mr. Rodgers. He is the best until proven otherwise and the NFC North is entirely under his control like Joe Montana's West and Brady's East before him. This year, they might even have a running game behind heralded rookie Lacy from Alabama, who knows a thing or two about playing in the postseason.

    2. CHICAGO BEARS: The Green Bay Packers of defense

    • How they did in 2012: 10-6 (3-3 vs. North); missed playoffs
    • 2012 top performer: WR Brandon Marshall (Pro Bowl, 1,508 receiving yards, 11 TD receptions)
    • Key losses: LB Brian Urlacher (retired)
    • Key additions: LT Jermon Bushrod (free agency), OG Kyle Long (draft, Oregon)
    • Why we picked them here: Every year the Bears put a defense on the field that gives the team a chance in the playoffs. Even without retired LB Brian Urlacher, the unit should shine again behind DE Julius Peppers (11.5 sacks), former Wildcats star Lance Briggs (2 INT returns for TD) and CB Charles Tillman (an absurd 10 forced fumbles). On offense, RB Matt Forte (1,434 rushing and receiving yards) and Marshall will help QB Jay Cutler put enough points on the board to finish second behind the Packers.

    3. DETROIT LIONS: Sky is the limit for Megatron’s minions, but who trusts them when they're the Lions?

    • How they did in 2012: 4-12 (0-6 vs. North); missed playoffs
    • 2012 top performer: WR Calvin Johnson (Pro Bowl, NFL record 1,964 receiving yards, 5 TD receptions)
    • Key losses: LT Jeff Backus (retired), K Jason Hanson (retired), DE Cliff Avril (free agency), RB Jahvid Best (retired because of concussions)
    • Key additions: RB Reggie Bush (free agency), DE Ezekiel "Ziggy" Ansah (draft, BYU), S Glover Quin (free agency)
    • Why we picked them here: Following their first playoffs in 2011 since 1999, the Lions fell off the boat again (4-12) and continued their trend of finding strange new ways to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. But there is hope once again in the Motor City. Bush gives them the game-breaker (six 20-plus yard runs in 2012 to the Lions’ four) they’ve been missing since Best's career-ending concussion in Game 6 of 2011. Calvin Johnson is Calvin Johnson. DTs Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley were the best DT combo in the league the last half of 2012 and came into 2013 in fantastic shape and acting like professionals for once. But alas, these are the Lions. The most talented roster since Barry Sanders suited up probably means 8-8 - but don't be surprised by much of anything, good or bad.

    4. MINNESOTA VIKINGS: Peterson will Ponder what could have been

    • How they did in 2012: 10-6 (4-2 vs. North); in playoffs, lost to Packers 24-10 in Wild Card round.
    • 2012 top performer: RB Adrian Peterson (Pro Bowl, 2,097 receiving yards, 12 TD runs)
    • Key losses: WR Percy Harvin (trade to Seahawks), CB Antoine Winfield (free agency)
    • Key additions: WR Greg Jennings (free agency), DT Sharrif Floyd (draft, Florida), WR Cordarrelle Patterson (draft, Tennessee)
    • Why we picked them here: After 2,097 rushing yards, 12 TDs and a ridiculous 27 20-plus-yard rushes in 2012, Peterson might feel slighted that we consider Rodgers and Johnson the two best in the division. The Vikings should hope he feels that way, because he must carry this team if it hopes to repeat its playoff effort from 2012. QB Christian Ponder isn’t bad, but with Rodgers, Cutler and the Lions’ Matthew Stafford in front of him, and with no game-breakers outside of Peterson, the Vikings are headed for the cellar in 2013.


    • Why we like him: He’s not the fastest guy, and he’s not the biggest guy. But he’s still really big and plenty fast. If he is as advertised, the Packers will run away with the division — literally and figuratively.
  • Teams in predicted order of finish

    1. ATLANTA FALCONS: Star-studded Falcons offense will soar again

    • How they did in 2012: 13-3 (3-3 vs. South); in playoffs, beat Seahawks 30-28 in Divisional round, lost to 49ers 28-24 in NFC Championship.
    • 2012 top performer: QB Matt Ryan (Pro Bowl, 4,719 yards, 32 TDs, 14 INTs)
    • Key losses: OT Tyson Clabo, CB Brent Grimes
    • Key additions: RB Steven Jackson, CB Desmond Trufant
    • Why we picked them here: Matt Ryan has arrived as a top-level quarterback, and it’s no surprise that WRs Julio Jones and Roddy White and TE Tony Gonzalez (3,479 receiving yards and 25 TDs between them) are a big reason why. But the biggest factor for the Falcons offense is the acquisition of former Ram Steven Jackson in the offseason. He has rushed for 1,000 yards eight straight seasons. He’s 30, but for the first time in his career he will play with a guy like Ryan. He’s a huge, huge upgrade over former big back Michael Turner – and Turner was very successful for the Falcons. If healthy, Jackson will make this team a true Super Bowl contender.

    2. NEW ORLEANS SAINTS: Brees could use a little help from the D

    • How they did in 2012: 7-9 (3-3 vs. South); missed playoffs.
    • 2012 top performer: QB Drew Brees (Pro Bowl, 5,177 yards, 43 TDs, 19 INTs)
    • Key losses: RB Chris Ivory, DT Sedrick Ellis
    • Key additions: S Kenny Vaccaro, CB Chris Carr
    • Why we picked them here: If we know anything, it’s that the Saints are going to throw the ball. A lot. Drew Brees has absolutely amazing numbers in his seven years in New Orleans (33,571 passing yards, 67.1 completion percentage, 244 touchdowns and just 112 intercepted passes), and he’s not looking like a guy who’s over the hill. Like the Tom Bradys and Peyton Mannings of the world, he will make any WR look better than he is. That’s why they’ll compete for the playoffs this year and until he retires. Super Bowls, however, are out of the question until they fix the defense, which allowed 440.1 yards per game last year, almost 60 more than the next-worst team.

    3. TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS: Talent level rising, but not there yet

    • How they did in 2012: 7-9 (3-3 vs. South); missed playoffs
    • 2012 top performer: RB Doug Martin (Pro Bowl as a rookie, 1,454 yards rushing, 12 total TDs)
    • Key losses: OT Jeremy Trueblood, DE Michael Bennett
    • Key additions: CB Darrelle Revis, S Dashon Goldson
    • Why we picked them here: With big-time players at DT, RB and WR, you’d think that the Bucs would be a bit more consistent than they have been the last three years. They went 10-6 in 2010, followed that with a 4-12 debacle in 2011 and bounced back a little to 7-9 in 2012. Gerald McCoy (2012 Pro Bowler) has become a top-shelf defensive tackle, fiery RB Doug Martin took the NFL by storm last year (1,454 rushing yards, 12 total TDs and a Pro Bowl selection), and free agent acquisition WR Vincent Jackson proved he can still blow the top off a defense (1,384 yards, 8 TDs). As with many inconsistent teams, you have to look to the QB. Josh Freeman topped 4,000 yards for the first time and threw 27 TDs to just 17 interceptions – but his completion percentage dipped to 54.8 percent and he threw nine interceptions his last three games. It’s hard to imagine he becomes an elite QB in his fifth season as a starter – but he’ll have to if the Bucs want to press the Saints and Falcons.

    4. CAROLINA PANTHERS: Big men on defensive line, behind center need help from faster, smaller guys

    • How they did in 2012: 7-9 (3-3 vs. South); missed playoffs.
    • 2012 top performer: WR Steve Smith (73 catches, 1,174 yards)
    • Key losses: CB Chris Gamble, LB James Anderson
    • Key additions: DT Star Lotulelei, KR Ted Ginn
    • Why we picked them here: Quarterback Cam Newton, at 6-5, 245 pounds, continues to be a threat with his arm (3,869 yards, 19 TDs in 2012) and on the ground (741 yards, 8 TDs). And the Panthers’ defensive line is huge with 6-2, 285-pound star DE Charles Johnson (12.5 sacks), 6-4, 290-pound DE Greg Hardy (11 sacks) and 6-3, 305-pound tackle Dwan Edwards before they drafted Utah’s Star Lotulelei, a 6-2, 315-pounder. They’ll rush the QB, and they have a QB who can run and throw – so where’s the problem? Only diminutive 5-8 WR Smith, who’s in his 13th season, is a proven offensive weapon. The Panthers have talent, but have yet to make it all mesh. They might push 8-8 this season, but that’s the ceiling until they find some playmakers for Newton.


    • Why we like him: Yep, it’s another big guy from Carolina. The 6-5, 250-pounder has finally established rapport with Newton, and he finished 2012 with four of his five TDs in the last seven games. He could break 1,000 and 10 this season.
  • Teams in predicted order of finish

    1. NEW YORK GIANTS: When it’s too tough to pick, always go with Eli

    • How they did in 2012: 9-7 (3-3 vs. East); missed playoffs.
    • 2012 top performer: QB Eli Manning (3,948 yards, 26 TDs, 15 INTs)
    • Key losses: RB Ahmad Bradshaw, DE Osi Umenyiora
    • Key additions: TE Brandon Myers, LB Dan Connor
    • Why we picked them here: Sure, Cowboys QB Tony Romo’s 95.6 career passer rating is fifth all-time. And sure Washington QB Robert Griffin III can leap over tall buildings and throw passes that seem to warp space and time. But neither of them is Eli Manning, two-time Super Bowl champion – the guy who seems to come up big when the odds and competition are stacked most against him. And so we’ll go with the Giants as NFC East winners in 2013. As close as the top three teams are, and as promising as the Eagles look in former Oregon Coach Chip Kelly’s fast-paced offense, picking Manning (and that fierce DL) seems better than flipping a coin.

    2. WASHINGTON REDSKINS: Shanny's squads, wherever they went, they… were … running

    • How they did in 2012: 10-6 (5-1 vs. East); in playoffs, lost to Seahawks 24-14 in Wild Card round.
    • 2012 top performer: RB Alfred Morris (1,613 yards, 13 TDs)
    • Key losses:  CB D.J. Johnson, OT Jammal Brown
    • Key additions: OT Jeremy Trueblood, CB David Amerson
    • Why we picked them here: Mike Shanahan builds his teams on great running games powered by little-known tailbacks and mobile QBs — and he does it better than anyone around. Last year, it was RG III (102.4 passer rating, 20 TDs, 5 interceptions; 120 carries, 815 yards, 7 TDs in 2012) at quarterback and out-of-nowhere sixth-round draft pick Alfred Morris of Florida Atlantic at running back (1,613 yards, 13 TDs). This year it will be Griffin again at QB, provided the Redskins keep him healthy after his ACL injury late last season, and probably Morris again at RB (it could be anyone, as Shanahan has proved to everyone for two decades). And they’ll do what they do. And only the Giants will finish ahead of them in this division for exactly those reasons.

    3. DALLAS COWBOYS: Your guess is as good as ours

    • How they did in 2012: 8-8 (3-3 vs. East); missed playoffs.
    • 2012 top performer: WR Dez Bryant (92 catches, 1,382 yards, 12 TDs)
    • Key losses:  CB Mike Jenkins, DE/DT Marcus Spears
    • Key additions: LB Justin Durant, C/G Travis Frederick
    • Why we picked them here: Last year, Tony Romo threw for almost 5,000 yards and 28 TDs. His main weapon, Dez Bryant (1,382 yards, 12 TDs), looked like a guy who might give Calvin Johnson a run for his money. TE Jason Witten (1,039 yards) and WR Miles Austin (943 yards, 6 TDs) round out perhaps the best pass-catching trio in the league. On the other side of the ball, LBs DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer combined for 22.5 sacks. So why does this story end at 8-8 and another failed season in Dallas? Your guess is as good as ours. For whatever reason, this team just can’t find a way to put itself in position to make a playoff run. After three year’s of the same, we can’t find a way to justify ranking the ’Boys higher.

    4. PHILADELPHIA EAGLES: Chip Kelly’s sped-up offensive approach will lead to excitement – and blunder

    • How they did in 2012: 4-12 (1-5 vs. East); missed playoffs.
    • 2012 top performer: RB LeSean McCoy (840 yards, 2 TDs)
    • Key losses:  DT Mike Patterson, CB Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie
    • Key additions: DE/OLB Connor Barwin, OT Lane Johnson
    • Why we picked them here: Last season, the Philadelphia Eagles ran 1,079 offensive plays from scrimmage in 16 games. That pace was sixth in the league. Last season, Chip Kelly’s Oregon squad ran 1,077 plays from scrimmage –in just 13 games! With Michael Vick at QB (and maybe former Wildcat Nick Foles while Vick mends from his usual dings and dents), DeSean Jackson at WR and LeSean McCoy at RB, it should be fun to watch – so long as they hold up their end of the bargain and keep the Eagles’ defense from being on the field too much. Here’s betting that Year 1 has too much of the latter than the former — enough to keep them from making a playoff push.


    • Why we like him: He was on everyone’s radar already, but now with fellow back Andre Brown out for 4-6 weeks with a broken leg, Wilson is the man. In a division with many exciting players, he could be the most electric — if he can hold onto the football.
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