Part 1 of the NFC Season Preview. Taking in and breaking down the NFC East and NFC North divisions.
By all accounts, the NFC East will be one of the more open divisions at the start of the season. For the Dallas Cowboys, the familiar aim of making the offensive line more efficient might be enough to edge a wildcard spot. Tony Romo is by no means a bad quarterback, but needs to prioritise accuracy over industry. There have been no major alterations to the roster with Witten, Bryant and Austin still in place as target-men. A solid enough draft means there is certainly quantity in the team, but much like the division itself, the Cowboys are a proposition which could go either way. The only distinguishing factor of note is that head coach Jason Garrett will not be calling plays during games. This idiosyncratic approach is sure to be detrimental, and will likely mean that ‘America’s Team’ sit in third by the conclusion of regular season.
A second summer of departures by members of the 2011 SuperBowl winning New York Giants team mean Eli Manning will have some new faces to link up with in the offence. Crucially neither Victor Cruz nor Hakeem Nicks were part of the exodus, but Martellus Bennett who proved a reliable outlet for Manning in 2012, was and now lines up alongside Jay Cutler in Chicago. Replacing Ahmad Bradshaw at running-back will be the perfect test for David Wilson in his second year at the Big Blue, after a patchy season in which he improved by virtue of his spot on special team duty. After a year of being unsettled, Osi Umenyiora finally left for the Falcons and Chris Canty headed to Baltimore. None of these moves are likely to be a headache for the Giants until the post-season at least. The muscle of Jason Pierre-Paul and Justin Tuck are going to be essential once again, but with the increase of the read-option in offensive schemes they will need to adapt somewhat. The Giants can expect to at least battle for second spot with bitter rivals the Cowboys, but might feel capable of taking the division overall and being dealt a favourable draw in the post-season.
Putting aside the injury status of talisman and second-year quarterback Robert Griffin III is a difficult task. However Washington can hold their own without him, just in a more predictable and less attractive fashion. Though RGIII will return early enough in the season to make an impact, it is imperative for Kirk Cousins and Pierre Garcon to behave as though he isn’t. By playing as though they are at a disadvantage they are liable to try too much to compensate rather than taking the initiative in games. Despite contrasting ages, both sixteen-year veteran line-backer London Fletcher and second-year running-back Alfred Morris hold influential roles on their respective sides of the line of scrimmage, but Morris is going to be relied upon to clock up more yards on the ground during the absence of their multi-dimensional number ten. Washington are in a position to sweep the division, with all three title rivals going through varying degrees of transition. As the most settled, the Capital team would be disappointed to miss out on playoff participation.
With all the excitement amongst gridiron writers and pundits over the ambition of the Philadelphia Eagles under Chip Kelly, there is perhaps a lack of consideration for what the team has at its disposal. Though Kelly is likely to revolutionise the attack, the Eagles are still dependent on risky running-orientated quarterback Michael Vick and Nick Foles who is decent enough in the pocket but is not spectacular. The hope is that rookie Matt Barkley will also help rejuvenate the offensive line, but with jeopardy over Riley Cooper’s reintegration into the team and a serious injury to Jeremy Maclin, the receiving core is weaker than anticipated. This means that Jason Avant and DeSean Jackson have to pick up the slack while also being prepared for a multi-elemental passing repertoire from the revolving quarterbacks. Though the ‘Iggles’ should have some solidarity going forward with LeSean McCoy, there are too many variables to contend with overall and they will have to settle for fourth spot for a second consecutive season.
NFC EAST PREDICTION: 1.Washington; 2.Giants; 3.Cowboys; 4.Eagles
New regimes are all the rage this season, but the most anticipated is arguably at the Chicago Bears under new coach Marc Trestman. Despite the fondness for former coach Lovie Smith from many fans of the NFL, the combination of Trestman and Jay Cutler is likely to capture the imagination, before it is seen in practice. According to the bio on the official team website, Trestman was credited with helping his former quarterback at the Canadian Football League’s Alouettes to consecutive MVP seasons. For Cutler, a player so often slated for his volatility, but also respected for his obvious ability, this kind of coach may be the right fit to lead the Bears to top spot in the NFC North. The Bears still have Brandon Marshall at their disposal, while new arrival Martellus Bennett enhances the short-game at tight-end. Though Brian Urlacher has left a formidable void in the Bears’ defence, both in playing and leadership aspects, Julius Peppers and Henry Melton have enough steel to ensure the standards don’t drop too much as a result. The Bears have enough to contend for the number-one spot but must avoid the drop in form which cost them the playoff place in 2012 and ultimately cost Lovie Smith his job.
Making the best of a situation is not often a scenario the Green Bay Packers find themselves facing. Yet the broadsides coming from the former Packer stalwart Greg Jennings from his position at divisional rivals the Vikings could be the spur they need to address the jitters have seen them fall short of their potential in the past two seasons. The need for Aaron Rodgers to remain a mobile quarterback is more prescient than ever though, with Randall Cobb struggling through injury and offensive-tackle Brian Bulaga also a casualty of pre-season. However, rookie Eddie Lacy should prove to be a credible option in the run-game, moreover the Pack still have Jordy Nelson in fine enough fettle to feature on the offence. There may be an element of trying to fit the pieces together on both sides of the ball, with the defence coming off a less impressive season than in the 15-1 season of 2011. Though the war with the Bears will be as heated as ever, ‘Cheeseheads’ need not be too worried about Green Bay making the playoffs, though they may need to break a sweat once they advance to that stage.
While the aforementioned Greg Jennings continues to taunt his former employers, his new team the Minnesota Vikings would prefer to be coming in somewhat more under the radar. Losing Percy Harvin to Seattle may well be offset by the combination of rookie Cordarelle Patterson and Jennings, who has been there, done that and got the NFC North title t-shirt. On the other hand, it is the less illustrious duo of Christian Ponder and Matt Cassel who are throwing the ball and not the ethereal Rodgers. This means another season of pressure for Adrian Peterson, who will be chasing records as well as touchdowns, but with the caveat that opposing defences will be targeting him more than ever. If he can sustain the trials and record points while doing so, the Vikings may have a fighting chance to once again usurp the Bears into second. This may be too much to ask and a third-place finish is perhaps more realistic at this stage.
As the Detroit Lions prepare for their season there are both signs of encouragement and existing issues which dog them. The on-field relationship between quarterback Matthew Stafford and Chris ‘Megatron’ Johnson is perhaps one of the most recognised in the league, and will be no less potent in 2013. The inclusion of Reggie Bush at running-back should help to reduce the problems Stafford had in the pocket while Johnson was smothered by double-coverage in games last season, but Bush is not likely to make as many breakaway runs as the wide-receiver. Thus, the key will once again be patience and tactical nous if the Lions are to win enough games to challenge the NFC North order. With rookie Ezekiel Ansah impressing at defensive-end and the brawn of Ndamukong Suh the defence is strong as well as agile. By signing placekicker Havard Rugland from European climbs, the Lions appear to be mimicking the New York Giants in acquiring an accurate plan-B player who can finish off drives with a score in the event they fall short of the end-zone and downs. The main abiding issue for the team from the ‘Motor City’ is the nasty attitude and reputation they have gained. Though this lessened by the release of maverick Titus Young, the presence of Suh in itself can be enough to set the scales against the Lions in the penalty stakes, so it will be integral to establish a level between being a tough and mean defence and outright dirty. Like quite a few of the teams on the periphery of their divisions, they are a work in progress. This season will be too soon for them to trouble the top.
NFC NORTH PREDICTION: 1.Packers 2.Bears 3.Vikings 4.Lions
A fan on fitba, NFL and ruggerby league in that order. Dundee exile, based in Perth. A journalist as well apparently.