Following on from my AFC preview last week, it is now the turn of the National Football Confernce to come under the NTTA microscope. And where else to start but in the divisional home of the Super Bowl runners, Seattle Seahawks
This division for the last few years was a straight battle between the Seahawks and the San Francisco 49ers. Yet the Seahawks have the upper hand ever since Russell Wilson came to the fore and the legendary 12th man crowd made them impossible to play at home.
Having come within two yards of winning the Super Bowl for a second consecutive season, there is still the competitive drive within the organisation due to the head coach Pete Carroll, QB Wilson and the vaunted defensive unit called the Legion of Boom led by the irrepressible Richard Sherman.
Following the faux pas and wrong play calling, Marshawn Lynch remains as the lead back yet finally Wilson has a legitimate red zone target in Pro Bowl tight end Jimmy Graham, who has left the New Orleans Saints in search of some finger jewellery.
Seattle are the red hot favourites agin in this division, but the runner up could well be different. The 49ers are in meltdown as a franchise, numerous retirements of key personnel coupled with off the field behaviour has decimated their roster, never mind the departure of influential leader Jim Harbaugh to his alma mater of Michigan University in the college ranks. A lot will depend on Colin Kaepernick whose play last year left a lot to be desired at times, and the team will do well to reach five wins for the year and avoid last place.
St. Louis Rams have made some upgrades in search of a playoff spot in a division and conference where 9 games is required at minimum. In defence they have added Nick Fairley from Detroit to join names such as Michael Brockers, sack king Robert Quinn and James Laurinaitis . They have Nick Foles at QB who will offer some much needed assurance and precision at the position to help playmakers like Todd Gurley, Tavon Austin and Tre Mason.
Arizona Cardinals welcome back Carson Palmer, but can he survive an entire season on the injury front with a receiving core led by Larry Fitzgerald. The defence of the Cardinals led by Tyrann Mathieu as well as Patrick Peterson, who is the punt return specialist. Can Bruce Arians conjure up some more magic or will the Cardinals be a team full of talent unable to get over the hill?
Prediction: 1. Seattle 2. Arizona 3. St. Louis 4. San Francisco
The division with the leagues best quarterback can now lay claim to having the leagues best running back. Never has the return of one player had such an anticipation of expectation for one team. Minnesota Vikings exceeded many peoples predictions last year following the season long suspension to Adrian Peterson for off the field conduct. Yet those same Vikings won 9 games with some great play by rookie QB Teddy Bridgewater, who grew into the role as QB and leader as the season went on. The return of all day AP make Minnesota a legitimate play off team.
And a threat to the dominance of Aaron Rodgers and his Green Bay Packers. Many feel the Packers can be the team to defeat Seattle if they get the chance, but like Seattle, the Packers need home field advantage to maintain superiority over their rivals.
Detroit Lions still have Matthew Stafford and Calvin 'Megatron' Johnson, yet they have lost Fairley and Suh from a stellar defence last year, and the continual reliance on this QB-WR duo will again be too much for Detroit to overcome.
Chicago Bears had a pretty bad season last year but have not seemingly changed much apart from employ coach John Fox from Denver. Jay Cutler is still at the helm with Matt Forte and Alshon Jeffrey. The draft pick of Kevin White from West Virginia, will give them a much needed boost in the same way Mike Evans and Odell Beckham did for their teams last season. However, the defence still looks ageing and the need to pressure rival QB or stop Peterson has not been addressed.
Prediction: 1. Green Bay 2. Minnesota 3. Chicago 4. Detroit
After so many years of back and forth between Atlanta and New Orleans, there is a gradual sea change in this division based upon who has the best QB. Now that might be legitimate in most NFL divisions but three years ago you would have picked any team with Drew Brees leading the team. Now it seems time is catching up with the Big Easy, a terrible defensive showing last year gave Brees too much to do and the lack of weapons meant they were chasing their tail. The departure of Jimmy Graham also means this again will be a long season for the Saints.
That incapability led to the Carolina Panthers and Cam Newton to step in, all the more surprising considering he did it without Steve Smith, but the growth of Kelvin Benjamin and the maturity of Newton was encouraging. This makes the Panthers the tentative favourites but in a division where 8 wins can get you in the play offs, that is an unusual situation to get home field.
The Atlanta Falcons need to bounce back and with Matt Ryan throwing to Julio Jones and Roddy White, they have every chance.
The most surprising storyline will probably come from Tampa Bay who with the overall #1 pick selected Jameis Winston, who lost only one college game at Florida State, his last game versus
Marcus Mariota's Oregon Ducks. Although a tough season on the field, Winston showed unbelievable strength of character and leadership to win 11 games, some from double digit deficits. This temerity
and stubbornness will serve Lovie Smith and his Buccaneers well, as the closeness between the four division rivals is too close to call. Winston also has impressive rookie Mike Evans as a deep threat although Winston is not renowned for his arm strength.
Prediction: 1. Carolina 2. Atlanta 3. Tampa Bay 4. New Orleans
For so long the toughest division to call, based on the long held rivalries between the four huge franchises. And it is no different this year either.
Dallas Cowboys won the division last year, and have the potential to go deeper this year if Tony Romo and Dez Bryant fulfil full seasons. Yet it is on defence that is the worry, the selection of Randy Gregory in the draft and Greg Hardy in free agency smacks of a team who irrespective of individual players off the field issues, they are going all in to win big this year whilst Romo can still stand upright.
Philadelphia Eagles played a different brand of football, up tempo, lots of plays and score a
lot of points, yet the defence could not match that intensity. The arrival of Sam Bradford will surprise many but if he can stay fit, a big if obviously, he can marshall an offence without risking injury to himself, yet can they overcome the loss of LeSean McCoy whilst Demarcus Murray will find it hard to replicate his personally great season at Dallas this year.
Washington Redskins are a mess and continue to be so long as they have an unfit QB at the helm, the franchise that is a disgrace will struggle to win 4 games this year and a blessing may be to tank the season and get a new franchise QB and end the Griffin era.
Which leaves us with the New York Giants, who for me have the potential to be the seasons dark horse much like the Minnesota Vikings. A terrible start to the season was rejuvenated by the inclusion of the phenomenal Odell Beckham Jr, who single handedly (literally) won games by doing ridiculous grabs for big plays. This elevated the play of Eli Manning who finished the season on a tear finally having a stellar Wide receiver at his disposal. The improvements on the offensive line will aid Eli and co.
Prediction: 1. New York 2. Dallas 3. Philadelphia 4. Washington