PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH (with records):
1) Philadelphia Eagles (12-4)
2) Dallas Cowboys (9-7)
3) New York Giants (8-8)
4) Washington Redskins (4-12)
1) Green Bay Packers (12-4)
2) Detroit Lions (9-7)
3) Chicago Bears (7-9)
4) Minnesota Vikings (5-11)
1) Atlanta Falcons (11-5)
2) New Orleans Saints (10-6)
3) Tampa Bay Buccaneers (10-6)
4) Carolina Panthers 3-13
1) St. Louis Rams (8-8)
2) Seattle Seahawks (8-8)
3) Arizona Cardinals (7-9)
4) San Francisco 49ers (5-11)
The Philadelphia Eagles’ offseason overhaul hasn’t gone unnoticed in Green Bay. Neither has the hype that’s come along with it.
While the reigning Super Bowl champion Packers are taking the Eagles seriously, they’re mildly amused at what they see as a rush to crown new conference favorites before the season starts. Given the chance, Green Bay is confident it will bring the “dream team” back to reality.
“On paper, I guess they’re the ‘dream team,’” Packers linebacker Desmond Bishop said. “You’ve definitely got to go out on the field and make it happen. So we’ll see.”
The Eagles positioned themselves as the Packers’ top challenger in the conference after adding a wealth of top-line talent, including cornerbacks Nnamdi Asomugha and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie. Not to mention former Packers defensive lineman Cullen Jenkins.
“We’re a confident bunch,” Packers wide receiver James Jones said. “We truly don’t pay attention to who everybody gets, we truly don’t care who everybody gets. We believe when we step on that field we’re going to win the game, no matter who it is. If we happen to run into them, we’ll be ready.”
The Eagles aren’t the Packers’ only serious challengers in the NFC.
The Chicago Bears beat the Packers for the NFC North title last year, then lost to their rivals in the NFC title game at Soldier Field. But the Bears could be poised to take a step backward unless Jay Cutler’s protection improves significantly. With a fierce defensive line, the Detroit Lions could become the Packers’ closest pursuers in the division — provided quarterback Matthew Stafford can stay healthy.
The conference’s most competitive division may be the NFC South. The Atlanta Falcons drafted wide receiver Julio Jones, although it remains to be seen if they can to fix a defense that Aaron Rodgers carved up in the playoffs. The New Orleans Saints are trying to regain their Super Bowl-winning form and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers appear to be on the rise.
Then there’s the NFC West, a division there for the taking for any team that can make even a modest improvement. The West was an afterthought last season, and there aren’t many reasons to think that will change much in the short term.
• NFC EAST
The Eagles already were heavyweights in the division, and their offseason shopping spree only solidified that status — provided, of course, that Michael Vick continues to play like he did last season.
Vick certainly has enough skill around him to succeed, although some shuffling along the offensive line is unsettling. The defense is a little light at linebacker but should be good enough for a serious playoff run.
Nobody in Dallas was happy with the Cowboys last season, but they did go 5-3 after Jason Garrett took over as coach. The defense was miserable, and that needs to change under new defensive coordinator Rob Ryan. The offense should be explosive again with Tony Romo back and healthy.
The Giants have been clobbered by injuries already, ending the seasons of cornerback Terrell Thomas (knee) and defensive tackle Marvin Austin (pectoral muscle), the Giants’ second-round draft pick; first-round cornerback Prince Amukamara had foot surgery and won’t be ready to start the season. They should be good on offense, provided that their offensive line reshuffling doesn’t backfire. But are Eli Manning and company good enough to carry the team?
Mike Shanahan is hoping to snap a longstanding cycle of mediocrity in Washington. The idea that he’s choosing between John Beck and Rex Grossman at quarterback, however, doesn’t indicate the team is poised for a major leap forward.
• NFC NORTH
Stop us if you’ve heard this one before: The Packers didn’t make any significant additions through free agency. If they’re going to repeat, it will be largely with last year’s cast. Jenkins and left guard Daryn Colledge left as free agents but the Packers get back playmaking tight end Jermichael Finley, reliable running back Ryan Grant and promising young safety Morgan Burnett from injury.
The Bears should be very good on defense but will have to score more to continue as contenders — and that starts with doing a much better job protecting Cutler. Drafting right tackle Gabe Carimi was a step toward that end, but perhaps not enough. Two warning signs for the Bears: They shouldn’t expect to have as much good luck with injuries as they did last season, and the new kickoff rules encouraging touchbacks (sorry, Devin Hester) could hurt them more than any other team.
Instead, the Packers’ biggest challenge in the North could come from the Lions, a team ready to shed its reputation as divisional doormats. Already strong up front on defense with Ndamukong Suh and Kyle Vanden Bosch, the Lions will be tough to stop if rookie tackle Nick Fairley can return quickly from foot surgery. A good defensive line can cover for a suspect secondary, and they’ll have to in this case. Again, any serious run by Detroit will require Stafford to stay healthy.
The Minnesota Vikings still have big-play threats on both sides of the ball. But unless Donovan McNabb is able to find some magic late in his career, it feels like this team’s window to contend is closing.
• NFC SOUTH
Trying to stay on top of what should be a fiercely competitive division, the Falcons went all-in with the drafting of wide receiver Julio Jones — adding yet another big-play option for Matt Ryan.
Atlanta’s addition of free agent defensive end Ray Edwards should help a defense that struggled to bring pass-rush pressure. The secondary must improve behind him.
Right behind the Falcons are New Orleans and up-and-coming Tampa Bay.
The Saints waved goodbye to Reggie Bush but still might be a better running team than they were last year. New Orleans signed free agent Darren Sproles and drafted Mark Ingram. The Saints also beefed up their defensive line, hoping to improve their run defense.
The most intriguing team in the division could be Tampa Bay. Josh Freeman was impressive in his first year as a full-time starter, completing 61.4 percent of his passes for 3,451 yards with 25 touchdowns and six interceptions. If Freeman’s upswing continues and other young players mature quickly, especially up front on defense, the Bucs could contend.
The Carolina Panthers have a new coach, Ron Rivera, and a new quarterback, Cam Newton. Thanks to the lockout, neither one had the benefit of an organized offseason program. Not a winning formula.
• NFC WEST
This division is wide open and presumably won’t take much to win — so why not the Rams? New offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels has legitimate building blocks with quarterback Sam Bradford and running back Steven Jackson. They’re still thin at wide receiver and need to get better on defense. But it won’t take much improvement to grab hold of this division.
The Seahawks unloaded quarterback Matt Hasselbeck and linebacker Lofa Tatupu. Now they’re betting big that there’s more to Tarvaris Jackson’s game than the quarterback showed in Minnesota. Hmm ...
In Arizona, new quarterback Kevin Kolb and wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald form the foundation for what could be a decent offense. But last season’s unimpressive defense must improve — and do so without Rodgers-Cromartie, the price paid to pry Kolb away from Philadelphia.
Things could be rough in the short term for the 49ers, as Jim Harbaugh must adjust to life as an NFL head coach without the benefits of an organized offseason program during the lockout. And, um, Alex Smith is his quarterback. A healthy Frank Gore would help greatly on offense, and wide receiver Michael Crabtree could benefit if Harbaugh’s West Coast offense takes root. Linebacker Patrick Willis must carry the defense.