Column: RICK SOLEM
Finally, baseball is over and the NFL is here!
That’s how I feel about it anyway. Then again, I’ve felt that way for most of the summer.
Here’s the NFC by division. I feel like the NFC is a lot more competitive top to bottom than the AFC … except for the Bears. The Bears still suck.
NFC East 2012
There’s no easy pick in this division, and the popular one seems to be the Cowboys, but I don’t like going with the flow.
The Redskins are a sexy team with Robert Griffin III at the helm but he probably becomes a little more grounded - less dynamic as a runner this season.
They also have Green Bay in Week 2 and he’ll have just one game under his belt – at Philadelphia. Washington also has Denver, Atlanta and San Francisco on its schedule. Good luck.
The Eagles are a mystery and could easily be that surprise team in, not just the division, but the league with Chip Kelly’s super-secret offense. But there are probably more reasons why they were 4-12 last season than just the coach.
They also lost Jeremy Maclin for the season. Who is Michael Vick going to throw to? Oh, that’s right, they’re just going to run every play. Probably for the best … until Vick gets injured. So, that’ll end in Week 3.
Nobody ever really likes baby face Eli Manning, but he’s consistently kept the Giants in the hunt each year. A lot is riding on David Wilson at running back, but the passing game should be just fine.
The same could be said about the Cowboys, but Tony Romo is more erratic than Manning and their coach is still Jason Garrett, even if he isn’t calling plays on offense. It’s a close call, but …
NFC South 2012
I think the general consensus in the NFC is, No division is easy.
Three teams were 7-9 here last season, but any of these three could be playoff bound this season.
The Buccaneers are a rollercoaster from season to season, and that should continue.
I think Doug Martin is a tad overrated. He had two outlier games that make him look elite – 251 yards, 4 TD game against the Raiders and 142 yards in the last game of the season against the Falcons, who didn’t need to win. Those were two of his five 100-yard games and five of his 11 TDs.
His QB, Josh Freeman was incredibly awful down the stretch, too. Aside from the throw-away game vs. the Falcons in the finale, Tampa Bay lost five in a row and Freeman completed 52 percent of those passes with five TDs and five INTs. They may be the surprise team in the NFL this year … the surprise worst team.
With the return of Saints coach Sean Payton, someone has to regress in the division. The Saints will be good again.
The Panthers play the Saints twice and the Falcons in three of the final four games of the season. They open with Seattle and also head to San Francisco before hosting New England in back-to-back games this season. No thanks.
Payton is one of the best play-callers in the league. Drew Brees is one of the best quarterbacks. And Rob Ryan is now the defensive coordinator.
So, all signs to win this division point to … the Falcons?
I know, I know. I hate it, too.
But, the Saints defense is still awful and they have even less of a run game this year trying to have Mark Ingram lead the way. Darren Sproles is not a running back. Someone destroys the 5-9, 190-pound 30-year-old this year, right?
The Falcons are just too ridiculous on offense. Matt Ryan, Roddy White, Julio Jones, Tony Gonzalez, and they added Steven Jackson, though that could be a move that’s a little overrated. But he’s certainly better than Michael Turner’s 3.6 ypc and stone hands. If nothing else, Jackson gives Matt Ryan a safety net out of the backfield.
NFC West 2012
This is the easiest division in the NFC to pick, but only because you know two of these teams aren’t winning it. Right?
The Cardinals aren’t upsetting Seattle or San Francisco. That never happens in the NFL.
I think they surprise some teams ... a bit. Adding Carson Palmer and Rashard Mendenhall is a vast upgrade from what they had last year. And that's all they needed.
Arizona started 4-0 with Kevin Kolb. Palmer is better than Kolb. And the defense should still be solid. We'll be talking about Larry Fitzgerald again this season.
The Rams are talking up this speedy offense with the addition of Tavon Austin – all 5-foot-9, 174-pounds of him – and Jared Cook, who’s never been consistent.
That puts a lot of pressure on Sam Bradford. This won’t be the year the jury decides on him, however, since his receiving core is young. He’ll have one more year with excuses before a decision is made.
What the Rams are trying to do is the second rendition of The Greatest Show on Turf.
That’s great and all, but turf has kind of gone the way of actual grass … the green movement.
Or is it a lime-green movement? The lime green of the Seattle Seahawks?
Their defense is ridiculous, like those lime green shoes, but I kind of like them.
Russell Wilson overcame … being short and … wait for it … MATT FLYNN, to gain the starting role (isn’t that Flynn guy being uprooted by Terrelle Pryor in Oakland?). And the rest is history … or should have been, had they not lost to Atlanta 30-28 in the playoffs.
Remember, Seattle scored three fourth-quarter touchdowns, the last with 31 seconds left, but then watched Matt Ryan throw two completions before a 49-yard field goal won it with 8 seconds remaining.
If not Seattle, it has to be the Super Bowl runner-up, San Francisco 49ers to win the division, right?
The defense is there. It can't be denied, but the offense has Frank Gore, who is bound to breakdown some time. And then ... (crickets).
QB Colin Kaepernick won't repeat what he did in half a season with his legs. And he won't scare anyone with his arm, because doesn't have the receivers.
His favorite target, Michael Crabtree is likely done for the year. Anquan Boldin hasn’t had 1,000-yard season since 2009 and Vernon Davis didn’t mesh well with Kaepernick last year. After that, who does he have?
Teams will be ready. Even the Packers. I think the 49ers are the surprise team to flop this season. Probably a stupid thing to think.
Winner: Cardinals ... Just kidding. Seahawks.
NFC North 2012
I really don’t want to pick the Packers to win the division. But all the signs point in that direction.
The Bears and Vikings were solid last year. This year, I don’t think either repeats double-digit-wins.
The Vikings rode Adrian Peterson and his 2,097 yards rushing. They try and ride him again this season, but … well, it’s stupid to say he’s not going to repeat the second-best yardage total in NFL history, but I think he regresses quite a bit. Maybe because teams just put 11 in the box and let Christian Ponder try and throw to no-name receivers like Greg Jennings.
Minnesota traded away Percy Harvin. Added Jennings. Jennings isn’t Percy Harvin – before he injured his hip. And Ponder is still Ponder. In this division, with this schedule, with that QB, the Vikings will be lucky to be .500.
The Bears were also somewhat dominant last season and really only added to their roster.
The offensive line should be a bit better, so QB Jay Cutler can only blame himself when he’s sacked? Does anyone like Cutler? Do Bears fans like him?
The defense is still good, despite the loss of Brian Urlacher. But a new coach and a West Coast offense may be the change the Bears didn’t need. Lovie Smith had that team in the playoffs consistently.
Meanwhile, the Lions were dismal last season, but I don’t see it this year. They were an unlucky-dismal, if that makes sense. Receivers were tackled inside the 5-yard line 23 times. Eight times, Calvin Johnson was tackled inside the 5 – and five of those were at the 1. That seems unlucky.
I think Lions are on the every-other year plan (10-6 2011) and this is the year it all comes together.
Matt Stafford threw more than any QB last season and he does it again this year, but this time with some semblance of a running game to back him up. Reggie Bush was added to the offense and could be a 100-catch RB.
The defense is mediocre, but having one of the best defensive lines in the league gives an automatic boost to the units behind them.
If two teams make the playoffs out of the North, it will be the Lions and … yup, the Packers, with all the weapons back on offense – minus Jennings, but who cares.
James Jones led the league in TD receptions, Ranall Cobb could lead the league in receptions this year. Jordy Nelson may be the best of the three. And Jermichael Finley … maybe, just maybe. I won’t hold my breath on that one.
Eddie Lacey should give them a threat at RB. They went all-in on defense in the draft. What’s not to like?
The offensive line, that’s what. Green Bay lost its starting left tackle for the season – though he didn’t play a lot last year - and in a division with Julius Peppers, Jared Allen and Ndamukong Suh, that’s not good. But it wasn’t good last year. Or the year before. Rodgers was the most sacked QB in the league last year and in the last five seasons.
With the addition of a RB that can pound between the tackles, perhaps that takes some pressure off the offensive line.