Whereas there are only eight or nine AFC teams whose playoff aspirations seem legitimate, almost every team in the NFC has a valid or somewhat-valid chance to make the postseason. Only three NFC teams won fewer than seven games in 2012, and no team got considerably worse since then. Most of these teams’ “best-case scenarios” will be earning the sixth seed in the conference playoffs, so don’t be upset if your favorite team is ranked tenth or worse. Plenty of good NFC teams will miss the playoffs; it’s just how competitive this conference is this year.
And, of course, I disclaim that any “worst-case scenario” I list could always be worse, because I am not in the business of predicting season-ending injuries. If Aaron Rodgers goes down for the year in Week One, my assumption that the Packers win double-digit games is thrown out the window.
- 1. Green Bay Packers. The top several teams of the NFC are hard to rank definitively. The Packers seem to me to have the fewest flaws of these top teams. Their only two major problems last year were the lack of a strong rushing attack, and the lack of any defensive presence against Colin Kaepernick and San Francisco in the playoffs. Newly drafted Eddie Lacy will lead this year’s running back-by-committee that also features DuJuan Harris, James Starks and Alex Green. UCLA defensive end Datone Jones was the Packers’ first-round pick in April, but no veterans were added to the defense. (To their credit, the 49ers loss was an anomaly; the Clay Matthews- and BJ Raji-led D was eleventh in both scoring defense and points allowed.)
Best-case scenario: Lacy is the missing piece the offense needs to go from great to dominant. Rodgers is superb, even by his standards. Randall Cobb emerges as the try number one receiver, and one of the best of the league, at that. The defense is top ten (not a stretch from last year) and the Packers cruise into the postseason. This time, they demolish the 49ers (albeit in a high-scoring game) and go on to win their second Super Bowl of the Rodgers era.
Worst-case scenario: Green Bay has a very difficult schedule that includes the tough AFC North and last season’s NFC division winners: Washington, Atlanta and those dreaded 49ers. The Packers fail to gain any momentum to begin the season, losing to San Francisco, Washington and Cincinnati, and head into their early bye week 0-3. Rodgers isn’t the problem, but his ground game certainly doesn’t help, as Lacy is especially unproductive. The defense still can’t keep up with fast offenses, and, fighting a tough schedule the entire way, the Packers barely win ten games and take a Wild Card seed.
- 2. Seattle Seahawks. As stated above, I am not in the business of predicting season-ending injuries, but I can opine on one that has already happened – Percy Harvin’s hip. Granted, Harvin’s hip surgery might only keep him sidelined until December, but if the wide receiver, traded from the Minnesota Vikings last spring, were healthy, I would have Seattle ranked number one in the conference. Russell Wilson established himself as the leader and the future of the franchise in his rookie year. The Seahawks have one of the best running backs in the league, Marshawn Lynch, and they have the best defense, now featuring defensive ends Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett.
Best-case scenario: Wilson only improves on his outstanding rookie-year performance, and Harvin returns in December healthy, fresh and ready to help boost the offense from very good to excellent. The defense has a historically great season, and the Seahawks cruise through the playoffs and win Super Bowl XLVIII.
Worst-case scenario: The San Francisco 49ers crush the Seahawks in Seattle on Monday Night, Week Two. Seattle can’t get the momentum going after that, losing winnable games the way they did last year when Wilson was still fresh meat. Harvin misses the whole season. The D isn’t all it was cracked up to be, and Richard Sherman gets bothered and mouthy. The Seahawks sneak into the playoffs as a Wild Card, if that, and lose early.
- 3. San Francisco 49ers. Plenty of people see San Francisco as the best team in the conference and maybe the league, but I don’t even give them the edge in their own division. Colin Kaepernick won the starting quarterback job with one electrifying performance against Chicago while Alex Smith was hurt. The Niners have a running QB and three great running backs, Frank Gore, LaMichael James and Anthony Dixon. They traded with the team who beat them in Super Bowl XLVII, Baltimore, to acquire wide receiver Anquan Boldin; it’s a good thing, too, because other starting WR Michael Crabtree then tore his Achilles and lost his 2013 season. The defense is spoken for by all-stars Justin Smith, Aldon Smith and Patrick Willis. But the secondary is in bad shape; top safety Dashon Goldson was not re-signed, and if Nnamdi Asomugha is one of your starters, you’re in trouble. That, plus the fact that Boldin and Vernon Davis are Kaepernick’s only two good targets, plus the fact that defenses will catch up to Kaepernick’s running style, makes me give Seattle the edge.
Best-case scenario: I am wrong about Kaepernick being “caught up to.” Nobody catches up to him, especially on the field. He is the second coming of Michael Vick, or what we saw Michael Vick as in 2005. The offense is spectacular, the defense stays spectacular, and the 49ers march right into MetLife Stadium and run out with the Super Bowl.
Worst-case scenario: I am right about Kaepernick being “caught up to,” maybe too right. Kaepernick has a bad redshirt-sophomore slump and turns out to be a flash in the pan – in other words, not the quarterback Jim Harbaugh should have stuck with. Quarterbacks throw over the imposing front seven, and the Niners make the playoffs but make their exit early.
- 4. Atlanta Falcons. An NFC-best 13-3 in 2012, Matt Ryan’s first playoff victory, and there’s still no respect for the Falcons? Some would argue that Atlanta only got better in the offseason, upgrading from Michael Turner to Steven Jackson at starting running back and signing Osi Umeniyora as their big free agency grab for the defense. They let go of their top three cornerbacks from 2012 but drafted corners Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford in rounds one and two. The secondary might lack experience, but it’s safe to say the air attack doesn’t – Ryan still has Julio Jones, Roddy White and Tony Gonzalez, three of the best pass catchers in the game, at his disposal.
Best-case scenario: The rest of the NFC South has not improved enough to be any match for the Falcons. Ryan leads the league in passing, both yards and touchdowns, as Hotlanta cruises to home-field advantage again. This time, they don’t let up to Seattle, San Francisco or anyone else, not until the Lombardi Trophy is finally theirs.
Worst-case scenario: Both age and inexperience plague the Falcons. Gonzalez shows he might have been better off retiring after last year, while rookies Trufant and Alford are burnt over and over. The Saints sneak by and win the division, and Atlanta loses their wild card round playoff game as Matt Ryan’s toughness and “intangibles” are questioned relentlessly.
- 5. New York Giants. The Giants, despite missing the playoffs three of the last four seasons, enter the 2013 season as the cream of the NFC East crop. There are fewer questions about New York than there are about the Redskins (RG3’s health), the Eagles (the new Chip Kelly offense and Michael Vick’s role within it) and the Cowboys (the team’s overall inconsistency during the Romo era). Eli Manning is still an elite quarterback, however better he may be in January than November and December, and Victor Cruz and Hakeem Nicks make a brutal one-two punch. The defense has been average as of late, and at points flat-out bad; only the horrendous Saints’ D gave up more yards than New York, but they only allowed 21.5 points per game.
Best-case scenario: The D-line doesn’t need the departed Osi Umeniyora; Justin Tuck has a career season. Several new arrivals such as CB Aaron Ross, DTs Cullen Jenkins and Mike Patterson, and rookie DE Damontre Moore reinforce the defense, which allows much fewer than 383.4 yards per game. Eli is perfectly fine during the regular season – even the last several weeks, and the Giants have no trouble winning the division. They continue to roll through the playoffs and become the first team to play in a Super Bowl hosted in their home stadium.
Worst-case scenario: With the inexperienced backfield duo of David Wilson and Andre Brown sharing time, the offense becomes solely based on passing. Defenses focus on getting to Eli because they know he’s their main weapon. The Giants lose important division games, and in the end are kept out of the playoffs for a third straight year. Such is the wide range of possible results for the New York Giants every year.
- 6. New Orleans Saints. There is nothing left to be said about the 2012 New Orleans Saints’ defense. From being the statistically worst defense in NFL history (440.1 yards allowed per game), there is nowhere to go but up. DL Kenyon Coleman, corners Keenan Lewis and Chris Carr and safety Jim Leonhard were acquired in the offseason, and safety Kenny Vaccaro was drafted fifteenth overall. The other main problem last year was the loss of head coach Sean Payton for the year due to the Bountygate scandal. Despite the distractions, the lack of Sean Payton and the terrible defense, New Orleans still managed to finish 7-9, purely thanks to Drew Brees and the high-powered offense. With their head coach back and their defense improving, the Saints are to be feared again.
Best-case scenario: The Saints bounce back. Brees throws for 5,000 yards – again – and the offense overall is the best in the NFL. What’s more important is that the defense is now able to stop some offenses. New Orleans sweeps Atlanta in order to win the division and a playoff game, and all is right again in the Big Easy.
Worst-case scenario: The defense is still in rebuilding mode, but it’s further along than whatever that was on the field last year. The Saints miss the playoffs again in the hyper-competitive NFC, but things are looking up for the immediate future.
- 7. Washington Redskins. Obviously, the biggest sports star in the same city as Ovechkin, Strasburg and Bryce Harper is Robert Griffin III, the face and future of the Washington Redskins. It’s not his face but his knee that fans are worried about. What the Redskins can accomplish this season is based mostly on how well Griffin is able to play post-ACL surgery this year. There is a colossal difference, long-term, between having RG3 and having Kirk Cousins as one’s starter. A sixth-round pick from 2012, Alfred Morris, stole the spotlight at running back and earned the starting position under head coach Mike Shanahan, who is notorious for his multi-back committees. Washington’s big weakness in 2012 was their anemic pass defense, which ranked 30th in passing yards allowed per game (281.9) and T-29th in passing touchdowns given up (31).
Best-case scenario: Griffin is fine. He’s better than fine. He improves on his Rookie of the Year 2012 season and leads the Skins to back-to-back division titles for the first time since 1982-84. It also helps that Morris continues to quietly establish himself as one of the best backs in the game, RG3 has a few more receivers to throw to (offseason acquisitions Devery Henderson and Donte’ Stallworth) and that the defense is more capable this season, particularly against the pass.
Worst-case scenario: Griffin is not fine. He is not OK at all. RG3 looks like a shell of himself when it comes down to game time; he can’t run the ball the way he used to, and therefore has trouble commanding the field. That, and the defense still stinks. The Redskins disappoint yet again.
- 8. Minnesota Vikings. The Vikings’ 2012 season was all about one man. “All Day” Adrian Peterson did what no man could ever dream of doing after a December ACL and MCL tear by rushing for over 2,000 yards (actually, 2,097, nine yards short of breaking Eric Dickerson’s record of 2,105) and leading his otherwise-doomed squad to a 10-6 record and a playoff berth. Here’s the thing: Christian Ponder hasn’t exactly proven himself to be a playoff quarterback. Matt Cassel has been brought in as a Plan B, and WR Greg Jennings was signed to be Plan A downfield. The defense didn’t lose much, and added DT Sharrif Floyd and CB Xavier Rhodes in the process (two of their three late-first round picks, while every analyst was getting ready to talk about Manti Te’o).
Best-case scenario: The Vikes surprised everyone with their success in 2012, and despite everyone knowing how their offense will look this year, they’ll still be hard to stop. Peterson doesn’t break 2,000, only because Jennings and rookie WR Cordarelle Patterson help balance out the offense and make Ponder look good. It’s back to the playoffs for Minnesota.
Worst-case scenario: Peterson looks markedly slower than last year – it all had to catch up to him at some point. He’s still the focal point of the offense, though, because the quarterback mess gets messier. In a tough division, the Vikings fall back down a rung or two.
- 9. Dallas Cowboys. America’s (Most Hated) Team hasn’t broken .500 since Jason Garrett was made head coach, though in his two full seasons at the helm, Dallas finished 8-8. Still, the Dallas Cowboys last made the postseason in ’09, and, as every Cowboy fan must be able to recite in their sleep by now, they’ve only won one playoff game since 1996, the twilight of the Barry Switzer era. Tony Romo isn’t all to blame for this, but he’s shown he’s sometimes going to make mistakes at crucial points in big games. DeMarco Murray is the clear number-one featured back, but he’s been banged up a lot. LB Justin Durant and S Will Allen come in to help DeMarcus Ware on defense. San Diego State tight end Gavin Escobar might be the only rookie who will contribute in 2013.
Best-case scenario: It’s finally the year the Cowboys – Romo, specifically – show they belong with the big boys of the NFC. Everything clicks at the same time for a change. Murray runs for 1,200 yards, which helps the rest of the offense. DeMarcus Ware produces a career season, complete with Defensive Player of the Year honors. Most importantly, Romo also has a career year, with a career-low in interceptions as he leads Dallas to win the division and make a small run in the playoffs.
Worst-case scenario: There are plenty of good (defined here as “better than serviceable,” “desirable”) quarterbacks in the NFL at a time, but they fall into two main tiers: those who will be able to lead their team to at least one Super Bowl victory in their careers, and those who will not, for any number of reasons. Tony Romo easily falls into the latter category. Dallas goes 6-10 in the tough NFC East, and Jerry Jones wishes he hadn’t just given Romo an over-expensive five-year contract.
- 10. Chicago Bears. I was just a little bit off by predicting the Chicago Bears would win Super Bowl XLVII. Looking back, I was just caught up in the hype of Jay Cutler and Brandon Marshall reuniting. Sure, Marshall made for a good fantasy pick (because Cutler never threw to anyone else), and the Bears got to 10-6, but lost the six seed by a tiebreaker to the division rival Vikings. Somehow, this got head coach Lovie Smith fired, and Montreal Alouettes head coach Marc Trestman replaced him. This knocks the Bears down at least one ranking for me; Smith didn’t deserve to be fired, and it’s been reported that Cutler is struggling with the new offense. If that wasn’t bad enough, da Bears’ D is moving into the AU (After Urlacher) era for the first time, and DJ Williams, his replacement brought in via free agency, is already banged up.
Best-case scenario: All this worry is for nothing! Cutler gets used to the new offense and looks great. He throws to Bennett and Jeffrey more, and Matt Forte is a top ten, maybe even a top five rusher. The defense isn’t exactly worst in the league, either, just because one 35-year-old linebacker retired. The Bears sneak up and win the North.
Worst-case scenario: Everything comes toppling down. Cutler is just bad, and Forte can’t carry the offense alone. The defense looks lost without Urlacher. Any team in the NFC North (save maaaybe the Packers) can place last in the division, but it is the most disappointing for Chicago. Fans start chanting for Lovie’s return.
- 11. St. Louis Rams. Were they to play in another division, the St. Louis Rams might easily be considered a playoff contender. Almost any other division, but not the NFC West (or the NFC North, against which the 2012 Rams went 0-4). It’s true that they beat every team in their division at least once in 2012, and went undefeated against the 49ers (1-0-1, thanks to a Week 10 tie), but it doesn’t help them that Seattle and San Francisco are two of the best teams in the league. Despite this third-best-team shadow, the Rams have huge upside. They succeeded in the first round of the draft, trading up twice to take speedy WR Tavon Austin eighth overall and LB Alec Ogletree thirtieth, respectively. Austin is the weapon Sam Bradford has sorely lacked. The defense is strong, highlighted by the line (Chris Long, Michael Brockers) and the secondary (Cortland Finnegan, Janoris Jenkins). The biggest question is who will step up at running back now that Steven Jackson has gone to Atlanta.
Best-case scenario: Isaiah Pead has a breakout year at running back, and, combined with the addition of Austin and tight end Jared Cook, Bradford and the offense can finally shine. The defense surprises and shuts down Colin Kaepernick and Russell Wilson when playing them, and, only a few years removed from being the laughingstock of the league, the NFC West is the best division in football – three teams win ten games and make the postseason, with the Rams as the six.
Worst-case scenario: Bradford can’t get the offense going, and it sputters out. It isn’t his fault – his running game is among the league’s worst, as Pead, Daryl Richardson and rookie Zac Stacy split unproductive carries. Austin isn’t a number one receiver the way Danny Amendola was for them last year. The defense is still good, but when faced with the likes of San Fran, Seattle, Atlanta and Houston, the team has no chance. Middle of the pack, or slightly worse, again for an underachieving squad.
- 12. Detroit Lions. One of the most disappointing teams of 2012, the Detroit Lions went from 10-6 and making the playoffs for the first time in a thousand years right back down to 4-12. Matthew Stafford (4,967 passing yards, 20 touchdowns) and Calvin Johnson (1,964 receiving yards, five TDs) certainly weren’t the problem, though fans expected Megatron to find the end zone a bit more. The passing game might be opened up more with a stronger running game, now led by Reggie Bush. Detroit’s defense was decent – 16th against the run, 14th against the pass – but they allowed the sixth-most points per game, 27.3. DE Ezekiel Ansah was drafted fifth overall to help the pass rush (Cliff Avril left for Seattle), and second-rounder CB Darius Slay will boost the secondary along with veteran safety Glover Quin.
Best-case scenario: The Lions makes their own luck. No more of this 4-12 business – the offense looks on fire thanks to Reggie Bush giving Stafford a legitimate ground threat, and the defense allows seven or eight fewer points per game than 2012. Nine of Detroit’s twelve 2012 losses were by eight points or fewer; those close losses become close wins on this more mature team, which finds itself where they were two years ago when they received a Wild Card berth.
Worst-case scenario: For all this seeming improvement, the Lions fall flat on their faces again. Division games are always crucial, but not more than when you play in the NFC North, where any team can win ten games. Thanks to that and their tricky AFC North and NFC East opponents, Detroit gets the short end of the stick again.
- 13. Philadelphia Eagles. The other most disappointing team from 2012, the Philadelphia Eagles are all about having a new look this year. First-year head coach Chip Kelly brings in his successful read-option offense from the University of Oregon to the NFL, and even though he may not use it prominently, there’s no better team he could use it with. Michael Vick, LeSean McCoy and DeSean Jackson (and Jeremy Maclin, until he tore his ACL) are all about speed, and if Vick can learn the offense and cut down on his turnovers, Philly will turn things around. Former Texans LB Connor Barwin leads a handful of newly acquired defensive vets to strengthen the average D.
Best-case scenario: It’s a new dawn in the City of Brotherly Love. The Eagles are the hottest team in football for the first half of the year, and by the time teams can figure out how to defend Kellyball, it’s too late. With a 5-1 division record, the Eagles win the NFC East, and a new rivalry of read-option offenses – Vick and Philly, and Griffin and Washington – captivates the league for the next several seasons.
Worst-case scenario: Vick looks terrible in the first couple of weeks of the season. Kelly has no choice but to name Nick Foles the new starter, and for the rest of the season, the offense has an identity crisis. The first year of the experiment, but not necessarily the whole experiment, crashes and burns, meaning Vick is out and Kelly needs a new, true read-option quarterback.
- 14. Tampa Bay Buccaneers. This really isn’t a bad team. They’ve been enigmatic for several seasons, bouncing between awful and almost-playoffs-good (they went 10-6 in 2010 and still missed the postseason). But the Tampa Bay Buccaneers do fall all the way to fourteenth in the NFC. The big question about Tampa is whether Josh Freeman will continue as the starting quarterback, or whether second-year head coach Greg Schiano will replace him with the guy he drafted, NC State product Mike Glennon. Beyond that, the Bucs found a terrific running back last year in Doug Martin. Vincent Jackson is still a viable number-one receiver. Tampa Bay gave up a league-worst 297.4 passing yards per game, but they were fortunate to have the cap room to acquire star CB Darrelle Revis from the Jets. They also signed rising star safety Dashon Goldson from San Francisco.
Best-case scenario: With the secondary now looking way better, the defense is solid enough for the Buccaneers to pull off some upsets against the high-powered offenses of the NFC South, Atlanta and New Orleans. Technically considered last in the NFC South in 2012 through a three-way tiebreaker, they have the fortune of facing Philadelphia and Detroit in addition to the dregs of the AFC East and NFC West. Tampa sneaks into the sixth playoff spot with a 9-7 or even 10-6 record.
Worst-case scenario: It takes more than Revis Island to win more games. It takes consistent quarterback play. By November, Freeman and Glennon are alternated as starting quarterback because neither of them are doing that well. Doug Martin can’t replicate his rookie success, and opposing offense resort to jamming the ball down Tampa’s throat to avoid the improved secondary. And the AFC East and NFC West aren’t just dregs, either. They’re New England and San Francisco and Seattle. Tampa goes 6-10 and plans for the long-term.
- 15. Carolina Panthers. To be fair to Panthers fans, the team did win its last four games last year to finish 7-9, along with division rivals New Orleans and Tampa Bay. But the team had a brutal 1-6 start, and the last three of those four wins were against cupcakes San Diego, Oakland and defenseless New Orleans. The NFC South’s schedule will be much tougher (featuring San Francisco, Seattle, New England, Miami), and the Panthers’ especially so, because each of their division rivals only improved. Cam Newton hit a minor sophomore slump, throwing for fewer yards (3,869 to 4,051) and touchdowns (19 to 21) than in his rookie year. Is the team around him really any better? His backfield of Jonathan Stewart and DeAngelo Williams has been oft-injured and has declined in production recently. Veteran cornerback Drayton Florence and first-round pick DT Star Lotulelei lead a small group of new acquisitions expected to make any impact.
Best-case scenario: Newton proves he is ready to take Carolina to the next level, having a much better season thanks to a rejuvenated Smith and a career year from tight end Greg Olsen. Their main defensive bright spot, 2012 Defensive Rookie of the Year Luke Kuechly, blossoms into a superstar linebacker of Patrick Willis potential and proportion. The Panthers really can snag the sixth seed, though even in this perfect scenario, it takes a lot of help, including going at least 4-2 in division and scoring a few upsets along the way.
Worst-case scenario: Although I see Carolina winning about five games, at their worst they could be taken by surprise by beatable opponents such as Buffalo, Arizona or the Jets, or a combination thereof. It’s not time to give up on Cam Newton yet. Besides, more important and more logical than a Manziel/Bridgewater type at number one overall is South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, who would bolster the defense and ignite the local fan base.
- 16. Arizona Cardinals. Say what you want about the New York Jets. The Arizona Cardinals’ quarterback situation in 2012 was the worst in the league. Kevin Kolb, John Skelton, Brian Hoyer and Ryan Lindley each started games at quarterback, and each one stunk. Compared to them, Carson Palmer is a godsend. Larry Fitzgerald has a good quarterback throwing him to again. Still, Palmer, 33, can only be considered a short-term fix for the perennial last-place Cardinals. They go forward with Rashard Mendenhall as their new feature back and several new veterans on defense, including LB Karlos Dansby, cornerbacks Antoine Cason and Javier Arenas, and safety Yeremiah Bell.
Best-case scenario: Yes, this really is the one and only NFC team I cannot picture making the playoffs. In the best scenario possible, the defense really is improved enough to be considered average, Mendenhall is the classic thousand-yard starting running back, and Palmer does just enough to win some games without screwing up. Arizona reaches 7-9.
Worst-case scenario: Let’s be real. Arizona goes 0-6 in division. The defense is embarrassed by Kaepernick and Wilson and even Sam Bradford, and the offense is no help either. Carson Palmer is better than whoever Ryan Lindley is, but he’s still Carson Palmer, post-Kimo von Oelhoffen. It doesn’t matter, because the Cardinals will be drafting a quarterback very, very high in 2014.