While the Panthers are the trendy pick in the NFC to make the Super Bowl, most critics are overlooking how tough their schedule is. The NFC South has to face the NFC East and the AFC North, arguably the toughest two divisions in football right now. Carolina has improved on offense by adding WR Keyshawn Johnson to help WR Steve Smith hopefully see fewer double teams. DeShaun Foster is the full-time starting RB, but the running game will take a step back without Stephen Davis.
The defense lost some good players in LB Will Witherspoon, DT Brentson Buckner and CB Ricky Manning Jr. while replacing them with DT Maake Kemoeatu, S Shaun Williams and LB Na'il Diggs. Other than the Keyshawn addition, Carolina did not upgrade its team at all from last year, but does get back former All-Pro DT Kris Jenkins (Maryland), who missed most of the last two seasons with injuries. Anyone who thinks Carolina has a cakewalk to the Super Bowl really needs to think twice.
TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS
The Buccaneers are in a tough spot. They won the division last season, but their 2005 schedule was not nearly as tough as this year's. Tampa Bay made great strides toward becoming a consistent winner last year with RB Cadillac Williams and WR Joey Galloway having big seasons and QB Chris Simms starting to come into his own.
The defense is solid and the offense is starting to come together but the Bucs have to play Pittsburgh, Chicago, Dallas and the New York Giants on the road in addition to trips to Atlanta and Carolina. Tough home games include Philadelphia, Washington, Seattle and Cincinnati. Every game the Bucs play will be a war, but you can only win so many battles.
There is a ton of pressure on QB Michael Vick to make big strides within the offense that gained WR Ashley Lelie in the offseason. RB Warrick Dunn should have a career year now that T.J. Duckett won't be taking his goal line carries. The Falcons have greatly improved their defense with the additions of S Lawyer Milloy and DE John Abraham but their problems will come from not being able to score points. Unless Vick breaks out and throws 30 TDs, the Falcons won't be anywhere near the playoff hunt this season.
NEW ORLEANS SAINTS
Other then drafting RB Reggie Bush, who looks phenomenal, there isn't much exciting happening with the Saints. The signing of QB Drew Brees was a fine move, but it remains to be seen whether the offensive line can give him time to throw. The Saints still have to figure out how they are going to handle the RB situation with Deuce McAllister and Bush and the defense doesn't look like it can stop anybody. And don't forget, the Saints have the same tough schedule match-ups as Carolina, Tampa Bay and Atlanta. If you're a Saints fan this year, just sit back and enjoy Bush.
Not many are picking the Eagles to win the NFC East, but with the obvious exception of 2005, Philadelphia has been one of the most consistent winners over the past six years. This year, QB Donovan McNabb is healthy again and the distractions that Terrell Owens created are gone, so the Eagles can just get back to playing good -- and healthy -- football (by midseason last year the Eagles had more than 15 guys on IR).
With the additions of WR Donte' Stallworth, DE Darren Howard, LB Shawn Barber and the drafting of first-round pick DT Broderick Bunkley, the Eagles have upgraded at nearly every position in question. The real test will be in December, when the Eagles will have to face the Redskins, Giants and Cowboys back-to-back-to-back -- all on the road.
If QB Mark Brunell and RB Clinton Portis could be healthy for 16 games, the Redskins are easily the best team in the NFC. However, the preseason wasn't halfway finished before Portis was sidelined and here the Redskins are with questions again.
Washington had another great offseason, acquiring S Adam Archuleta, DE/LB Andre Carter, WR Antwaan Randle El, WR Brandon Lloyd and RB T.J. Duckett. Simply put, if the Redskins don't have a healthy Portis around, winning the NFC East is going to be extremely difficult. Their terrific defense and solid offense should be enough to contend for a playoff spot.
NEW YORK GIANTS
Giants QB Eli Manning needs to be far more consistent then he was last year. Manning and the Giants came out swinging to start 2005 but fell apart in an ugly way as the season wore on and into the playoffs.
The Giants acquired LB LaVar Arrington, S Will Demps and CB Sam Madison, but defenses don't come together in a single offseason. The biggest concern is Tiki Barber's age. He is 31 this year and has been the heart and soul of this team for his entire career.
The Giants' success largely depends on his being able to run up 2,000 yards rushing and catching, year in and year out. If Barber has a good year, the Giants should be okay. If he starts to show his age at any point, the Giants will fall out of contention in a hurry.
The Cowboys and coach Bill Parcells have a tough job getting through the media hype surrounding Terrell Owens, let alone dealing with the best division in football. QB Drew Bledsoe looks great and WR Terry Glenn tremendous in the preseason.
The Dallas running game is a big question mark, and the offensive line is even more questionable. Losing G Larry Allen was huge, and the situation at offensive tackle is horrible. For a running game that struggled last year, that's not really what you want to see. Dallas' secondary looks solid and there are some good linebackers, but overall the defense lacks experience. The Cowboys have more questions than anyone else in this division.
For the Seahawks, the only real offseason loss, and it's a pretty big one, was All-Pro guard Steve Hutchinson. Besides the addition of LB Julian Peterson and WR Nate Burleson, the roster remains relatively unchanged.
It will be interesting to see how RB Shaun Alexander does coming off a career year (1,880 yards rushing with 27 TDs), now that his best lead blocker is gone. Alexander scored 20 of those 27 rushing touchdowns going to the left side behind Hutchinson, and don't forget 2005 was a contract year for Alexander.
Despite the Hutchinson loss, the Seahawks and Alexander still have Walter Jones on the left side and shouldn't be too concerned, but don't expect another 27 TDs. If Alexander can avoid injury via the Madden cover curse, the Seahawks will be fine and will probably end up getting deep into the playoffs.
ST. LOUIS RAMS
The best thing for the Rams in the offseason was the departure of coach Mike Martz, who simply called too many pass plays to allow this talented team to win. The Rams greatly improved their defense by signing DT La'Roi Glover, LB Will Witherspoon and S Corey Chavous.
The announcement that RB Marshall Faulk will not be playing this year is really a blessing in disguise. His absence will allow RB Steven Jackson to get a lot of touches and have his break-out season. With coach Scott Linehan now running things, there will be a good balance of run and pass. The Rams will be better and make it tough on any team they play, but they will have a tough time getting into the wild-card race.
QB Kurt Warner is still the starter, but first-round pick QB Matt Leinart is quickly progressing behind him. The addition of RB Edgerrin James moves the Cards from a team struggling for consistency to a team where it's just a matter of time until it breaks out.
The lack of depth and talent in the offensive line is going to hurt the running game and probably get Warner hurt at some point. The defense has a lot of good young players that are still trying to come together. Despite all the positives surrounding this team, it is still a year away from making a serious playoff push. T
he Cardinals will be fun to watch and should score some points because their skill players are so good, but inconsistency in the offensive line will wear James, Warner and Leinart down as the year goes on.
SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS
The 'Niners are in for yet another rebuilding season under coach Mike Nolan. QB Alex Smith should be much improved for his sophomore season, and the offense upgraded with the additions of LG Larry Allen, WR Antonio Bryant and the draft of TE Vernon Davis.
The 49ers have the best TE duo in the NFL with Davis and Eric Johnson. With the trade of RB Kevan Barlow to the Jets, the starting running back job now belongs to RB Frank Gore, who was extremely productive when he played in 2005. Overall, this team is still in a major transitional stage to become younger.
The losses of Julian Peterson and Andre Carter will severely damage the 49ers defense, but it really doesn't matter -- they won't exactly be in the playoff hunt.
Expect the Bears to continue to dominate defensively while their young offense should improve with QB Rex Grossman healthy again. For a team that struggled all year to score, the Bears did find a way to tally 21 points against Carolina in the playoffs, with Grossman at quarterback.
If the Bears can find a way to score anywhere near 21 points per game on a regular basis, they will be tough to beat, considering their defense only surrendered 12.6 points per game. Now that Grossman should be around for a full season, this young team should look to improve on chemistry and execution.
The schedule isn't incredibly difficult and this division is pretty soft. The Bears should easily win the division and possibly even get themselves another first-round playoff bye.
Despite trading away their two best players in QB Daunte Culpepper and WR Randy Moss in successive offseasons, the Vikings have several reasons to think they have actually improved.
The additions of LG Steve Hutchinson and RG Artis Hicks should boost the offensive line, not to mention getting FB Tony Richardson from Kansas City. Coach Brad Childress, the former offensive coordinator of the Philadelphia Eagles, should greatly improve the team's direction.
Brad Johnson, for now, is still a capable quarterback, as he showed last year when Culpepper got hurt. RB Chester Taylor should be able to sustain a decent running game
GREEN BAY PACKERS
The Packers are going to have a transitional season. The additions of CB Charles Woodson, S Marquand Manual and first-round pick LB A.J. Hawk improve the defense, which surprisingly finished fourth in the NFC last year in total defense even though it gave up 21 points per game. RB Samkon Gado and RB Ahman Green form a decent running tandem.
The biggest question with the Packers is when QB Brett Favre will step down and let QB Aaron Rodgers develop. The Packers are getting younger, which will help them down the line, but simply aren't good enough to compete with Chicago. And if Favre throws anywhere near the 29 INTs he had in 2005, they will be in for another really tough year.
Don't look now, but with the acquisition of Jon Kitna the Lions actually have a quarterback. Sarcasm aside, the Lions have WR Roy Williams, RB Kevin Jones, WR Mike Williams and a young, improving defense.
They revamped the coaching staff, with Rod Marinelli taking over as coach and Mike Martz coming in to be offensive coordinator. Marinelli is bringing in completely new offensive and defensive playbooks that will take some time for his players to learn. Overall, don't look for big things this season but the Lions may finally be on the verge of turning it around, at least to respectability.
Issue 1.20: September 7, 2006