East appears to be most competitive
Last week’s column previewed the four Divisions in the AFC and this week the four NFC Divisions will undergo a similar examination. In next week’s column forecasts will be presented for the dozen teams to make the Playoffs and how the road to Cowboys Stadium for Super Bowl XLV may be traveled, culminating with a prediction for the teams to meet for the Vince Lombardi Trophy.
The NFC East may be the best Division in all of the NFL and certainly has the most intrigue of the eight Divisions. Dallas is deservedly the favorite to win the Division coming off of last season’s late season run that saw the Cowboys finally win a Playoff game for the first team in more than a decade. Dallas appears to be the best balanced of the four long time rivals, with great athleticism on both sides of the football and a team in which many of their key players are just approaching their prime.
The New York Giants should be improved over last season which saw the G-men start 5-0, feasting on largely very weak teams, before it all fell apart, especially on defense. The Giants were the top seed in the NFC just a season earlier and much of that talent is still there. Changes were made to shore up the defense, including a new coordinator.
The team with the most intrigue is Philadelphia as it remains to be seen if the decision to trade long time QB Donovan McNabb (to Division rival Washington no less) in favor of up and coming but relatively inexperienced Kevin Kolb was a wise one. Coach Andy Reid has been an underrated coach in terms of exceeding expectations as his Eagles have gone OVER their season win total in 8 of his 11 seasons as coach, pushing his first season. Although his clock management has been subject to much criticism he clearly has his team well prepared. Former Denver coach Mike Shanahan is now in charge of Washington and McNabb is out to show he still has some quality football in him as he replaces Jason Campbell.
But it may take some time for Shanahan to mold the Skins into his style of team and the Redskins, though improved, likely finish last in the Division albeit perhaps with a .500 record. The Cowboys, Giants and Eagles should all contend for the Playoffs with Dallas having the fewest flaws of the trio. Dallas is priced at 21 to 20 odds to win the Division (that’s +105) those are actually fairly decent odds given the talent at hand and the steps they took last season. The Giants have some value at +280 while the Eagles, at +275, may be a bit shorter than warranted. Both teams have plenty of recent Playoff experience with the Giants just three seasons removed from ending New England’s perfect season with their win in Super Bowl XLII. Washington seems too short priced at 6 to 1 odds to merit serious consideration.
With Brett Favre returning to Minnesota the NFC North should again be a competitive race between the Vikings and Green Bay. Both teams made the Playoffs last season and while the Packers were one and done, losing their Wild Card game in that wild 51-45 overtime loss at Arizona, Minnesota also bowed out in overtime in the NFC Championship game in New Orleans but only after they had humbled Dallas 34-3 a week earlier. Both teams have outstanding offenses but also very strong defenses.
Last season the Packers had the NFL’s number 6 offense and number 2 defense while the Vikes were number 5 and 6, respectively. Favre’s successor at QB in Green Bay, Aaron Rodgers, has risen to elite status in his two seasons as starter. And it’s the QB position that will separate these two teams from Chicago and Detroit.
The Bears are expected to be more innovative on offense with new coordinator Mike Martz building a playbook for Jay Cuter, who disappointed greatly in his first season as a Bear. The Chicago defense should keep the Bears in most games although that unit has been statistically average to below average in each of the past three seasons. Detroit is still in the building mode with second season QB Matthew Stafford poised to show modest progress. But there are too many holes to fill and after going 0-16 in 2008 there was only one way to go in 2009 and Detroit’s two wins were a step up but it was a small step at best. Hence the 17 to 1 odds to win the Division seem way too low.
At least there is some potential for Chicago to win the Division but considering the strength of the Packers and Vikings, Chicago’s odds of 7 to 2 are too short. But barring any significant lengthy injuries, the Packers (-160) and Minnesota (+280) are the solid favorites with Minnesota (+280) are the solid favorites with Minnesota, as much for their defense as for Favre at QB, being the better value.
In the seven seasons since the NFL was realigned into eight Divisions or four teams each, six times the last place team in the NFC South has gone on to win the Division the following season. The lone exception was when Atlanta, which finished last in 2007 with a 4-12 record, could only advance to second place in 2008 even though they improved to 11-5. Carolina did them one better with a 12-4 mark. Does that history signal marked improvement for Tampa Bay in 2010? The Bucs were a lowly 3-13 in 2009 which followed a pair of 9-7 seasons, the last of which in 2008 resulted in the firing of the coach that led Tampa to its only Super Bowl win, Jon Gruden. But the dropoff statistically on defense for Tampa Bay was astounding in 2009. After ranking in the Top 9 defensively in 8 of the 9 previous seasons (and 17 in 2006) Tampa fell to 27 in 2009, allowing 366 yards per game. It was, and remains, a defense in great transition, one that is likely to show at best modest improvement in 2010 so the Bucs may be the first NFC South team to repeat a fourth place finish. Their 15 to 1 odds to win the Division are justified but if you believe in history repeating itself despite the above observations, you might be nicely rewarded. Defending Super Bowl champion New Orleans should again be formidable but it’s tough to repeat. It’s been five seasons since New England won the second of their back-to-back titles but it should be noted that the four seasons since the Pats repeated is tied for the second longest stretch between repeat winners, trailing the eight seasons that separated Pittsburgh’s back-to-back wins (in SBs XIII and XIV) and San Francisco’s back-to-back wins (in XXIII and XIV). Are the Saints, therefore, “due” to repeat? They clearly have the talent for a return to the Playoffs but it might take a repeat of the incredible play of their defense. The defense made key play after key play even though statistically that unit ranked 25, right near their rankings in each of the previous two seasons. Their Super Bowl odds are reasonable at 9 to 1 although their odds to win the Division of -160 appear too low. Perhaps the most hyped team in the Division is Atlanta. The Falcons are coming off their first back-to-back winning seasons in their four and a half decades of franchise history. As with New Orleans, the concern is with the Atlanta defense, which has allowed around 350 yards per game in each of the past three seasons. Unlike the Saints, however, Atlanta has a solid but not nearly as potent offense. Even with all the hype their Division odds of +175 are reasonable. But their 20 to 1 Super Bowl odds may be too low to be justified for a team with just three Playoff appearances in the 11 seasons since losing to Denver in Super Bowl XXXIII. An interesting case might be made for Carolina, a well coached team that’s been to the Playoffs three time in the past seven seasons, including a 3 point loss to New England in Super Bowl XXXVIII. The Panthers are just two seasons removed from tying with the Giants for the best record in the NFC (12-4) and have a solid defense and one of the best running games in the NFL. Coach John Fox has shown an ability to rebound following sub par seasons. This suggests an improvement over last season’s 8-8 mark even with relative inexperience at QB. Though many observers call for a continued decline for the Panthers, this column goes contrarian and at odds of 100 to 1 to win it all Carolina could be an under the radar longshot to contend for at least a Wild Card if not the Division title. Their Divisional odds of 8 to 1 are also reasonable for the only Division not to have a repeat winner since Divisional realignment in 2002.
The NFC West is interesting now that QB Kurt Warner has retired from two time Division champion Arizona. Many pundits have proclaimed San Francisco as the team to beat in the Division and indeed the 49ers are the 3 to 2 favorites (-150 to win the Division). Much of this stems from the expected decline of the Cardinals but take note that the 49ers actually beat Arizona twice last season.
So San Francisco’s ascension will have to come from other areas but can they repeat their season sweep of Arizona? In his brief career as a head coach Arizona’s Ken Whisenhunt has been impressive. In 2008 he took over a team that had endured 8 straight losing seasons and finished 8-8 and then winning the Division title each of the next two seasons. It would be foolhardy to sell the Cardinals short, even with their significant off season personnel changes, and their odds of +225 to repeat in 2010 does present value.
Pete Carroll returns to the NFL following a wildly successful run at USC that ended amid controversy. Carroll’s previous stints in the NFL produced average results and he takes over a team in transition, relying on oft injured QB Matt Hasselbeck to lead the offense. The Seahawks owned the Division in the middle part of the decade but with 4 and 5 wins the past two seasons, and a third coach in three seasons, suggest Seattle is no better than third best in the NFL West. If you are a believer in Carroll and put stock into the fact that Hasselbeck is by far the most experienced, and arguably successful, QB in the Division you might take a flyer on the Seahawks to win the Division. At +375 the price is attractive enough to at least give pause for consideration. Ironically the Rams’ lone win last season came at Detroit, 17-10, and St. Louis is in Detroit again this season.
It will be must see TV when these titans clash on Oct. 10. Not! Seriously, the Rams have too many deficiencies to see much improvement this season. They are likely to rely on rookie QB Sam Bradford who will rely on one of the weakest offensive lines in recent memory to provide protection. RB Steven Jackson provides the lone ray of hope for the offense which is light on quality receivers. And the defense is a mess. The 2009 Rams had the kind of balance you don’t like to see, ranking 29 statistically on both offense and defense. Their odds of 25 to 1 to win the Division are tied with Buffalo for the highest Divisional odds on the board. And even at 25 to 1 those odds may be short a zero.
In next week’s column the eight Divisional winners and four Wild Cards will be predicted along with a forecast of how the Playoffs may unfold next January.