Thoughts on the NFL NFC for 2017

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The start of the NFL season is nine days away as the 2017 regular season kicks off on Thursday, Sept. 7 with the defending Super Bowl Champion New England Patriots hosting the Kansas City Chiefs.

In this week’s column a brief preview of the NFC will be presented, Division by Division, with the same treatment being accorded to the AFC in next week’s column.

The following week’s column – in addition to beginning my forecasts for all NFL games on a weekly basis – will contain my predictions for the dozen Playoff teams, the teams to meet for the Conference Championships and a forecast for Super Bowl 52 to be played Feb. 4, 2018 in Minneapolis, Minn.

For those of you who live in Las Vegas or who may be visiting our fine city, I shall be part of a panel that will preview and forecast the upcoming season at Sunset Station on this Tuesday night. Joining me on the panel will be long time feature writer/handicapper for the Gold Sheet Bruce Marshall, plus veteran sports journalist and broadcaster Bernie Fratto, who has many connections from his many years covering the Detroit sports scene, including the Lions. Our special guest is expected to be Jim Fassel, the long time NFL coach who guided the New York Giants to Super Bowl 35.

The event will be hosted by long time sportsbook executive Chuck Esposito and moderated by Brian Blessing, a name and voice familiar to radio listeners in the Las Vegas market for the past decade.

Historically between five and six teams will repeat their Playoff appearances from the prior season. However, in recent seasons the average has been closer to between four and five repeaters. That means, in a typical season, four to five teams that miss the Playoffs one season will make them the next.

In the NFC last season the Playoff teams were Division winners Dallas, Green Bay, Atlanta and Seattle with Detroit and the New York Giants earning the two Wild Cards. In the AFC, New England, Pittsburgh, Houston and Kansas City made the Playoffs as Division winners with Miami and Oakland earning Wild Cards.

Here, then, are my thoughts on the NFC for 2017.

East

This is one of two very nicely balanced Divisions (the other is the NFC South). It has been more than a decade since the Division has seen a winner one season repeat the next. If that continues the Dallas Cowboys will have to secure a Wild Card to make the Playoffs. The ‘Boys were 13-3 last season on the strength of a pair of rookies – QB Dak Prescott and RB Ezekiel Elliott.

Often rookie sensations regress a bit in their second season and oddsmakers expect the Cowboys to not be quite as good in 2017, setting Season Wins Total at 9.5. The number has stayed steady but was adjusted with a huge move of the vig on the UNDER (-150 at Westgate) following last week’s six game suspension handed to Elliott, who, as expected, appealed. It is possible the suspension could be reduced, but with several losses from their defense the Cowboys will be challenged for the NFC East title by the New York Giants and, possibly, Philadelphia.

The Eagles are led by second-season Carson Wentz, who showed great promise as a rookie. The offensive talent surrounding him was upgraded during the offseason. The Eagles may be a season or two away from contending for the Playoffs but we should see them continue to improve during the season.

A team in decline might be Washington. The saga regarding QB Kirk Cousins cannot help in unifying the Redskins and could serve as a distraction if or when things get tough. The overall talent may be the weakest in the Division and Washington may have trouble exceeding its Season Wins Total of 7.5.

North

Green Bay is the overwhelming favorite to win this Division with backers having to lay in the neighborhood of 2-to-1 to back the Pack. There is a two-game gap between the Packers’ Season Wins Total of 10.5 and the next highest regarded team, Minnesota (8.5).

Detroit, which earned a Wild Card last season with a 9-7 record, has not had back-to-back winning seasons in more than two decades. Minnesota was 8-8 last season but starting QB Teddy Bridgewater was injured during preseason and lost for the season. That necessitated the trade for Sam Bradford and only a few weeks to assimilate him. Offensive coordinator Norv Turner left in the middle of the season.

Add in the fact that after averaging 133 rushing yards per game in 2015 but just 75 ypg last season it is  stunning that the Vikes were able to fashion that .500 record. With a full offseason and training camp that also includes highly regarded RB Dalvin Cook from Florida State the offense should be much improved. The defense has improved in each of coach Mike Zimmer’s first three seasons.

If Cook can give the Vikes the running game they lacked last season do not be surprised if they give Green Bay a run at the Division title and become a major player in the Wild Card race. Their Season Wins Total might appear too high at 8.5 but the Vikings are a prime candidate to be a team that missed the Playoffs in 2016 but makes them this season.

Detroit has a better chance of returning to the Playoffs than Chicago although neither team is expected to achieve a .500 season. The Bears will have a new QB this season, which normally suggests there will be growing pains. The Bears might be a team to consider backing over the second half of the season, especially if they struggle in September and October.

South

This is perhaps the deepest Division, along with the NFC East, and the winner has been in the Super Bowl, although losing both times as Carolina fell to Denver two seasons ago and Atlanta was defeated by New England in dramatic fashion last season.

Atlanta will be faced with the affliction that faces most Super Bowl losers, and it would not be a surprise if they slipped in the standings, unable to match last season’s 11-5 record. The Falcons may not be as potent on offense with former offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan now the head coach in San Francisco. He and QB Matt Ryan developed strong chemistry and it could take time for Ryan to play at that same level this season.

Carolina is not as good as its 15-1 record as NFC champs in 2015 but neither are they as bad as their 6-10 record last season might suggest. A healthy QB Cam Newton would have the Panthers again contending for the Division title, especially with a solid defense. The oddsmakers expect Carolina to have a strong rebound with their Season Wins Total of 9.

Tampa Bay could be the team to rise to the top this season, especially if QB Jameis Winston continues to develop, following a strong 2015 rookie season with an even better 2016. He has added weapons at his disposal and the Bucs have an excellent chance to exceed or improve upon last season’s 9 wins even though their Season Wins Total is just 8.

New Orleans should have another solid offensive season behind QB Drew Brees as the future Hall of Famer begins to wind down his career. Defense remains a concern for the Saints; with strong offenses within the Division they might finish fourth. As a testament to the strength of the NFC South, the Saints could finish last with a .500 record. In fact, this is the only Division in which all four teams have Season Win Totals of 8 or higher.

West

Seattle, with a projected Season Wins Total of 10.5, is the prohibitive favorite to win the Division (odds of 2/7 with Arizona next at 3/1). The veteran nucleus on both sides of the football and the leadership of head coach Pete Carroll suggest the Seahawks have a season or two as kings of this Division and are a legitimate Super Bowl contender with no dominant NFC team.

Because of the weakness at the bottom of the Division, Seattle has an excellent chance to exceed its Season Wins Total of 10.5 although the -130 vig on the OVER might be a bit too steep to recommend backing.

Arizona is clearly the second best team in the Division and if veteran QB Carson Palmer can stay healthy, perhaps miss no more than two games, the Cards could challenge Seattle for the Division title. After an ugly 6-6 tie at home early in the season Arizona upset the Seahawks 34-31 in Seattle in Week 16.

After three straight double digit win seasons the decline to 7-8-1 last season sets the stage for a bounce back. With a healthy Palmer and a solid defense the Cardinals are a 10-win team, although you must lay -160 to exceed the Season Wins Total of 8.

San Francisco and the LA Rams will battle to avoid the cellar as there is a huge gap between the top two teams (Seahawks and Cardinals) and the bottom two. San Francisco may be better positioned to show improvement with the hiring of John Lynch to run football operations.

Lynch did a masterful job in the draft but the improvement may be a season or two away as the Niners are still a team in transition from the success enjoyed under former coach Jim Harbaugh. The ugliness of the past two seasons marked by single season head coaches and the departure of many key players contributed to their success of the prior four seasons.

The Rams have a tougher road to navigate, although they are better situated defensively than San Francisco. The Rams are projected to win 6 games and the 49ers 5. Both may struggle to achieve or exceed those totals but whichever gets the better QB play might have a chance. However, both are stronger candidates to fall short of expectations rather than exceed them.

Next week: The AFC.

About the Author

Andy Iskoe

Owner and author of “The Logical Approach,” Andy Iskoe has been a long time GT columnist, contributing weekly in-season columns on baseball, pro basketball and pro football.

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