2011 NFC Preview By Matt Lombardo

Last season the Green Bay Packers besieged by injuries mounted a late charge in the regular season to enter the playoffs as the NFC Wild Card and later marched to Dallas where they hoisted the Lombardi Trophy. The Packers toppled NFC favorites Philadelphia, Atlanta and Chicago, who all figure to be contenders in this year’s race, en route to their first Super Bowl Championship since 1996.

The NFC can best be described as a whole, as a conference on the rise. Each division boasts teams that on paper will be much improved from a year ago, and the stalwart favorites all improved in the offseason, be it by making bold additions or simply by taking advantage of the continuity necessary to build on early this season after a lockout wiped away all offseason activities.

Here is a division by division look at the NFC entering the 2011 season.

 NFC East

1Philadelphia Eagles: It’s no secret that the Eagles have for all intents and purposes pushed all of their chips to the center of the table this season. By adding the likes of Nnamdi Asomugha, Cullen Jenkins, Jason Babin, Vince Young and others, this front office has jumped into ‘win now’ mode. Philadelphia capitalized on a long thought out plan to pursue the top available players in a post lockout NFL, and were the hands down offseason winners. However, with glaring holes along the offensive line with two rookie starters and an entirely new scheme, one has to wonder if they have the time needed to gel as a unit. Despite his $100 million extension, Michael Vick is a question mark as he must show the ability to combat the blitz and physical defenses that wrangled him down the stretch. Predicted finish: 10-6

2. New York Giants: The Giants gave the Eagles all they could handle a year ago. Yes, their secondary is banged up which will do them no favors when they must match up against DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin twice this season. But first round pick cornerback Prince Amukamara will be back early in the season. Their pass rush will continue to be their bread and butter with Osi Umenyiora rotating with Justin Tuck and Jason Pierre-Paul, who will feast on the young and shuffling offensive lines of the Eagles and Cowboys. Offensively, with Eli Manning under center and a pounding running game led by Ahmed Bradshaw and Brandon Jacobs this team will thrive in physical NFC East contests. The Giants have a favorable schedule to get off to a fast start, but finishing strong against the Eagles, Saints, Packers, Cowboys twice, Redskins and Jets will be difficult. Predicted Finish: 9-7

3.Dallas Cowboys:  The storyline in Dallas this season will be the play and health of Tony Romo. The offense will be a balanced one with teams getting steady doses of Felix Jones on the ground and Dez Bryant, Miles Austin and Jason Witten through the air. The offensive line is in a state of flux with three new starters which could be an issue early. Protecting Tony Romo is imperative for this team. Rob Ryan takes over a defense that will make its money with pressure up front from DeMarcus ware, Jay Ratliff and others, but the secondary is a major question mark. Jason Garrett will need to make his fingerprints on this team quickly to ride the momentum of last season’s 5-3 stretch run and erase any doubt remaining from a 1-7 start. Predicted Finish: 9-7

4. Washington Redskins: In the last 18 months, Mike Shanahan has erased whatever legacy he built as a Head Coach in Denver, by guiding the Redskins into the ground. Gone is veteran quarterback Donovan McNabb, he’ll be replaced by unheralded signal caller John Beck who has only thrown the ball 107 times in his career. The offensive line will be crucial in a division that boasts some of the top defensive lines in football, but they just may be up to the job of keeping Beck upright. First round choice Trent Williams chosen fourth overall has drawn rave reviews at left tackle and unlike every other team in the division, the Redskins offensive line may be the strength of their team. This will be a running back by committee with free agent addition Tim Hightower getting the bulk of the reps along with rookie Roy Helu and veteran Ryan Torain. Washington plays a 3-4 which will be a unique look to many in the conference, but they simply don’t have the pass rushing ability of the Eagles, Cowboys or Giants up front. Predicted Finish: 4-12

NFC North

1.Green Bay Packers: The defending Super Bowl champion Packers have a luxury that most teams lack entering this post-lockout season: team chemistry. The Packers were one of the quieter teams in the offseason and that could pay dividends as other teams struggle to forge an identity, the Packers have the strength of last season’s success and returning veterans to lay the foundation for 2011. 11 injured veterans who were injured down the stretch last season return, which make the Packers roster deeper and healthier than ever. Aaron Rodgers is widely considered among the top three quarterbacks in the league and he has emerging targets Greg Jennings and steady veteran Donald Driver at his disposal. Green Bay will use a power running game with backs Ryan Green and James Sparks. In a division as deep as the NFC North, the Packers with their depth and talent at all skill positions make them the runaway favorites not only in the division but to return to Indianapolis in February. Predicted Finish: 13-3

2. Detroit Lions: With First round picks Matthew Stafford, Calvin Johnson, Jhavid Best on offense and Ndamukong Suh paired with Nick Fairly on defense, the talent is in place for the Lions to roar in 2011. Suh had 10 sacks in 2010, and with a first round pick in Fairly rounding out the defensive line, Detroit should get plenty of pressure from their front four. Stafford, if he can stay healthy for a full season has as many compliments of weapons as any team in the conference and should post numbers that are vastly improved from his rookie season in 2009 when he threw for 2,267 yards and 13 touchdowns. The play of the offensive line will be crucial. This team is taking baby steps but there is enough young talent for them to compete. Predicted Finish: 8-8

3. Chicago Bears: The Bears hosted the NFC Championship game a year ago and were let down by Jay Cutler’s injury and many questioned whether or not the starter should have returned, which left a bad taste in the mouth of several veterans. The biggest loss for this team moving forward may be Olin Kreutz who signed in the offseason with the Saints. Kreutz’s departure leaves a gaping hole in the middle of a Bears offensive line that is in transition. Cutler is the obvious key here, but he does not have a multitude of weapons that teams like the Packers and Lions do in the NFC North. Also, Devin Hester’s value is minimized because of the new kickoff rules that will see even more touchbacks than the 40 percent a year ago. Predicted Finish: 7-9

4. Minnesota Vikings: The Donovan McNabb carousel finally landed in Minnesota, where many believed to be the best fit for him following the 2009 season. McNabb will certainly benefit from the power running game led by Adrian Peterson and his 1,300 yards a year ago. However, without the luxury of Sidney Rice at wide receiver after he signed with the Seahawks, McNabb’s aerial assault is by and large barren of weapons. Tight end Kyle Rudolph will be a focal point in this offense, just as Chris Cooley was for McNabb in Washington and LJ Smith, Brent Celek were in Philadelphia. Defensively, Minnesota is led by All-Pro defensive end Jared Allen, but the loss of veterans Pat Williams and Ray Edwards leave gaping holes up front. Teams will be able to rush on the Vikings and thus control the clock keeping McNabb on the sidelines. McNabb very well may throw for 3,000 yards and 25 touchdowns but it won’t be enough to resurrect this rebuilding franchise. Predicted Finish: 6-10

NFC South

1. New Orleans Saints: Drew Brees was ahead of the curve as one of the first quarterbacks in the NFL to orchestrate team activities during the lockout. A quiet offseason, combined with the chemistry gained from Camp Brees will help keep the Saints atop the NFC South. Gone is Reggie Bush, replaced with Heisman Trophy winning rookie rusher Mark Ingram who will get the bulk of the carries. Marquis Colston will continue to be a focal point in the passing game and defensively this team will pick up right where it left off. Ends Will Smith and rookie Cameron Jordan will bring the pressure from the edges, which was lacking last season, middle linebacker Johnathan and safety Malcolm Jenkins provide stability. This team addressed the needs that were exposed by the Seahawks in the opening round of the playoffs last year, and Drew Brees will bounce back strong in 2011. Predicted Finish: 11-5

2. Atlanta Falcons: Matt Ryan is a budding super star at the quarterback position following his 3,700 yard 28 touchdown performance and drive to the NFC’s best record a year ago. With power running back Michael Turner at his disposal along with All Pro wideout Roddy White and tight end Tony Gonzalez, this offense is as balanced as it gets. The Falcons play a tough, physical brand of defense. Adding Ray Edwards to the pass rush is going to create havoc for teams up front. Brent Grimes and Dunta Robinson form a formidable secondary that should benefit both corners when it comes to interception numbers. They’ll challenge the Saints for the division. Predicted Finish: 11-5

3. Tampa Bay Buccaneers: The Tampa Bay Buccaneers were a darling of a story in 2010, coming out of nowhere to finish 10-6 under second-year quarterback Josh Freeman. Freeman should continue to develop as a quarterback this season. Second-year receiver Mike Williams, who developed into Freeman’s favorite target should continue to improve as well. There is simply too much youth on the defensive side of the ball for this team to be considered a viable threat in the offensive top-heavy NFC South. With that said, this young team has the makings of a competitive franchise for years to come. Predicted Finish: 8-8

4. Carolina Panthers: What is there to say about a franchise that drafted its second franchise quarterback in as many years? After realizing that Jimmy Clausen was a mistake in 2010, the Panthers tabbed Auburn’s Cam Newton as the top pick and have made him the face of the franchise. There’s no doubting Newton’s enormous up side, but there are questions with his mechanics and decision-making in the pocket. He’ll be the opening day starter, but there just isn’t enough talent around him to foresee a breakout rookie year. Veteran wideout Steve Smith is the lone target outside, while it will be a running back by committee with Mike Goodson and DeAngelo Williams in the backfield once again. Then there’s the question of if this defense can stop anyone? Predicted Finish: 3-13

NFC West

1. Arizona Cardinals: The Cardinals would have won the NFC West had they not faded down the stretch last season, and had a revolving door of mediocrity at quarterback all season long. Enter Kevin Kolb, and this team has the pieces in place to make a run. It’s stunning that Larry Fitzgerald grabbed 90 balls for 1,137 and six touchdowns a year ago, he could fight for the single season reception record with Kolb slinging the rock. There simply isn’t any depth to this receiving corps after losing Steve Breaston to free agency, but the Kolb-Fitzgerald connection will produce impressive numbers. Defensively Arizona made Patrick Peterson a first round pick and he’ll start immediately at corner. In a very mediocre division, the Cardinals are the most complete of the teams. Predicted Finish: 10-6

2. St. Louis Rams: It won’t quite be the Greatest Show on Turf, but it will be close. Second year quarterback Sam Bradford slung the ball all over the field a year ago, completing 60 percent of his passes for 3,512 yards. Add receiver Mike Sims-Walker who is the big physical, big play receiver the Rams lacked a year ago alongside Danny Amendola who led the NFL in Red Zone targets and Brandon Gibson and this offense is ready to roll. Steven Jackson is still a solid between the tackles rusher who has carried the ball on more than 72 percent of the Rams running plays since 2008. The defense is a concern with little talent at the corner position, but this team will put up points week in and week out. Predicted Finish: 10-6

3.  San Francisco 49ers: Again, Alex Smith under center? The Niners used a first round pick on linebacker Aldon Smith rather than a quarterback and thus entrusted the unsteady Smith under center once again. Management did add Braylon Edwards to Smith’s arsenal and he will be paired alongside Michael Crabtree which will give opposing defenses fits in the red zone, but that’s about it. Frank Gore will pound the ball between the tackles, but beyond that there simply isn’t enough talent in place for this team to make a significant run. Predicted Finish: 5-11

4.  Seattle Seahawks: Seattle made the playoffs with a 7-9 record last season, the first team in NFL history to achieve postseason play with such mediocrity. Gone is quarterback Matt Hasselbeck, he’ll be replaced by Tarvaris Jackson who brings with him from Minnesota, wideout Sidney Rice. Marshawn Lynch is a pedestrian running back who will struggle to reach the 737 yard plateau from 2010 and the defense is dearth of talent. While the rest of the division improved around them, the Seahawks failed to upgrade at any significant skill position in the offseason, and that will show in 2011. Predicted Finish: 4-12

Playoff Picks

  1. Green Bay Packers
  2. New Orleans Saints
  3. Philadelphia Eagles
  4. Arizona Cardinals
  5. Atlanta Falcons
  6. St. Louis Rams

NFC Championship

Packers over Saints

Matt Lombardo is the Philadelphia Eagles beat reporter and host for 97.3 ESPN in Atlantic City, NJ. Matt can be reached on Twitter @MattLombardoPHL

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