NFC East Projected Order of Finish:
Last Year: 13-3, lost Super Bowl to Patriots
This Year: The Terrell Owens media circus will not have an adverse affect on this team. Remember, they played in 3 straight NFC Championship games, and made the playoffs 4 years in a row before he came to town. If TO plays, the Eagles offense will be upper-echelon like last year, and if he doesn’t play it will be mediocre. Either way, with the defense and special teams they have, the Eagles will handily win the NFC East.
Summation: The Eagles win 12 or 13 games, their 5th straight NFC East title, and play in their 5th straight NFC Championship game. However, they will be 1-4 in title games after this season.
Last Year: 6-10, no playoffs
This Year: The Cowboys added the aging lead-footed Drew Bledsoe to replace the aged lead-footed Vinny Testaverde. Call the QB situation a wash. RB Julius Jones looks to improve in his second season, and I see no reason to believe that he won’t. However, it’s the defense that must improve the most if this team is to contend. They finished 28th in points allowed last year. That won’t get the job done whether Bill Parcells or Sam Wyche is coaching your team. To improve the D in the off-season, Dallas added DT Jason Ferguson and CB Aaron Glenn. Dallas can also expect improvement from youngsters Roy Williams and Terrance Newman in the secondary.
Summation: While Drew Bledsoe is no great shakes at QB, he is not Craig Krenzel either. The Dallas defense and running attack will compensate for the average passing game. Expect Dallas to win 9-10 games and grab a wildcard playoff spot.
New York Giants
Last Year: 6-10, no playoffs
This Year: The Giants are an intriguing team. The bolstered their defense in the off-season by adding LB Antonio Pierce and DT Kendrick Clancy. They will also get a full season’s work from Michael Strahan (hopefully) who played in 8 games last year before going down with an injury. The Giants also gave Eli Manning another big weapon in WR Plaxico Burress.
Summation: The defense should be vastly improved over last seasons’ model, so it all comes down to Eli. I for one am not sold on a marked improvement for him this year. Peyton improved dramatically in his second year, but take one second to ponder the numbers.
Peyton’s Rookie Year: 6.5 yards per pass attempt, 26 TDs, 28 INTs
Eli’s Rookie Year: 5.3 yards per pass attempt, 6 TDs, 9 INTs
It should also be noted that 2004 was one of the best (if not the best) environments for passing ever.
Peyton’s 2nd Year: 7.8 yards per pass attempt, 26 TDs, 15 INTs
Peyton put up much better numbers in an offensive environment slightly less conducive for passing. Eli would have to improve a great deal in his 2nd year to even equal his brother’s rookie year. Eli will struggle again this year, but the Giants D will carry them to 6 wins and a tumultuous off-season where they will be forced to decide what to do with Eli.
Last Year: 6-10, no playoffs
This Year: The Redskins defense was downright scary last year, but so was the offense (in a bad way). The defense suffered significant losses in the form of LB Antonio Pierce and CB Fred Smoot. The Redskins did add WR Santana Moss to the receiving corps, but he is not much of an upgrade (if any) over Laveranues Coles.
Summation: Unless Patrick Ramsey or 1st round pick Jason Campbell miraculously develops, or Mark Brunell makes a Lazarus-like rise from the dead, expect the Washington offense to be anemic just like last season. The defense should regress a little from its fantastic performance in 2004. All told, expect 5 wins, and a very frustrated Joe Gibbs at season’s end.
NFC South Projected Order of Finish:
Last Year: 7-9, no playoffs
This Year: Don’t look at the overall record, but look at the point differential and you will see a developing trend.
The 2003 Panthers were a historic fluke. They won several regular season games they shouldn’t have, and then exploited a weak NFC and a terrible Mike Martz coaching decision to play in the Super Bowl. The 2004 version was almost just as good as the 2003 version, but was much less lucky. This is the year the Panthers finally play like the team many thought they were in 2003. The addition of G Mike Wahle from Green Bay instantly improves the running game, the bread and butter of John Fox’s system. On defense, Carolina strengthened its secondary by adding CB Ken Lucas.
Summation: The Panthers will roll to an NFC South division title barring an historic run of injuries similar to what they suffered through last year. Pencil them in for 11 or 12 wins and a return to the playoffs.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Last Year: 5-11, no playoffs
This Year: The Tampa Bay Bucs are every statistician’s enigma. In 2003, they outscored their opponents by 37 points and finished 7-9, and last year they were only outscored by 3 points yet finished 5-11. In my humble opinion, their luck has to turn. Although nowhere near as strong as the championship unit of 2002, the defense is still good. They finished 9th in points allowed last season. The addition of Chris Hovan should bolster the defensive line. The offense should be just as good if not better. Brian Griese played surprisingly well at quarterback last season and the maturation of WR Michael Clayton should improve the passing game. The running game should also get a shot in the arm with the drafting of Carnell ‘Cadillac’ Williams. We’ll see if his 8 cylinders are firing in line.
Summation: Tampa Bay has their luck turn around somewhat. They will win 9-10 games and claim the last wildcard spot alongside Dallas.
Last Year: 11-5, lost to Eagles in NFC Championship game
This Year: Don’t be fooled by the 2004 incarnation of the Atlanta Falcons. Yes they won 11 games, but they only outscored their opponents by 3 points on the season. Yes they dominated the Rams in the playoffs. But these were not your older brother’s Rams. They were themselves a flawed 8-8 team that had just won a road playoff game the week before. Give Atlanta credit for not resting on their laurels. They added depth to their defense with the additions of LB Ike Reese and Edgerton Hartwell. The Falcons must hope their receiving corps improves or Michael Vick will have many 10 for 25 passing lines in the box score.
Summation: Atlanta may actually improve this season, but it will not be reflected in their record. They will win 7-8 games and contend for a wildcard spot, but ultimately fall short.
New Orleans Saints:
Last Year: 8-8, no playoffs
This Year: You know a 3-13 or 4-12 season could do this team some good. Every year under Jim Haslett, the Saints finish between 7-9 wins, the epitome of mediocrity. And then the following year, with little crucial roster tinkering the Saints believe they will finally ‘put it together’ and break through. And continue ad infinitum. However, this could be the year they finally implode, and incidentally set them up for contention a few years down the road.
Summation: The Saints again kept most of their skill position personnel intact, and added some low-key players on defense (S Dwight Smith and LB Levar Fisher). Normally I would expect another 7-9 or 8-8 season, but with the natural disaster in the gulf coast, the Saints will be a nomad team the entire year. They will play exactly zero home games, and what amounts to 16 road contests. The 1985 Bears would struggle with that schedule. The Saints will win 4 or 5 games, and after the season Haslett will be fired, the roster will be blown up, and the Saints will try to build a winner with new parts.
NFC West Projected Order of Finish
Last Year: 9-7, lost to Rams in Wildcard Round
This Year: Read this article. If you’re too impatient, I will try to explain it with not so eloquent verbiage. The jist of it is that teams that perform poorly on 3rd down compared to 1st and 2nd downs (on offense or defense) one year tend to progress to the mean the next year (and vice-versa). Confused? The Seahawks were bad on 3rd downs offensively compared to 1st and 2nd downs. Therefore, they should improve this season simply by regression (or in this case progression) to the mean. Everyone’s Super Bowl darkhorse from last season is my Super Bowl favorite this season.
Summation: If you are a betting man, bet heavily on Seattle winning this weak division. I mean really, who else will win it? Would you really lay money on the Arizona Cardinals? And the Rams’ defense has more holes than a Pawley’s Island hammock. Seattle rolls in this division. They will win 12 or 13 games. Once in the playoffs, Mike Holmgren will lead his 2nd franchise to the Super Bowl where they will meet and defeat the Kansas City Chiefs.
Last Year: 6-10, no playoffs
This Year: The Cardinals added former MVP Kurt Warner to their offense in the off-season. However, this is not the Kurt Warner of 99-01. Warner fooled many with his performance last season. It looked efficient; almost 63% completion percentage, 6 TDs and only 4 INTs, but dig a little deeper. He was sacked 39 times in only 10 games (contrast this to 2001 when he was sacked 38 times in 16 games) and he fumbled 12 times. Warner is a shadow of his former self. He either holds on to the ball too long and takes a sack, or doesn’t hold onto the ball and fumbles. That being said, Arizona will still contend for a playoff spot in 2005 thanks to its young receivers (Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin), young running back (J.J. Arrington) and improved defense. The Cardinals added DE Chike Okeafor, S Robert Griffith, and LB Orlando Huff to the unit in the off-season.
Summation: Warner will provide enough solid surface stats (completion %, good TD/INT ratio) to make people believe he is helping Arizona win. In actuality it will be the defense and young skill position players that help Arizona improve. Expect 8 wins and a season of wildcard contention that will fall just short.
St. Louis Rams
Last Year: 8-8, lost to Falcons in Divisional Round
This Year: These are not the ‘Greatest Show on Turf’ Rams. They are far from it. They are not even the best offense in Missouri. Care to hazard a guess where this offensive dynamo finished in points scored last season? 19th. They were mediocre at best on offense. They were also outscored by 73 points on the year so they were a bit lucky to go 8-8. Also, don’t forget that one of their victories was over an Eagles team that was resting its starters in Week 16. These guys are living off their rep and have been doing so for several years. They added LBs Dexter Coakley and Chris Claiborne to improve a defense that was mediocre on good days and downright appalling on bad days last season.
Summation: Marshall Faulk is in decline, but should be replaced admirably be Stephen Jackson. However, even if Jackson performs at his absolute peak, do you really believe he will be equal to Faulk circa 99-01? No way. Isaac Bruce will also suffer another year of decline as he is now 33. The defense may improve a little, but that will be offset by offensive regression and a stronger division. The Rams will win 6 games and Mike Martz will be on the hotseat.
San Francisco 49ers
Last Year: 2-14, unmitigated disaster
This Year: Why does Dennis Erickson coach pro football? Its obvious he sucks at it. Stay in college and build moribund programs like Oregon St. into national powers. Anyway, the 49ers don’t appear to be much better this year than last. The 49ers do get stud LB Julian Peterson back after he missed 11 games last year with an injury. However, his presence alone will not be enough to save a unit that finished last in points allowed last season.
Summation: This will be a bad year for the 49ers. There is hope though. Alex Smith may turn out to be their QB of the future. Other than that, expect 3 or 4 wins at the most from this squad.
NFC North Projected Order of Finish
Last Year: 8-8, lost to Eagles in Divisional Round
This Year: The Vikings lost WR Randy Moss this off-season, but should more than make up for that with the addition of several playmakers on defense. New CB Fred Smoot will team with holdover Antoine Winfield to form a solid coverage unit. LBs Sam Cowart and Napoleon Harris, DT Pat Williams, and S Darren Sharper will also vastly improve the Vikings porous defense. Daunte Culpepper will continue to anchor a solid offense that will slow down a bit with the loss of Randy Moss.
Summation: In what looks to be a down year for the NFC North, the Vikings will cruise to the title with an 11 win season.
Last Year: 6-10, no playoffs
This Year: Detroit was going to be a wildcard team until they lost QB Jeff Garcia to a broken leg in the preseason. Charles Rogers and the Williams boyz (Mike and Roy) should still make for an exciting group of receivers until Rogers breaks his collarbone again. Kevin Jones should also be a stud in the backfield. The only hole on this team is at QB. Joey Harrington has not performed like a 1st Round pick in any of his 3 seasons. For this reason, I thought Jeff Garcia would take the reigns and lead the Lions to the playoffs.
Summation: Good skill position players, average defense, and a good coach. The only thing missing is a QB who can get the skill players the ball. That is what will kill Detroit this season. The Lions will win 7 games and wonder what could have been had Garcia not gone down.
Green Bay Packers
Last Year: 10-6, lost to Vikings in Wildcard Round
This Year: Is this Brett Favre’s swan song season? If it is, he will go out on a downer. He lost his 2 best lineman, Gs Mike Wahle and Marco Rivera, and his best defender, S Darren Sharper. The Pack defense was bad last year and it won’t get any better. The offense should also be worse with the loss of the two linemen mentioned earlier.
Summation: Its gonna be a long year in Title Town. 6 wins is about the max for this team.
Last Year: 5-11, no playoffs
This Year: The Bears wasted a very good defense by having an offense reminiscent of a team from the 1920s. While those teams failed to pass because it was illegal, this Bears team simply lacked anyone capable of throwing the ball. Unless Kyle Orton develops into a solid QB (which he may down the road), expect more of the same this year. The Bears did add WR Muhsin Muhammad to improve the passing attack. However, Muhammad is coming off his best season and will be 32 when the new season starts. Even if Joe Montana or Otto Graham was throwing him the ball, a reasonable decline would be expected. With unproven Kyle Orton and possibly some high school kids lining up under center, expect him to catch under 50 passes.
Summation: The Bears defense will continue to be solid and improve under 2nd year coach Lovie Smith, but the offense will prevent this team from contending. Unless Kyle Orton suddenly becomes Sid Luckman, the Bears will mimic last years 5 wins.