August 28, 2013
By Marc Lawrence
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New blood rules the NFC these days.
From quarterback/coach tandems Colin Kaepernick and Jim Harbaugh, to Russell Wilson and Pete Carroll, the NFC has quickly established itself and the now conference.
Not to mention the NFC East, where Dallas (2009), Philadelphia (2010), New York (2011) and Washington (2012) have all taken turns winning the division over the last four years. Hence, it's no surprise to find the NFC East features the smallest top-to-bottom gap in odds in the league, making it the most competitive division in the league. In fact, according to Linemakers.com, bettors in Nevada were able to get 8-to-1 odds collectively on any NFC East team to win the Super Bowl.
By rule, the NFC North can't place four teams in the playoffs. But that doesn't mean the division can't have four winning teams by season end. FYI: this situation has never occurred sine the eight-division format a decade ago. Then again, there is a first time for everything, isn't there?
Don't expect to see the NFC South declare a victor by six games, or by Week 13, as the Falcons laid claim to last season. Not with key upgrades to the Bucs, Panthers and Saints. The feeling here is New Orleans may be a Frankenstein in the making with Sean Payton and others back after an NFL-mandated suspension in 2012 following last year's Bounty-Gate episode.
Two teams outlined above from the NFC West, San Francisco and Seattle, came within a blink of carting off the trophy at season's end last year, while upstart St. Louis stunned the football world by winning the division under new head coach Jeff Fisher. And while they play in a domed stadium in Glendale, the sky is brighter in Arizona these days with a new coach and a new quarterback.
While it may no longer resemble a Vince Lombardi or Bill Parcells type conference, the truth of the matter is the NFC has every NFL fan's heartbeat racing at new levels these days.
Note: Numbers following team name represent the amount of returning starters on offense and defense, with an asterisk (*) designating a returning quarterback. Potential designated 'Play On' and 'Play Against' Best Bets follow each team's preview.
NFC East Division
Team Theme: FORE!
Former Cowboys coach Jimmy Johnson called Jerry Jones' franchise a "country club where everybody is buddies." The problem this year is Jones has been so busy paying the remainder of last year's $10M penalty for overspending in 2010 - and re-inking QB Tony Romo to a contract extension through 2019 - that he's been forced to squeeze the payroll under a tightened salary cap. As a result, the offseason fire sale made it difficult to bring in the talent needed to help the Cowboys overcome a state of mediocrity that kept this once proud program home for the holidays for a third straight year last season. That, and a season win total of 8.5, puts head coach Jason Garrett (21-19) squarely on the hot seat in 2013. Aside from Romo needing to substantiate the boost, the 2nd-worst running game in the league last year needs to make major strides. New DC Monte Kiffin hasn't coached in the NFL for five years and only hopes the game - with all the new offenses - has not passed him by. If a defensive backfield that has surrendered nearly 240 passing yards per game the past three seasons fails to improve, it could be one-and-done for Kiffin. It's tee-time for the Cowboys...
Stat You Will Like: The Cowboys were only the 2nd team in NFL history to win eight games despite trailing in every contest last season.
PLAY AGAINST: at Philadelphia (10/20)
IN THE STATS: The Cowboys have won the stats in 42 of their last 58 games.
Team Theme: HIGH FIVE
If the Giants are to bounce back off last year's swoon, it will likely be a by-product of Eli Manning's penchant for fast starts (27-13 SU and 24-14-2 ATS first five games of the season). Aside from our IN THE STATS take on the G-Men last season, Manning is even better out of the gate during the first five games of a season in years after the Giants missed the playoffs the previous year (13-7 SU and 13-6-1 ATS). Not coincidentally, head coach Tom Coughlin also shines in this role, going 54-31 SU and 50-30-5 ATS in his first five contests of the season, including a mind-blowing 16-2-2 ATS as a dog against an opponent off a win. To get there, though, they'll need to shore up a team that slipped statistically on both sides of the ball in 2012. The loss of Pro Bowl DE Osi Umenyiora to the Falcons was addressed through free agent signings and in the draft. Losing RB Ahmad Bradshaw may run deeper than it appears on the surface. The do-everything back accounted for 1,250 yards last season while grabbing better than 30 passes/season in his four-year stint with the G-Men. If Manning can bounce back off his worst statistical performance since 2008, Big Blue could be riding high once again in 2013.
Stat You Will Like: The Giants are 0-6 ATS home off a win in games versus the NFC North.
PLAY AGAINST: as a favorite vs. Green Bay (11/17)
IN THE STATS: The Giants averaged 429 YPG the first 5 games; 322 YPG the final 11 games last season.
Team Theme: KISS MY BIG ASS GOODBYE
After missing the playoffs last year for the first time in consecutive years since 1998-99, Andy Reid was given his walking papers after 14 years of devouring cheesesteaks and wet soft pretzels...and leading the Eagles to six NFC East titles and nine playoff appearances. Only one other person was able to weather 14 years of fanatic abuse from Philly fans and that was Cornelius McGillicuddy, or Connie Mack to you and me. Mack's 48 years (he also owned the team) with the Athletics is the longest coaching reign in the city's history. Like his predecessor, Chip Kelly is yet another new coach whose team will face a super-soft non-division strength-of-schedule in 2013, with Eagles' foes just 74-90 (.451) last season. Kelly will be put to the test early on when his troops open the season with three games in 11 days. Wishing to go at a break-neck pace behind QB Michael Vick, OC Pat Shurmur appears to be a strange hire. In two seasons as a head coach with Cleveland, and four years as an OC with St. Louis, his teams managed to top 20 points in only 10 of 64 games. Hmmm. With the team shy at the wide receiver position (Riley Cooper racial slur incident, along with the loss of Jeremy Maclin and Arrelious Binn to season-ending ACL injuries), Kelly will need to be at his very best in this hurried rebuild to stop of the chants of "We want Andy."
Stat You Will Like: The Eagles' home-opening opponent has won the Super Bowl each of the last four years.
PLAY ON: vs. Arizona (12/1)
IN THE STATS: The Eagles are 17-7 away 'ITS' the last three seasons.
Team Theme: OH GEE, 3 BAD SIGNS AHEAD
When the Skins became one of five NFL teams to make the playoffs last season despite allowing more yards than they gained, it became the first indicator of a rocky road ahead. In accomplishing the feat of becoming a 10-win playoff squad, Washington also became a 'Reverse Mission' team - or a team that after three or more successive losing seasons in a row suddenly reverts to a winner. That's bad news in itself as the success level of these teams is often short-lived: since 1999, of the 14 teams that went from three-time loser to winner, only three of them managed to notch a second successive winning season (see the Lions last year). And then there's RG3 and his knee, last seen hanging by a thread in last year's playoff game. Will he fully recover and, if so, be able to overcome an impending case of Sophomore Blues? Yes, Kirk Cousins appears to be a fine backup but he's never been this far before. And we don't even want to talk about that dreadful secondary, or the fact this bunch started the 2012 campaign 3-6 before the bacon grease finally heated up. For a team whose hands were tied in the off-season with limited draft picks and NFL-mandated cap penalties, a repeat of last year's 10-win season would be impressive, to say the least. Don't count on it.
Stat You Will Like: Prior to last season, the Redskins last division title was in 1999.
PLAY AGAINST: at Minnesota (11/7)
IN THE STATS: The Redskins are 7-17 'ITS' away under Mike Shanahan.
NFC North Division
Team Theme: LOVE AFFAIR IS OVER
A 9-year Love affair has ended. Winning ten games last season, and a total of eighty-four during the past decade, wasn't enough to extend Lovie Smith's career on the sidelines in Chicago. Also named in the divorce proceedings was 13-year career star LB Brian Urlacher. In their stead will be new head coach Marc Trestman and LB D.J. Williams (Denver), along with second round draftee LB Jon Bostic of Florida. Meanwhile, Trestman went right to work rebuilding a front wall for QB Jay Cutler, last seen fist-pumping when OL Kyle Long was selected in the 1st round of the draft and OT Jermon Bushrod was signed from New Orleans. A new playbook and added protection likely means sure-handed RB Matt Forte will become an offensive focal point in what is Cutler's make-or-break contract season. Julius Peppers (11.5 sacks) leads a star-studded defense that features Pro Bowl CBs Tim Jennings and Charles Tillman. Trestman, head coach of the Montreal Alouettes in the CFL the last four years, won two Grey Cups and coached two league MVPs. That love affair is over as well, replaced by a new set of challenges. If Cutler stays upright and responds in his contract year, a repeat 10-win season could be in the offing.
Stat You Will Like: Jay Cutler was sacked 153 times the last four seasons.
PLAY AGAINST: vs. Dallas (12/9)
IN THE STATS: The Bears are 13-35 'In The Stats' at home the last six regular seasons.
Team Theme: A FULL STAFF
Despite being 33 yards shy of becoming the first quarterback in NFL history to toss for 5,000 yards in back-to-back seasons - and having a wide receiver (Calvin Johnson) haul in 122 passes for a record 1,964 yards - Detroit's Matthew Stafford was not able to win more than four games last year. It was a huge falloff for a team that won ten games the previous season. Especially puzzling was the fact the Lions outgained opponents on twelve occasions in 2012. The addition of RB Reggie Bush from Miami brings balance to the offense but the question begs: where will the rushing yards come from? Defensively the Lions improved 41 YPG despite starting 10 secondary combinations because of injuries. The continued maturation of DL Nick Fairley and the addition of 1st-round DE Ziggy Ansah goes a long way toward making DL Ndamukong Suh a bonafide stud. They'll need to play big- along with the Packers, the Lions play more games against teams with a winning record (10) last year than any squad in the league in 2013.
Stat You Will Like: The last time the Lions went 0-6 in division play in one season (2009), they rebounded to go 5-1 ATS in division games the following year.
PLAY ON: at Arizona (9/15)
IN THE STATS: After going 12-4 'ITS' last season, the Lions are 32-17 'ITS' the last three years.
Team Theme: SET IN STONE
Kudos to GM Ted Thompson when he made the signing of franchise cornerstones Aaron Rodgers and Clay Matthews a top priority during the offseason. Thompson then immediately went to work in the draft, bolstering the running back and offensive line positions after reeling in Datone Jones, a pass rush specialist, in the first round. Rodgers led the NFL with a 108.0 passer rating and threw 39 touchdown passes with eight interceptions, despite slipping seven points and 47 yards per game last year when offensive coordinator Joe Philbin left for the Miami job. Replacement OC Tom Clements now has a year under his belt while the addition of RBs Eddie Lacy and James Franklin helps open the airways for the league's best quarterback. It should be mentioned that four key players are no longer in uniform: WR Greg Jennings (Vikings), S Charles Woodson (Raiders), plus WR Donald Driver and C Jeff Saturday (both retired). Along with the Lions, the Packers will play more games versus teams with a winning record (10) last year than any team in the league in 2013. Bring 'em on.
Stat You Will Like: The Packers have no back-to-back road games this season.
PLAY AGAINST: vs. Detroit (10/6)
IN THE STATS: Despite going 27-8 SU the last two years, the Packers are just 15-20 'ITS.'
Team Theme: MINNY TRANSFORMATION
Over the last two years, GM Rick Spielman and head coach Leslie Frazier have transformed the Minnesota roster from one of the oldest and most expensive to one of the youngest in the league. Three impact 1st-round selections in this year's draft, along with the eventual unloading of high-priced and disgruntled veterans, has signaled a new look to the Vikings. WR Greg Jennings was brought in to replace Percy Harvin and to further aid in the development of QB Christian Ponder. Along with emerging TE Kyle Rudolph and superstar RB Adrian Peterson, the attack figures to improve. That being said, we're not sure if 6-and-9 YPG improvements on each side of the ball equates to the 6.5-game improvement witnessed by the 10-win Vikes last season. They figure to pay the price this year, playing just five games against foes that sported losing records in 2012. Here's hoping a healthy Jared Allen, in the final year of his contract, can lead the defense back to prominence before the young beards turn gray.
Stat You Will Like: Crazy 8's: Vikings head coach Leslie Frazier is 8-1 ATS (8-0 L8) versus foes off a win of eight or more points.
PLAY ON: VS. Green Bay (10/27)
IN THE STATS: The Vikings are 21-9 'ITS' in their last 30 home games.
NFC South Division
Team Theme: DIRTY IS GOOD
When the Falcons came within a failed late fourth down of winning the NFC title in 2012, it appeared as if the best days for this up-and-coming franchise were suddenly in the rear view mirror. TE Tony Gonzalez was in the final year of a memorable Hall of Fame career, former Pro Bowl RB Michael Turner had lost a step and Atlanta's pass rush and defense were rendered soft. Then came the offseason. Gonzalez decided to return, RB Steven Jackson was signed as a free agent and the Birds used their first two picks in the draft on a cornerback (four DBs in all) and a sleeper pass rush artist. Yes, they will need to address defections on the offensive line. But if they do, Atlanta's vaunted attack - led by QB Matt Ryan and the best WR tandem in the league in Julio Jones and Roddy White - should be as dangerous as ever. More good news: like the Patriots in the AFC, only five games versus teams that owned a winning record last season appear on the Falcons' itinerary in 2013. Yes, these Birds are dirty, but it remains to be seen whether the affect of losing Pro Bowl OT Tyson Clabo and C Todd McClure (a starter on the Falcons; line since 2000) is a 1-2 punch Atlanta can overcome.
Stat You Will Like: The Falcons own more regular season wins the last five years than any NFC team.
PLAY ON: vs. San Francisco (9/23) - *KEY
IN THE STATS: The Falcons lost the stats in three wins versus AFC West opposition last season.
Team Theme: BYE BYE BLUES
As sure as the sun rises in the east and sets in the west, QB Cam Newton - the 2011 NFL Rookie of the Year - woke up in 2012 with a bad case of sophomore blues. After gaining 334 YPG through the first ten games of the season last year (56 YPG less than his rookie season), he came alive down the stretch of the campaign, winning five of six games while averaging 397 YPG to conclude the season. It was too little too late, though, as the Panthers suffered through a seventh consecutive non-winning season last year. Hopefully, that momentum will spill over and limit their ugly IN THE STAT numbers posted over the last three years. New offensive coordinator Mike Shula steps in for departed Rob Chudzinski, and defensively they stole tackle Star Lotulelei with the 14th pick in the first-round. He'll enhance a defense - led by 2012 Rookie of the Year LB Luke Kuechly - that improved 45 YPG in 2012. It won't be easy, as the Panthers have the toughest schedule in the league in 2013 (last year's foes .543 overall). Should Newton continue where he left off, as opposed to where he started last season, the Panthers could be on a playoff prowl in 2013.
Stat You Will Like: The Panthers are 72-19 ATS in franchise history when they score 27 points or more, including 33-2 ATS in division games.
PLAY AGAINST: vs. New Orleans (12/28)
IN THE STATS: During the last three seasons, the Panthers are 3-23 SU in games in which they've been outgained.
Team Theme: LAISSEZ LES BONS TEMPS ROULER
After a year off following suspensions for the bounty-gate scandal, the old gang is back. Coach Sean Payton returns to the sideline with a new 5-year contract in hand after watching his team sink like one of Chris Christie's last jelly donuts when they fell to 7-9 last season. He returns this year with new defensive coordinator Rob Ryan aboard after they allowed 7,042 yards in 2012, the most in a single season in NFL history. The revamped defense will rely heavily on 1st and 3rd-rounders S Kenny Vaccaro and DT John Jenkins. The offense, of course, should rely again on the arm of former MVP QB Drew Brees (in quest of a third-straight 5,000 yard season), TE Jimmy Graham, WRs Marques Colston and Lance Moore, plus RBs Pierre Thomas and Darren Sproles. And if you like Bourbon Street, Mardi Gras and Sean Payton, you'll love this: Payton is 17-3 SU and 16-4 ATS in his career with the Saints in games against fattened-up foes that are off back-to-back SUATS wins. Hooray, the beignets are back and, as they like to say in these parts, it's time once again to "Let the good times roll!"
Stat You Will Like: Teams are 12-35 ATS in games after facing the Saints since 2010, including 1-18 SU and 0-19 ATS between the threes (+3 to -3).
PLAY ON: vs. Dallas (11/10)
IN THE STATS: The Saints have allowed season-high, or 2nd-high, yards in 11 games the L2Y.
Team Theme: TRENDING THE OTHER WAY
Unlike the days of old, the hire of college coaches taking over NFL programs is beginning to reverse course. The failed ways of Lou Holtz, Steve Spurrier, Nick Saban, Bobby Petrino and others has taken a different path of late with the recent success of Jim Harbaugh and Pete Carroll. It's led to the hire of Greg Schiano with the Bucs last year, along with Chip Kelly and Doug Marrone this season. Granted, it's been a while since a college coach last won a Super Bowl (Barry Switzer, 1996 Dallas Cowboys), and unless the 49ers or Seahawks win SB XLVIII this season, the drought will continue. Schiano did a nice job in his first year with Tampa Bay last season, ratcheting up the team's SU and ATS records while improving numbers on both sides of the ball. An impressive draft and a bolstering of the secondary - bringing in Darrelle Revis and Dashon Goldson to better defend against star quarterbacks Drew Brees, Matt Ryan and Cam Newton within the division - holds promise for continued improvement. The surprise trade of CB Eric Wright to the 49ers on 8/23 is likely an indicator that Marrone feels Revis is healthy. A down season by QB Josh Freeman, following a 6-4 start (lost the next three games by a total of 11 points), and a promising preseason by second round draft pick Mike Glennon, means a change is in the air in Tampa. Now we'll learn whether last year was just a mirage or a new trend in the making.
Stat You Will Like: The Bucs are 6-15 SU and 3-18 ATS in their last 21 home games when playing with revenge.
PLAY AGAINST: vs. Philadelphia (10/13)
NFC West Division
Team Theme: OUT WITH THE OLD, IN WITH THE...OLD
The 2012 Coach of the Year, Bruce Arians, moves from an Indy interim to the head Cardinal in one of seven new head coaching changes in the NFL this season. It was an infusion that was desperately needed as the seven-year Ken Whisenhunt experiment ended with Arizona left holding a 49-53 mark during his tenure. After a promising 4-0 start last year, the Redbirds fell off their perch en route to a precipitous 1-11 season-ending plunge. In addition to Arians, a busy offseason resulted in a dramatic makeover with a new GM, quarterback (10-year veteran Carson Palmer), and veteran running back (Rashard Mendenhall). Palmer loves uniting with Arians saying, "It's a phenomenal system. It's been very productive, won Super Bowls. He coached against the best and for the best, and I'm excited to keep installing and getting deeper and deeper into the book." Here's hoping he's not referring to his 11-26-1 ATS mark as a home favorite. He may not be as excited after taking on San Francisco, Seattle and St. Louis six times, that's for sure.
Stat You Will Like: Arians won two Super Bowls as an assistant with the Steelers and served as Temple's head coach from 1983-88, going 27-39.
PLAY ON: vs. St. Louis (9/8)
IN THE STATS: The Cards have failed to gain 400 yards in any game the last three seasons.
Team Theme: HAPPY FACES
The smile on the face of Rams QB Sam Bradford could not be wiped off with a paintbrush. A series of shrewd broad-stroke moves were made this offseason by head coach Jeff Fisher who looks to keep the defending NFC West division champs (yes, you read that right - the Rams were 4-1-1 in division play last season) a step ahead of the 49ers and Seahawks. Note: were it not for a five-game winless skein in Games Six through Ten, the Rams would likely have been playoff-bound for the first time since 2004 last season. The off-season work this year started with the acquisition of Pro Bowl left tackle Jake Long, ball-hawking TE Jared Cook and the drafting of dynamic-duo wide receivers Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey. Austin and Bailey combined for nearly 3,000 yards with West Virginia last season. They also added Alabama C Barrett Jones. Granted, with RB Steven Jackson having bolted to Atlanta, the hope is last year's 2nd round RB Isaiah Pead is ready to fill his shoes. The question remaining is whether last year's jump from two wins to seven in Fisher's first year was an aberration or simply the beginning of a Rams resurrection. We'll know soon: only Carolina faces a tougher strength-of-schedule in 2013 (last year's foes .539 overall).
PLAY AGAINST: vs. San Francisco (9/26)
Stat You Will Like: The Rams are 1-29 SU and 6-24 ATS as division home dogs of three or more points.
IN THE STATS: The Rams are 10-22 'ITS' the last two seasons, including 5-11 at home.
Team Theme: TATS HOW YOU DO IT
When a coach keeps a healthy quarterback with a QB Rating of 104.1 on the bench, he is either delusional or firm in his conviction that the team is in better hands with a different signal caller. That's what Jim Harbaugh decided last year when he stood by Colin Kaepernick and opted to keep Alex Smith on the pines. The results spoke for themselves when the tattoo-artist led the Niners to the Super Bowl after a cerebral Harbaugh installed the same pistol offense Kaepernick ran in college. Kaepernick will look to continue his meteoric rise to superstardom in 2013 behind a coaching staff, an offensive line and running back squadron that all return intact. The addition of WR Anquan Boldin is salve for the loss of WR Michael Crabtree (Achilles). For added measure, CB Nnamdi Asomugha and PK Phil Dawson also join the team, as did CB Eric Wright in a late-preseason trade with the Bucs. We're betting a team that gained more than 400 yards in only two regular season games last year will up the ante this season. That's almost always the case the following year when a team improves statistically on both sides of the ball yet regresses both SU and ATS. With this team being one play away from winning it all last season, they become the team to beat in the NFC this year.
Stat You Will Like: The Niners are 12-1 SU and ATS in regular season games when playing off four wins-exact.
PLAY AGAINST: as a favorite at Tampa Bay (12/15)
IN THE STATS: The Niners have only 26 turnovers during the regular season the L2Y.
Team Theme: HITTING ON - ALMOST - ALL CYLINDERS
After gaining an average 308 YPG in his first three years with the Seahawks, Pete Carroll realized he needed to inject new life into his offense if he was going to win at this level. That's when the call went out to QB Russell Wilson in the third round of the draft. The 5' 11" dynamo proved to be just the sparkplug the engine needed when he led his team to a 12-win effort while improving the offense 56 YPG. The addition of Pro Bowl KR-WR Percy Harvin, appeared to make the Seahawks unstoppable, but his loss to hip surgery is a crushing blow. Still, RB Marshawn Lynch and WRs Sidney Rice and Golden Tate are enough to pick up the pieces. Perhaps more important, though, is the addition of DC Dan Quinn, former Seahawk defensive coordinator to replace departed Gus Bradley who left to take over as coach of the Jacksonville Jaguars. They also added CB Antoine Winfield to one of the league's best secondary's, along with pass rushers Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett. The pieces are in place; the question is whether Wilson can deliver a repeat performance or will he develop a case of the dreaded Sophomore Blues? Auto-attendants are standing by.
Stat You Will Like: At 61, Carroll is the 2nd-oldest head coach in the NFL.
PLAY AGAINST: at NY Giants (12/15)
IN THE STATS: The Seahawks won the stats in each of their final seven games last season.
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