2014 NFC Season Preview
August 25, 2014
By Marc Lawrence
Editor's Note: Marc Lawrence's pro football selections can be purchased at VegasInsider.com this season. Click to win!
AFC Season Preview
2014 NFC Season Preview
The Times Are A Changing
The NFC has long been the stepchild conference in the NFL … until lately.
Looking back, since 1990 the AFC holds a 757-712-3 SU and 722-698-52 ATS edge over the NFC in head-to-head non-conference competition. Over the last three years, however, the NFC is closing ground – fast.
That’s confirmed by a flip-flopped 87-108 SU and 90-97-8 ATS mark by the AFC over the NFC in these contests over the last three seasons.
Initial thought was a lot of the recent numbers correlate to the recent uprising of the NFC West. Not true. The NFC South has actually held the upper hand the past three seasons in these non-conference clashes, sporting a division best 30-18 SU and 26-21-1 mark.
The NFC West is right behind the South at 30-20 SU and 28-19-3 ATS. Meanwhile, the slowly deteriorating NFC East brings up the rear at 22-27 SU and 21-27-1 ATS in these matchups.
Speaking of non-conference tilts, the high-scoring NFL last season set a benchmark record in these games in the Over/Under totals.
Games involving these two opposite conference foes went 50-15 ‘OVER’ the in head-to-head competition.
Games in which the Over/Under total was set at 41 or fewer points flew ‘OVER’ 14 of the 16 times.
-- Since the American Professional Football Association became the National Football League in 1922, the Chicago Bears are the only team not to change its name or city.
-- The Dallas Cowboys haven’t played in Dallas since 1971.
-- The St. Louis Rams were the first team in the league to use logos on their helmets.
NFC East Division
TEAM THEME: TICK, TICK, TICK…
This much we know for sure about Jerry Jones. If he didn't have a strong ticker, he would be sitting alongside Tom Landry watching Cowboys games from afar. It wasn't bad enough for Jones to endure three consecutive 8-win seasons in which 15 of the 24 losses came by a touchdown or less – including an astonishing five losses by a field goal or less last year. JJ was also forced to live through the discomfiture of knowing a win in any of the last three season finales would have resulted in a playoff berth. Talk about taxing the heart. The question begs: how long will he keep head coach Jason Garrett on the sidelines? Dallas' woes are certainly not the fault of the offense. It's the defense that keeps Jones up at night popping nitroglycerin. Ranked dead-last in the league in 2013, crippling news came on the first day of the OTA's this spring when LB Sean Lee, the leader of the defense, injured his knee. Coupled with the departure of Pro Bowl DE Demarcus Ware to Denver, a cardiologist is standing by. With reliable TE Jason Witten back as one of Tony Romo's favorite targets, the QB's full recovery from surgery on a herniated disk is imperative. As bad as Romo's injury was, it's clearly better than the triple bypass Jones has avoided the last few years.
STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The Cowboys are 2-12 SU and 3-11 ATS in Game Sixteen since 2000, the worst in the NFL.
NEW YORK GIANTS
TEAM THEME: 39 STEPS
When your season starts atop a banana peel, there is little else one can do other than to prepare for the fall. And fall they did. Mightily. A 0-6 start for the first time since 1976 put the Giants in a hole from which they were never able to recover. So how is it, you ask, that a team who improved its defense 50 YPG on the season missed out on the playoffs? Just ask QB Eli Manning, who endured a career-high 39 sacks last year, requiring ankle surgery in the off-season. Consequently, he tossed a league-high 27 INT’s while finishing the season with a career-low 69.4 QB Rating. The results were an offense that slipped 48 YPG. To help shore things up on the attack side, New York selected WR Odell Beckham (LSU) with its 1st-round pick in this year's draft. He'll certainly push Victor Cruz and recently re-acquired Mario Manningham for starting honors. On the defensive front, Tom Coughlin picked up Walter Thurmond from the Super Bowl champs and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie from Denver, but will need a return to form from Jason Pierre-Paul (16.5 sacks in 2011). Rest assured, Eli was busy viewing plenty of film in the off-season. For what it's worth, don't offer up a viewing of Alfred Hitchcock's classic, ‘The 39 Steps’ to Manning anytime soon. He'll likely run for cover.
STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The Giants are 1-6 ATS all-time as favorites vs. the AFC South.
TEAM THEME: SOMETHING SPECIAL IN THE AIR
As promised, the Eagles came with everything they had en route to winning 10 games in Chip Kelly’s NFL debut last season. Aside from setting franchise records on offense for points, TD’s and total yards, Philadelphia's questionable defense also managed to hold two foes (Chicago and Detroit) to season-low yards late in the season. Imagine what happens if continued improvement is met on both sides of the ball this year? First-round pick DE Marcus Smith was an outstanding pass rusher at Louisville, and should make the transition to LB in Kelly's 3-4 defense. The offense brings in WR’s Jordan Matthews and Josh Huff (former Kelly pupil from Oregon), high picks in this year's draft for emerging QB Nick Foles – who lit up the airwaves with the top QB Rating in the league last year (119.2) on 29 TD’s and 2 INT’s. Along with the return of Jeremy Maclin, who missed all of 2013 with a torn ACL after posting three straight seasons of over 800 yards receiving, DeSean Jackson's departure should prove to be a moot point by season's end. Add in dynamic Darren Sproles for a change of pace in the backfield with superstar LeSean McCoy, and Kelly's offense should be more prolific than ever. When it comes to preparing a game plan, no coach in the league is more thorough than the frenetic Kelly. The man never tires.
STAT YOU WILL LIKE: Chip Kelly is 20-1 SU away versus either college conference or NFL division foes in his career.
TEAM THEME: RG YEAR III
Like the Browns, the Redskins cycle through head coaches like Lance Armstrong manufactures lies, with Jay Gruden the 9th new Washington coach since 1999. It's what happens when you've had only three winning seasons post 1999. And it's what happened to Mike Shanahan after going 24-40 in his tenure with Dan Snyder. Last year's drop-off (from 10 wins to 3) was dramatic, yet understandable. RGIII hit the sophomore wall before bowing out with another knee injury after 13 games – while the team coughed up 34 turnovers as opposed to 16 in 2012. A season-ending 8-game losing streak was the topper, especially given the fact they actually outgained foes 22 YPG in the process. No one works harder than Griffin, the 2012 Rookie Of The Year, who poured in many hours during the offseason to fine-tune his game. If Griffin is right, Gruden can expect the passing game to be back on track with newly acquired DeSean Jackson lining up opposite Pierre Garcon, and the return from injury of emerging TE Jordan Reed. The defense is led by Brian Orakpo at OLB, while Jason Hatcher comes over from Dallas to join Barry Cofield on the defensive line after recording 11 sacks last season for the Cowboys. Should it all come together, look for the Hogs to be sneaky-good in a tough-as-nails division in 2014.
STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The Redskins last division title was in 1999.
NFC North Division
TEAM THEME: AFTER THE LOVIN'
With sophomore head coach Marc Trestman now firmly entrenched in the Windy City, he'll be hoping to do exactly what his predecessor, Lovie Smith, did in his 2nd year on the job – take his team to the playoffs. Anything less will be a disappointment for a team that has averaged more than 9.5 wins per season the last nine years. To do so, the Bears will need to do a better job down the stretch as they’re just 6-12 SU and 5-12-1 ATS during the final six games of the season the last three years. It all starts with the defense, one that slipped dramatically last season (-80 YPG). As a result, out goes Julius Peppers; in comes DE Jared Allen from Minnesota and LB D.J. Williams from Denver. On the other side of the ball, the offense improved 72 YPG and welcomes back the entire OL that started all 16 games last year. The pieces are in place, should they stay healthy. And speaking of which, what to do should oft-injured QB Jay Cutler become sidelined once again? Watch David Fales from San Jose State, Chicago's 6th round choice in this year's draft. The word is QB guru-coach Terry Shea insists Fales has all the tools and is the real deal. Remember, you read it here.
STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The Bears are 14-6 SU in their first four games of the season since 2009.
TEAM THEME: THE SAME OLD SONG
For the second-year in a row, the Lions managed to dominate in the stats, yet end the season on the losing side of the ledger. Despite the statistical anomaly, Jim Schwartz was dispatched (now DC at Buffalo) in favor of Jim Caldwell, former Colts boss. Caldwell is widely recognized as a quarterback guru, having worked with Peyton Manning and Joe Flacco among others. Lions QB Matthew Stafford figures to benefit from Caldwell's tutoring. And with Detroit having slowly built a competitive team by developing its No.1 draft choices over the years, this outfit could well be a sleeper. Looking back, the Lions have stockpiled the likes of WR Calvin Johnson in 2007, Stafford and TE Brandon Pettigrew in 2009, along with defensive linemen Ndamakong Suh, Nick Fairley and Ziggy Ansah in three of the previous four drafts – not to mention stud LT Riley Reiff in 2012. Add in this year's top pick TE Eric Ebron from North Carolina, who could be a major contributor almost immediately in the Lions' two-tight end sets, and the talent is there. Toss in an offensive line that returns intact, along with a healthy RB in Reggie Bush, and just like that this could be the year of the Lion in the NFC North. Then again, this song has been sung over and over in recent years.
STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The Lions will host only one team this season that owned a winning record last year.
TEAM THEME: ON THE MEND
Quick. Fill in the blank: Aaron Rodgers is to the Packers is what [blank] was to the Colts. Whether you answered Peyton Manning or Johnny Unitas, you get the picture. Much like Indianapolis' massive descent in 2011 when they went from a 12-time playoff squad to a 2-win team when Manning was injured and forced to miss the season, Green Bay got a taste of the same thing last season when Rodgers broke his collarbone in Game Eight of the campaign. After a 2-5-1 SU and 1-7 ATS slide, Rodgers returned to lead his troops to a season-ending, playoff clinching victory… keeping a 4-year playoff streak intact. Rodgers returns and with it, the Packers become the favorite to capture NFC North honors this season. Also returning from the injury list, on the other side of the ball, is stud LB Clay Matthews. Joining Matthews this year is perennial Pro Bowler Julius Peppers. Along with top draft pick FS Ha Ha Clinton Dix (can't wait to hear Marv Albert call that one…), Green Bay is making a concentrated effort to shore up its stop troops, knowing full well that 'defense' is a considered a foreign language inside this division. In other words, he who plays it best will likely capture the division crown.
STAT YOU WILL LIKE: From 1939-2001 the Packers were 13-0 SU at home in playoff games. They've gone 2-5 since.
TEAM THEME: ZIM AND VIGOR
When the Vikings showed Leslie Frazier the door and inked former Cincinnati DC Mike Zimmer as their new boss, little did the spirited coach realize what he was biting off. Inheriting the worst scoring defense in the league (30.0 PPG) and a team that coughed up more than 400 yards on ten different occasions last year, Zimmer sees the cup as half-full. His blunt demeanor – he called Bobby Petrino a “gutless bastard” – was called out on HBO's 'Hard Knocks' during his stay with the Bengals. He lives by a great quote from Vince Lombardi, who said, “'If you grab your players' hearts, they'll follow you anywhere.” To which Zimmer says, "That's what I want to do. I want to grab these players' hearts and get them to follow me." Leading the charge will be star RB Adrian Peterson, who appears to be back in top form after suffering a myriad of injuries last year. He spearheads an offense that has seen its stats improve steadily each of the last three years. The biggest question mark is who will be behind center? It appears that Matt Cassel will get the nod at QB – at least to start the season – as Christian Ponder seems to have worn out his welcome, with rookie Teddy Bridgewater awaiting his turn. Meanwhile, the defense has a new look after losing stud DL Jared Allen.
STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The Vikings will face only three teams that owned a winning record last season.
NFC South Division
TEAM THEME: BIRDS IN FLIGHT
What a difference a year makes, especially to an injury-riddled NFL squad. QB Matt Ryan will have his full contingent of wideouts in place to start 2014, as Julio Jones returns from a foot injury that limited him to just five games last year. Meanwhile, Harry Douglas had a breakout season in his place, and the pair will join veteran Roddy White for the Falcons' receiving corps. The missing piece, of course, is TE Tony Gonzalez, who will now be in the CBS studio post-retirement. Steven Jackson was also limited by injuries last season, rushing for just 543 yards in 12 games, and could be pushed at some point by rookie Devonta Freeman out of Florida State. After picking up Osi Umenyiora from the Giants before last season, Mike Smith added to his defensive line during this offseason by grabbing free agents Paul Soliai from Miami and Tyson Jackson from KC before nabbing DT Ra'shede Hageman in the draft. But the biggest addition for the Dirty Birds might have been 1st-rounder Jake Matthews, who should step into the starting lineup immediately at RT. With seven losses coming by 7 or less points last season, and both Matty Ice and head coach Mike Smith in off their first-ever losing season since pairing up six years ago, the Falcons have the look of a mission team ready to fly. And to help matters, a soft non-conference slate features only two foes with winning records last year.
STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The Falcons are 19-6 ATS at home with revenge under Mike Smith.
TEAM THEME: CAM-O-FLAGE
Coming off a successful 12-4 campaign, you would expect most of last year's look to be the same, but you would be wrong. Sure, the offensive backfield will have a familiar feel, with QB Cam Newton back after off-season surgery, and some combination of DeAngelo Williams, Jonathan Stewart and Mike Tolbert toting the football. But while Greg Olson is back at TE, the rest of the offensive line is in complete flux, and Ron Rivera may have to employ LSU rookie G Trai Turner in the starting lineup. That's not to mention the Greg Hardy domestic mess turning into a PR disaster. Newton's receiving corps will be made up of free agents Jericho Cotchery and Jason Avant replacing Steve Smith and Brandon LaFell, plus FSU rookie Kelvin Benjamin working into the mix at some point. Defensively, Luke Kuechly is all over the field and is now one of the very best in the game. But who knows if Hardy (aka The Kraken) can settle his legal issues before the season gets underway? Rest assured, these Cats will look to rely on a stop-unit that ranked No. 2 in scoring defense (15.1 PPG) last year. Will it be enough to put them in back-to-back playoff years for the first time ever in franchise history? We think not.
STAT YOU WILL LIKE: No team has ever repeated as division champion since the inception of the NFC South in 2002.
TEAM THEME: THE BEIGNETS ARE BACK
This is one of those teams that looks virtually the same as last year, and if you're a Saints fan that's a good thing. While rebounding from seven wins in 2012 to twelve victories last season, New Orleans made a dramatic reversal of fortune where it counted the most – on defense. New DC Rob Ryan's schemes met with a startling 139 YPG improvement. And to illustrate the impact Ryan had, the Saints' defense allowed ZERO opponents to gain season-high (or 2nd high) yardage last year, as opposed to coughing up the same number 11 times in 2012. To top it off, free agent DB Champ Bailey and 3-time Pro Bowl safety Jairus Byrd from the Bills have been added to shore up Ryan's secondary. On the flip side, 35-year old Drew Brees is getting longer in the tooth these days but instead of age, we see a savvy, experienced veteran primed to make a super run in 2014. An improved offensive line and a new toy in 1st-round pick WR Brandin Cooks (led the nation with 133 YPG at Oregon State last year) will help Brees forget about counting candles on his cake. With a schedule that finds none of their first seven opponents sporting a winning record last year, and only one of their eight road games against a winning opponent, look for the Saints to make a big push for conference honors this season.
STAT YOU WILL LIKE: Teams are 4-22 SUATS between the threes (+3 to -3) in games after facing the Saints since 2010.
TEAM THEME: LOVIN' IT
When last season ended, the Bucs gave the boot to HC Greg Schiano and brought in Lovie Smith. And with him comes a new recipe for success. That's because, after a 5-11 season in his first season with Chicago in 2004, Lovie's Bears averaged almost 10 wins per season thereafter. Coming over with Smith is former Chicago backup QB Josh McCown, whose 13 TD's and 1 INT last season earned him a sparkling QB Rating of 109.0. He'll look to spark an offense that gained the fewest amount of yards in the league (2,820) last season. Also back is RB Doug Martin who, after a monster rookie campaign in 2012, will attempt to make a comeback from a torn labrum that ended his season last year after just six games. The receiving corps should be large and in charge, as 6'5” draft choices Mike Evans (Texas A&M) and TE Austin Seferian-Jenkins (Washington) join veteran Vincent Jackson in the aerial attack. New DC Leslie Frazier loses CB Darrelle Revis but welcomes back LB Lavonte David, who has become one of the NFL's top defensive players with 219 solo tackles in his first two seasons. A soft schedule featuring only three opponents with winning records last year paves the way for a new love-in by the Bay beginning this year.
STAT YOU WILL LIKE: Teams who finished last, or tied for last, have won the NFC South 11 years in a row the following season.
NFC West Division
TEAM THEME: HEADED TO THE PROMISED LAND
After surprising the league with 10 wins in his first season with the Cardinals last year, Bruce Arians will be looking to buck a bit of history in 2014. That's because the last three times the Arizona managed to avoid a sub .500 season, they reverted back to their losing ways each year thereafter – going 5-11, 4-12 and 6-10. So what's in the cards for the Cards this season, you ask? It all starts with Arians, a starting QB at Virginia Tech and former offensive coordinator with both Alabama and the 2008 Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh Steelers, who infused life into a lethargic offense and is promising even more 2014. Not finished there, he immediately went to work in the offseason repairing the secondary with 1st-round SS Deone Bucannon and free-agent signee Antonio Cromartie. Playing alongside Patrick Peterson instantly upgrades the defense. If dangerous Tyrann Mathieu can also return from the serious knee injury that ended his breakout rookie season, the secondary will be a source of pride. Coincidentally, Zona's new-look offense improved 83 YPG, cracking the 400-yard plateau for the first time since 2009 (four times). Along with a defense that was 21 YPG better last year than in 2012, we say move over Seattle and San Fran, there's a new guy in the neighborhood and in these parts they call him the Boss. B-R-U-C-E…
STAT YOU WILL LIKE: Arians is 16-3 SU and 15-2-2 ATS as an NFL head coach versus sub .600 opponents.
TEAM THEME: A NEW LISTING
After taking over a team in 2012 that averaged three wins a season the previous five years, Jeff Fisher has clearly brought the Rams back to respectability, despite residing in the challenging NFC West. However, respectable doesn't cut it in the Fisher household. Not for a coach that has suffered only seven losing seasons in 18 full years as a head coach in the NFL. After winning the NFC West in 2012, St. Louis tumbled to 1-5 in the division last year. With that, Fisher went to work, putting together a huge draft this spring. Two 1st-rounders should start immediately as Greg Robinson will bookend the offensive line opposite Jake Long, while Aaron Donald should jump right in at defensive tackle. In addition, two other selections should contribute sooner rather than later in CB LaMarcus Joyner from FSU and RB Tre Mason from Auburn. With QB Sam Bradford out for the season with a torn ACL, Shaun Hill is first in line as his replacement. And while the Rams’ receiving contingent is small, Chris Givens, Austin Pettis and Tavon Austin are lightning-quick and can certainly stretch the field. Aside from life without Bradford, the biggest hurdle this year will be taking on the 3rd toughest strength of schedule in the league, with no less than 10 games against foes that finished with a winning record last season. It's what comes from living in the high-priced neighborhood they do.
STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The Rams are 1-31 SU and 7-25 ATS as division home dogs of 3 or more points.
TEAM THEME: GOLD DIGGERS
Okay, before we begin here's another of our famous bar bets guaranteed to have your designated-driver working overtime: name the only two teams in the NFL that ran more plays than they passed last year. If you guessed San Francisco and… Seattle… you're a winner! Of course, a good part of the answer lies in the legs of each team's quarterback, Colin Kaepernick and Russell Wilson, who are scramblers supreme. Once again, Kaepernick has a wealth of veteran talent to work with as Stevie Johnson (Buffalo) and Brandon Lloyd (New England) join standout receivers Michael Crabtree and Anquan Boldin. And that doesn’t even include star TE Vernon Davis – nor did we mention rookie WR Bruce Ellington. Same story at RB where the 1-2 punch of Frank Gore and Kendall Hunter has been entrenched for several seasons, but could be challenged by 2014 2nd-round draft choice Carlos Hyde and the possible return to health of Marcus Lattimore, who sat out last season with the knee injury he suffered in his last year at South Carolina. Star LB Patrick Willis and DE Justin Smith headline a defense that's been Top 10 every year since Jim Harbaugh's arrival. Yes, there sure is a lot to like about the Niners as, according to Aldon Smith, this team is loaded… in more ways than one.
STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The last time San Francisco won a Super Bowl was 20 years ago.
TEAM THEME: TAG, YOU'RE IT
It can be said that Super Bowl champions are often built by giving up future luxuries in order to win right now… such is the case with the Seahawks. Their first draft pick in this year's draft was #45 after trading down, and they had just three of the first 108 selections. Will it affect this year’s talent-laden roster? Hardly, as there are not many weak links to be found. It's hard to feel sorry for a defense that has three Pro Bowlers returning in the secondary, and an offensive attack that adds a playmaker to the full-time lineup in perennial Pro Bowler Percy Harvin, who missed most of the season. The 12th man should be ready to raise some hell once again, especially after winning 17 of 18 home games the past two seasons. But before he prepares to lose his voice, it should be noted that Super Bowl winners have had a tough row to hoe the following year – just ask the Ravens and Giants the past two seasons – as they become the top priority game on each opponent's schedule. Then there's a murderous slate to tackle, the 7th toughest Strength of Schedule in the league against foes .556 overall and .575 away, including six road foes that won 10 or more games in 2013. Let's see what happens in 2014 to a team that led the league in net TO's (+27) last year.
STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The Seahawks are 1-23 SU away vs. .666 or greater AFC West opponents, including 18 losses in a row.
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