The shift of power continues as the NFC boasts eight teams with 10-win potential. The conference rides a three-game Super Bowl win streak, the first time it has strung together multiple SB wins since it dominated the AFC from the first since 1984-96. By February, it should be four in a row for the NFC. Click here for Tom's AFC preview.
1. Eagles (10-6) — In the equity world they have this thing known as “breaking the trend line,” where a stock chart snaps to the upside or the downside of a long-term resistance. Last season, Philly broke the trend line. They were a team crammed with streetball talent but the chemistry was daffy. I didn’t see any leaders. I saw Michael Vick fizzle out again. It was a mild December schedule that allowed them to pull from 4-8 to a face-saving .500. So what has changed? Coach Andy Reid deserves the benefit of the doubt here, to see whether he has some Don Shula in him and can meld this wild bunch together, or if he’s Joe Torre riding out his last years with the Yankees.
2. Giants (10-6) — Listen to talk radio in the northeast and hear the callers complaining that the Giants aren’t getting their proper homage coming into 2012. “Most disrespected Super Bowl champ ever, Coughlin for Canton, etc.” Look, buddy, it’s well deserved. This was a 7-7 club in late December. Then a mystery switch is thrown and the pass rush gets angry and Eli Manning dials in his radar then lookie here, another world title. Giants fans can’t enjoy that type of season, where all the joy comes backloaded, where September through November is a blizzard of confusion. Aw, hell, maybe they can. The key parts remain in place, but, honestly, these disrespected teams are the hardest outfits to handicap.
3. Cowboys (9-7) — It has been nearly the same Dallas writeup since 1996. The Great Land of If. This year, its linebackers look good, RBs and defensive line look spotty. NFL Network had Tony Romo rated 91 in its top 100, behind Joe Flacco and old London Fletcher, who remembers the Victorian era. Well, that’s not fair to Tony, is it? You wish this team would, for once, elevate completely or collapse and remake the entire foundation. Operation Sideways. A franchise without a trendline.
4. Redskins (4-12) — Dan Snyder gets mortgaged to the hilt on Robert Griffin III. What I see is an excitable QB with a slight, wide receiver frame and he could get knocked to pieces in there. Another catch-me-if-you-can audition. Can his body handle the impact? I saw the name Vince Young on the waiver wire the other day, and I watched Shoelace Robinson get mangled by Alabama on Saturday night. Runaround QBs. I hope ol’ Griff makes it, but I’ve heard this parable before.
1. Packers (12-4) — The Pack made the wrong kind of history last winter, becoming the first 15-1 outfit to get atomized in an early playoff round. Everybody mentions their defensive shambles (32nd overall vs. the pass), but the Packers would have been favored over San Francisco then New England had it not been a Stooges masquerade in their playoff loss to the Giants … drops, misfires, bobbles, etc. The closest thing to it came back in ’87, when the Vikings dragged mighty Joe Montana around in the Candlestick mud. GB’s offseason consisted of defense in their first six draft picks and the signing of castoff Cedric Benson to bolster their shaky RB corps. Schedule-wise, road trips to Houston and Giants will be tricky. The rest of it is unfinished business.
2. Bears (10-6) — Chicagoans don’t know what to think of their sudden offensive buildup, all those new backs and receivers. They’re used to trench warfare, the manning of the stockade. Now the Bears wanna play shootout with people. Makes sense numerically, in a division where Aaron Rodgers and Matthew Stafford are gunning it all over the place. Lovie Smith is now a coachman behind a team wild horses. The stable door is thrown open, and it’s a whole different formula in Chicago. The schedule is ripe for the test run … Colts, Rams, Jags, Cards, etc. Hi-ho silver.
3. Lions (9-7) — From the core of this team, aside from its growing legion of desperados, emerged a trait that hasn’t been seen in Detroit football for generations — the ability for the ferocious rally, the shocking comeback. Down 20 at Minnesota … win. Down 27-3 at Dallas … win. Down 13 vs. Carolina … win. Down 13 at Oakland … win. The most feared Lions attack since Nero’s playpen. Still no urgency to fix the running game, which finished 29th in yards and 31st in attempts. So, the Lions once again will try to bomb you then hang on.
4. Vikings (3-13) — The defense allowed 28.1 points per game last season, so trouble begins there. And drafting Christian Ponder, a guy who couldn’t dig his club out of a hole at Florida State, still puzzles me. OK, fine, he fit the NFL Scouting Combine profile for QBs and scored well with the pencil. But reserve Joe Webb quickens the pulse a lot more, doesn’t he? Not much polish, but Webb has that raw lust for the endzone. And since we’re bottom-trolling for wins here, why not deal Adrian Peterson and let him finish out his legs for a winner? Hate to see prime runners just burn away precious carries, those fruitless uphill charges.
1. Saints (10-6) — The legacy (dear God, can you find me a better term to use here? such an ESPN word) of last season isn’t Drew Brees’ 5,476-yard throwing orgy or the 547 points that came with it. It’s 85, as in the frenzied distance San Francisco traveled for its late touchdown to punch the Saints out of the playoffs. Steve Spagnuolo was hired to fix that, the new defensive coordinator. He might improve things on the stat sheet but his cast isn’t special. Their top sacker in ’11 was a safety, and the secondary landed just nine interceptions. They’re a few killers short of being a serious defense away from the Superdome. Meanwhile, Brees and the offense continue their gaudy ways.
2. Panthers (9-7) — I expect Cam Newton to put up an MVP-grade season. Receiving corps is shallow, but then I think of Dan Marino forcing it in to Scott Schwedes, or Tom Brady in the ’06 AFC title game, throwing to guys he found at the bus stop. I see Carolina sneaking in as the last wild card despite the gags of a defense that allowed the most points and yardage in franchise history. Special teams were a disgrace as well. There is depth at running back, however. The infrastructure isn’t ready, but dynamos like Newton can mask such issues.
3. Falcons (9-7) — Enough activity each year to reach the playoffs, then the door slams hard. Is there ever any urgency on this team? Does it ever rise up? The same faces coming up small in January, after they’ve mopped up their Tampa Bays and Carolinas and Jacksonvilles to get there. Without a serious postseason advance, expect a flurry of changes to shake up the 2013 squad.
4. Buccaneers (4-12) — Greg Schiano was no big winner at Rutgers. Shouts were heard coming from the Goodell office, “No!” to the request of cramming Norfolk State and Howard and North Carolina Central on the Bucs' schedule.
1. 49ers (11-5) — The trouble with “game manager” quarterbacks is they only have so many real bullets in the cylinder. Alex Smith is one of them. After a slinger’s career at Utah, he has settled in as an administrator as a pro. Safety first. He has only so many tough throws in him, and he unloaded them all in SF’s breathtaking win over New Orleans in last year’s NFC semifinal. The next week, versus New York and its crazed pass rushers, with a chance to get to the Super Bowl, he couldn’t get his club past midfield. This season, the support around Smith gets stronger. It will be interesting to see come January, when he needs that 3rd-and-16 at Green Bay, or in a rematch with New York, if he has rationed carefully.
2. Seahawks (7-9) — Which is more unsettling to Seattle management — the fact that their $26 million free-agent haul (Matt Flynn) won himself the backup job, or the knowledge that no QB less than six feet tall (5-foot-11 rookie Russell Wilson, the team's No. 1 QB) has ever won a Super Bowl? The answer is yes.
3. Cardinals (5-11) — I always believed this was the right place for Peyton Manning to resettle … the Trane-powered climate of the dome, a receiver, Larry Fitzgerald, even classier than the gems Peyton had at Indianapolis … four dates with the Rams and Seahawks. Maybe all the trap doors across the offensive line scared him, if the Cards were even interested at all. Another Kurt Warner-like arrangement, be it ever so brief? Why not?
4. Rams (4-12) — One time, I asked football writer Paul Zimmerman what it was like covering a crummy team over a long, long stretch. His particular penance was the New York Jets of 1970-79, the Namath decline, Lou Holtz and the strange growing pains of Richard Todd. “It makes you work harder; if anything it makes you do better work,” was Zim’s answer. “You think of different angles, things the average master-of-the-obvious reporter could never come up with.” Or, if job security is not an issue, you can just make it up, like “Desperate Rams Séance Lombardi, Get Busy Signal.”
NFC championship — Packers over Panthers
AFC championship — Patriots over Texans
Super Bowl XLVII — Packers over Patriots
Tom Danyluk is an award-winning freelance writer based in Chicago. His book on pro football, "The Super '70s," is available at Amazon.com. You can contact Tom at Danyluk1@yahoo.com.