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Difficult to see anyone breaking into the 'big four' in the NFC

Our NFL season preview continues with a look at the National Football Conference.

Will Cam Newton have cause to celebrate again this season?
Will Cam Newton have cause to celebrate again this season?
Image: Chuck Burton/AP/Press Association Images

JUST THREE TIMES in the last 10 seasons has a National Football Conference Championship Game been contested without one of the Arizona Cardinals, Carolina Panthers, Green Bay Packers or Seattle Seahawks.

However, despite this dominance as the big four in the NFC, they’ve only combined for two Super Bowl wins in that time thanks to Seattle (2014) and Green Bay (2011).

This year, all four are among the leading contenders for the Vince Lombardi Trophy once more but is there a chance a team like the New York Football Giants can come out of the pack and cause a shock?

NFC East

Texans Cowboys Football Dak Prescott has an early audition for the role of Cowboys quarterback. Source: Ron Jenkins/AP/Press Association Images

With the best offensive line in football and the most exciting rookie running back in an age, 2016 was all set to be the year the Dallas Cowboys made their big Super Bowl push. However, another injury to Tony Romo and ‘America’s Team’ have had to turn to rookie quarterback Dak Prescott. He’s looked good in preseason, but it was preseason and his learning curve will be steep.

This is not a great division and, realistically, any of the four teams could end up winning it or picking first overall in next year’s NFL Draft. Washington are probably best placed to challenge Dallas for divisional honours after adding Josh Norman to their defence. The issue with Washington remains an inability to stop the run but the biggest question of all is will Kirk Cousins continue to evolve as a quarterback or revert to the mean?

The New York Giants spent big in free agency. Probably too big. However, the window on a third Super Bowl with Eli Manning is closing for Big Blue and almost everything good on offence — considering the lack of an actual run game — will come through Odell Beckham Jr. After two successive 6-10 seasons, new head coach Ben McAdoo really needs his team to step up.

The Philadelphia Eagles would rather not have to start rookie quarterback Carson Wentz but, after offloading Sam Bradford to the Vikings, they have little choice. It’s hard not to envisage a frustrating debut season for the former North Dakota State player with the complete absence of anything resembling an elite receiver to help him. Vinny Curry might be the player to watch on defence.

NFC North

The Packers were poor, by their own high standards, last season and yet were just a couple of plays away from playing the Carolina Panthers in the NFC Championship Game. This year, Aaron Rodgers has the safety blanket of a returning Jordy Nelson and a defence that’s not significantly worse than 2015. Green Bay has not missed the playoffs since 2008, don’t expect that streak to end this year.

Eagles Colts Football Sam Bradford will be hoping to guide the Vikings to the playoffs. Source: Darron Cummings/AP/Press Association Images

This preview would have looked quite different last week as the Minnesota Vikings were genuine Super Bowl contenders until the horrific season-ending injury suffered by Teddy Bridgewater. The Vikings will still have a top-five defence and could well make the postseason but, if Sam Bradford is the answer, you always have to worry about the question.

The loss of Calvin Johnson — the best receiver the Detroit Lions have ever, or will ever have — cannot be understated. Megtron’s numbers may have reduced but the fact he was being double and triple teamed freed up the likes of Golden Tate to make big plays in his stead. Don’t expect much from Motor City come the business end of the season.

Traditionally, John Fox coached teams are better in his second season but there are few reasons to feel positive about the Bears this year. Jay Cutler has not steered his team to a winning season since 2012, they’ve lost Matt Forte to free agency and their best receiver missed all of last season to an injury. They may not finish last in the North, but it’s much more likely than them reaching the posteason.

NFC South

It often happens that a team who are unexpectedly great one year (see the New York Giants after both recent Super Bowls), fall back to earth the next. It’s unlikely that will happen the Panthers as they are arguably better on offence this year with the return of Kelvin Benjamin. However, trusting three rookies to fill the considerable hole left by Josh Norman on defence is a big ask.

I had my concerns coming out of college but the more tape I watch, the more convinced I am that Jameis Winston has what it takes to be an elite NFL quarterback. On defence, the Buccaneers added Noah Spence to the defensive line in an effort to give Gerald McCoy some much-needed help. The postseason might be beyond them but Tampa Bay can take the next step forward.

Saints Patriots Football Dennis Allen can hardly be worse than Rob Ryan. Source: Stew Milne/AP/Press Association Images

The Saints can’t be as bad on defence as they were last year and the appointment of former Raiders head coach Dennis Allen as defensive coordinator is certainly a step up from whatever scheme Rob Ryan was failing to implement last year. With Drew Brees at quarterback, having an even average defence will make New Orleans competitive again.

The Atlanta Falcons had the worst pass rush in the NFL last season producing only 19 sacks (JJ Watt had 17.5 on his own) and didn’t do much to address it in the offseason which is strange considering Dan Quinn’s reputation as a defensive mastermind. After opening last season 5-0, the Falcons finished 8-8. That or worse this year could see the former Seattle man’s tenure in Atlanta short-lived.

NFC West

Over the home stretch of last season, Russell Wilson played at a level the NFL had just never seen before with a streak five games with three-touchdowns or more and a passer rating of 120. He almost single-handedly dragged the Seattle Seahawks into the playoffs. With one of the league’s best defences and a new running back pair to assist this season, expect Seattle to be near the top again.

Carson Palmer pushed Cam Newton all the way in the race for regular season MVP as he guided the Arizona Cardinals to the NFC Championship Game. However, his numbers were so good that 2016 will have to bring a regression. Luckily for the 37-year-old, he’s surrounded by one of the deepest rosters in the NFL on both sides of the ball.

Don’t let Hard Knocks fool you, the Rams are a terrible team and will do well to get to the Jeff Fisher line (8-8) this season. After giving up six Draft picks for Jared Goff, the former Cal quarterback is only listed as QB3 on their depth chart behind Case Keenum and Sean Mannion. Spare a thought for Aaron Donald, one of the league’s best players, who has to watch his career slip away in LA.

Packers 49ers Football Who'll be the starting 49ers quarterback when the season ends? Source: Tony Avelar/AP/Press Association Images

Blaine Gabbert is their starting quarterback. That’s pretty much all you need to know about why the San Francisco 49ers are one of the worst teams in the NFL and will do well to get more than three wins this year.

Playoff Predictions

Seahawks
Packers
Panthers
Cowboys
Cardinals (wildcard)
Vikings (wildcard)

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About the author:

Steve O'Rourke

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