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NFC Preview: Home comforts will separate the Saints and Seahawks

We continue our NFL season previews with a look at the National Football Conference.

THE HOME OF the defending Super Bowl champions, the National Football Conference contains some of the league’s best teams. Indeed, it’s likely the team that emerges victorious from the NFC will lift the Vince Lombardi trophy in February 2015 too.

NFC East

Eagles Foles Football Will Nick Foles emerge as a genuine franchise quarterback? Source: AP/Press Association Images

1. Philadelphia Eagles
While there’s no doubt – after impressing in 10 starts last season and bringing his team to the playoffs – Nick Foles is the leader of the Philadelphia offence, questions remain as to whether or not he can become the franchise quarterback the Eagles so badly need with the departure of QB coach Bill Lazor. Having one of the best running backs in the league to hand off to in LeSean McCoy, should help.

2. New York Giants
After providing Eli Manning with as much protection as an iCloud server in 2013, the Giants gutted their offensive line in the offseason; spending heavily on free agents to protect a quarterback who gave up 27 interceptions last year. The departure of Justin Tuck and Linval Joseph on defence hurts too but Robert Ayers and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie should help Big Blue bounce back.

3. Dallas Cowboys
When you lose the best player – Sean Lee – to injury from a defence that ranked worst in the NFL last year, it is never going to be easy to make up ground on your divisional rivals. While Tony Romo, Dez Bryant and DeMarco Murray should flourish under former Lions offensive coordinator Scott Linehan – and post big fantasy numbers – trying to win every game 47-42 is just not sustainable.

4. Washington
It always seemed as if Mike Shanahan hated Robert Griffin III, rushing him back from a serious knee injury too soon, putting him out at wide receiver for ludicrous plays but, thankfully for RGIII and fans of Washington, the Shanahan era is over. However, they’ve done little to bolster a defence that was so generous to opposing quarterbacks last year so any improvement will be limited.

NFC North

Jaguars Bears Football Jared Allen reacts to a question about the Bears' secondary. Source: AP/Press Association Images

1. Green Bay Packers
Aaron Rodgers and Eddie Lacy are fit so that’s the offence covered for the Packers but what’s really intriguing about Green Bay is the addition of an ageing Julius Peppers and the rookie Ha Ha Clinton Dix to a defence that already boasts Clay Matthews and AJ Hawk. Perhaps this season, for the first time in ages, the Packers can actually win games on both sides of the ball.

2. Chicago Bears
A 2-4 divisional record put paid to any hopes the Bears had of winning the North last year with the league’s second highest scoring offence undone by a defence ranking 30th in points and yards allowed and last against the run. The addition of Lamarr Houston and Jared Allen helps but their signings came at the expense of fixing a secondary woefully out of its depth at this level.

3. Detroit Lions
You would imagine a defence that gets the chance to go up against Matthew Stafford and Calvin Johnson in training every day might pick up a thing or two but new coordinator Teryl Austin has his work cut out in Detroit especially as the franchise did very little to improve that side of the football despite losing six of their last seven games in 2013. On a positive note, new tight end Eric Ebron could well take a lot of the workload off Megatron.

4. Minnesota Vikings
The Vikings’ ship sunk quite quickly last year after an impressive 2012, mostly as a result of a defensive line that suddenly forgot how to play football. Luckily for them, new head coach Mike Zimmer specialises in defence and the organisation prioritised the signing of Linval Joseph from the Giants to bolster that D-Line. Who finishes the season at quarterback, Matt Cassel or Teddy Bridgewater, also makes an intriguing storyline in Minnesota.

NFC South

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Panthers Patriots Football If only Cam Newton could run, pass and catch on every play. Source: Stephan Savoia/AP/Press Association Images

1. New Orleans Saints
There’s no shame in losing to the eventual Super Bowl winners which is exactly what happened to the Saints when they met the Seahawks in NFC Divisional Round last season. If they hope to go all the way this year they will need to improve on a 3-5 road record and ensure home advantage in the postseason. Upgrading a defence that ranked fourth last year definitely helps.

2. Atlanta Falcons
The Falcons will undoubtedly improve on their four wins last season but the loss of Tony Gonzalez – who caught 83 of 119 passes in his direction last year – and a failure to improve a mediocre pass rush will limit the amount of success Atlanta can hope for. Rookie running back Devonta Freeman could well light up an offence already boasting Julio Jones at wide receiver so don’t be surprised if the Falcons are involved in more than their fair share of shootouts.

3. Carolina Panthers
Carolina’s problems on offence are plentiful. Their run game is designed by committee, they haven’t managed to find a number one receiver to replace Steve Smith and they are taking a massive gamble on moving Byron Bell from the right instead of drafting a left tackle to replace Jordan gross. Their second ranked defence hasn’t become any less scary but it’s doubtful they can carry Carolina to 12-4 again.

4. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
There are few teams I’m more excited about seeing this year than the Buccs. New offensive coordinator Jeff Tedford has promised an up-tempo offence with Vincent Jackson and rookie Mike Evans providing former Bears’ back-up Josh McCown with two big-bodied, pacy receivers to aim for. Alterraun Verner is also a very interesting addition to a defence that will no doubt improve under Lovie Smith. It’s just a pity for Tampa Bay fans they play in such a strong division.

NFC West

Super Bowl Football The big three in Seattle will prove key again. Source: Paul Sancya/AP/Press Association Images

1. Seattle Seahawks
Only five teams face a tougher schedule on paper than the defending champions but Seattle have done a good job of keeping the nucleus around which their defence is built - Richard Sherman, Kam Chancellor and Earl Thomas – together. Percy Harvin is essentially a new player on offence while Russell Wilson has shown no signs he about to get worse any time soon. Seattle have all the weapons to repeat.

2. San Francisco 49ers
I was very high on the 49ers’ chances of taking the divisional title from Seattle this year until the loss of NaVorro Bowman, Glenn Dorsey and, probably, Aldon Smith in the last few weeks. Their secondary also lags way behind the Seahawks’ while Blaine Gabbert at backup QB is never a good sign for any team. Still, an offence marshalled by Colin Kaepernick has every chance of reaching the playoffs.

3. Arizona Cardinals
The Arizona Cardinals would be genuine postseason contenders in any other division but they’re stuck in the West and the loss of Daryl Washington and Karlos Dansby from what was a formidable defensive unit doesn’t help their hopes this year. Andre Ellington has a chance to make name for himself at running back but there are huge question marks over Arizona’s offensive line which could hinder his progress.

4. St. Louis Rams
The Rams had a real chance of posting their first winning record in more than a decade and perhaps even challenging for the postseason for the first time since 2004 thanks to a defensive front four that ranks among the NFL’s best. However, the loss of the enigmatic Sam Bradford at quarterback – coming after they passed over Blake Bortles in the draft – doesn’t bode well. 8-8 will be a struggle with Shaun Hill at QB.

Playoffs

Saints
Seahawks
Packers
Eagles
49ers
Bears

Disagree? Of course you do. Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.

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About the author:

Steve O'Rourke

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