NFL: NFC Divisional Previews and Predictions

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The 16 teams in the National Football Conference will have to wait an extra few days until they begin their hopeful journey to the 2015 postseason after two American Football Conference squads get the season going on Thursday. The two-time defending NFC champion Seattle Seahawks appear to be a solid contender for yet another trip to the Super Bowl, but plenty of other organizations have reason for optimism this fall and winter.

Is this the year where Tony Romo finally leads the Dallas Cowboys deep into the playoffs and gets the ever-present monkey off of his back? With the loss of wide receiver Jordy Nelson are the Green Bay Packers still the favorites in the NFC North? After sending a 7-8-1 team to the playoffs a season ago, will the NFC South be any better this year? Which teams will come out of nowhere and shock the world this season?

We took a look at the AFC teams on Friday and now let’s preview each of the four divisions in the NFC, predicting their order of finish, and cap off by picking the two wild card winners in the league.

NFC East

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Predicted standings:

1. New York Giants

2. Dallas Cowboys

3. Philadelphia Eagles

4. Washington Redskins

The NFC East could certainly be viewed as top-heavy, as the New York Giants and Dallas Cowboys look like the only two teams that have a decent shot at the playoffs. The reason why the Giants get the nod over the Cowboys is because of their running game and their defense. They may not have a star back who would be taken in the opening round of a fantasy football draft, but the young talent of Rashad Jennings, Andre Williams and Shane Vereen is promising. After a brutal start to the 2014 season, the Giants played much better and finished a respectable 6-10 last year. Look for that second half surge to carry over this fall.

The Cowboys’ defense responded to much preseason criticism last year to outperform expectations. They have a guy in Tony Romo who may be a top-five quarterback and showcase maybe the best receiver in the game with Dez Bryant. The questions surrounding the running game are likely to hurt the ‘Boys this year though and their other strengths will not be enough to carry them to a division title. A slight drop from last year’s 12 wins is a definite possibility.

The Eagles’ big move in the off-season was replacing LeSean McCoy with DeMarco Murray. The former Cowboys back is coming off a tremendous season, but his overuse could very well catch up with him in 2015. Combine that with an underwhelming defense and concerns at quarterback, and the Eagles are destined for a third place finish and a decrease from last year’s 10 victories.

It seems like the Washington Redskins have questions everywhere on their roster. The most glaring worry is obviously with who will be taking the primary snaps under center and that will only lead to plenty of poor play. A few years ago it really looked like football in the nation’s capital was on the upswing with then-rookie Robert Griffin III. My, how the times have changed. Pin the Redskins for another four-win season.

NFC North

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Predicted standings:

1. Green Bay Packers

2. Minnesota Vikings

3. Detroit Lions

4. Chicago Bears

The Jordy Nelson ACL tear and loss for the season is truly a crushing blow. In many minds, it brings the Packers down a notch on the NFC totem pole. However, with the best quarterback in the conference, a top-five running back who has yet to reach his prime and two very capable receivers (Randall Cobb and Davante Adams,) those cheese heads in Wisconsin will still have a top offensive unit. The Packers may not be NFC favorites right now, but they are still the team to beat in the north division and could definitely repeat last season’s 12 wins.

The Minnesota Vikings should be one of the most exciting NFL teams to watch this season. Like their basketball counterpart, the Minnesota Timberwolves, they feature youthful and intriguing talent. Aside from the much-anticipated return of Adrian Peterson, second-year quarterback Teddy Bridgewater is the guy to watch. If he takes that next step that many are anticipating, look for the Vikings to improve on their seven wins from last year and push for a wild card.

Losing Ndamukong Suh over the off-season hurt, but it had to be somewhat expected for the Detroit Lions. Luckily, the defense should remain above average in his absence and with the expected bounce back of Calvin Johnson, the Lions should be able to avoid the basement of this division. Instead of last year’s 11 wins, expect to see Detroit around .500 in 2015.

The Chicago Bears look to have a very good chance at repeating last season’s 5-11, last place finish in the division. Their defense is not what it once was with Brian Urlacher and the injury-prone Matt Forte appears to be their strongest weapon on offense. Oh, and the quarterback is still Jay Cutler; perhaps the most frustrating man to watch at his position in the league.

NFC South

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Predicted standings:

1. Atlanta Falcons

2. Carolina Panthers

3. New Orleans Saints

4. Tampa Bay Buccaneers

The NFC South may still be the worst division in the conference this season but it should be much improved. The Atlanta Falcons, Carolina Panthers and Tampa Bay Buccaneers could all make strong cases for finishing with better records than they did in 2014. Atlanta is picked to finish the best of the bunch because of their quarterback and receiving corps. The Matt Ryan to Julio Jones connection will be the strongest in the division and the defense with first round pick defensive end Vic Beasley Jr. will be substantial. Look for a significant improvement on last year’s 6-10 record.

A year after embarrassingly winning the division at 7-8-1, that mediocrity will not be enough this time around for the Panthers. Unlike Green Bay, Carolina will not be able to sustain the loss of their stud wide receiver – Kelvin Benjamin. The Panthers have enough reinforcements to finish with seven wins for the second straight year, but again, that won’t be enough for first place.

The negative effect of the Jimmy Graham departure will be on display early and often during this Saints campaign. Drew Brees is still above average, but no longer elite. He is reaching his twilight years and unfortunately, management has failed to provide him with any strong receivers for 2015. New Orleans will likely drop down from their seven-win output from last year.

The Bucs could be pretty decent in 2016 or 2017. However, they will need another year to mature and develop, and a lot will depend on what kind of NFL quarterback Jameis Winston turns into. Unless he puts together a stellar Rookie of the Year season and running back Doug Martin plays like he did a couple of years ago, Tampa Bay will still finish in last place. They should be able to add to last year’s two-win total though, as four or five may be a more accurate prediction.

NFC West

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Predicted standings:

1. Seattle Seahawks

2. Arizona Cardinals

3. St. Louis Rams

4. San Francisco 49ers

The NFC West is still stacked. With two, if not three teams primed for the playoffs, and the best in the conference still residing in this group, this division will reign supreme in 2015. At the top of the group is still the Seahawks. Their defense is still the best in the game and their already impressive offense got even better with the addition of Graham. Last year’s 12 wins seems like an underestimate for this group. The Seahawks should enter as the favorites to win Super Bowl 50 and have a great shot to reach 13 or 14 regular season wins.

The Arizona Cardinals surprised some with their 11-win, second place finish last season. This time it will be no shock. The past-his-prime, but still solid Carson Palmer is back and healthy and the Cards defense is another terrifying crew to compete against. Let’s give Arizona the same record as 2014, when they finished 11-5.

The St. Louis Rams have an issue of playing in this monster of a division. However, with a new quarterback and the return of much of their great defense, the Rams should easily overtake the San Francisco 49ers for third place in the NFC West.

The 49ers had perhaps the worst off-season of any team in the league. Between the various players involved with off-the-field issues and having to adjust to a new head coach, the 49ers are an easy pick for last place in the division. If they want to have any chance to compete in 2015, quarterback Colin Kaepernick has to play like he did in 2013, not 2014. A drop from last year’s eight wins to four or five is a distinct possibility in San Fran.

NFC Wild Cards

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Predicted wild card winners:

1. Minnesota Vikings

2. Arizona Cardinals

As alluded to earlier, much of the Vikings success in the upcoming year hinges on how big of a jump Bridgewater takes. He clearly doesn’t have the experience that the other NFC North quarterbacks have, but he has the talent. We should get a good idea of how well the former Louisville Cardinal is going to perform in his sophomore year early on this fall.

The Cardinals have an incredibly easy schedule on paper to start their season. Facing the Saints, Bears and 49ers to open will do Palmer wonders in his return from injury. The last two games of the year against the Packers and Seahawks looks daunting, but if the Cards can reach double-digits in wins before that, it just might be enough to return to the postseason again.

All data courtesy of NFL.com and Pro-Football-Reference.com.

Follow Victor on Twitter @vbarbosa1127.