What a wild offseason! Two of the top divisions in the West and South stacked up on big money talent, with analysts agreeing those two could have improved seasons. The East and North will feature competitive races for first place, but nothing more past the first two playoff rounds. Though, with how COVID-19 has reared its head in, anything can happen when winter comes around. It’s time for the six picks for who will make the playoffs this season, why they’ll be the ones to not just get in, but why they’re better than the rest of their division. So here goes.
NFC East: Dallas Cowboys
Before I go into the predictions, it’s important to break rank to let fans know that these predictions come with the clause of the NFL staying on schedule the full 17 weeks. COVID-19 caused a break in three of the four major sports (all four if you include the NFL preseason), and if it’s likely a boon comes in winter, then expect the NFL to take a different path. When it comes to predictions though, let’s start with the weakest division like last year with the NFC East.
While many sports writers and broadcasters agree that this is the worst division in the conference, it appears that there’s been structured growth throughout the offseason. Working our way up, we can see that the Washington Football Team made the right hire in Ron Rivera. Rivera is a great judge of talent and how to fix a team right to it’s core (on-field play though. He can’t fix Dan Snyder). Dwayne Haskins can take the next step, but the team needs to show it weekly, and that could be a struggle.
The New York Giants can take the next steps forward with Daniel Jones, a young offensive line and receiving core, and a defense that is still learning. Three of the four teams in this division have a head coach with playoff experience, but the Giants do not. This means division matchups could slow their progress down another year. The Philadelphia Eagles, while last year’s division winner, will have to address roster depth during the regular season, as last year they struggled with injuries to their receivers and defense.
This leaves the Dallas Cowboys as the team that has to and does stand the best chance of winning the division and getting to the second round of the playoffs. The Jones’ made smart offseason moves with the hiring of Mike McCarthy as the next head coach, adding Andy Dalton, Everson Griffen, Aldon Smith and Dontari Poe in free agency for depth and pass rush (in that order), and drafting CeeDee Lamb in the first round to compliment Amari Cooper. McCarthy took a year off for a number of reasons, but fixing his schemes, finding where the best job would be, and developing a quarterback who can be much better makes Dallas a perfect fit for him. Plus while there will be drama, Jones won’t fire McCarthy unless the team tanks.
NFC North: Minnesota Vikings
While the NFC East shows promise and growth, the opposite can be said about this division. The Aaron Rodgers era is over, and the clinic San Francisco put on Green Bay in last year’s NFC Championship game proved it. The Packers were lucky to even win their division last year. Can Detroit and Chicago step up to exploit a fading Packers team? Hey, everyone’s 0-0 so it’s possible, but aren’t flying pigs possible thanks to DNA tampering? Of course.
Realistically, Detroit and Chicago have too many issues that hamper them from having first place secured. If Detroit shows improvement at defense, it’s possible they can be a threat. Chicago’s thick-headed coach Matt Nagy will not run the ball, and injuries to both David Montgomery and Eddie Goldman hamper offseason positives.
That leaves us with yet again a de facto division leader in Minnesota. Unlike the Dallas Cowboys, Minnesota lost more in the offseason with Everson Griffen, Stefon Diggs and Laquon Treadwell heading to teams that could make a push or a run in the playoffs. When it comes to coaching, a healthy quarterback, and a better all-around team, the Vikings are the team to beat heading into the season. Kirk Cousins provided a playoff win in critical moments in New Orleans, getting some of the pressure that was on him before off. Cousins could play some of if not his best football this year knowing he can lead the team to the playoffs again and possibly a few more home games.
NFC South: New Orleans Saints, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The division of absolutes. Two teams will be bad (Carolina and Atlanta) and two teams will be pretty good. Tampa Bay made the bold move of letting Jameis Winston walk after a historic year, then added a plethora of skilled players, the most noted two are Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski. Adding Leonard Fournette not even two weeks ago, LeSean McCoy, and drafting Antoine Winfield Jr., Tampa Bay will be a hard team to stop especially on offense. While Winston put up numbers a quarterback could never do again, it’s possible Brady can put a lot of the good numbers back on the board and avoid the mistakes his predecessor was used to making.
New Orleans for now is still the complete team in both southern divisions. Their defense suffocates even top tier teams, while runningback Alvin Kamara, Drew Brees and Michael Thomas will spearhead the offense. Additions of Emmanuel Sanders, Latavius Murray, Janoris & Malcolm Jenkins make this team scarier than last year. While Tampa Bay could be the offensive powerhouse in the NFC, the Saints will be the team to reckon with even outside the feared NFC West.
NFC West: Arizona Cardinals, Seattle Seahawks
The best saved for last, the most talent and layers you can put in four teams will slug it out this season and have audiences captivated for what happens next. The Los Angeles Rams will begin to feel the hampering of progress through their strained salary cap and the ceiling (or lack thereof) Jared Goff has. Todd Gurley to the Falcons puts a strain on their backfield and puts more pressure in the passing game. In a cutthroat conference, the Rams don’t stand a chance.
For San Francisco, it’s possible the 49ers can get back to their form and make teams respect their game, but that’s not likely to happen since most teams didn’t take them as a threat last year outside of their division. The Niners won a handful of close games that most times they wouldn’t have won, a good part because teams hadn’t seen them at their best. Kyle Shanahan can and should have progress with Jimmy Garappolo this season, but for the rest of the team, especially the health of the defense, question marks remain.
The breakout team for this year and of course in this division should be the Arizona Cardinals. General Manager Steve Keim knew he had to get the Cardinals competitive, so he built the foundation last year with Kliff Kingsbury and Kyler Murray. What went under the radar as the hire of Vance Joseph as defensive coordinator and making free safety Budda Baker the premier defensive player. Both of these combos will be, if not more important for when Arizona has to face a better Jimmy Garappolo, a potent Seahawks offense and a lethal Rams passing attack. Keim deserves praise for retaining Kenyan Drake and Chandler Jones, picking up a key piece in defense with Dre Kirkpatrick, and on the receiving end of a lopsided trade which brought in top three wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins from Houston. With Hopkins, a reliable Christian Kirk and Mr. Cardinal himself Larry Fitzgerald, Arizona’s offense will give the league headaches for a couple of years.
Want to know why Keim put this offense together? He wants Russell Wilson football 2.0. Arguably the top quarterback in the NFL right now, Russell Wilson is in the pinnacle of his career, and his receiving targets have never looked better. Phenom DK Metcalf, Will Dissly and Tyler Lockett are his go-tos, while the team added Greg Olsen, Phillip Dorsett II and made sure to re-sign Josh Gordon when he was reinstated by the league’s front office. Carlos Hyde is a great choice at backup runningback behind Chris Carson, as Carson can show a lot in one of the last year’s of his rookie contract. With Germain Ifedi finally off the team, rookie Damien Lewis will have to show there’s nowhere to go but up at right guard.
The Cardinals get the nod at the division crown because they have better quality defense than Seattle. Don’t get me wrong, Seattle re-vamped their secondary and added linebacker depth, where they have an advantage, but their pass-rush is awful. The Cardinals’ 3-4 scheme gives them fluidity with linebackers to help the front three, and they can do more with their depth. Seattle’s lost three of their top four pass-rushers and they haven’t played a game yet. Seattle will put up points, but the defense could be the team’s downfall come playoffs.