The NFC has won the last two Super Bowls in opposite ways. Tampa Bay’s annihilation of Kansas City revealed how the Chiefs relied on certain offensive schemes, something that carried into last season. Los Angeles won a contested although controversial title game that will be a topic of conversation for years. This season Arizona’s State Farm Stadium hosts the Super Bowl. The Cardinals were the only undefeated team before losing to Green Bay October 28th, 2021. They finished in second place at 11-6 and suffered a blowout loss to the Rams. Arizona can continue the Super Bowl home field advantage streak but will have to get past the other 15 conference teams (notably Tampa and Los Angeles).
It’s time to break down which seven teams in the NFC have the best chance to reach the playoffs this season. There aren’t many quality teams in the NFC this year, so expect at least two teams with ugly records to clinch a spot and maybe win a playoff game.
NFC North: Green Bay Packers
Let’s be honest, no one in the NFC North will come close to challenging Green Bay for the division. Chicago’s roster is bottom five in the league, Minnesota has an inexperienced head coach that’s dealing with a defense that’s either too young or too old, and Detroit is still re-building on offense and defense. The Lions could clinch a wild-card spot, but they must learn to play with leads early, something they didn’t do much last season.
This leaves the Packers as the easiest team in the NFC to win a division title. They still have the current league MVP who’s guided the team to three straight 13 win seasons since new coach Matt LaFleur expanded the playbook. Even better, Green Bay’s schedule faces two playoff caliber teams before Halloween arrives. At worst, they’ll be 6-2 before November.
NFC South: Tampa Bay Buccaneers, New Orleans Saints
The Buccaneers are a favorite to win both their division and the Super Bowl. If a serious NFL fan or analyst looks at their schedule however, they’ll know a hard year is in store from start to finish. Tampa opens against Dallas, New Orleans, Green Bay and Kansas City. All four teams are expected to make the playoffs this year by a good amount of both analysts and fans, and some even the championship. While the Buccaneers’ schedule gets easier by Thanksgiving, the early tests and division games against New Orleans will show early how the chemistry is for both league icon quarterback Tom Brady and new coach Todd Bowles.
The Saints are needed relief for NFC wildcard depth. They also have a coaching change with the promotion of defensive coordinator Dennis Allen after Sean Payton resigned. New Orleans added veteran quarterback Andy Dalton to backup the inconsistent Jameis Winston. Even if Winston goes down with another injury similar to last year’s, Dalton can do enough to help the Saints win games. The return of star receiver Michael Thomas and the drafting of Ohio State receiver Chris Olave gives a boost to an offense that relies on runningback Alvin Kamara and receiver Tre’Quan Smith.
If the Saints make the playoffs, it’s because the defense is top five in the league. The unit also added quality players in safety Tyrann Mathieu and defensive end Taco Charlton. New Orleans will be a hard team to score against, but they must score more than 17 points a game to be a serious playoff contender.
NFC East: Philadelphia Eagles
Coach Nick Sirianni had an educational first year in Philadelphia. Unlike many coaches, he adapted on the fly by Halloween and the result landed the Eagles into the playoffs. Sirianni leaned on the running game, let quarterback Jalen Hurts play a more liberal style under center, and the defense improved due to better time of possession from the offense. Philadelphia went one and done in the playoffs because they were overmatched by a Tom Brady-led Buccaneers team.
This year general manager Howie Roseman made the moves to improve the offense to benefit and amplify Hurts’ progression. The offensive line is rated by Pro Football Focus as one of the best in the NFL, a reversal from three seasons ago. Roseman’s biggest offseason move was trading for Tennessee Titans star receiver A.J. Brown. Brown impacts the team and division early, demanding opponents cover two talented receivers instead of playing against the run. Alongside DeVonta Smith, Brown will stretch the field and make sure Hurts can pass the ball faster and sooner rather than scrambling every other play. The addition of Zach Pascal helps take pressure off Dallas Goedert on inside routes. Plus the team dumped two busts in Jalen Reagor and J.J. Arcega-Whiteside.
On defense Haason Reddick is a jolt to a front seven anchored by defensive tackle Fletcher Cox. The trade for Chauncey Gardner-Johnson from New Orleans adds depth to the secondary and an inflammatory player who’s drawn multiple ejections from offensive players, usually receivers.
The NFC East might have another team make it to the playoffs if neither the NFC South nor West can produce a third team. Dallas doesn’t have enough receiving options, and that’s before potential injuries to receivers becomes an issue. The Commanders are hit-or-miss with Carson Wentz starting at quarterback with a shaky offensive line and the New York Giants are favorites to be top five in next year’s draft.
NFC West: Los Angeles Rams, San Francisco 49ers, Seattle Seahawks
The Rams didn’t lose too much talent this offseason. In fact, they addressed a weak spot on defense signing All-Pro middle linebacker Bobby Wagner to a five year deal after Seattle released him. Wagner isn’t just a tackling extraordinaire, he guides defenses to cover holes especially near the sidelines. Los Angeles will win their division due to a better and upgraded defense.
One issue that could linger is the re-building of the offensive line. Austin Blythe was signed by Seattle in free agency while offensive captain left tackle Andrew Whitworth retired. Quarterback Matthew Stafford faces injuries almost every season, so it will be interesting how Los Angeles looks health-wise when they host a playoff game.
San Francisco has a high chance of making the playoffs in a weak NFC. The only realistic situation if they don’t make a wild-card spot could be a large amount of injuries, something fans and analysts know has happened multiple times in the Kyle Shanahan era.
There are issues the 49ers have to address throughout the season. The interior offensive line is in bad shape, partially due to the departure of Laken Tomlinson to the New York Jets. The running game will feature more from Jeff Wilson Jr., Elijah Mitchell and Jamycal Hasty. Trey Sermon was cut and Jaquiski Tartt was traded to Philadelphia. Then the questions of Trey Lance being the starting quarterback to guide San Francisco back to a Super Bowl pile on.
Last but not least, the 49ers have an up-and-down schedule where they play easier teams such as Chicago and Atlanta to Kansas City and Denver. If San Francisco is at .500 when they hit the bye week, they could start playing their best football.
This is going to draw a lot of laughs and criticism, but this is of course the dark horse pick for the NFC. The Seahawks have a better shot to make the playoffs than most fans and analysts think.
Let’s start with offense. Geno Smith was named the starting quarterback. Despite barely winning the job in an awful preseason, Smith is familiar with the offense. The Seahawks have one of the top receiving duos with D.K. Metcalf and Tyler Lockett. They also have a top tightend duo in Will Dissly and the newly acquired Noah Fant. Then there’s the offensive line which should be better in the interior. Austin Blythe being the starting center and a current champion shores up the middle, and Gabe Jackson and Damien Lewis are solid offensive guards. The position with the most question marks could be the first year tackles.
The defense is in an interesting position. This would be a problem if Seattle played four defensive linemen and three linebackers (thus the term 4-3 defense), amplified by the departure of top pass rusher Carlos Dunlap. Except head coach Pete Carroll fired defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr., a coach many people wanted to see let go for defensive coordinator Clint Hurtt. Carroll also hired Sean Desai from Chicago to oversee changes. This will give former second round pick Darrell Taylor the switch to outside linebacker in the new three defensive linemen and four linebacker set (and this term is 3-4) in a hit-or-miss season.
Seattle’s secondary needs star safety Jamal Adams to step up and play better in pass coverage. While he does well in pass-rush situations, Adams struggled last season when receivers went one-on-one downfield against him. Outside of Adams, the Seahawks have one of the best safeties in Quandre Diggs to intercept opposing quarterbacks and finish tackles. Sidney Jones IV is back at his starting cornerback position and Coby Bryant has impressed a lot of analysts and coaches.
Seattle has a better chance of making the playoffs over Arizona for a number of reasons. The biggest one is the Seahawks’ stability in upper management compared to the Cardinals. Remember Arizona started hot the past two seasons but made the playoffs once (that one game was a beatdown loss against a division rival). Star receiver DeAndre Hopkins will be out at least a month due to drug suspensions and Kyler Murray’s lack of development plus a rift with management doesn’t bode well for the future.
Another big reason is strength of schedule. Arizona has a bye week the first week of December. Taking both matchups against Seattle (in a four week span) out of the picture, nine of the ten games feature an opponent many expect to reach the playoffs. After their bye week, the Cardinals play Denver, New England and Tampa Bay late in the season. Ouch.
Seattle by contrast gets lucky in their schedule early, drawing Russell Wilson and the Broncos week one. Wilson didn’t play in the pre-season and Denver has a new head coach figuring out what to do. Seattle also plays San Francisco, Atlanta and Detroit three weeks after. Even before their mid-November week off, the Seahawks play the New York Giants and might split with a tired Cardinals team.
Arizona’s defense doesn’t have the same counters to Seattle’s offensive weapons even when healthy. Last but not least there’s the coaching factor where Pete Carroll has lead the Seahawks with no elite quarterback play. We’ll find out by week seven whether Seattle can win the easy games and hang in the playoff race or if they’ll have multiple first round picks. Regardless, it’s possible we could see a team under .500 clinch a wild card spot to close out the NFC.
Last year’s NFC predictions: 4.5-2.5