NFC Season Preview - FOX 35 News Orlando

NFC Season Preview

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By ROB MAADDI
AP Pro Football Writer


   From oddsmakers to experts, people aren't giving the New York Giants the respect a Super Bowl champion deserves.
 
   Eli Manning and Co. sneaked into the playoffs last year and then played their best football in January and February. For the second time in five years, they beat the favored New England Patriots to claim the Vince Lombardi Trophy.
 
   With nearly all their starters on defense returning and the core on offense back, the Giants have a legitimate chance to repeat. At least, they should be considered the team to beat in the NFC.
 
   Apparently, that's not the case.
 
   In Las Vegas, 10 teams are listed ahead of the Giants in the Super Bowl odds. The Giants opened at 16-1 and have dropped to 22-1 at the Bovada Sportsbook.
 
   Then there's the AP Pro32 NFL power rankings. The Giants were No. 3 behind the Green Bay Packers and the Patriots in the first-ever poll released July 31.
 
   So, who do opponents think is the best team in the NFC? Even teammates disagree.
 
   "It was a coin flip whether the Giants even got into the playoffs," Philadelphia Eagles guard Evan Mathis said. "They played very well, obviously, and they deserved it, but Green Bay, with their experience, should be the team to beat."
 
   The Giants went 9-7 last year and split with the Eagles, losing at home with Vince Young starting in place of Michael Vick. Had one play gone differently in any of Philadelphia's close defeats, the Eagles (8-8) would've won the division.
 
   Meanwhile, the Packers steamrolled to a 15-1 record and seemed on their way to winning their second straight Super Bowl before losing to the Giants in their first playoff game.
 
   "The Giants are the Super Bowl champs, so they're the team to beat," Eagles linebacker DeMeco Ryans said. "Each year, each team, it's a new season. But the Giants hold the reign."
 
   Maybe until Week 1.
 
   "We know we've got to improve," Manning said. "We were 9-7 last year in the regular season. That's not good enough. We were a better team than that. Obviously we showed that throughout the playoffs. We've got to have that urgency, that consistency, throughout the whole season, and play our best football for the 16 regular-season games. That's what we're going to work on and just keep grinding, staying hungry to get better and to make sure we can have another successful year this year."
 
   The Packers might not place as much emphasis on the regular season after last year's debacle.
 
   "We went through a great regular season, winning 15 games and doing a lot of things that hadn't happened here in Green Bay before, and got knocked out in the first round," NFL MVP Aaron Rodgers said. "It makes you realize the only thing that matters is winning championships, and you have to win some playoff games to get there."
 
   There are other serious challengers in the NFC besides the Giants and Packers.
 
   The Eagles are looking to bounce back after failing to live up to enormous expectations last year. If Vick can stay healthy, the offense should be dynamic with All-Pro running back LeSean McCoy and wide receivers DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin. An improved defense will be the key to Philadelphia's success.
 
   The North might be the toughest division in the conference. The Chicago Bears and Detroit Lions will make it difficult for the Packers to cruise to another division title.
 
   In the South, the New Orleans Saints have plenty of talent, but must overcome a turbulent, bounty-plagued offseason. The Atlanta Falcons are trying to get over the hump in the playoffs after failing three times in the last four years.
 
   And the West is no walkover anymore. The San Francisco 49ers were perhaps a fumble in overtime away from going to the Super Bowl.
 
   ------
 
   NFC EAST
 
   The Giants have an elite quarterback, a strong defense led by All-Pro Jason Pierre-Paul, and a Hall-of-Fame caliber coach in Tom Coughlin. But they've never won a playoff game the season after winning a Super Bowl. And, they'll have a hard time just getting out of a tough East.
 
   The Eagles are determined to prove last year was an aberration, and expect to build off a season-ending four-game winning streak. Players rallied around coach Andy Reid after his 29-year-old son, Garrett, died during training camp. They have an explosive offense, but need a revamped defense to do its part.
 
   In Dallas, the window could be closing on Tony Romo and the Cowboys. They lost four of five down the stretch last season to finish 8-8 and have won just one playoff game in 15 years. Dallas beefed up its defense in the offseason, giving second-year coordinator Rob Ryan more talent to work with. Romo and coach Jason Garrett have been together a long time, and the offense could be dangerous.
 
   There's plenty of reason for optimism in Washington because the Redskins finally have their franchise quarterback in Robert Griffin III. With RG3 leading the way and a defense that made huge strides last year, the Redskins have a chance to win more than six games for the first time under coach Mike Shanahan.
 
   ------
 
   NFC NORTH
 
   The Packers had little roster turnover and were nearly invincible last year until running into the Giants. Rodgers and the league's No. 1 offense have a new weapon in running back Cedric Benson. But the worst-ranked defense needs to improve to make things easier. The Packers invested their first six draft picks on defense, so that should help a bit.
 
   Jay Cutler and Brandon Marshall are reunited in Chicago, bolstering an offense that was potent until injuries hit last season. Keeping Cutler healthy is a top priority. On defense, the Bears have some aging stars. Still, they could give Green Bay a run for the title.
 
   The Lions learned to win last year, going 10-6 and making the playoffs for the first time in more than a decade. They return almost all of their starters and have continuity on the coaching staff. QB Matthew Stafford, whose chief target is All-Pro WR Calvin Johnson, could be even better if the offense finds balance. All that means Detroit probably wasn't a one-year flash.
 
   It's clearly a rebuilding year in Minnesota. The Vikings won three games last year, and their best player, running back Adrian Peterson, is coming back from major knee surgery.
 
   ------
 
   NFC SOUTH
 
   The Saints lost coach Sean Payton to a suspension, but they still have record-breaking QB Drew Brees. The bounty scandal made for a tumultuous offseason, and the Saints are eager to just play football. Bringing in Steve Spagnuolo to run the defense could prove to be the biggest move of the offseason.
 
   It's obvious Matt Ryan and Mike Smith can win in the regular season. But the quarterback and the coach haven't shown it in the playoffs. Ryan needs to ramp up his game. Two new coordinators could help Smith make all the right moves.
 
   Cam Newton's sensational rookie season has everyone eager to see more of Carolina. Newton is a special player who makes the offense a threat each time it has the ball. If the defense plays better, the Panthers could be a surprise team.
 
   Greg Schiano makes the transition from college to the pros in Tampa Bay. He's got a tough task trying to turn around a 4-12 team. A difficult early schedule doesn't help. Finishing .500 would be a remarkable step forward.
 
   ------
 
   NFC WEST
 
   Coach of the Year Jim Harbaugh led a team with an often-maligned quarterback that hadn't reached the playoffs in eight years to the doorstep of the Super Bowl. A stout defense returns all its starters, and Randy Moss is back in the league after a year off to upgrade an offense that once boasted some of the greatest players in history. Alex Smith finally has deep threats with the addition of Moss and Mario Manningham, but the 49ers still rely on Frank Gore and the run game.
 
   The Cardinals spent much of the preseason trying to figure out whether Kevin Kolb or John Skelton should be the starting QB. It doesn't bode well that neither ran away with the job. Whoever is under center needs to get the ball to Larry Fitzgerald, and maybe CB-KR Patrick Peterson can provide more of his return magic.
 
   Rookie QB Russell Wilson beat out Matt Flynn for the starting job in Seattle. Neither will be throwing passes to Terrell Owens, but the new Seahawks QB can only upgrade an offense that ranked 28th despite featuring RB Marshawn Lynch. An already solid defense could be dominant with the addition of eight skilled rookies, and might get coach Pete Carroll a winning season.
 
   Jeff Fisher has his work cut out for him in St. Louis. The Rams cleaned house after a 2-14 season. Fisher was one of the most successful coaches in the NFL with the Oilers/Titans. Count on the Rams to be a physical team that beats up some opponents, even if it doesn't beat them on the scoreboard.
 
   ------
 
   PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH:
 
   NFC EAST
 
   1) New York Giants
 
   2) Philadelphia
 
   3) Dallas
 
   4) Washington


 
   NFC NORTH
 
   1) Green Bay
 
   2) Chicago
 
   3) Detroit
 
   4) Minnesota


 
   NFC SOUTH
 
   1) New Orleans
 
   2) Atlanta
 
   3) Carolina
 
   4) Tampa Bay


 
   NFC WEST
 
   1) San Francisco
 
   2) Arizona
 
   3) Seattle
 
   4) St. Louis
 
   ------
 
   Follow Rob Maaddi on Twitter: https://twitter.com/RobMaaddi
 
   ------
 
   Online: http://bigstory.ap.org/NFL-Pro32 and http://twitter.com/AP--NFL

Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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