NFC East 1. Phi 2. NYG 3. Wsh 4. Dal This is an easy division to pick, even though it seems pretty unlikely that Nick Foles is the QB he appeared to be in the stats last year (and the criteria for picking his backups appears to be 1)played at USC and 2)shitty.) Nonetheless, with a first-rate coach the offense will survive a little regression and the loss of Jackson. And the rest of the division is hideous. I don’t disagree with Barnwell that Eli is due for some bounceback. But what Barnwell — who has something of a blind spot about his team’s QB — is leaving out is that Rivers has always been a better QB than Eli, and even at his best Manning was never remotely as good as Rivers was last year. (Yes, yes, I know, 2-time Super Bowl MVP. Only 1)nobody really thinks Manning was more valuable than Tuck or Strahan in the first game, and 2)yes, if only Rivers and Marty Schottenheimer hadn’t conspired to force Marlon McRee to return what would have been a game-ending interception then they’d be clutch. I wouldn’t bet that Eli will even be average this year, and their defense is likely to regress too. And yet…the Redskins are a dysfunctional organization with an unproven, unimpressively credentialed coach, and it’s hard to know both if RGIII can stay healthy and what his skills are at this point if he does. (Look for many HOT TAKES arguing that Kirk Cousins and his 5% interception rate and fumble per game deserve the job, which will not go well if it happens.) The downside potential for the Cowboys is massive. First of all, you’re taking 39 games of Ware, Lee and Hatcher away from what was already an atrocious defense. I don’t want to dis Tony Romo, who has become a poster boy for the syndrome of unfairly blaming your team’s best players for its failures. But he’s 34 and he gets hurt a lot, and if he has an Eli-like decline in performance or gets hurt this team could lose 14 games.
NFC North 1. GB 2. Chi(*) 3. Min 4. Det On the other hand, every team in this division is vaguely credible — any of the 4 would be contenders in the east. Of the two offense-first quality teams, I’ll take the one with Aaron Rodgers over the one with Jay Cutler, thanks. (Also, while Jeffrey is very good whether he’s as good as he looked last year is an open question; he;s one year removed from 24 catches in 10 games, after all.) My defense of Marvin Lewis shouldn’t be construed as a knock on Mike Zimmer; he’s an excellent coaching prospect, and while you never know where a top coordinator will fall on the LeBeau-to-Belichick head coaching spectrum until you give them the job he has talent to work here and should improve on what was the 27th best defense in the league. Either Cassel will be good or what I’d bet is the best QB in the 2014 draft class will take over, with Cordarrelle Patterson and the one running back you can count on to be really good to work with. The Lions also have talent, of course. I might pick them as a wildcard if they had hired Smith or Zimmer, but Caldwell was a very strange hire, and while they’re capable of winning double digits the FO projections have them last in the division and I see no reason to disagree.
NFC South 1. NO 2. ATL 3. TB 4. CAR The Saints are one of the 3 or 4 strongest teams in the conference, although their defense might regress a but this year. I have no idea what to make of the Falcons, but Barnwell is pretty convincing that they can be expected to be more 2012 than 2013, although with that defense I don’t see them winning on the road in the playoffs even if they squeak in. There is some reason for optimism in Tampa Bay; not only getting rid of Greg Schiano but adding a coach who took Rex Grossman to the Super Bowl should be worth several wins in itself, and they have more talent than their record last year reflects. I wouldn’t be shocked to see them in the playoffs, but I think they’ll have to find the right QB after McCown turns into a pumpkin. Everyone thinks the Panthers will regress and I’m going chalk; Newton has been given nothing to work with and they don’t even have Newton to start the season.
NFC West 1. SEA 2. SF(*) 3. STL 4. ARI Amidst the discussion of alleged officiating changes, some people — morons, strategic whiners — seemed to be arguing that it was lax officiating that made the Seahawks defense look so good. This isn’t true, and with Harvin healthy this remains the best team in the NFL (although, as we recently discussed, Denver is probably the single team most likely to win the Super Bowl because their path is so much easier.) The injuries and suspensions afflicting the 49er defense are real but the effect has been overblown. It will make it hard for them to win the division, but they remain an outstanding team. I especially like the depth they’ve added at wideout, important in a division with Sherman, Peterson, and the Rams pass rush. On the two defenses-in-search-of-a-QB I’ll stay with the numbers and pick the Rams ahead of the Cards.