Here’s how I see each division race in the NFC playing out, as well as a few quick thoughts on each team and why I have them where they are in the standings.
Philadelphia Eagles: 12-4
Dallas Cowboys: 10-6
New York Giants: 5-11
Eagles: Philadelphia is built to win Super Bowl LIV. With so many key pieces back in place, a well-conceived Eagles roster has many ways to win every week. Bringing back DeSean Jackson as the vertical threat to the offense seems a masterstroke by GM Howie Roseman. Everything is in place around Carson Wentz; now it’s up to the QB to prove he’s the right guy and can stay on the field. The defense can get after the QB and smother the run with guys like Fletcher Cox and Derek Barnett. There is some vulnerability at CB and LB, and I’m not sure how the RB situation will play out either. Very good team with a high floor and a high ceiling.
Cowboys: Jason Garrett has his hands full with a lot of talent but also a lot of disparate personalities. The offense should be a lot of fun with Zeke Elliott in the fold and Amari Cooper returning to give Dak Prescott a legit No. 1 target. Michael Gallup could take a huge leap as the No. 2, and perhaps Jason Witten can be 75 percent of his old glorious self. Their OL remains elite and well-compensated. Defensively, the Cowboys are built around an elite LB corps, which is both interesting and divergent from the way most of the NFL operates. They need some youngsters to step up in the secondary and on the DL but there are players in place who have the potential to do so. If Garrett keeps everyone shooting in the same direction, these Cowboys can win a lot of games in January. If not, they could be a bloody spectacle. Either way, it will be exciting.
Giants: It’s hard to look past the QB situation, where I don’t particularly like either Eli Manning or rookie Daniel Jones. But Saquon Barkley is amazing as one of the elite weapons in the NFL already. The OL upgraded by adding Kevin Zeitler, a smart acquisition. Golden Tate will help a lot too once he’s back from suspension. There’s no depth of talent, however. That’s even truer on defense, where I like several of the youngsters (Dalvin Tomlinson, Lorenzo Carter, Jabrill Peppers, DeAndre Baker) but where are the veterans, the mentors? I see this season as a year where the Giants figure out who still belongs when New York is realistically contending again in 2020 and beyond, and I think they’ll stumble into some wins along the way.
Washington: This is an odd team for me. I like a lot of the young pieces, including 1st rounder Montez Sweat and 3rd rounder Terry McLaurin. In Ryan Kerrigan, Josh Norman and Jonathan Allen, the core of a really stout defense is in place. I’m a long-term believer in Dwayne Haskins too, and the OL is decent enough. So why the terrible record in 2019? I just don’t see clear paths of victory for Washington. How do they beat teams other than forcing takeaways and having the occasional huge run from 34-year-old Adrian Peterson? They’re a year away from the playoffs, but Derrius Guice and a rising from the secondary around Norman can accelerate that. I just can’t forecast that in good conscience.
Minnesota Vikings: 10-6
Chicago Bears: 9-7
Green Bay Packers: 7-9
Detroit Lions: 5-11
Vikings: One year ago, this Minnesota team was one of the popular favorites to win it all. They bring back almost exactly the same team, only with an upgraded OL and a second year with Kirk Cousins at the controls. Last year was disappointing on several levels, but I’m a believer in the talents of Danielle Hunter, Harrison Smith and a resurgent Dalvin Cook, to name a few. I believe GM Rick Spielman’s patience in his decisions will be rewarded. A lot of the key players, including the dynamic duo of Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen, are in their prime years together. Their time is now...or never.
Bears: The defense still has Khalil Mack, Eddie Jackson and a lot of snarl. The secondary took a net loss in the player shuffle but didn’t bottom out, which is important. On offense, I expect some progress from Mitchell Trubisky in his second year under coach Matt Nagy, and adding versatile David Montgomery at RB will help. I can’t see them winning 12 and running away with the division again, but there’s a lot of talent in Chicago and they’re not going away quietly. The team carries itself with a confidence that makes them better than they might look on paper and I don’t think that dissipates in 2019.
Packers: This team has changed radically in the last two years, and some of the new blood will pay dividends. The newcomers on defense, Preston Smith and Za'Darius Smith, should really help the pass rush and appear great fits for Mike Pettine’s scheme. Any team with Aaron Rodgers has a chance to win any game; he’s still among the most important players in the league. The Packers have no chance without Rodgers being great, however. I’m not sold on their running attack or the WRs outside of Davante Adams. The early returns on rookie coach Matt LaFleur and his relationship with Rodgers do not inspire trust. Nor does the perennially in-flux secondary, though they got a good one in Jaire Alexander last year.
Lions: The second year of Matt Patricia’s regime sees Detroit possessing a fantastic defensive front built around Snacks Harrison. Playmaking CB Darius Slay, criminally underappreciated Quandre Diggs and young Tracy Walker give the secondary some teeth, too. Patricia’s team-specific scheming figures to be very difficult to crack for opposing offenses, though the pass rush still seems flat. The issue for Detroit will be scoring enough. I like the commitment to the run game built around Kerryon Johnson and one of the better tackle tandems in the league. Matthew Stafford and the passing game are key. If Stafford is the guy we saw in 2016-17 who led the league in comeback wins and game-winning drives, these Lions are a playoff team and the toast of the league. But with a terribly thin WR corps devoid of true playmakers, it’s more likely they’re just toast. I see a lot of 20-13 losses.
Atlanta Falcons: 11-5
New Orleans Saints: 11-5
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: 6-10
Carolina Panthers: 6-10
Falcons: Getting the middle-of-field defense back and healthy should do wonders for Atlanta. Guys like Deion Jones and Ricardo Allen proved difficult to replace all at the same time. Now they’re a team that can win with strength on either side of the ball. The offensive triplets (Matt Ryan, Julio Jones, Devonta Freeman) are scary and I love the interior OL adding Chris Lindstrom. The pass rush needs to step up and I’m not crazy about the special teams, but this Falcons team is underappreciated nationally, methinks.
Saints: Talk about a scary set of offensive triplets! Drew Brees handing off to Alvin Kamara and throwing to Michael Thomas, whew. The New Orleans OL is a good one, too. With that core, it’s tough to bury the Saints from any deficit. There are scads of high draft picks all over the defense, and occasionally some of them beyond the always-good Cam Jordan play to that level of potential. On those days, most teams can forget about beating the Saints. Getting consistent team play from the defense and special teams will be the difference between being a legit Super Bowl contender and a team that might need a back door into the Wild Card. Health on offense is an imperative though; this is the thinnest roster the Saints have had on that unit in years.
Buccaneers: A new coach, Bruce Arians, inherits old problems with a shaky OL, no real pass rush and iffy special teams. Jameis Winston’s bid for a long-term deal with the team also appears shaky, though he’s got some premium weapons in Mike Evans and O.J. Howard at his disposal. Winston's inconsistency and erratic nature, both as a passer and a team leader, make it tough to trust him. Losing WR Adam Humphries hurts. The offensive tackles are as bad as any in the league and that’s a huge inhibiting factor on Winston and the offense, which doesn’t have a proven weapon at RB either. I like some of the pieces on defense; swapping in Ndamukong Suh for Gerald McCoy is a sound football move at DT. The young secondary has some potential but could be exploited, too.
Panthers: Color me skeptical of Cam Newton and his new throwing motion spurned out of a shoulder injury. I love Newton’s unique blend of size, power and chutzpah, but anything which might impact his accuracy is problematic. He could get help from steps forward from Curtis Samuel and D.J. Moore at WR. Pairing them with Christian McCaffrey makes the Panthers a big-play threat from anywhere, and Newton can still execute that well. The defensive backfield is shallow but the starting group can be very good, and any defense with Luke Kuechly in the middle will not be fun to play against. I don’t trust the pass rush and I don’t trust the special teams to help out enough.
Seattle Seahawks: 10-6
Los Angeles Rams: 10-6
San Francisco 49ers: 5-11
Arizona Cardinals: 3-13
Seahawks: Adding Jadeveon Clowney puts the Seahawks just over the top of the Rams for me. He’s a perfect fit for what the Seahawks needed, namely a replacement for Frank Clark who is more physically reliable than Ziggy Ansah. Now the Seattle front seven is as good as any, with Bobby Wagner the best off-ball LB in the league for my money. On offense, Russell Wilson will once again need to be fantastic. Good thing for Seattle, he always is. Other than Tyler Lockett and maybe rookie DK Metcalf, the receiving corps scares nobody. That hurts a run game by committee, albeit one with solid members. The offensive line might be the best they’ve had in Wilson’s tenure, at least from C to LT. They’re vulnerable to teams that can block and tackle well, but I’m a believer in what coach Pete Carroll and GM John Schneider have built for 2019.
Rams: The reigning NFC Champs are built around Aaron Donald, a legit MVP candidate and the most talented defensive player in the league. But they quietly don’t have as much around him up front as they’ve had, even after adding oft-injured Clay Matthews returning to his SoCal home. There is no proven depth anywhere on the defense, and with volatility at CB in Marcus Peters and Aqib Talib, that could be a major issue. Jared Goff got rewarded with a major new deal on the basis that he’s an elite, All-Pro caliber QB. I’m not so sure about that. Getting Cooper Kupp back will help, and Goff’s ability to spread the ball around to a group of solid targets is part of why he got paid so much. Todd Gurley is capable of being awesome, but the words “arthritic knee” scares me. Most teams that lose the Super Bowl take a bigger step back than expected in the next year. I don’t think the Rams fall far; this is a playoff team, but I can’t anoint them as the favorites with the very real holes pockmarking the roster.
49ers: I covered some of my skepticism with the 49ers earlier, when I declared them one of the “unders” on season win totals I’m betting. I’m not a Jimmy Garoppolo sycophant and I’m not all that keen on his receiving corps outside of TE George Kittle. Every WR is at least one spot higher on the depth chart than they should be. It doesn’t mean guys like Marquise Goodwin and Dante Pettis are bad, it means they’re being asked to be better than they should reasonably be expected to be. That rings true with a lot of the defense, especially in the secondary with guys like Ahkello Witherspoon and Jaquiski Tartt. They’re not without ability or talent but I just don’t see them being great enough to justify the aspirations here. Too much talent abounds for this team to be bad, but a lot will need to break right for them to hit the playoffs.
Cardinals: The good news--Arizona almost certainly won’t be as bad as it was a year ago. The question is, how quickly can they rise with an unconventional rookie head coach and an unconventional rookie QB? I’d like them more if the OL was better, but it’s not good. At least the receiving corps got some quality young reinforcements, and a healthy David Johnson at RB will be dangerous, too. Not having either starting CB (Patrick Peterson is suspended for 8 games, Robert Alford is on IR) is a major blow to a defense that got better with Terrelle Suggs coming aboard. It’s a long way from the pit to the pinnacle. The Cardinals are climbing towards respectability.
Wild Card round
Saints over Seahawks
Rams over Vikings
Eagles over Rams
Saints over Falcons
Saints over Eagles