Vikings — Minnesota has the best linemen in the conference and maybe in the league, both ways. With an improved defensive secondary to provide some of the pass coverage they lacked last season, they take the top spot in the division from Green Bay.
Their quarterback situation remains iffy, so this is not a lock. Defensive team speed will be the key for their opponents because you’re not catching Adrian Peterson in the open field.
Packers — With Brett Favre gone, not a whole lot else makes sense in this division anymore. Green Bay has the best performing defense, but if I was to pick a defense, position by position, I’d probably take more players from Chicago. If I was to pick offensive players, I’d naturally start with Peterson from Minnesota.
This team takes second place based on tradition and a dash of respect, mixed with a coaching and front office staff that has proved it knows what it’s doing in rebuilding this team into a future powerhouse.
I see a bump in the road from this year’s lineup changes. A relatively bunny schedule doesn’t hurt the prospects for success, so first place would not be an upset.
Lions — Jon Kitna is now the primo quarterback of the division. Let that soak in for a minute.
With Roy Williams and Calvin Johnson to catch Kitna’s deep throws, Detroit should continue to put some points on the board. Because he has no backup even close in ability, an injury to Kitna dashes all hope of team success.
Defense remains an even bigger question here.
They’ve made some moves and will put a whole new unit in the backfield, but I don’t see how they manage to top a .500 record for the year.
Bears — The choice of Kyle Orton over Rex Grossman at QB means Chicago will be more patient and dedicated to the run. Again, the defense slowly unravels over the season as the sluggish offense consistently goes nowhere and posts a record number of three-and-outs. Grossman probably winds up playing a few games later in the year when everyone is frustrated by the paucity of wins (and yardage), but an offensive line that is pretty much disintegrating will just get everybody hurt and put the skill players on IR.
Coach Smith will not get much love this year.
Saints — New Orleans gets a turn again at the top spot in the division this season. More speed and depth on defense plus more weapons on offense (Jeremy Shockey and the return of Deuce McAllister) equals a playoff berth for the guys with the fleur-de-lis on the gold helmets. Besides, if last year is any indication, this team probably plays better when less is expected of them, so don’t look for 0-4 in September this year.
And then there’s a bonus: Anyone who can outfox Jerry Jones on a deal is bound to be up to something good. New Orleans got a first-rate defensive line coach and Dallas didn’t, and that had most everyone else in the league smiling ear to ear.
Panthers — Some call it stubborn or just a gamble, but I say John Fox’s steadfast approach to his team is more justly referred to as faith. He believes they can win with the power running game, so he’s rebuilt his offensive line to make that even more possible. He also has considerable confidence in his quarterback, Jake Delhomme, who just had a ligament replaced in his throwing elbow, which for most coaches would be cause to go find a quality backup (or even a new starter).
If Julius Peppers remains healthy and productive, their defense will be able to hold together at least enough to make me believe Coach Fox’s faith is rewarded this season.
Buccaneers — I don’t know what it was that Jeff Garcia did, but it must have been something really awful to have earned him the unenviable title of “Most Disrespected Player” in the NFL. Wherever he’s gone (and he’s gone everywhere), and however long he’s been there (and it’s usually not very long), he’s only filled in while the team looks for somebody who’s just got to be better.
He took the Bucs to an unexpected home playoff game last season, and as a reward, his coach sat him the last two weeks of the regular season in order to be fresh for the big game, which they promptly lost. That two weeks off wound up costing him a seven-figure performance bonus. (Thanks, coach! ‘Preciate it!)
Fast forward seven months, and before he takes his first snaps this season, the team is out on a Favre-hunt. Garcia earns $2 million in base pay this season, and to me it’s not half enough.
Tampa Bay has a quality team, one of the greatest defensive coordinators of all time, and a quarterback who has proved time and again that toughness matters. They have a shot at the division again, but there’s just something oddly wrong with this bunch of pinheads (and that’s only a compliment if you’re bowling).
Falcons — Atlanta is an expansion team again. It seems to be their lot in life. They have a brand-new coach with a rookie starting quarterback and other new players in lots of places. It’s a do-over, and I’m somehow reminded of a certain movie starring Bill Murray.
With a little luck and a lot of hard work, they could play Miami in Super Bowl L. Make that a lot of luck.
Giants — In honor of New York’s accomplishment last year, I am putting them in the lead of the best division in football. Despite injuries in the preseason, they still will have a quality defense, but I think Philly’s better on that side of the ball.
I don’t think the Giants will win it this year, but what do I know? I picked against them in every game after Christmas last year. They at least proved once again that, while experts may evaluate talent by the numbers, team chemistry defies statistics.
Cowboys — Dallas leads the league in talent, money and attention. This has self-destruction written all over it. With a certain wide receiver of note to add his 2 cents worth when least needed, I’m even more certain of it.
Jessica Simpson had best be watching her boyfriend’s games on a big screen from the safety and comfort of her favorite room at home.
Eagles — A prior victim of the Terrell Owens’ School of Self-Destruction, Philadelphia has all the elements of championship-caliber football you will need and would be worthy victors.
Something always seems to happen to this team on the way to greatness, however. An injury, I’m guessing. At least this year it shouldn’t be self-inflicted.
Redskins — Washington has the best skill players, a coach who’s innovative and intense, and motivation built upon years of frustration. My upset special of the year is picking the Redskins to win the NFC East. Maybe I’ll get around to explaining that in a week or two.