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NFC ante-post previews

I posted the ante-post expertise of Ian Steven, @deevo82, a couple of weeks ago from the AFC, I'd neglected to complete the set with the NFC. Here they are...

Please note, these were written on Sep 15, so there may be some slight changes to prices etc...

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NFC West

This might be the toughest division in the NFL. San Francisco are the losing Super Bowl finalists after a momentous collapse at the hands of Baltimore. There is a definite hangover attached to losing in the Super Bowl and not making it back to the big show the following year but the Niners may have enough talent to escape that hoodoo. Colin Kaepernick has quickly become one of the NFL’s hottest commodities after stepping into the breech last season when Alex Smith went down in Week 10. Frank Gore is still a capable running back despite edging close to the dreaded age 30 when halfbacks traditionally fall off the cliff in terms of ability. Their offensive line is more than serviceable and their defense is one of the best in the business. The only area of concern for the Bay Area franchise was the serious Achilles tendon injury to prima donna receiver Michael Crabtree who was Kaepernick’s favourite target. San Francisco quickly moved to bring in veteran receiver Anquan Boldin who repaid the front office’s faith by catching 13 balls for 208 yards last week against Green Bay.

Seattle are many pundits' choice as the NFC’s representative in the Super Bowl and with good reason. Pete Carroll’s men may rival the Niners for the deepest roster in football and are almost a mirror image of their deadly division rivals. Russell Wilson is a mobile quarterback just like Kaepernick and also came to prominence last season as a rookie quarterback who was defying the expert’s proclamation that the Wisconsin graduate was too short to make it in the NFL. Marshawn Lynch is a bruising running back, the Seahawks have a consistent offensive line and a punishing defense and just like the Niners, their top receiver went down in the pre-season as free agent acquisition Percy Harvin has been ruled out till Thanksgiving due to hip surgery. Seattle have not been able to replace Harvin with a player of Boldin’s quality which may well be the defining factor in what settles this division. The Week 14 clash between these two sides might be the most compelling regular season game of the year.

If it was any other division then St Louis would be considered as a team moving into the upper echelons. Quarterback Sam Bradford has displayed a level of maturity with the stability of coach Jeff Fisher coaching the Rams. They have a young and talented defense with players like James Laurinaitis, Michael Brockers, Chris Long, Robert Quinn and Janoris Jenkins but they just don’t have the skill players on offense to consistently rack up the wins needed to keep up with the “big two” in the division. They can play spoilers however which they did last season, defeating the Seahawks one then tying with and defeating the Niners.

The Cardinals have a lot of talent but their season rests on how protected they can keep veteran quarterback Carson Palmer with a less than stellar offensive line. He has one of the best wide receivers to play the game in Larry Fitzgerald to throw to and a young and talented secondary but they will ultimately be over whelmed by the strength of opposition in this division.

Winners – I can’t call it. The Niners have the shorter odds at just over evens and could win the division simply through the acquisition of Boldin. Seattle is the loudest stadium in the league and have such a prominent home field advantage. Both teams have really low odds to make the playoffs. Walk away from this one.

NFC North

The Packers looked like they were Super Bowl bound last year until they encountered Colin Kaepernick and San Francisco’s read option offense that left Green Bay completely befuddled. The majority of that squad are back in 2013 and look set to be able to make a deep playoff run again. Quarterback Aaron Rodgers is definitely in the top five at his position in the NFL and excels at getting the ball out of his hand quickly, which is a must as the Pack have a weakened offensive line with Brian Bulaga and Derrick Sherrod sidelined. Rookie Eddie Lacy steps into the backfield to add some consistency at running back and Randall Cobb will step up to fill the void of the departed free agent Greg Jennings. Clay Matthews remains the playmaker in the Wisconsin defense with Johnny Jolly returning to the NFL after a prolonged absence to help solidify the defensive line. This is an intelligent unit of veteran players who are comfortable in their respective systems, are well-coached and are definitely playoff bound barring injury.

Chicago have jettisoned long-time head coach Lovie Smith and replaced him with former CFL guru Marc Trestman. There has already been an offensive revolution in the Windy City with Jay Cutler no longer needing five seconds for a play to develop, with a more West Coast offensive style introduced that will feature running back Matt Forte heavily. Brandon Marshall is clearly the top target for Cutler, catching 118 balls for the Bears last season. Watch out for Martellus Bennett being a viable target in the red zone from the tight end spot. The main change on defense was the retirement of the legendary linebacker Brian Urlacher with the Bears drafting John Bostic in the second round in the hope he could go some way to replacing the icon. The Bears defense excels at causing turnovers but can end up relying too much on the big play rather than stopping a team marching for yards. Their last game of the season is at home to Green Bay and it could be a division decider but I don’t think there will be a wildcard slot open for the team that finishes in second place.

Detroit have been threatening to be good for a couple of years now and have arguably the best wide receiver in the league with Calvin Johnson. Reggie Bush was brought in from Miami to add some speed to the backfield but ultimately this is a team built to excel in a dome and not the frozen tundra of the NFC North. Matt Stafford is definitely a talented quarterback but throws more interceptions than other signal callers in the elite category. He could well lead the league in passing yards this season but that is probably because the Lions are playing from being behind on the scoreboard and need to gulp yards quickly. Ezekial Ansah was drafted to add some edge rushing to a defence already possessing the intimidating and ill-disciplined Ndamukong Suh but is still raw and can be considered a project. The linebackers and secondary are below par and as a result, the Lions will be an 8-8 team at best.

Adrian Peterson is the Minnesota Vikings. His performance last season gaining 2,097 yards after returning from a torn ACL and MCL on Christmas Eve was nothing short of remarkable and he is definitely considered the best in the business. That is where the plaudits end unfortunately as quarterback Christian Ponder is nothing more than a game manager. Greg Jennings was brought in from Green Bay to add some pep to the wide receiving core but will struggle with constant double teams or zones rotating his way. Matt Kalil is turning into a highly capable left tackle on offense but the Vikings defense is beginning to age, with Jared Allen and Kevin Williams both the wrong side of 30. If you enjoy watching throw back football where a running back barrels through tackles then the Vikings are the team to watch – they just don’t have enough in the tank to keep up with the rest of the division.

Winner – Green Bay will come out on top with Chicago running them close but Aaron Rodgers is the best QB in the division and that really matters in the NFL. 4 points on Green Bay @ 1.9 from 888sport.

NFC South

The prodigal son has returned as New Orleans head coach Sean Payton is eligible to stand on the sideline once more after being banned for a season for his role in the bountygate scandal. This is good news to acolyte Drew Brees who is the perfect quarterback for the offensive-minded Payton and the assault on the NFL’s passing records can begin once more in earnest. The biggest disappointment for the Saints is the lack of talent at the running back position with Heisman winner Mark Ingram failing to set the heather (or artificial turf) alight. Payton prefers a run by committee approach and the gaping holes left by the defense that have their hands full with Jimmy Graham, Lance Moore, Marques Colston and rookie Kenny Stills can be exploited. The Saints switched to a 3-4 defense in the off season, bringing in former Dallas coordinator Rob Ryan in a bid to get more pressure onto the opposition quarterback. It is a lot easier playing defense when the opposition is down by 21 points but they will be tested once the playoffs come round – especially if they don’t get home field advantage and have to play in winter conditions.

Atlanta revelled last year as the Saints toiled and quickly wrapped up the division and defeated the Seahawks in the playoffs, only to endure a second half collapse at the hands of the 49ers. Former Rams powerhouse Steven Jackson was brought in to add some oomph to the ground attack whilst Julio Jones and Roddy White have blossomed into the best wide receiver partnership in the league. Matt Ryan is dependable under centre and receives good protection from his offensive line. The key for the Falcons is generating a consistent pass rush to knock their opponents out of their stride. Osi Umenyiora arrived from the Giants to being pressure but the Falcs will struggle to harass quarterbacks when it really matters. Look for teams baiting cornerback Asante Samuel with double moves as the former Eagle is a really aggressive corner and gets suckered easily by crafty QBs.

The Carolina Panthers rely on the talents of quarterback Cam Newton for much of their offense as he can beat you with his arm as well as his legs. There was no sophomore slump as the third year quarterback almost mirrored his stats from his rookie year. Steve Smith remains the top receiving option for the Auburn graduate with DeAngelo Williams carrying the bulk of the rushing load with Jonathan Stewart currently on the PUP list. They are a physical team on offense and difficult to stop once they start running the ball. The big problem for the Panthers last year was a 2-8 start to the season but they boasted a top ten defense with Luke Kuechly looking like a star linebacker in the making. Seven of the games they lost last year was by a touchdown or less so they have to find a way of protecting the football and limiting the opposition within the redzone – which is a tough thing to ask when Atlanta and New Orleans are in your division. Ron Rivera’s men have a pretty tough schedule with games against the Patriots and the 49ers as well as facing the Saints twice and the Falcons once in the last four weeks of the regular season.

The boo birds are out for Tampa Bay quarterback Josh Freeman who was not head coach Greg Schiano’s pick in the draft and as a result the duo are not tied at the hip. There is a top draft class coming out in 2014 and there is a real chance the Florida franchise move on from Freeman and start afresh unless he makes heads turn. Running back Doug Martin was a pleasant rookie surprise for the Bus, posting a 1,000 yard rushing season. Vincent Jackson remains a huge target on the periphery but there is little else in the skill positions to help out Freeman. Left tackle Donald Penn also has to up his game or he could find himself replaced by a newer model as the 2014 tackle class is stocked as well. The Bucs brought in high profile free agents Darrelle Revis and Dashon Goldson to shore up their secondary but they are still in the process of rebuilding and are likely to prop up their division.

Winners – 2 points on the Saints to win the division @ 2.25 with Sky Bet. 2 points on Atlanta to make the playoffs @ 1.73 with Ladbrokes.

NFC East

Where to start with the most unpredictable division in the NFL? Let’s start with America’s team – as they like to call themselves. They are called other names by the Giants, Redskins and Eagles fans. The Dallas Cowboys revolve purely around Tony Romo. When he is fit and in form he can create miracles. He can also be a blundering oaf and essentially a head coach killer. Romo has all the weapons he needs in Jason Witten, Miles Austin and Dez Bryant but a stuttering run game can sometimes open Romo up to pass-rush-happy defenses and he can buckle under pressure. Penalty prone Tyron Smith aside, there is not a lot of talent on the offensive line and it could end up being their downfall as they face Von Miller, Jared Allen, Jason Pierre Paul, Julius Peppers and Clay Matthews in a very gruelling schedule. The defense has converted from a 3-4 to a 4-3 Tampa 2 under the stewardship of the guru that is Monte Kiffen. Demarcus Ware will be asked to stick his hand in the dirt but it should not faze the sack master. The Cowboys are very weak up the middle and could be exploited by post patterns if Sean Lee does not drop back into coverage quickly enough.

Washington are hoping that they have not brought RG3 back too quickly from knee surgery after sustaining ligament damage at the end of last season. The Baylor grad looked very tentative against the Eagles and did not plant his front foot when passing meaning he did not drive into his throws. Alfred Morris had a superb rookie year in the zonal run scheme employed by Mike Shanahan and expect the Skins to ride the second-year player behind what is a very capable offensive line. Defense is a different matter as the Eagles tortured the Redskins in week one with London Fletcher looking like age has finally caught up with him. Brian Orakpo aside, there is not much to write home about for the rest of the defense and it seems unlikely that Washington will ride the same crest of the wave that knocked out seven straight wins and a playoff berth at the end of last season.

The Giants seem to enjoy torturing their head coach Tom Coughlin with moments of genius coupled with moments of buffoonery that leave their head coach beside himself with rage. The prime target for the New York boo birds used to be Eli Manning but with two Super Bowl appearances under his belt, the younger of the Manning brothers is now regarded as a highly-talented quarterback and will evolve into a Big Apple legend. It is fumble prone running back David Wilson who is the current target of Coughlin’s ire, so much so that the Giants signed free agent Brandon Jacobs to return to the Meadowlands as an insurance policy. Victor Cruz and Hakeem Nicks are a fantastic receiving duo and are a consistent deep threat against any secondary in the NFL. The New York offensive line are consistent if not spectacular but as is the trademark of a Coughlin coached team, the defensive line is loaded with ability. Jason Pierre Paul and Justin Tuck are the most talented but they are also injury prone and must stay healthy if the Giants are to consistently push the pocket. The linebackers and secondary units for the G Men are barely serviceable and if faced with a quality offensive line, the Giants can be picked apart with ease. Maybe the most glaring stat facing Tom Coughlin’s men is that the Super Bowl will be held in their lovely new stadium this year – and no host team has ever made the Super Bowl – although they are very likely to make the playoffs.

The Eagles are the biggest variable in this division. New head coach Chip Kelly arrived in South Philly with the reputation of a mad scientist. His Oregon Ducks offense was prolific for points and for the tempo they set in matches. He wants an average of 18 seconds to still be on the play clock when the ball is snapped. A competitive camp battle saw Michael Vick eventually win out as the starter behind centre with Nick Foles relegated to a spot holding a clipboard. Vick looks ideal to run Kelly’s read option offense as his reads are minimised allowing Vick to quickly get the ball out of his hand. The biggest knock on Vick is his inability to avoid injury and it is likely he won’t last the season which could be the difference in winning the division. The running back position is vital for this offense to work and in LeSean McCoy the Eagles have the most electrifying ball carrier in the league. If McCoy, much, like Vick, can stay healthy then he will put up serious numbers. The biggest blow to the Eagles this off-season was the loss of Jeremy Maclin to a knee injury which means the only deep threat the Birds have is the precocious DeSean Jackson. Tight ends Brent Celek and rookie Zach Ertz will be expected to pick up a lot of the slack over the middle. One of the reasons why Philly were so poor last year was the injuries to the offensive line – most strikingly – to Jason Peters who was regarded as the best left tackle in the game before tearing his Achilles tendon. Peters is back healthy and the O line can be dominant with rookie Lane Johnson manning the other tackle slot. Defense is the biggest weak point for Kelly’s men as they are running a 3-4 hybrid defense but essentially still have the personnel for the 4-3. They could also have the worst safeties in the NFL which means one thing – the Eagles could be the best team to watch in the NFL this year when you combine points scored and points conceded in the same game. Ultimately, injuries and a poor defense will eliminate Philly from the playoff race.

Winner – The New York Giants should win the division but they may just squeak it with a 9-7 record. 1 point on NY to win division @ 4.5 with 888. 2 points on Dallas not to make the playoffs @ 2.00 with Ladbrokes.

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