2020-21 NFC Predictions And Thoughts

A scheduling mishap cancelled the promise made yesterday about the NFC preview coming on a different medium.  In response, we’re going to quickly run through predictions for the conference’s divisional standings, accompanied with some thoughts and polished off with the playoff standings.

NFC East:

  1. Dallas Cowboys, 12-4
  2. Philadelphia Eagles, 8-8
  3. New York Giants, 5-11
  4. Washington, 3-13

Projecting the Cowboys to win this division, let alone win more than 10 games, is a bit daunting.  But this year, it feels undeniable.  Whether Mike McCarthy can actually get the best out of Dallas’ vaunted wide receiver group is to be determined, but he can’t be worse than Jason Garrett was.  Dak Prescott will certainly have a chip on his shoulder after him and Dallas failed to agree on a contract extension, and with this arsenal surrounding him, he should be able to prove his worth.  It shouldn’t surprise us if Dallas makes a deep playoff run – their highly-touted offense is backed up by a defense that’s continued to improve over the years.  This is not a group comparable to what the Chiefs have had to deal the past two seasons.  It’s much better, and with this offense, it makes this team terrifying.

The Eagles and Falcons are starting to go hand-in-hand with each other – tons of talent that is consistently banged up, so much so that is results in a lost season over and over again.  Philadelphia is already dealing with injuries prior to Week 1 – most notably Andre Dillard and Jalen Reagor.  Projecting injuries should only occur when it’s a team is notorious for being bitten by them, and with Philadelphia, they certainly have that in their record books.

In addition, there are holes here.  The Eagles aren’t as stacked as they were when they won the Super Bowl with Nick Foles at quarterback.  Even with a healthy Reagor, wide receiver is still a bit concerning.  Alshon Jeffrey was on the trade block in camp, and he’s this team’s second option.  Carson Wentz made due last year, but we’ve still never seen him elevate to the level he played at in his rookie season since offensive coordinator Frank Reich left for Indianapolis.  The secondary still feels like it’s a turnstile even with Darius Slay in the picture.  The defense – specifically the front seven – has the chance to carry a banged up, potentially average offense.  But that was also the case last year and the secondary blew it.  Slay will help, but that for him trade felt a little rich considering the former Lions cornerback is past his prime.

Five wins might seem a little harsh for the Giants, but there’s no doubting that they’re the third best team in this division, and mathematically that’s just going to bring your record down.  Saquon Barkley gives them a baseline, but it’s about how far they can elevate above that.  Daniel Jones still needs a true No. 1 receiver, and a combination of Garrett and Freddie Kitchens as his offensive coaches doesn’t spark hope for any real improvement.  That said, Jones blew away expectations last year, and has the looks of someone who could hold down the fort similar to how Andy Dalton did in Cincinnati for years on end.  There’s potential for success there.  New York just has to build it, and they’re still in the preliminary stages of that this year.

As written Thursday, Washington rivals the Jets for the worst roster in football.  The future, in spots, is bright.  But there’s a lot of youth in a new system, which doesn’t bode well given the limited offseason the team just had.  It could be another tough year for Dwayne Haskins Jr. under center, but he’s been in about as bad a situation a young QB could ask for so far.  It’s just going to take some time.

NFC North: 

  1. Green Bay Packers, 11-5
  2. Minnesota Vikings, 9-7
  3. Detroit Lions, 7-9
  4. Chicago Bears, 5-11

This division is wide open, which could make some of the records listed above seem a bit stereotypical and surprising.

But convincing ourselves that this division turns out any other way takes work.  Let’s start from the bottom.  The Bears defense is great, and the case can be made Chicago could be in for another 2018-19 season, where Mitchell Trubisky wasn’t good but didn’t suck either.  The problem is that Trubisky was bad last year, and there’s no reason to believe he can get any better.  The effects of a bad Trubisky terminated the defense, and while Chicago managed to get to 8-8, they missed the playoffs and felt extremely underwhelming.

Trubisky contributing in a non-negative way this year feels impossible, which turns our attention to Nick Foles.  The offseason deal for the former Jacksonville QB made sense, but he’s not likely to be the Bears’ savior.  Foles’ success in Philadelphia featured three important ingredients: Great defense, great weapons and great coaching.  Chicago has only one of those three things.  A case can be made for Foles’ potential receivers – Allen Robinson is extremely underrated and Anthony Miller’s ceiling out of college was a good No. 2 option.  But the Bears need the likes of rookie Cole Kmet to step up big if Foles is going to succeed.

In addition, Matt Nagy is no Reich.

The Bears have a great defense.  But to go 8-8 and have that group carry you, you need the other side of the ball to at least hold up their share.  It’s hard to trust Chicago’s offense to do that.

Detroit has emerged as a sleeper pick this season with the division’s wide-openness.  It’s a plausible case.  If everything that’s able to go wrong with Minnesota or Green Bay does, the Lions are next in line.  But as it has for years now, Detroit’s roster just has a level of competence to it and that’s it.  Hence, a mediocre 7-9 record.  If a coaching change was made over the offseason, perhaps there’d be more hope here.  But until there’s a bit more excitement and firepower, Detroit’s going to be stuck in the middle.

Minnesota sneakily made more changes than any other team in football over the offseason, and with a lack of preparation, it will make those losses and the continuity they brought sting.

The exodus of defensive talent brings a lot of youth and inexperience to the forefront.  With Danielle Hunter out for the beginning of the season, the Yannick Ngakoue trade is a saving grace for the team’s pass rush.  Run defense feels like a major problem, though the linebacking core was the least hard-hit by the offseason moves.

But Minnesota’s biggest losses could be offensively.  Kevin Stenfanski, as mentioned yesterday, should do wonders for Cleveland and Baker Mayfield.  That leaves Kirk Cousins without his offensive coordinator though, and while Cousins put a firm cap on the team’s ceiling, Stefanski likely did all he could during his time with the Vikings to overcome that.  In addition, he put Case Keenum a win away from the Super Bowl.

Cousins without Stefanski’s perfect scheme to hide his flaws is a bit terrifying.  In addition, one of his top targets is gone in Stefon Diggs.  His replacement is a rookie receiver who was catching balls from one of the best quarterback prospects in some time.  That’s not a slight on Justin Jefferson – it’s more about tempering expectations.  The offensive line still has holes too, and those proved to be a big problem even with Stefanski in the mix over the years.

All of this uncertainty leaves Green Bay, who has no shortage of their own.  But they do have the best quarterback in the division and arguably the most consistency (Detroit makes a fine case there as well).  While the Packers 13-3 record last season felt generous, they did overcome all of the offensive struggles, which could have been the product of year one in Aaron Rodgers’ first new system in years.

Rodgers is also going to have a chip on shoulder with the Packers selection of Jordan Love in April’s draft.  That’s kind of terrifying if you’re an opposing defense, regardless of the weapons around him.  In years past, it’s yet to be enough.  But in this division this year, it very well could be.

NFC South:

  1. Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 13-3
  2. New Orleans Saints, 12-4
  3. Atlanta Falcons, 6-10
  4. Carolina Panthers, 4-12

It’s quite impressive that this isn’t the NFC’s best conference record-wise.  From a contenders standpoint, it is.

Tom Brady didn’t look like Tom Brady last year, but that’s okay for multiple reasons.  One, it should probably be expected that at 43 years old he won’t be slinging it like he used to.  Two, the Buccaneers have the perfect pieces in place to give Brady what he needs.

As noted with a couple teams above, countering non-elite quarterback play takes surrounding talent and coaching.  Brady had only one of those last year, and the other element was so poor it negated what the former brought.  Tampa Bay has flipped that on its head, giving Brady one of the best wide receiver duos in football in addition to his former favorite target Rob Gronkowski.  The Buccaneers have the best weapons core in football.  It’s so good that they have three starting-caliber tight ends.  

It’s the perfect set-up for what Brady needs at this stage of his career.  With it and a good defense in place, he should dominate.

The Saints aren’t far behind the Bucs though.  The talent across their roster is among the tops in the league.  A potential decline in Drew Brees is protected by the likes of Michael Thomas and Alvin Kamara, though the weapons group isn’t as deep as Tampa Bay’s.

New Orleans just has to get past their postseason nightmares.  While there’s nothing wrong with their roster, projecting the Bucs ahead of them is just protection for what could come.  The Saints record can come out on top, but they may not be the ones left standing last.

As mentioned above, it’s really easy to just be over the Falcons.  It’s a group that is bitten every year with injuries and ultimately results in their downfall.  An even tougher division this season doesn’t help, and could be their swan song even if they keep the ship afloat.  It wouldn’t be a huge surprise to see them turn it around, but it’s not a winning proposition.

Carolina would be more intriguing if not for the large amount of changes in an offseason that wasn’t.  While it has no impact on their roster, what Cam Newton could be about to do in New England creates a somber scene for the Panthers.  A swap of him for Teddy Bridgewater seems baffling, even for the biggest fans of Bridgewater.

Joe Brady could have something to say about that, though.  The former LSU offensive coordinator was a home run hire for the Panthers, as was former Baylor head coach Matt Rhule.  Brady can get the absolute best out of Bridgewater once they get comfortable.  

The problem is that Bridgewater’s success doesn’t always translate into winning.  It can take a lot around a guy like him for that to happen, which the Panthers don’t have right now.  Their once fearsome defense is now limited to just a good defensive line, and Christian McCaffrey is still the No. 1 running back and wide receiver.  D.J. Moore needs to step up, as do the other pass catchers.  Brady can make that happen, but it may not see its full development until at least next year.

NFC West:

  1. San Francisco 49ers, 12-4
  2. Seattle Seahawks, 11-5
  3. Arizona Cardinals, 10-6
  4. Los Angeles Rams, 6-10

While the South has the NFC’s two most likely Super Bowl representatives, the best division by record lies here.

It’s probably time to stop doubting Kyle Shanahan and the 49ers.  It’s clear they know what the limitations are of their quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, so they’ve decided to go all-in on figuring out how to change or work around them.  After not having enough receiving talent, the 49ers added Brandon Aiyuk to the mix, which gives them an additional set of hands who can catch the short passes Garoppolo tends to throw and take off with them.  Deebo Samuel doubles that skill on the other side, and George Kittle gives the former Patriots QB an easy target over the middle of the field.

Shanahan knows how to solve problems, and the passing game was a slight one last year.  While San Francisco’s run heavy scheme had great success in 2019-20, it was their downfall against the mighty Chiefs in the Super Bowl, and could be the same this year against the likes of Dallas, New Orleans and Tampa Bay, all of whom have quarterbacks that can make throws and have an array of weapons to catch them.  If the Niners can put the two together, they’re right in that upper tier.  

If the 49ers suffer a Super Bowl hangover though, they could get eaten up quickly.  Seattle’s defense looks primed for a rebound despite a troublesome pass rush – the talent on the back-end gives off Legion of Boom vibes, which is a big upgrade as the secondary was secretly one of the league’s worst last year (They could not cover anybody).  Offensively, their reliance on running the ball remains frustrating, but with the ascension of D.K. Metcalf last season, there could be some scale-tipping towards the aerial attack and letting Russell Wilson do his thing. 

Seattle might drive us crazy, but they always seem to get it done.

Arizona is the preseason hype team this year, and that buzz is deserved.  The trade for DeAndre Hopkins still feels fake.  There’s no way the defense is the worst in the NFL again after practically the whole offseason was spent upgrading it.  There’s no new system being installed – the Cardinals went through the aches and pains of that last season, in addition to the typical rookie quarterback year from Kyler Murray.  It’s go time for the Cardinals, and the roster should be ready for it.

The Rams fall from grace remains stunning.  Their projected record here could be too.

Most of it has to do with a brutal schedule and the tough division.  There’s a world where a lack of improvement from Jared Goff has the Rams falling off the rails.  Los Angeles’ roster feels similar to Detroit, where there’s two-three real above-average players and the rest is just competent.  That may be negated by coaching in Sean McVay, but Goff’s decline under him last season didn’t spark too much hope.  The weapons around Goff aren’t too special – Cooper Kupp’s return will help.  But a rookie running back and a questionable interior offensive line don’t provide a lot of support.  The defense should be there and play a role in lifting the team as a whole up, but like Atlanta, improvement could still mean a phasing out from real contention.

NFC Playoff Standings:

  1. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
  2. Dallas Cowboys
  3. San Francisco 49ers
  4. Green Bay Packers
  5. New Orleans Saints
  6. Seattle Seahawks
  7. Arizona Cardinals