Just like New England in the AFC, Seattle has been the team to beat in the NFC for years now.  And like the Patriots, the Seahawks are starting to show their age and how difficult it is to stay on top in a physical sport in a league that is designed for parity among it’s teams.  Every front office in the NFL has been trying to emulate the historic run that the Patriots have been on for the last 16 seasons when they have won 5 Super Bowl titles.

The fact is, in spite of team successes, every team still has weaknesses, even the Patriots.  The weakest part of the Patriots has always been their receiving core.  But their strength in having Tom Brady and their offensive system in place for so long, has masked the quality of their depth.   What has also kept the New England Patriots on top has been their ability to avoid runs on injuries throughout their rosters year after year.  Maybe other teams should study the off-season preparation and training regimen of the Patriots staff rather than trying to poach coaches and players which never seems to work out….hmm.

Knowing when to change over a roster, as well as the ways in which a team should fill it’s holes, has been the conundrum for most, if not all, NFL front offices for decades.  The Patriots have seemingly mastered the plan, but as I mentioned in my AFC Preview, that is slowly coming apart.  16 years is unprecedented though, and I don’t think anyone could do more than that.  However, this will not stop some teams from trying to copy their plan, or the plan of the Chicago Cubs… more on that later.

Which brings us back to Seattle.  Some teams have adopted the approach of getting rid of players at the pinnacle of their careers before they become old and injury prone to try and plug holes or weakness in their roster.

Fresh after their Super Bowl 48 victory, they crushed the John Fox and Peyton Manning led Denver Broncos 43-8.  The Seahawks traded their All-Pro center Max Unger and a 1st round pick to acquire tight end Jimmy Graham whom the Saints deemed as a health risk to fill a gaping hole in their passing game.  Both teams thought they were plugging holes, but they ended up creating other holes in their starting lineups, which they were forced to fill, unsuccessfully.  The results for both teams didn’t pan out as hoped, for the NFC title contenders, and instead it opened the door for 2 other teams in the NFC South to advance to the Super Bowl the last two years which were the Carolina Panthers and the Atlanta Falcons.

Now, my predictions:

NFC West

Seahawks 10-6, aging defense has enough to stay on top,  Arizona 9-7, healthy Palmer and better backup QB steadies the ship,  Los Angeles Rams 7-9, ride Gurley poss. MVP,  San Francisco 4-12, playing for 1st pick (see Cubs plan)

NFC South

Starting with the trade of Graham a few years ago, the Saints have been slowly shifting to being more of the balanced team they were nearly a decade ago when they won the Super Bowl.  An improved offensive line led by Unger, better running back depth, an effort to improve the defense in the off-season through free-agency, and the draft will lead to this team (led by the age-less Drew Brees) still falling short.  This may be the most competitive division in football this year.

Buccaneers 10-6, Jameis Winston is the new Cam Newton, Carolina 9-7, if Cam Newton is healthy, McCaffery disappoints, Atlanta 9-7, two new coordinators and Super Bowl hangover,  Saints 7-9, Defense not good enough, yet.

NFC East

Every year, there is at least one last place team that finishes first the next year.  Such is the way of life in the NFL where parity and schedule strength has as much to do with a team’s success, as health and good acquisitions by the player personnel department.  This couldn’t be more evident than in the NFC East where a last place team won the division the next year in 7 of the last 9 seasons.  This year will be no different.  Just as I picked the Buccaneers to ride their young quarterback to a division title, I predict the same will occur in Philadelphia where Carson Wentz becomes elite in a very short period of time.  Once he jells with his new receivers late in the year, look out.  One of the best offensive lines in football and tough up and coming defense will overtake one of the toughest divisions in football late in the year.

Eagles 10-6, holds off the Giants 9-7, Cowboys 9-7, lack of depth hurts,  Washington 5-11 Cousins implodes under contract weight/pressure.

NFC North

Every year, I tend to be more optimistic about the Bears than they deserve.  I don’t think their General Manager is all that great.  I will be in the minority in believing that the head coach and defensive coordinator are better at what they do.  I think Mike Glennon can play in this league, all be it, as more of a game manager quarterback than I thought.  His arm strength isn’t what I thought it was.  The defense is progressing in year three under Vic Fangio, I predict top 10 status, if not top 5.  Too much depends for this defense on the health of their tackle Eddie Goldman.  When healthy, he is a monster and definitely All-Pro level.  When he is not in there, there is no pass rush…period.  No pass rush means no wins for the Bears.  Fangio is a master technician, can he generate pressure and enough 3 and outs for Glennon and the Bears running game to control the clock?  Clock possession will be the tell for the Bears season.  It will happen more often than not.  Turnover will be down from a year ago when the Cutler, Hoyer and Barkley triumvirate was the league’s worst.  Lions and Vikings are down this year, and the Bears are better and improving.  The Pack stay on top for another run at the title.

Packers 10-6, Rodgers is Hall-of-Fame, and the Bears 9-7, for whom health is so important could swing as low as 6-10.  Vikings 7-9, and Bradford is terrible.  The Bears’ Howard ran wild against the Vikings defense a year ago, Lions 6-10 in Caldwell’s predictable final year

The Packers are my pick to represent to NFC.  They have so many weapons that make them hardest team to kill in the conference.  Seattle’s defense is getting long in the tooth and they haven’t added any playmakers on offense to go with Graham and Baldwin, who only slightly above average at receiver.  The Eagles are at least another year away, although I do believe they will make the playoff’s.  I don’t believe in Atlanta’s Matt Ryan and I think Cam Newtons best day are behind him.  That leaves Jameis Winston as the lone challenger to Rodgers for MVP and the Buccaneers as my dark horse pick for the conference.

That said, I still believe the Bears can surprise the Bucs in week 2 if they can get a couple of picks playing a zone defense, while having an attacking pass rush.  The Buccaneers top running back will miss this game, making Winston more one-dimensional  than normal.  The Bears quarterback Glennon is primed to spring upset, having played for the Buccaneers the last 4 seasons.  Glennon will be highly motivated for this game and knows their team inside and out.

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