The NFC saw the San Francisco 49ers represent them in Super Bowl 47. While the game itself (the Beyonce blackout not included) provided excitement, it’s time to put last season in the rear view mirror. Let’s look ahead at what the 2013 season holds in store for the NFC starting with the division that is home to the defending NFC Champions: the NFC West.
The NFC West is the only division in the NFL in which every team in its division has participated in a Super Bowl in the last 15 years. San Francisco will try to make it back to the Super Bowl with Colin Kaepernick as their quarterback. Ever since the 49ers hired Jim Harbaugh, they have been one of the toughest teams to beat boasting a stout defense. This year will be “Kaepernick-or-bust” as the team sent Alex Smith away to the Kansas City Chiefs.
The Seattle Seahawks, led by head coach Pete Carroll, featured statistically both the best offense and defense in the division last year (points scored). Russell Wilson, Richard Sherman, and Bruce Irvin make up a great, exciting young core for Seattle. Wilson threw his name into the RGIII-Andrew Luck class by performing well his rookie year. His continued growth as a quarterback, the turnover-savvy defense, and the running game anchored by Marshawn Lynch will all have to contribute if the Seahawks want to catch the 49ers.
The St. Louis Rams made progress under Jeff Fisher’s first year as head coach. Rams’ fans are expecting more offensive progress this year after the team drafted offensive sparks plug Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey. Still, the team may only go as far as Sam Bradford can take them. If Bradford can stay healthy and cut back on the interceptions, this team may improve. The Rams certainly have the speed to beat other defenses with the new rookies that were drafted but it may be another year or two before they will challenge for a division title.
The Arizona Cardinals continue to rebuild. In the offseason, the Cardinals hired long-time assistant coach Bruce Arians and brought in Carson Palmer to quarterback the team. Arizona has been struggling to find someone to get Larry Fitzgerald the ball since Kurt Warner retired. Arians has coached a pretty impressive group of quarterbacks throughout his career: Peyton Manning, Ben Roethlisberger, and Andrew Luck. Perhaps Arians and Fitzgerald are just the guys that Palmer needs to revitalize his career. Their defense, led by Patrick Peterson, will struggle in a division full of potent offenses.
The NFC South is one of the toughest divisions to predict. They have never had a repeat division winner (conferences were realigned in 2002). Last year the Atlanta Falcons ran away with the division title (13-3) while the Panthers, Saints, and Buccaneers all finished at 7-9. The Falcons seem to be the team to beat but this is a division that is up for grabs year after year.
When you think of the Atlanta Falcons, it’s hard not to first think about the offense. Matt Ryan, Michael Turner, Julio Jones, and Roddy White have made the Falcons an explosive offense. Don’t let them fool you though. Head coach Mike Smith is a defensive minded coach. They will need to be sound defensively, in a division with Drew Brees and Cam Newton, if they want to win a 2nd straight division title.
The New Orleans Saints scored more points than any other team in the NFC last season. Drew Brees had yet another Pro-Bowl caliber year as a quarterback. That’s the good news; here’s the bad news: their defense also gave up the most points. Not to mention, last season was mired in Bountygate. Head coach Sean Payton will return this season after sitting out last year due to the Bountygate suspension. Brees and the Saints offense will keep them in every game but the defense will have to improve if they want to dethrone the Falcons.
The Carolina Panthers, led by Cam Newton, regressed last season. Newton’s Touchdown-to-Interception ratio was 20th in the league. Their leading rusher last season was also Cam Newton. To be a successful offense, they need another guy to run the ball. The talent is there with Deangelo Williams and Mike Tolbert but someone needs to step up or this offense will not be able to keep up with the Falcons and Saints. If the Panthers want to be successful this season, they need to continue to improve on defense (under defensive-minded coach Ron Rivera) and they need to have Cam Newton cut down on turnovers.
Finally, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers will try to improve under 2nd year head coach Greg Schiano. The running game saw a boost with Doug Martin, who some would argue was the Rookie of the year last season. If quarterback Josh Freeman continues to improve and Vincent Jackson plays like he is capable of playing, this team may be tough to stop. The NFC South may end up being one of the most competitive divisions in the NFL.
This concludes my quick assessment for each team in the NFC West and NFC South. I will be writing more divisional previews/assessments followed by my predictions in the coming weeks. Stay tuned!
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