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Row12.com - A Community of Sports Writers and Fans!                                               ***Attention Writers***
2014 NFC Preview
By Matt Horkman

Throughout the 2000s, the dominate conference in pro football was the AFC. The conference won seven Super Bowls over the NFC, with the New England Patriots and Pittsburgh Steelers combining to win five of them.

Times change and the pendulum is swinging the NFC’s way in the 2010s, with the conference winning three of the first four Super Bowls.

Given the conference’s depth and youth, the NFC may just be getting started.

Here is my breakdown of the conference:

NFC East

Dallas Cowboys

Key Games: Week 1 vs. San Francisco, Week 12 at N.Y. Giants, & Week 13 vs. Philadelphia

Breakout Player: Last year, as a rookie, wide receiver Terrance Williams averaged over 16 yards per reception. The Cowboys fully committed to him as their No. 2 receiver this off-season. Williams, who should receive plenty of one-on-one looks opposite of Bryant, will approach 1,000 yards receiving this season.

Fantasy Impact: One of the best receivers in football, Bryant is coming off back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons. From a fantasy perspective, he has double-digit touchdowns in consecutive seasons. Lock him in as a top five fantasy receiver, regardless of what type of scoring your league uses.

Prediction: Switching to the Tampa 2 defense last season was a foolish move by the Cowboys, considering they played pretty good football for a number of years running a 3-4 defense. The only good that came from the switch is that Dallas’ defense is so bad right now, that people have finally stopped talking about Tony Romo. The Cowboys’ signal caller is one of the bright spots on the team, as he leads an offense that should finish high in scoring. Still, not even Romo, Bryant, DeMarco Murray, and Jason Witten can overcome a porous defense. Mediocrity has defined Dallas football for the last three years. It will again in 2014.


Philadelphia Eagles

Key Games: Week 13 at Dallas, Week 14 vs. Seattle, & Week 17 at N.Y. Giants

Breakout Player: Indications coming out of preseason is tight end Zach Ertz is poised for a big year. This August, the second-year tight end caught eight passes for 110 yards and a touchdown. His size (6-foot-5, 250 pounds) makes him an excellent red zone target for quarterback Nick Foles, but Ertz is also athletic enough to influence the game between the 20s.

Fantasy Impact: In Philadelphia, running back LeSean McCoy is king. The Eagles will do whatever they can to get the ball in his hands. Leading the league in touchdowns and surpassing 2,000 total yards is a reasonable expectation.

Prediction: Year one of the Chip Kelly Era was a resounding success. The Eagles won the NFC East and nearly upended the Saints in a wild card playoff game. Anything less than a similar result this season will be disappointing. In fact, some are expecting Super Bowl. Those are inflated expectations, though. Defenses didn’t know what to expect from Philadelphia’s offense entering last season. They will this season, so the Eagles can anticipate seeing better-prepared opponents. Philadelphia will contend for a playoff berth, but with the exception of McCoy, this could be a disappointing season for the organization.


N.Y. Giants

Key Games: Week 11 vs. San Francisco, Week 12 vs. Dallas, & Week 17 vs. Philadelphia

Breakout Player: Expectations are high for third-year receiver Rueben Randle. While the Giants did draft Odell Beckham Jr. with their first pick, all signs point toward Randle emerging as the team’s No. 2 receiving target (behind Victor Cruz). His red zone production could be especially high, as the Giants don’t feature their tight ends, and Randle’s size (6-foot-2, 208 pounds) gives him an advantage.

Fantasy Impact: Just two years removed from 1,500-plus receiving yards, Cruz will benefit from playing in new offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo’s scheme. The former Green Bay Packer quarterback coach is looking to implement Green Bay’s passing offense in New York. Look for Cruz to play the slot, which is where Greg Jennings, Jordy Nelson, and Randall Cobb all had fantasy success in Green Bay.

Prediction: Getting the defense and quarterback Eli Manning back has to be New York’s No. 1 goal. Manning threw nine more interceptions than touchdowns last season, but the presence of McAdoo should help get him on the right track. Defensively, the Giants are hoping to revitalize a pass rush that’s let them down over the last two seasons. If the pass rush comes alive and Manning proves last year was a fluke, then the Giants have every capability to make a run at the NFC East title.



Key Games: Week 3 at Philadelphia, Week 4 at N.Y. Giants, & Week 5 vs. Seattle

Breakout Player: Concussions cut short tight end Jordan Reed’s promising rookie season. Nonetheless, Reed made a profound impact in the offense, and new head coach Jay Gruden intends to utilize him both inside and outside the 20s. 

Fantasy Impact: The ability to score points with his legs makes Robert Griffin III a viable fantasy quarterback. Ironically, due to injury risk, that‘s what makes him a risky fantasy pick. All the pieces are in place, though, for Griffin to emerge as a top 10 (if not top five) fantasy quarterback. After all, Gruden’s system made Andy Dalton into a respectable quarterback, and Griffin demonstrates more ability than Dalton does.

Prediction: No one in the NFC East will runaway with the division. The race for the divisional championship will be competitive top to bottom. Like Dallas, no matter how good Washington‘s offense is, the defense needs to elevate its play. Washington couldn’t stop anybody last year, allowing 29.9 points per game. They allowed 110.6 yards per game on the ground and opposing quarterbacks finished with a 96.9 passer rating against them. While Washington will improve upon last season, their defensive woes will continue, and they’ll fall a couple games short of winning the division.


NFC North

Chicago Bears

Key Games: Week 4 vs. Green Bay, Week 10 at Green Bay, & Week 15 vs. New Orleans

Breakout Player: Chicago guard Kyle Long, despite making the Pro Bowl, had an up-and-down rookie year. That wasn’t the least bit surprising, for offensive lineman tend to get off to rocky starts. Long is a mauler with the pedigree to emerge as one of the top 10 guards in the game. Pro Bowl or not, his ascension starts this year.

Fantasy Impact: In standard leagues, both Alshon Jeffery and Brandon Marshall project to score 190-plus fantasy points. That’s the second most of any duo in the NFL. Pencil both of them in as No. 1 fantasy receivers.

Prediction: Upgrading a pitiful defense was Chicago’s No. 1 off-season priority. The defensive line features two new starters in defensive ends Jared Allen and Lamar Houston, with rookies Ego Ferguson and Will Sutton providing depth inside. There’s also a chance Chicago will rely on two rookies in the secondary, with cornerback Kyle Fuller playing in sub packages, and safety Brock Vereen pushing for playing time. The Bears’ offense enters the year as good as ever. Jeffery and Marshall form an imposing tandem at receiver, and Matt Forte is among the top running backs in the game. While the defense remains a work in progress, the offense has enough firepower to lead this team to the postseason.


Detroit Lions

Key Games: Week 3 vs. Green Bay, Week 8 at Atlanta, & Week 16 at Chicago

Breakout Player: Even with running back Reggie Bush coming off a 1,000-yard season, Detroit coaches will find it difficult to keep his backup Joique Bell off the field. Bell, who ran for 650 yards on 166 carries last season, is a capable runner between the tackles. However, he’s also talented receiver. He’s coming off back-to-back seasons with 50-plus receptions. His trajectory is point way up entering the regular-season.

Fantasy Impact: Using standard scoring, Matthew Stafford is one of six signal callers that projects to score 300-plus points. Look for him to finish ahead of the likes of Tom Brady, Colin Kaepernick, and Russell Wilson.

Prediction: Dynamic offenses are a theme in the NFC North. The Lions feature an outstanding offense, led by Stafford and wide receiver Calvin Johnson. The addition of Golden Tate, however, finally gives them a credible No. 2 receiving option. In addition, the running game is as good as it has been in years, with Bell and Bush primed to combine for 1,200-plus rushing yards. Defensively, Detroit will rely on their front seven. We know what they have in Ndamukong Suh, who is one of the game’s most intimidating defensive tackles. However, defensive end Ziggy Ansah will make the defensive line even better. Ansah, who has played football for only four years, is coming off an eight-sack rookie season. He’s just beginning to scratch the surface of his potential. The Lions hired Jim Caldwell as their head coach because he brings a calming influence to his players. He also brings a disappointing final season in Indianapolis. Granted, it was without Peyton Manning under center, but the fact that losing one player made a team completely fall apart is alarming. When New England lost Tom Brady for the ‘08 season, they still won 11 games. Just last year, Green Bay managed to stay afloat with Matt Flynn subbing in for Aaron Rodgers. Talent isn’t in issue in Detroit, but the coaching and discipline are up in the air.


Green Bay Packers

Key Games: Week 1 at Seattle, Week 4 at Chicago, & Week 8 at New Orleans

Breakout Player: A couple of years have passed since defensive coordinator Dom Capers had a versatile defensive back at his disposal. The last was Charles Woodson, but his last great year in Green Bay was 2010. Micah Hyde can fill the void Woodson left behind. The second-year defensive back does it all. He’ll start at safety in the base packages and move to slot corner during certain sub packages. He can blitz from either position or play coverage. He also takes great angles to the ball and is a competent run defender.
Aaron Rodgers
Fantasy Impact: No other team in football can top Green Bay’s fantastic four. Quarterback Aaron Rodgers, running back Eddie Lacy, and wide receivers Randall Cobb and Jordy Nelson are all No. 1 fantasy players at their positions. Together, using standard scoring, the four project to score 986.06 fantasy points.

Prediction: Overlook the Packers at your own peril. Rodgers, who is arguably the top quarterback in the league, has never had a better running game around him. Lacy’s presence forces defense to pick their poison. Will they stack the box and risk Rodgers burning them through the air or will they play off and risk Lacy bruising his way up the middle? Simply put, it doesn’t matter. This could be the best offense of the Rodgers Era. Defensively, Green Bay is betting on Julius Peppers having gas left in his tank. Peppers, who has had a strong August, will play mostly outside linebacker opposite of Clay Matthews. Many fans compare the signing of Peppers to Reggie White, but the minister of defense was Green Bay‘s top defensive player the day he walked through the door. These Packers already have a No. 1 pass rusher in Matthews. In many ways, the signing of Peppers compares more to Sean Jones, who joined the Pack in 1994. Jones became a staple part of the mid ‘90s Packers by playing opposite of White along the defensive line. If Peppers can be to Matthews what Jones was to White, then Green Bay’s pass rush will deliver. Overall, improvements to the defense, running game, and even offense line makes this the best Packers team assembled since their Super Bowl run of 2010.


Minnesota Vikings

Key Games: Week 6 vs. Detroit, Week 11 at Chicago, & Week 12 vs. Minnesota

Breakout Player: Rookie defensive tackles seldom make an immediate impact. Sharrif Floyd was no exception last year. The second season usually goes smoother, though, and all signs point toward a strong sophomore year for the former first-round pick. We all saw what Mike Zimmer did with Geno Atkins in Cincinnati. Floyd won’t hit that level this year, but his stock is on the rise.

Fantasy Impact: One of the top players in all of fantasy football, running back Adrian Peterson once again projects to lead the NFL in rushing with 1,594 yards. He’s a top three fantasy pick in standard leagues.

Prediction: By using seven first-round picks in three years, Minnesota has done a nice job of assembling young talent. Quarterback Teddy Bridgewater is the most important of those picks. Peterson turned 29 this off-season, and while he’s a different kind of specimen, his career is winding down. The Vikings, no doubt, are hoping Bridgewater progresses enough to make an impact with Peterson, not after him. Offensive tackle Matt Kalil and safety Harrison Smith are already great building blocks. I suspect we’ll say the same about Floyd soon. If linebacker Anthony Barr, cornerback Xavier Rhodes, and receiver Cordarrelle Patterson all develop as well, then Minnesota will challenge Green Bay in the NFC North sooner than expected.


NFC South

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Key Games: Week 1 vs. Carolina, Week 5 at New Orleans, & Week 16 vs. Green Bay

Breakout Player: The Bucs expect rookie receiver Mike Evans to influence the game early and often. His massive size (6-foot-5, 231 pounds) makes him an ideal red zone target.

Fantasy Impact: Running back Doug Martin looks to re-emerge on the fantasy radar after injuries sunk his ‘13 season. There were indications early that Tampa Bay was considering using a committee of running backs, with Martin at the head of the line. A couple of injuries in Tampa’s backfield (plus Martin’s strong August) has simmered that talk. Given his talent and Tampa’s reliance on the run, pencil Martin in as a RB2.

Prediction: Are we confident in Josh McCown at quarterback? Chicago’s offensive scheme -- featuring the top receiving tandem in football last year -- was perfect for him. The Bucs have a solid group of skills players, but they’re still a step below Chicago. New head coach Lovie Smith will make the defense better. With two foundational pieces (Gerald McCoy and Lavonte David) already in place, the defense may surprise a few teams, especially at home. Still, this franchise is currently a year or two away from mounting a serious challenge in the NFC South.


Atlanta Falcons

Key Games: Week 1 vs. New Orleans, Week 6 vs. Chicago, & Week 11 at Carolina

Breakout Player: All eyes are on rookie offensive tackle Jake Matthews, especially after starting left tackle Sam Baker went down with a torn ACL in training camp. Matthews was originally going to play right tackle, but Baker’s injury will force him to mature quicker than Atlanta may have hoped. By all accounts, he seems ready for the challenge.

Fantasy Impact: When you think of top 10 fantasy quarterbacks, Matt Ryan isn’t the first name to pop in your head. Frankly, you may think of 10 other quarterbacks before him. Ryan is coming off consecutive 4,500-yard seasons, though. Additionally, he did it last season without star receiver Julio Jones for the final 11 games. Getting Jones back will be a huge boon to Ryan, who expects to be in ton of shootouts, as the Falcons feature one of the league’s worst defenses.

Prediction: After years of riding in Atlanta’s bandwagon, I’m officially jumping ship. The Falcons are a talented team, but they lack the discipline, and coaching to compete with the best the NFC has to offer. Overcoming those factors will be difficult, especially with their defense.


Carolina Panthers

Key Games: Week 8 vs. Seattle, Week 9 vs. New Orleans, & Week 10 at Philadelphia

Breakout Player: The buzz surrounding receiver Kelvin Benjamin is loud and clear. The rookie receiver has worked as Carolina’s No. 1 receiver all summer. His size (6-foot-5, 240 pounds) makes him an ideal target in the red zone. Consider him a dark horse offensive rookie of the year pick.

Fantasy Impact: What makes quarterback Cam Newton such a valuable fantasy commodity is his usage as a runner inside the red zone. He’s basically the team’s default goal line running back. Injuries are the only think you need to worry about when making him your fantasy quarterback.

Prediction: Expectations are high after finishing 12-4 last season. The Panthers have a proven commodity at quarterback (Newton) and one of the top defenses in the NFL. A brutal schedule, though, may sink them. Carolina has a mid-season stretch where they play Green Bay, Seattle, New Orleans, and Philadelphia in consecutive weeks. They also play Baltimore, Cincinnati, and Pittsburgh this season. The Panthers are a good team, but it’s going to be an uphill climb to the playoffs.


New Orleans Saints

Key Games: Week 8 vs. Green Bay, Week 9 at Carolina, & Week 10 vs. San Francisco

Breakout Player: Running back Mark Ingram has disappointed in each of his three NFL seasons. This year looks different, though. His decent finish to last season has carried over into the summer. Motivation shouldn’t be an issue, either, as he’s entering a contract season.
Drew Brees
Fantasy Impact: Since 2011, no quarterback -- including Rodgers and Peyton Manning -- has more touchdown passes than Drew Brees does. Assuming he keeps his turnover count down, he enters the 2014 season entrenched as an elite fantasy quarterback.

Prediction: All the NFC hype revolves around San Francisco and Seattle. However, the NFL is a quarterback-driven league and the Saints remain one of two NFC teams (the other being Green Bay) with an elite quarterback. With Brees, the franchise has a perennial MVP candidate capable of making the players around him better. In tight end Jimmy Graham, they have one of the top skill players in football. The offensive talent combined with Sean Payton’s master play calling gives this franchise one of the most consistent offensive attacks of the last 10 years. The defense made major strides under Rob Ryan last year and they should continue to improve while the players grow more comfortable with their assignments. Overall, the Saints have all the pieces in place to make a run at the Super Bowl. Winning 13 games and securing home-field advantage are reasonable expectations. 


NFC West

San Francisco 49ers

Key Games: Week 10 at New Orleans, Week 13 vs. Seattle, & Week 15 at Seattle

Breakout Player: Coming off a solid rookie campaign, the 49ers expect safety Eric Reid to continue elevating his play. He did earn a Pro Bowl nod as a rookie, though a Pro Bowl nod doesn’t mean much these days. Still, Reid is poised for big things in 2014. His combination of size (6-foot-1, 213 pounds) and athleticism makes him a rare breed of safety capable of holding up against the run and in coverage.

Fantasy Impact: A year removed from tearing his ACL, wide receiver Michael Crabtree is fully healthy, and a solid No. 2 fantasy receiver.

Prediction: Play for the NFC title three consecutive seasons and high expectations will follow. The 49ers are legitimate Super Bowl contenders. Under Jim Harbaugh, their offense should be as good as ever, especially with Kaepernick entering his second season as the starting quarterback. The receiving corps now boasts the talents of Anquan Boldin, Michael Crabtree, and Stevie Johnson. Throw in Vernon Davis at tight end, and Kaepernick won’t lack pass catchers. Questions do surround the defense. The team will be without linebacker NaVorro Bowman for a substantial part of the season. Linebacker Aldon Smith, who has 42 sacks in three years, will miss the first nine games of the season with a suspension. Nevertheless, the 49ers are a deep team that’s strong in the trenches on both sides of the ball. How they fare against Seattle this season will determine whether they retake the NFC West.


Arizona Cardinals

Key Games: Week 3 vs. San Francisco, Week 9 at Dallas, & Week 16 vs. Seattle

Breakout Player: The Cardinals want to make running back Andre Ellington a focal point of their offense. There has even been rumblings that he’ll receive 20 touches per game, which would put him on pace for 320 touches. That’s a lot of wear and tear for a 199-pound running back, but expectations are high for the second-year player.

Fantasy Impact: The receiving combination of Larry Fitzgerald and Michael Floyd is as good as it gets in the NFC West. In fact, it might be the third best receiving tandem in the NFC, trailing only Chicago and Green Bay. Both Fitzgerald and Floyd should finish the season as No. 2 fantasy receivers. 

Prediction: There is a lot to like about Arizona. They have a solid head coach (Bruce Arians) and the offense features several good players at the skill positions. Moreover, the defense also figures to be among the best in the NFC. The problem is at quarterback, where an aging Carson Palmer is hit or miss on a weekly basis, in large part because of turnovers. Playing behind a skeptical offense line will only amplify his turnover issues, costing the Cardinals a playoff berth.


St. Louis Rams

Key Games: Week 3 vs. Dallas, Week 9 at San Francisco, & Week 10 at Arizona

Breakout Player: Many were expecting cornerback Janoris Jenkins to develop in his second season. That didn’t happen. Instead, the young cornerback regressed. This year will mark his third season and the Rams are counting on Jenkins’ development to hit overdrive.

Fantasy Impact: With quarterback Sam Bradford out for the year, St. Louis will once again turn to their running game. After stepping in as the starter in week five, Zac Stacy was a pretty good RB2 for the rest of the season. Expect similar production now that he’s atop the depth chart.

Prediction: St. Louis is a quarterback a way from reaching the postseason. The sad part of it all is they believe Bradford‘s their guy. The former No. 1 overall pick is certainly talented enough to get the job done, but his durability issues continue to sink his career. After tearing his ACL in the preseason, Bradford will miss the entire 2014 season. By the end of this year, he’ll have missed 31 games in five years. That’s nearly 40 percent. The Rams could remain competitive because of their ferocious pass rush, but without a steady signal caller, they'll continue to bring up the rear of the division.


Seattle Seahawks

Key Games: Week 1 vs. Green Bay, Week 13 at San Francisco, & Week 15 vs. San Francisco

Breakout Player: A strong finish to last season positions cornerback Byron Maxwell well for 2014. The fourth-year cornerback will start opposite of Richard Sherman and features a skill set similar to Sherman. As if the Seahawks need another big, physical cornerback.

Fantasy Impact: When most think fantasy football, they think high-scoring games with lots of passing. The Seahawks defy that stereotype by wearing defenses down with a power running game. Running back Marshawn Lynch is coming off consecutive 300-carry seasons. He’s still a No. 1 fantasy back, even if he dips below the 300-carry threshold.

Prediction: With one of the best rosters in football, the defending Super Bowl champions are a legitimate threat to repeat. Frankly, the last two Super Bowl champions (Baltimore and New York) didn’t really threaten to repeat. Green Bay did in 2011, but they couldn‘t overcome their defensive struggles. Balance is what separates the Seahawks. Quarterback Russell Wilson can certainly throw the ball, Lynch is a beast in the backfield, and a healthy Percy Harvin is a difference maker on special teams. Defensively, the Seahawks have the best pass defense in football, and they do a fine job of stopping the run. Anointing Seattle’s dynasty would be a mistake, though. The NFC is loaded, especially the NFC West, where San Francisco will pose a serious challenge to Seattle’s dominance.


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