HFA: 2011 NFC Predictions

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All of our wishes have come true, despite 130+ days of fear, panic and utter chaos, the National Football League is back. This 2011 NFL preseason has more fanfare than I can ever remember, the free agency migrations is akin to a Fantasy Draft in the Madden video game series, and a new found feeling that anyone can win this year. HFA published it’s AFC preview earlier today, and due to Oregon being in a different time zone, I’m behind, had to sleep in on my day off; thanks for hanging in there, one day later. With no further ado, the NFC conference, which has gained significant advantage over the AFC, let me show you why.

NFC SOUTH

Note: The NFC South plays the AFC South and NFC North this season

1.) New Orleans Saints (13-3)

The Saints are back, and most certainly with an angry run defense which was thrashed in one of the beastliest runs of the decade as Marshawn Lynch went Beast Mode (relive it: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jBHk9rc4hHc) over the Saints booting them in the first round of the 2010 playoffs. Drew Brees has excellent talent around him, a good balance of young and experienced, one of the more potent offenses in the league. The threat to fumble from anywhere on the field, Reggie Bush, is gone; insert hard working, utility back Darren Sproles from San Diego. With Sproles they shouldn’t miss a beat, and the defense is the same with an influx of rookies, and Malcolm Jenkins moves in to take FA Darren Sharper’s SS spot.There’s too much good to cover every aspect of this team.

Strength: Skill positions- Drew Brees, Pierre Thomas, Chris Ivory, Darren Sproles, Mark Ingram, Marques Colston, Lance Moore, Devery Henderson, Robert Meachem, Jimmy Graham are all incredible athletes and can provide offense from anywhere on the field. There is no lack of talent anywhere; the receiving core consistently has one guy step up every game providing a new target, second year tight end Jimmy Graham is a rising star, absolute beast, and there isn’t a more dynamic stable of backs in the league. The Saints will hurt you from anywhere, and they will do it often.

Weakness: Defensive line depth- teams are built on defensive lines, their production is a good indicator of a teams success, and the Saints are lacking in depth. They’ve signed NT Shaun Rogers, but the 2’s and 3’s are inexperienced or castoffs who couldn’t cut it with other teams. Will Smith had 5.5 sacks last year, Sedrick Ellis racked up 6, Jeff Charleston with 3 and MLB Jonathan Vilma contributed 4. As long as the starters can stay healthy and keep the offensive line off of the linebackers, this won’t be a weakness. Alex Brown, Jimmy Wilkerson and an aging Shaun Rogers aren’t exactly players to hand your hat on anymore, but Sean Payton could be a guy to get the most out of them.

Key Losses: TE Jeremy Shockey (Panthers), RB Reggie Bush (Dolphins), S Darren Sharper (FA), CB Randall Gay (FA), RB Mark Ingram (draft)

Key Additions: RB Darren Sproles (Chargers), CB Fabian Washington (Ravens), NT Shaun Rogers (Browns)

2.) Atlanta Falcons (12-4)

Atlanta has a host of good players and one of the games best young quarterbacks. Weaknesses were plugged, strength’s bolstered, giving Atlanta unlimited potential. Matt Ryan is entering his 4th season, expect big numbers from him throwing to Roddy White, TE Tony Gonzalez and rookie Julio Jones, who seems to be in the best fitting offense for his skill set. Michael Turner had a big season running the ball last year, and draft pick Jacquizz Rodgers will surprise some as a very tough little running back. However Jason Snelling and Jerious Norwood’s status with the team is up in the air. The defense, again is above average; CB Brent Grimes has blossomed, DE John Abraham went berserkwith 13 sacks and Curtis Lofton is back to anchor the D.

Strengths: Quarterback- the NFL is an ever-changing world, and having that solid, consistent leader as QB1 is extremely valuable. Matt Ryan, as every pocket passer, needs good pass protection and a good running game. Michael Turner guarantees that. Ryan is a leader and this is his year to step up into elite status.

Weakness: Overall depth- all around are oft-injured, or castoff, or inexperienced guys, which can be a detriment if a starter is hurt. Depth is absolutely key to a long run, and Atlanta could see wins slip away if any of their ones goes down. Roddy White is great, Harry Douglas is a good number 3, but we don’t know yet about Julio Jones in the NFL. Jacquizz Rodgers had injury problems in college, can he hold up behind Michael Turner? Only the defensive line appears to be okay after the signing of DE Ray Edwards. The secondary and linebacking corps are done if Lofton or Grimes is hurt. Guys will have to step up and be consistent contributors, if they want to stop division foes like the explosive Saints.

Key Losses: DE Jamaal Anderson (Colts), WR Michael Jenkins (Vikings), S Erik Coleman (FA), P Michael Koenan (Buccaneers)

Key Additions: DE Ray Edwards (Vikings), WR Julio Jones (draft), P Matt Bosher (draft), T Tyson Clabo (re signed), G Justin Blalock (re signed)

3.) Tampa Bay Buccaneers (9-7)

Josh Freeman is a stud, and Tampa has proven it can with with literally anyone. They set the record last year for number of undrafted rookie free agents to play. Oh boy. RB LeGarrette Blount ran for over 1,000 yards starting only 7 games, and the long holdout allowed all of the injured to heal. Mike Williams could be special, Arrelious Benn is healthy, Kellen Winslow is working hard, the offensive line did not change, and the defense hasn’t changed. If you’ve payed any attention to Tampa’s offseason, nothing changed. Teams will be better prepared for the Bucs, but Raheem Morris has found a way to reach his players and motivate them, winning 10 games in ’10, the most improved team in the league. Can the hodge podge group of misfits and unknowns strike again in 2011?

Stregths: Youth- there is an incredible amount of young talent in Tampa Bay, from all over the field. These young guys have showed a hunger to learn and adapt, from every level. Rookie defensive lineman Gerald McCoy and Brian Price went to the IR last year, so Roy Miller, Frank Okam, and Tim Crowder stepped in an played well. Adrian Clayborn really isn’t a high motor guy, he won’t be around long, but Da’Quan Bowers has been very good in the practices so far this season. Kellen Winslow and Ronde Barber are the elders of the team, mentoring the young players and still contributing to the team.

Weakness: Youth- youth can also hurt. Aqib Talib was a wanted man this offseason for some gun charges (the team has retained him and he will play this season), and the safety situation is frightening. Tanard Jackson is always in trouble, Cody Grimm is a good saftey but not yet a starter, Sean Jones and Corey Lynch are often burned. Barrett Ruud is gone so a rookie Mason Foster has to step up and battle a few undrafted guys. And other than Davin Joseph who resigned, who is on this offensive line? Donald Penn has been a pleasant surprise at LT, but the others are just inexperienced. Hopefully the injuries will decrease as guys learn to fight through some pain and just compete, something one could be afraid that the lack of veterans has hurt the learning curve with things like this.

Key Losses: MLB Barrett Ruud (Titans), KR Kareem Huggins (FA)

Key Additions: DE Da’Quan Bowers (draft), MLB Mason Foster (draft), P Michael Koenan (Falcons)

4.) Carolina Panthers (5-11)

5-11 is realistic for Carolina due to their productive offseason, or what there was of an offseason. Cam Newton comes in to be their QB, we’ll see how that works out, but so far there’s been a “Cam Newton effect” as guys like DeAngelo Williams, Steve Smith and Charles Johnson have resigned. Plus the addition of Jeremy Shockey and Greg Olsen provide talented security blankets for Newton. They still have a lot of holes, as they were the worst team in the league last year, but they now have a little optimism, and round out one of the toughest divisions in football.

Strengths: Running Backs- What more can I say? DeAngelo Williams and Johnathan Stewart. Two young studs who could run behind an 8th grade offensive line. There is also talent at linebacker to take notice of.

Weakness: Quarterback, secondary, wide receivers behind Steve Smith- Cam Newton or Jimmy Clausen. Good luck. Chris Gamble is their top corner, they have no safety’s and no real number 2 WR. It could be another long year in Carolina with those gaping holes.

Key Losses: DE Tyler Brayton (FA), CB Richard Marshall (Cardinals)

Key Additions: TE’s Jeremy Shockey (Saints) and Greg Olsen (Bears), RB DeAngelo Williams resigning

NFC WEST

Note: The NFC West plays the AFC North and NFC East this season

1.) San Fransisco 49ers (8-8)

Fitting I would move from Carolina to the atrocious NFC West. And fall trap to the SF allure. Reports say things aren’t going well in San Fran, a lack of optimism and bad luck run rampant. I’ll save the rest of this for weaknesses. Moving on.

Strengths: Linebacker, Tight End, Runningback- Patrick Willis is a beast and he gives the defense direction as well as playmaking ability.  Vernon Davis has finally played to his potential giving whoever is playing QB a good target, and Frank Gore is, well Frank Gore. Plus they drafted RB Kendall Hunter from Oklahoma State, potentially a very good runningback for them.

Weakness: Decision-making- so far I’ve only seen one truly good decision and that is letting Takeo Spikes go (no team has ever made the playoffs with Takeo Spikes on the roster). The college coach route is a difficult one and who knows if Harbaugh is the right guy. Alex Smith is the quarterback, despite his inability to improve, and Michael Crabtree has the early signs of a headcase. The offensive line is young, and there aren’t enough playmakers on defense.

Key Losses: LB Takeo Spikes (Chargers), C David Baas (Giants), LB Manny Lawson (Bengals), CB Nate Clements (Bengals)

Key Additions: GM Trent Baalke (has to better better than the last guy), S Madieu Williams (Vikings)

2.) St. Louis Rams (8-8)

Now this could be the sleeper team, but their lack of experience and depth could definitely hurt. Sam Bradford is a future MVP, Steven Jackson is one of the most underrated players in the game and their receiving corps isn’t all that bad. Donnie Avery will surprise some, and the addition of Mike Sims-Walker will help tremendously. Al Harris gives the secondary a leader, and draft pick Robert Quinn has instant production qualities about him at defensive end.

Strength: Skill positions- Sam Bradford, barring injury will throw for 4,000 yards, Steven Jackson providing he gets carries will be around or above 1,000 yards and Mike Sims-Walker is a good receiver–let’s see if he can make a smooth transition to St. Louis.

Weakness: Secondary- S Oshiomogho Atogwe is gone, leaving the Rams with a very young secondary. Al Harris will help but there isn’t much experience anywhere.

Key Losses: S Oshiomogho Atogwe (Redskins), TE Daniel Fells (Broncos)

Key Additions: WR Mike Sims-Walker (Jaguars), S Quintin Mikell (Eagles), DT Justin Bannan (Broncos)

3.) Arizona Cardinals (5-11)

Kevin Kolb is the new hotshot in Arizona, and he still has Larry Fitzgerald to throw to, so he has something to work with. They’ve signed Todd Heap and, well I don’t even know, this entire division is messed up. Arizona only has a chance based on it’s potential for accidental play making abilities, and just potential. Chris Wells isn’t an #1 RB, and other than Larry Fitzgerald there are a bunch of guys pretending to be NFL WR’s. Their defense is much either, so they’ll have to win on the shoulders of Kolb, Fitz and Heap.

Strenghts: Larry Fitzgerald- dude is an animal, can go catch the ball anywhere on the field, out muscle you, out maneuver you, he could make Kolb into a great QB.

Weakness: Defense- there isn’t much of one to speak of, which is no bueno in the NFL. They better pray the defensive line plays well to protect a young defense.

4.) Seattle Seahawks (3-13)

Pete Carroll is a lot of false hope and hot air, Matt Hasselbeck and Lofa Tatupu are gone. Don’t be fooled by Seattle’s offseason. Tavaris Jackson at this point is not a starting QB, and there really isn’t the coaching to progress him. Seattle is the Bermuda Triangle for wideouts… see ya Sidney Rice. Their starting center is gone, and they still don’t have much in the way of pass rush. Seattle won’t be sneaking into the playoffs this year.

Strengths: Last year’s first rounders- S Earl Thomas and LT Frank Okung were strong in their rookie seasons and will be leaders for this overhauled Seattle team. Okung gives the line an anchor for years to come, and Thomas is a ball hawk with the skill set to lead a defense in the future.

Weakness: Run defense- their defensive line is weak, as well as the linebackers with Tatupu gone. They won’t be able to contain the run, which isn’t good with Frank Gore and Steven Jackson in the division. Other runningbacks will most likely go Beast Mode on their defense. And Tavaris Jackson to be your everyday QB? Charlie Whitehurst passed over, and made the backup. Seattle has a lot of problems.

Key Losses: QB Matt Hasselbeck (Titans), C Chris Spencer (Bears), LB Lofa Tatupu (FA), hope…

Key Additions: QB Tavaris Jackson (Vikings), WR Sidney Rice (Vikings), G Robert Gallery (Raiders)

NFC EAST

Note: The NFC East plays the AFC East and NFC West this season

1.) Philadelphia Eagles (12-4)

The Eagles. The new sexy pick in the NFL after a Yankee style offseason with the signing of guys like Nnamdi Asomugha, trading for Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Ronnie Brown. Philly vastly improved after Michael Vick took over at quarterback leading the team to the playoffs. DeSean Jackson is holding out for now, but Jeremy Maclin is around, Brent Celek and LeSean McCoy. They have one of the top cornerback trios in the league, although recent news say Asante Samuel wants out. Their front on defense is somewhat weak in comparison to last year, Trent Cole is really their only good returning player in the front seven and FS is a position in need. Rush defense will hurt, but the Colts of the past have shown that can be overcome. Whether or not the offense clicks depends on how far they’ll go.

Strength: Skill positions- Michael Vick is revived, Vince Young is his backup, LeSean McCoy is a tough man to cover, as well as the two dynamic receivers Jackson and Maclin. McCoy and Brent Celek are excellent security options in the passing game allowing the offense to spread out, and the offensive line is returning most to all of its starters (Max Jean-Gilles status is unknown). It will be hard to disrupt this offense, making Vick a non-factor is your best shot.

Weakness: Rush defense- Trent Cole is a top of the line DE. But the Eagles Juqua Parker, Mike Patterson and Antonio Dixon aren’t strengths in this defense. DE’s Cullen Jenkins and Jason Babin will be an upgrade, whoever gets the spot opposite of Cole. Ernie Sims is gone, Stewart Bradley as well. Casey Matthews, Clay’s little brother was drafted, but he is an undersized LB, with high risk, high reward potential. Those pretty cornerbacks won’t be so useful if they can’t stop the run.

Key Losses: K David Akers (49ers), LB Stewart Bradley (Cardinals), DT Broderick Bunkley (Broncos), QB Kevin Kolb (Cardinals), LB Omar Gaither (Panthers), S Quintin Mikell (Rams), P Sav Rocca (Redskins), FB Leonard Weaver (released)

Key Additions: CB Nnamdi Asomugha (Raiders), CB Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie (Cardinals), DE Jason Babin (Titans), DE Cullen Jenkins (Packers), QB Vince Young (Titans), RB Ronnie Brown (Dolphins)

2.) New York Giants (9-7)

The New York Giants are about the same, average team they were last year, with a little more conflict and a new offensive line (yikes, sorry Eli). Manning’s do win, however how many games Eli can win with a new line, we’ll see. Ahmad Bradshaw was retained, Steve Smith better get his situation locked down and return to the Giants, and Umenyiora wants out. This year could be another struggle for the Giants, if their offensive line does well, and the defensive stays tough, they could sneak their way into the playoffs.

Strengths: Quarterback, runningbacks- Eli Manning is a leader and a winner, Ahmad Bradshaw and Brandon Jacobs are a very good running back tandem, together they give the offense strong assets. Wide receivers are almost there, Steve Smith was their leader but he has yet to re-up his contract–Hakeem Nicks and Mario Manningham are improving, another solid year and they will have an outstanding group of wideouts.

Weakeness: Linebacker- The G-Men defense is hurting for the first time in a long time, and it’s not looking any better. They didn’t add any linebackers, instead relying on unproven guys. Michael Boley is back alongside Jonanthan Goff, Zak DeOssie will have a shot to start, then it’s a group of players with 2 years or less experience. Their defensive ends are studly, even if Umenyiora doesn’t play. The defensive tackles are a bigger question. Can the linebackers plug holes up the middle? Will the corners and safeties be relied on too much, due to inexperience at linebacker? If anyone can make it work, it’s New York, fans better hope they do.

Key Losses: T Shawn Andrews (released), DT’s Rocky Bernard (released) and Barry Cofield (Redskins), C Shaun O’Hara (released), G Rich Seubert (released), WR Steve Smith (has not yet reported, still without contract although one could be completed soon)

Key Additions: ehh P Steve Weatherford (Jets [no more Dodge?]), C David Baas (49ers)

3.) Dallas Cowboys (7-9)

Dallas, oh how you struggle. Tony Romo is back, but almost every other position saw a change of some kind. The offensive line is inexperienced (careful with that collarbone Ton’) and their secondary is still atrocious. DeMarcus Ware has to dominate to save the D in Big D.

Strengths: Running game- make that runningbacks. Their offensive line is in transition, but one cannot deny the ability of Felix Jones and Tashard Choice. Whether or not they have any running lanes is a big question; work that O-line.

Weakness: Secondary, secondary, secondary- Allen Ball, Gerald Sensabaugh, Terrance Newman, Orlando Scandrick and Mike Jenkins were awful, and they missed out on Asomugha. Pass rush better get to the QB or they’ll get exposed again.

Key Losses: T Marc Colombo (released), G Leonard Davis (released), RB Marion Barber (Bears), WR Roy Williams (Bears)

Key Additions: T Tyron Smith (draft)….

4.) Washington Redskins (2-14)

It’s looking to be another long season in D.C. Mike Shanahan has his work cut out for him, doesn’t look like he can succeed just yet. QB John Beck may take a step back this year, in order to get better in the future. Clinton Portis is gone, but the WR’s are still mostly intact. The defense? Outside of the line, it doesn’t look so good.

Strengths: Pass rush- Brian Orakpo is a rising star, Adam Kerrigan is a good pass rusher who could contribute early and they’ve added some DT’s. A good pass rush will force some bad throws, allowing DeAngelo Hall for those gambling opportunities he loves most.

Weakness: Offense- can I do this? Yes I can. Their offense is inexperienced, lacking talent and not NFL starting caliber everywhere but the receivers. Santana Moss and Chris Cooley are very good, rookie Leonard Hankerson will be a breakout player, but those qualities are far from the truth in regards to the rest of the squad.

Key Losses: deep breath, QB Donovan McNabb (Vikings), RB Clinton Portis (released), G Derrick Dockery (released), DE Phillip Daniels (released), DT Albert Hanyesworth (Patriots), DT Ma’ake Kemoeatu (released), C Casey Rabach (released)

NFC NORTH

Note: The NFC North plays the AFC West and NFC South this season

1.) Green Bay Packers (13-3)

The defending Super Bowl champions are back, and yes, they’re still good. This division isn’t great, so the Packers are sitting pretty with a good shot to build an impressive resume. Aaron Rodgers is a top QB, Ryan Grant is healthy, Greg “put-the-team-on-my-back” Jennings is a top WR and the defense is just as stout with Woodson and young players like Sam Shields. Moving the ball on this defense is extremely hard, same goes for this year.

Strengths: Passing game- they have a few in Green Bay but the passing game is the best. Rodgers to Driver and Jennings is top notch, and JerMichael Finley is back. The line is strong, with some room to improve, but Rodgers can improvise and will again display why he is an elite QB.

Weakness: Defensive line- this is barely a weakness, the loss of Cullen Jenkins will hurt a little, but B.J. Raji is an excellent anchor. OLB Clay Matthews is a great source of support in defending the run game, shouldn’t be too much of a problem.

Key Losses: DE Cullen Jenkins (Eagles), LB Nick Barnett (Bills), G Daryn Colledge (Cardinals),T Mark Tauscher (released)

Key Additions: OL Derek Sherrod (draft), WR Randall Cobb (draft)

2.) Detroit Lions (10-6)

Here come the Lions. For those readers of my generation, and other 90s kids, these aren’t your childhood Lions. A winning record is very, very possible this year, as they could finally put it all together. Matt Stafford is healthy and reportedly playing well, Calvin Johnson is a beast, and Ndamukong Suh is a future perennial Pro-Bowler. Jim Schwartz has a good team on his hands and could finally achieve a playoff spot.

Strength: Skill positions- Stafford is one of the leagues best young QB’s, Jahvid Best is a quick back who is dangerous in space, Calvin Johnson can go get the ball over anyone and the depth at these positions is skilled. Rookie Titus Young could come around in the next few years and be a good receiver.

Weakness: Pass defense- Louis Delmas is the undisputed leader of this group, but he doesn’t have much help. The corners are young without a lot of play time, other than Nathan Vashar, and the linebackers are young so their skill sets are not so clear yet. Getting to the QB won’t be hard with Suh and rookie Nick Fairley, stopping the receivers will be more difficult.

Key Losses: WR Bryant Johnson (released), DE Turk McBride (Saints), LB Julian Peterson (released)

Key Additions: S Erik Coleman (Falcons), LB Justin Durant (Jaguars), DT Nick Fairley (draft)

3.) Minnesota Vikings (6-10)

Minnesota is in for a rough year, and this was a difficult prediction to make. The defense is getting old, the line is gaining holes (lack of players as opposed to running lanes), coach Leslie Frazier will have his hands full. Adrian Peterson can only do so much, Percy Harvin is fragile, not a #1 option at WR, so the signing of a guy like Braylon Edwards or the remote chance of getting Randy Moss out of retirement could help a little. McNabb’s success will determine how far the Viks go.

Strength: Running game- Adrian Peterson’s nickname All Day was given to him for a reason–he will run all day. Donovan McNabb will need to lean on that, as he is showing signs of age. The release of LT Bryant McKinnie is not conducive whatsoever; the offense may never move.

Weakness: Pass defense- a lack of established players hurts and no upgrades were added. Rookie Brandon Burton will possibly start at corner, which isn’t ideal, the safety position is up for grabs.

Key Losses: LT Bryant McKinnie (released), DE Ray Edwards (Falcons), QB Brett Favre (retired, maybe? Don’t know yet), QB Tarvaris Jackson (Seahawks), WR Sidney Rice (Seahawks)

Key Additions: QB Donovan McNabb (Redkins), T Charlie Johnson (Colts)

4.) Chicago Bears (5-11)

I don’t think Da Bears understand the offseason. Their passing game was already iffy, and trading the reliable, consistent security blanket in TE Greg Olsen was a head scratcher, and all of their free agent signings bring more questions than answers.

Strength: Return game- Devin Hester, there isn’t much else in Chicago.

Weakness: Most of the team- Jay Cutler is an erratic QB and no consistent receivers hurts; Matt Forte hasn’t showed much consistency since his rookie year; Urlacher has become injury prone; Mike Martz isn’t the coordinator for this team; cutting leader and longtime C Olin Kreutz will mess with the flow of the line; and best of luck with the lazy Dallas castoffs Roy Williams and Marion Barber.

Key Losses: C Olin Kreutz (released), DT Tommie Harris (released), TE Greg Olsen, S Danieal Manning (Texans)

Key Additions: DE Vernon Gholston (Jets), RB Marion Barber (Cowboys), WR Roy Williams (Cowboys), WR Sam Hurd (Cowboys), DT Amobi Okoye (Texans), C Chris Spencer (Seahawks). Downright terrible.

NFL Playoffs

1. New Orleans Saints

2. Green Bay Packers

3. Philadelphia Eagles

4. San Francisco 49ers

5. Atlanta Falcons

6. Detroit Lions

Wild Card Round

Philadelphia over Detroit

Atlanta over  San Francisco

Divisional Round

New Orleans over Atlanta

Philadelphia over Green Bay

AFC Championship

New Orleans over Philadelphia

Awards:

Offensive Player of the Year: Drew Brees, QB, New Orleans

Defensive Player of the Year: DeMarcus Ware, DE, Dallas

Michael Schwartz is a staff writer for Home Field Advantage

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About Home Field Advantage
We are two senior Sports Communication majors at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, New York. We have launched this blog as part of our senior year capping project, with the goal of creating a comparative analysis and multimedia approach to the differing sports cultures in America.

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