While the AFC has seen the same dominance for over a decade with veteran, legendary QBs, the success coming from the NFC has changed over the same time, with the 49ers, Panthers, Packers, Seahawks, Cardinals and Saints all taking their shots at Super Bowl glory. This year will see a clash of great, physical defenses with the amazing QB’s that make up the top of the NFC, with guys like Carson Palmer, Aaron Rodgers and Eli Manning looking to solidify their legacies with the plethora of weapons they have, where younger guys such as Russell Wilson and Cam Newton looking to cement their position as greats of the current and future game.
Not much looks to have changed at the top of the NFC standings from a year ago, as the playoff teams all look like they have either stayed relatively similar to last year or have gotten better, which means breaking through into the playoffs will be a mighty challenge for the rest of the conference. While injuries always happen, as does the unexpected in the NFL, here are my predictions for the standings in the 2016 NFL season for the NFC conference.
16 Los Angeles Rams
Despite their move back to LA and young stud Todd Gurley, the Rams will continue to be the Rams in 2016, and will be no more than the below average team the NFL has seen for years, especially in a division which features the Cardinals and Seahawks. Their QB situation is murky, with Sean Mannion and Jared Goff battling for the top spot, and with some considerable talent at skill positions, like Tavon Austin or the aforementioned Gurley, with a strong D-Line, there is reason to be hopeful about the future, but the future is not going to help the Rams in 2016. While I’ve got them last in the NFC, they could pull off a few shock wins and possibly end up anywhere from 13 to 11 in the standings, playing the Cardinals and the Seahawks twice a year, plus other tough NFC teams, there is no way they seriously look at contending in 2016. Maybe next year, or 2020 may be more suitable.
15 San Francisco 49ers
Away from all the Colin Kaepernick controversy, the 49ers will largely struggle again in 2016, as their organization has been in shambles ever since the departure of Jim Harbaugh (although they weren’t in great shape in his final years there). Without much talent on either side of the ball, much like in 2015 the 9ers will manage to stay in some games and be competitive, but much like their pre season, will likely be making news for all the wrong reasons. With lackluster play at the QB position, which will be played by Blaine Gabbert or the aforementioned Kaepernick, San Fran will struggle to manage 6 wins, a far, far fall from their dominance just half a decade ago, where they were a lock to make the NFC Championship game each year.
14 Philadelphia Eagles
Despite taking a QB with great potential in Carson Wentz early in the draft, the Eagles won’t make much noise in 2016, but have the weapons available to starting QB Sam Bradford to surprise a few teams and potentially spoil a playoff berth late in the season. After acquiring Dorial Green-Beckham through a trade, the Eagles offense looks like it could be quite formidable in the coming years, but as an over all team they are not quite solid enough to compete with the elite in the NFL in the time before that happens. When the defense is ready to compete and #2 pick Wentz is ready to play, the Eagles may once again have a chance at taking over the NFC East, but in 2016, that is not happening.
13 Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The Buccaneers are confident with their core of young players that include Jameis Winston, Doug Martin and Mike Evans that they will be a serious contender very soon, but unfortunately 2016 is not that year, as they still play in one of the toughest divisions in all of football. With one of the best rookie years in recent history, Winston has helped the Buccaneers and given credence to their high hopes for the future, but playing the Panthers, Saints and Falcons twice a year each will not help, especially without key veteran experience which the Bucs don’t have in 2016. Hopefully along with Evan’s, Martin’s and Winston’s development, the Bucs can add veteran experience to the team while the Saints and Falcons age, but in 2016, the Bucs will play nothing more than surprise winner’s of a few games and spoilers come the tail end of the year.
12 Detroit Lions
With the loss of Megatron, the once prolific Lions offense will not be as dangerous, despite still having a variety of weapons, and going up against the Packers, Bears and Vikings will be even more of a challenge than usual, leading to a 4th place finish in the North for Detroit in 2016. Matt Stafford as usual will be slinging the ball, predictably for a whole lot of yards and touch downs, but as the team has proven over the last couple of years, a single players stats and ill discipline doesn’t take a team to the playoffs, as once again the Lions were one of the most penalized teams in 2015, which won’t change in 2016. Expect this to be an exciting team again, with many shoot out games against high flying teams like the Saints or the Packers, but those won’t result in any meaningful games or victories in the year 2016.
11 Chicago Bears
Although Jay Cutler is often criticized for his attitude and not being a leader at the QB position, he had one of his best years as a pro in 2015, and with the weapons of Alshon Jeffery & Kevin White at his disposal, expect another good year, but a disappointing one for the Bears as a whole. Losing Martellus Bennett to the Patriots and Matt Forte to the Jets may deal a blow to this offense which was quite consistent a year ago, but the debut of Kevin White and a contract year for Alshon Jeffery may see this team be able to combat the likes of New Orleans and Detroit in the air. Where they lack however is consistency and all around solid play on the defensive side of the ball, which will cost them dearly come clutch games against the Packers and Vikings, which they haven’t fared too well in recently. This year may spell the end for Jay Cutler in Chicago, as they will limp to a mediocre 4, 5 or 6 wins on the year.
10 Dallas Cowboys
The Cowboys were dealt a huge (but probably expected) blow recently with the loss of Tony Romo, but are quite confident in rookie QB Dak Prescott, who has been on fire through 3 games of the 2016 pre season. The future is no doubt here for ‘America’s Team’, with Prescott and rookie Ezekiel Elliot no doubt playing big parts in the upcoming season, but despite the injury to Romo, can and will do a lot more than plenty of people expect. If Sean Lee can stay healthy, and promising rookies Brandon Carr & Byron Jones can produce, there is no telling how successful this team can be in coming years, but the year 2016 will no doubt just be seen as a trial year for these rookies and young players, as the Redskins and Giants are both expected to finish about the ‘Boys.
9 Atlanta Falcons
The Falcons continue to be the most overlooked 2016 NFC team, but in a division that will feature 2 playoff teams, they will again dazzle with the high flying offense, but miss the playoffs. Julio Jones & Matt Ryan may be fantasy studs that everyone needs on their team, but when it comes to wins and losses, the Falcons will fall just short of the mark needed to reach post season play, even though they could possibly win 6, 7 or even 8 games in 2016. While the Saints are slowing down and the Falcons are improving, the playoffs in 2017 could be a possibility, but unfortunately teams ahead of Atlanta are just too deep and versatile, while the Falcons focus mainly on their high octane passing attack, which can be useful, but more than just lots of points is needed to win in the NFL.
8 Washington Redskins
Despite signing the ever brash Josh Norman and retaining most of their offensive weapons, the Redskins will just narrowly miss the post season in 2016, losing some clutch games at the end of the year. The Giants look to be at full health, and I expect will take out the division, but with too much talent ahead of them in the wild card race, the ‘Skins will come up just short in the final weeks of the season, as is the tradition for the Redskins, always falling back after taking a step forward. While Kirk Cousins worked his way up to be RGIII’s replacement, and had a solid year last year, there is no telling how he will progress and improve in year 2 as the starter, and that lack of experience and unpredictability will hurt the team significantly, as he won’t be able to replicate that success on the way to a 2nd place finish in the NFC East.
7 Minnesota Vikings
Just as I was writing this article, the most unfortunate thing happened for the Vikings, as star QB Teddy Bridgewater went down for the season with a non contact ACL injury, leaving their QB position in shambles. Without Bridgewater to anchor the team, the Vikings can still be successful, but the post season remains unlikely, even with a solid defense and Adrian Peterson carrying the ball. Currently, unless a trade it made, it looks like Shaun Hill will star the season as the Vikings #1 QB, and if he can be a successful game manager and take care of the ball, no one can count the Vikings out, especially after what AP did to carry the Vikings to the post season several years ago. While this seems unlikely due to the immense talent in the NFC, never count the Vikings out, but I predict they will fall one game short of a post season berth in 2016, but should find themselves comfortably back in the mix in 2017 when Bridgewater returns.
6 New Orleans Saints
The Saints have been largely irrelevant in the NFL since their Super Bowl victory some years ago, despite Drew Brees being one of the most prolific passers in NFL history, but are poised to return to the play offs in 2016. Whenever a team has Brees under center and the type of offensive depth the Saints have, they are guaranteed a chance at the post season, and this may be one final chance for the Saints to push for the second Super Bowl in franchise history, as Brees’ time as a top passer is coming to an end quickly. Not many teams in any sport around the world has a city rally around them like New Orleans, and their faithful will realize the career of one of the greatest Saints players of all time is coming to an end, and they will no doubt like to see him go out on top, which is a possibility, especially with an offensive genius like Sean Payton at the helm.
5 Arizona Cardinals
The Cardinals a season ago were dominant all year long, and are looking to take it one step further in 2016, after being decimated in the NFC Championship game by the Panthers. While it may not be accurate to label 2016 ‘Super Bowl or Bust’ for the Cardinals, it has become increasingly clear that the core with Carson Palmer and Larry Fitzgerald has a window of opportunity to win the big one, which is rapidly closing heading into the season. With David Johnson at the RB position along with the aforementioned offensive talent, this could be the year for the Cardinals, especially if stand out defensive back Tyron Mathieu can stay healthy alongside Patrick Peterson and the rest of the stellar defense, it could be the Cardinals first trip to the Super Bowl since their loss to the Steelers a decade ago. While they will challenge the Seahawks for the division, a wild card berth and long post season run are much safer bets.
4 New York Giants
The Giants have to be seen as the favorite in one of the weakest divisions in football, and with the return of Victor Cruz to partner stand out Odell Beckham, have to be confident in their chances of again returning to the post season. With the Redskins looking to be their only competition in 2016, the Giants will be incredibly confident, coming off one of the best years of Eli Manning’s career, he now also has one of his favorite weapons in Cruz back to compliment the fastest rising star in the NFL in Odell Beckham. With several holes in the defense still, and a new head coach after a decade of Tom Coughlin, there will be struggles along the way, but if there is any team that has been through wars together, it’s the Giants and the tough Manning, who is looking to get his third career ring (not just to beat his brother who now has 2, but I’m sure it would be nice for him).
3 Carolina Panthers
The defending NFC Champions were unlucky to finish the job in 2016 after a breakout season for Cam Newton and their dominant defense, as a 15-1 record led to an unfortunate loss to the Broncos in the Super Bowl. Despite the loss of stand out defensive player Josh Norman, the Panthers still have a fantastic team first attitude to winning, as well as several high quality players who should ensure their dominance in the NFC South continues, as it is a high possibility that Carolina returns to the Super Bowl looking for redemption in 2016. If 2015 with that amazing record wasn’t good enough, expect to see the Panthers extra motivated, with an offense that could be even more dangerous and versatile with the return of Kelvin Benjamin, this is a team that many expect to see back in the place they were last year.
2 Seattle Seahawks
Russell Wilson continues to get better and make jaw-dropping plays, and with the ever- dangerous Legion of Boom, there is no doubting that the Seahawks should continue their run of dominance over the NFC. With Richard Sherman and Kam Chancellor leading this defense, the Seahawks should again cruise to the playoffs, but in a different way of sorts from 2015, as fan favorite Marshawn Lynch retired in the off season, with the running burden now laying on the backs of the promising Thomas Rawls and Christine Michael. With no other big changes, and Wilson still throwing to Doug Baldwin, Jermaine Kearse and Jimmy Graham, this team should be just as dangerous in 2016, where once again the Super Bowl is an attainable goal.
1 Green Bay Packers
When you have the best Quarterback in football in Aaron Rodgers, the playoffs are always a certainty, and that is no different with the 2016 Green Bay Packers. With the return from injury of Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb, and the emergence of the weapons that helped Rodgers in their absence, this offense could be one of the most prolific in the entire NFL. In a division with the Lions, Bears and recently weakened Vikings, the Packers should have no troubles winning their division, and with a confident Rodgers and a reinvigorated Eddie Lacy, the Packers have to be considered the favorite to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl. Expect the year 2016 to be the one where Aaron Rodgers truly takes over the NFL, where he proves that he belongs in the conversation of the best quarterbacks of all time.