Beacon Sports: NFC contenders look stronger this year

By Clint Longenecker
Contributing Writer

This week is a continuation from last week’s American Football Conference article, and the second in a two-part series highlighting this year’s National Football League. To read last week’s article, click here

The National Football Conference appears to be wide open this season, with many viable contenders that could make it to Miami to take on the AFC representative.

Despite typically being the weaker conference, the NFC was represented well by the Arizona Cardinals in last year’s Super Bowl bout with the Steelers.

A year ago, the New York Giants pulled off one of the biggest upsets in sports history beating the previously unbeaten New England Patriots to win Super Bowl 42.

Strength to the East

The past few years the NFC East has been the conference’s premier division, if not the NFL’s.

No team in the East had a losing record last season, a feat that has been accomplished by only one other division ever.

The winner of the NFC East was the New York Giants. The G-Men were a textbook example of how running the football and playing tough defense produces winning football.

The Giants talented trio of running backs led the league in rushing last season.
Eli Manning signed an offseason deal worth $96 million, making him the NFL’s top paid quarterback.

Manning now has the opportunity to prove that he is worth every penny by leading a very young and inexperienced wide receiver corps.

Last year’s Giants defense had an embarrassing wealth of defensive talent, showing why they were fifth in scoring defense last year.

This year’s defense will not have any problem rushing the passer with their outstanding front seven, but must replace defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo.

The Philadelphia Eagles secured a Wild Card berth last year, advancing to the NFC Championship Game.

The big names are still around offensively with QB Donavan McNabb and running back Brian Westbrook.

Other big names were added to the mix this offseason with the acquisitions of Michael Vick and WR Jeremy Maclin. The Eagles should once again be explosive offensively under Andy Reid.

Philadelphia showcases a strong defense that was top ten against the run and pass. Sticking to the traditional Eagles’ way of releasing older players, longtime Pro-Bowl safety Brian Dawkins moved on to Denver.

Emerging star middle linebacker Stewart Bradley was injured in training camp, but possibly the biggest loss came from the death of defensive coordinator Jim Johnson, who had held the position for 11 seasons.

Thankfully, the defense still has plenty of talent with cornerback Asante Samuel, defensive end Trent Cole, and safety Quintin Mikell.

America’s Team, the Dallas Cowboys, are always in the limelight. That was just as true as ever this offseason with the opening of the new Cowboys Stadium, which cost a record 1.2 billion.

Former Pro Bowl WR Terrell Owens was cut because of his off the field antics. The never-ending headaches of Tank Johnson, Pacman Jones, and Roy Williams are gone.

Head coach Wade Phillips knows he is on the hot seat. Enigmatic QB Tony Romo returns to find pass-catching options WR Roy Williams and tight end Jason Witten, and will hand the ball off to injury prone but punishing RB Marion Barber.

The Cowboys Defense is a talented unit led by offensive linebacker DeMarcus Ware, who totaled a franchise record 20 sacks a year ago.

This group got after opposing quarterbacks unlike any other team, as they had eight more sacks than anyone else.

The weak link is the secondary; if their performance can improve this defense could be potentially devastating.

The Washington Redskins are a talented group, but fight an uphill battle in this division.

Rumors swirled around the Skins acquiring a QB to replace Jason Campbell, but Campbell remains the starter under Jim Zorn.

The Skins will look to run the ball with running back Clinton Portis to ease Campbell’s load.

Owner Daniel Snyder was able to coax the market’s most prized free agent to come east signing All-Pro defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth to a record $100 million contract.

If the new acquisitions can jell quickly with the returners the Skins could be one of the best defenses around.

Farve to the North

The NFC North will be a grudge match for the whole season with three teams packing enough talent to win the division, and one team that is just looking to get its first win in over a year.

The Chicago Bears traded for Pro Bowl QB Jay Cutler to give them the best QB they have had in decades. RB Matt Forte had a great rookie season, running for 12 touchdowns.

Typically Da Bears’ calling card is their defense, but that group left something to be desired last year.

This group still boasts big names with linebacker Brian Urlacher, DT Tommie Harris, and LB Lance Briggs, but it will need to improve against the pass to take this team where they want to go.

For those of you who like daily soap operas, there was no need to watch summer reruns this year.

All you had to do was keep tabs on QB Brett Favre. Favre’s on again off again routine brought him to the Minnesota Vikings.

The defense is terrifying, led by three Pro Bowlers on the D-Line. They were the toughest team to run against last year, but need to improve their pass defense.

The 2008 season was a transition year for the Green Bay Packers franchise. QB Aaron Rodgers excelled in his first full year starting, but didn’t completely fulfill his potential. Rodgers has a talented group around him, led by WR Greg Jennings and RB Ryan Grant.

The Packers will switch to a 3-4 defense this year under Dom Capers. The secondary proved to be excellent against the pass but the front seven must do a better job of stopping the run, especially with so many former first round picks.

This year’s Detroit Lions will look to improve on an 0-16 season with a new head coach, QB and many other new starters.

Worst of four

The NFC South is also a tough division, with three viable contenders and a team in rebuilding mode.

Second year QB Matt Ryan will attempt to lead the Falcons to the playoffs for a second straight year with new TE Tony Gonzalez. RB Michael Turner registered 17 touchdowns and 1,700 yards. The defense was in the bottom third in most categories.

The NFL’s most explosive offense could reside in New Orleans with QB Drew Brees and his talented crew.

If the defense is able to improve under coordinator Gregg Williams this team could be a dangerous matchup because of their offensive firepower with wide receivers Marques Colston and Lance Moore.

Carolina Panthers’ RB DeAngelo Williams led the league with 20 touchdowns last year. Backup Jonathan Stewart chipped in 10, resulting in the third best ground attack.

Quarterback Jake Delhomme needs to minimize the turnovers to give the Panthers a shot at a second straight division title. The Tampa Bay Bucaneers canned Head Coach Jon Gruden for Raheem Morris in a move that might take time to see the results. Many veterans were cut in an attempt to get younger.

West is anybody’s game

The NFC West is a wide-open division that features last year’s Super Bowl runner-up.

The Arizona Cardinals boast a high powered passing attack with QB Kurt Warner, WR Larry Fitzgerald and WR Anquan Boldin. The defense must perform as they did in the playoffs to return there this season.

The Seattle Seahawk’s had an injury plagued 2008, but are hoping that the wounds have healed over the offseason. Quarterback Matt Hasslebeck is healthy again and has WR T.J. Houshmandzadeh to target. They had the worst pass defense in the league in 2008 and must improve to compete this year.

The St. Louis Rams have a new head coach in Steve Spagnuolo and hope to improve on their 2-14 record last season.

Although the AFC seems to have an impressive array of talent, the NFC may be poised to make the comeback that has long been anticipated by football analysts and fans.

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