Expanded predictions on NFC North, playoff qualifiers, Super Bowl
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Some predictions and speculation leading up to the NFL's opening weekend:
On the NFC North
Putting the Packers aside, it sure looks like a three-way coin flip that could be decided by who stays healthy and who catches a few breaks. But it's tough to go against a near-consensus in our poll of scouts.
1. Green Bay
• The skinny: It starts with the quarterback, and the defending Super Bowl champions have one of the best in Aaron Rodgers. "He's a top-five player right now," an NFC executive said. TE Jermichael Finley, HB Ryan Grant, SS Morgan Burnett and others return from season-ending injuries. They have playmakers all over the defense, from NT B.J. Raji to LB Clay Matthews to CBs Charles Woodson and Tramon Williams. If there's a major concern, it's depth on the offensive line.
• One scout's take: "You've got a mix of young talent and veterans, and of course, the quarterback's still one of the best in the league. I just think they're loaded. They're loaded. They'll be down there at the end. Whether or not they go back always remains to be seen, but they're a good football team."
• The skinny: The Bears caught plenty of breaks on their way to the division title last season. "They always seem to do that, though," an NFC personnel man said. "They've gotten a little older. I still think their offensive line is pretty suspect. That scheme on defense -- they always just seem to be able to get away with it." QB Jay Cutler has another year in OC Mike Martz's offense, and HB Matt Forte is a competent runner, though not elite. Depth remains thin, particularly on defense.
• One scout's take: "It's the establishment of the strong defense, running game, playoff team from last season. They do have the ability to throw the football, and I think they'll be able to run the football. They can play in the elements. Detroit's still a rising program, but I don't know if they're ready to pass the Bears just yet."
• The Lions opened eyes with an undefeated preseason in which they outscored opponents 114-47 and Matthew Stafford completed 75.8% of his passes for 395 yards, five touchdowns and a 154.7 rating. "They've done a pretty good job this year in particular, this offseason, from the free agents they've signed," the NFC personnel man said. "But we'll see. Last time, they went 4-0 in the preseason (in 2008), they went 0-16. They were bragging their asses off that year, too." WR Calvin Johnson and HB Jahvid Best are big-time weapons for Stafford, who must prove he can stay healthy. On defense, they have a formidable front four led by DT Ndamukong Suh, but also a Band-Aid situation at cornerback.
• One scout's take: "I just love what they've done with the defense. If they can keep the quarterback healthy and upright, which is the question mark I have with them, the two major concerns I have with them are the secondary and the offensive line. But they're talented outside with Calvin and Jahvid and some skill guys there that I like."
• There are plenty of questions on offense, starting with 34-year-old QB Donovan McNabb, whose 2010 season went off the rails quickly in Washington. "I never thought he was a very accurate quarterback," an NFC executive said. "He's a big strong guy that was competitive as hell that could run around and had a strong arm. He could make plays on the run and stuff, but I never saw him as a true pocket quarterback." LT Charlie Johnson is a work in progress, and it remains to be seen if WR Bernard Berrian, WR Michael Jenkins or someone else can stretch the field and balance the perimeter. If the secondary stays healthy, talent in the front seven should make the defense competitive -- but that's a big if, given how things came apart at cornerback last season.
• One scout's take: "I think they lost a little firepower, too, when they lost Sidney Rice. They've still got the runner. I think they still can play pretty good defense. But just in terms of the competition and measuring up to the competition, that's the order that I'd put it."
On NFC contenders
• Green Bay and New Orleans, whose Thursday opener turned into a shootout, come up first in any discussion of NFC front-runners. "To me, it's going to be one of those two teams," an AFC personnel director said. "Right now, I'm saying I would go back with Green Bay."
• The second contender may join the Saints out of the NFC South Division. Atlanta and, to a lesser extent, Tampa Bay continue to impress.
• Several high-ranking scouts went out of their way to say they're not buying into the hype surrounding the Philadelphia Eagles. "That whole 'Dream Team' thing," an NFC personnel man said, "people started saying that because (backup quarterback) Vince Young said it, and he's not even going to play. They just have a lot of questions. Their o-line's not good. Their corners are good, but I don't think their safeties are good and I don't think their linebackers are good."
On AFC contenders
• No surprises among the front-runners here -- New England, the New York Jets, Baltimore and perhaps Pittsburgh, although some believe the Steelers are aging quickly.
• One of last year's pleasant surprises, the Chiefs, seem to have taken a step back. "I was really disappointed in Kansas City," an NFC scout said. "I saw them live and -- eww. I worry about them."
• San Diego appears poised to return to the postseason behind QB Philip Rivers -- "That guy's on a mission," an NFC decision-maker said -- but don't overlook the Raiders. "I've heard Oakland looks terrible in the preseason," an NFC scout said. "Couldn't get lined up. But Oakland's so dang talented that they might just put it all together, get on a roll. They're big and physical and athletic."
• In the NFC, the guess here is Green Bay, New Orleans, St. Louis and -- surprise! -- Dallas win their respective divisions. Philadelphia and Atlanta take the wild cards.
• In the AFC, it's Baltimore, Houston, San Diego and New England, with the Jets and -- surprise again! -- Cleveland rounding out the field.
• An AFC executive said he had a flash while watching the Patriots' exhibition against Tampa Bay on Aug. 18. "There is no team that's sharp the second preseason game, but these guys were as sharp as I've ever seen a team in the preseason," an AFC executive said. "They were on fire." Detroit crushed the Patriots the following week, but picking the winner in September is a crapshoot anyway. Green Bay over Atlanta in one conference title game, New England over San Diego in the other, and the Patriots beat the Packers 34-31 in Super Bowl XLVI.