Tuesday, September 4, 2012

2012 NFC team-by-team previews - Fort Worth Star Telegram

New York Giants

(2011: 9-7) Outlook: QB Eli Manning led the Giants to five fourth-quarter comebacks last season, including a rally from 12 points down in the final 6 minutes in Dallas last December that helped them squeak into the playoffs by the narrowest of margins. Then Manning raised his play to another level in the playoffs, helping the G-Men win their second Super Bowl in five years. With the return of Manning, 1,000-yard receivers Victor Cruz and Hakeem Nicks and pass-rush terrors Justin Tuck, Jason Pierre-Paul and Osi Umenyiora, the Giants seem to have the tools for another run. However, they'll need to improve a running game that finished last in the league in yards gained.18.7Average yards per catch by Hakeem Nicks, who finished with 82 catches for 1,536 yards, the third-highest total in the league.The Waiting Game: In a conference full of gunslingers, the Giants need to find some answers in their suddenly thin secondary. Last year's top draft pick, Prince Amukamara, was penciled in as the starting cornerback opposite Corey Webster, but a high ankle sprain means he'll probably miss the season opener. Terrell Thomas is gone for the season with a knee injury, and Jayron Hosley (turf toe) is also hurt, meaning Michael Coe will probably get the nod at corner.Philadelphia Eagles(2011: 8-8) Outlook: QB Michael Vick took only 12 snaps during this preseason, and Eagles fans were probably holding their collective breath every time. As always, Vick's health is a major concern, especially after he suffered a rib injury in the second preseason game. Now Vick is armed for battle with a custom-fitted Kevlar vest, and he has dedicated the season to coach Andy Reid's son Garrett, who was found dead in his dorm room on Aug. 5. Vick only rushed for one touchdown last season, but RB LeSean McCoy tallied a franchise-record 17 rushing touchdowns to go along with three receiving scores. WR DeSean Jackson has a new contract, and the Eagles hope he returns to his old self after a subpar season.50Sacks by the Eagles' defense, whichled the league.The Waiting Game: Philly's linebacker play left a lot to be desired last season, so the Eagles went out and traded for DeMeco Ryans, a one-time tackle machine for the Texans who averaged 130 tackles per season from 2006-09. They also need rookie Mychal Kendricks to step up at the outside linebacker spot.Dallas Cowboys(2011: 8-8) Outlook: After another disappointing, playoff-free Cowboys season in which they lost four of their final five games, fans are again questioning whether Tony Romo can win a championship. Never mind that he's coming off one of his best years as a pro. Romo passed for 31 TDs and just 10 interceptions despite being under frequent pressure. He was sacked a career-high 36 times yet also posted a career-high 102.5 quarterback ranking. Rookie RB DeMarco Murray also did his part with 1,080 total yards -- 897 rushing and 183 receiving -- and a league-high 5.5-yard rushing average per carry in 13 games. The real problem was the defense, particularly the secondary. Dallas finished 23rd in passing yards allowed (244.1) and 21st in completion percentage (61.7) and also gave up 57 passes of 20 yards or more, the eighth most in the NFL. Another year in Rob Ryan's system, coupled with the additions of free-agent CB Brandon Carr and first-round draft pick Morris Claiborne, should translate into significantly better numbers.5Rushing touchdowns last season, tied for 30th in the league. The Cowboys were fifth in passing TDs with 33.The Waiting Game: The receiving corps is dangerously thin now that Dallas has parted ways with surprising talent Laurent Robinson and TE Jason Witten may be sidelined with a lacerated spleen. Now is the time for Dez Bryant to take on a more significant role. Bryant finished 26th in the NFL in receiving yards (928) and 15th in catches of 20 or more yards (17) last season.Washington Redskins(2011: 5-11) Outlook: Coach Mike Shanahan has turned the offensive keys over to Heisman winner Robert Griffin III from Baylor, but how much freedom will he give him? The Redskins have stayed pretty basic during the preseason, allowing Griffin to get his timing down with his receivers but not taking unnecessary injury risks or showing too much of the offense. Shanahan predicts "some difficult times" during RG3's rookie season, and that could be especially true if the 'Skins aren't able to generate a solid ground game or get better play out of their offensive line. The defense, led by the league's tackle leader, London Fletcher, and pass rushers Brian Orakpo and Ryan Kerrigan will probably be able to keep Washington competitive, but a trip to the playoffs looks unlikely in this division.108Quarterback hits allowed by Washington's offensive line in 2011. That number will need to drop significantly if Griffin is going to last his entire rookie season.The Waiting Game: Now that the Redskins have a top-tier quarterback, it's time to pair him with a solid receiver or two, something the franchise has struggled to produce in recent years. Pierre Garcon and Josh Morgan were added to the mix in the off-season, joining veteran Santana Moss and TE Fred Davis as the top targets.Green Bay Packers(2011: 15-1) Outlook: Remember when Aaron Rodgers played in the large shadow of Brett Favre? Those days are long gone, especially after an NFL MVP season in which Rodgers posted a league-record 122.5 quarterback ranking and set franchise records for TD passes (45), passing yards (4,543), completion percentage (68.3), yards per attempt (9.25), TD-to-interception ratio (7.5) and 300-yard games (eight). The Packers were unbeatable until a Week 15 slipup in Kansas City, then they played their worst game of the season at home against the Giants in the playoffs, fumbling three times, getting sacked four times and dropping a handful of passes. The high-flying offense returns intact -- actually stronger with the addition of Cedric Benson in the backfield -- and Green Bay used its first six draft picks to try to shore up a defense that managed just 29 sacks in 2011.104.1Rodgers' career quarterback ranking, the highest in NFL history.The Waiting Game: A year after allowing the second-fewest points and tying for second in sacks, the Packers finished last in the league in total yardage (411.6) and passing yardage allowed (299.8), were 27th in sacks (29) and 19th in scoring defense (22.4). The defense will be without ILB Desmond Bishop, who was lost for the season when he ruptured his hamstring in the preseason opener, so the rookie defenders are going to have to grow up fast.Detroit Lions(2011: 10-6) Outlook: Three seasons after making history as the NFL's first 0-16 team, Detroit took its first trip to the playoffs since 1999 behind a breakout season from Matthew Stafford, whose numbers put him in an elite class of quarterbacks. Stafford was third in passing (5,038 yards) and touchdowns (41), trailing only Drew Brees and Tom Brady. His favorite target, Calvin Johnson, also had a career year, leading the league in receiving yards (1,681) and ranking second in touchdown receptions (16). To take the next step and win their first playoff game since 1991, the Lions need to get that same kind of production out of their young defensive stars, who have gained more attention for trouble off the field than they have for wreaking havoc on it. Ndamukong Suh compiled just 34 tackles and four sacks in 2011, a year after winning Defensive Rookie of the Year honors with 66 tackles and 10 sacks, while first-round draft pick Nick Fairly had more arrests (2) than sacks (1) during his first year.320-point comebacks engineered by Stafford during his 29 NFL starts, including two last season. His 24-point comeback against the Cowboys tied a league record for the largest comeback by a road team.The Waiting Game: Detroit ranked 29th in rushing offense in 2011 and hasn't had a 1,000-yard rusher since 2004. Adding a solid running game would give the Lions one of the most explosive offenses in the league, but injuries have been a problem. Jahvid Best is out indefinitely with concussion issues, Mikel Leshoure is suspended for the first two games after a pair of offseason drug arrests, and Kevin Smith has an ankle injury.Chicago Bears(2011: 8-8) Outlook: The Bears are known more for their defense, but this season there's actually some excitement about QB Jay Cutler and the offense. Cutler is healthy, and versatile RB Matt Forte, the first player to record 900 rushing yards and 400 receiving yards in each of his first four seasons, has a new deal that rewards him for that consistent production. Chicago also added a deep threat in WR Brandon Marshall and helped its depth in the backfield by signing free-agent RB Michael Bush. The key to utilizing all that talent is the offensive line, which allowed the quarterback to be hit 87 times last season, the fifth-highest number in the league. The defense is beginning to show signs of age, and LB Brian Urlacher's off-season knee issues are a cause for concern.31Turnovers forced by the Bears defense last season -- 20 interceptions and 11 fumbles.The Waiting Game: Cutler has never really had a premier receiver in Chicago, but now he might have two. Not only has he been reunited with Marshall, his favorite target from his Denver days, but he also has a promising rookie in Alshon Jeffery. Fellow receiver Earl Bennett said Jeffery is "one of those guys who's going to take over." Cutler and Marshall both had two of their best seasons when they played together in 2007 and 2008. Cutler threw for a career-high 4,526 yards in 2008, while Marshall had a career-high 1,325 receiving yards in 2007 and a career-high 104 receptions in 2008.Minnesota Vikings(2011: 3-13) Outlook: Jared Allen's 22 sacks were the lone bright spot during a dreadful three-win season that has been eclipsed just once in the franchise's history -- in 1962 when the Vikings were 2-11-1. Former Colleyville Heritage QB Christian Ponder took over for Donovan McNabb in Week 10 and learned on the fly, showing signs of promise during a 381-yard passing performance against Denver three weeks later, but also making what he called "blatantly dumb mistakes." Ponder finished 29th in completion percentage (54.3), 30th in quarterback rating (70.1) and 31st in passing yards (168.5), but his numbers should improve with his experience as well as the return of RB Adrian Peterson, who tore his ACL on Christmas Eve but insists he'll be back to All-Pro form this season. Even if he is, Minnesota's offense needs some help from a defense that gave up 34 points or more six times during a nine-game stretch.4Games in which Harvin was held to fewer than 20 yards receiving last season, compared with just two 100-yard games.The Waiting Game: Once again Minnesota has a cast of mostly no-name receivers behind Harvin, who will inevitably draw extra attention from opposing defenses. The Vikings need for at least one to step forward and keep opponents honest. The most likely candidate is Jerome Simpson, a fifth-year veteran who started for the first time in his career last season in Cincinnati, but he will miss the first three games after violating the league's substance-abuse policy.New Orleans Saints(2011: 13-3) Outlook: Head coach Sean Payton, interim head coach Joe Vitt, GM Mickey Loomis, LB Jonathan Vilma and DE Will Smith were lost for all or part of the season because of Bountygate, but it's doubtful that will stop the Saints from being one of the league's most prolific offenses again this season. They ranked first in passing yards (334.2), second in points scored (34.2) and sixth in rushing yards (132.9) in 2011, and Drew Brees posted a 71.2 completion percentage, which was almost three points higher than any other quarterback in the league. Brees also provides the on-field leadership for a revenge-minded team that is taking an us-vs.-the-NFL mentality in the wake of what they believe were excessive penalties. In 2006, the Saints returned to the Superdome after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina the year before and went to the NFC Championship Game. This season they're trying to become the first team to play a Super Bowl in its home stadium, and if their defense can hold its own, they have the talent to make a run similar to late last season, when they won nine games in a row before falling to the 49ers in the divisional round of the playoffs.3Saints who finished among the league's top 12 pass catchers last season. TE Jimmy Graham was third (99 catches), RB Darren Sproles was second (86), and WR Marques Colston was tied for 12th (80).The Waiting Game: Under Gregg Williams, the Saints' defense relied heavily on the blitz to get pressure on the quarterback and rarely generated turnovers. Only two teams had fewer interceptions in 2011, and five had fewer fumbles recovered. New defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo brings a different approach with his zone-pressure schemes, and it seems to be working in the preseason. New Orleans has forced nine turnovers and added 12 sacks. If those numbers carry over to the regular season, the Saints will be hard to beat.Atlanta Falcons(2011: 10-6) Outlook: After another one-and-done trip to the playoffs, the Falcons brought in two new coordinators, Dirk Koetter on offense and Mike Nolan on offense, in an attempt to maximize some pretty serious talent on both sides of the ball. QB Matt Ryan has the luxury of two big-play receivers in Roddy White and Julio Jones, who led all rookies with 8 TD receptions last season; a future Hall of Famer at tight end in Tony Gonzalez; and a pair of dynamic rushers in Michael Turner and Jacquizz Rodgers. However, Ryan needs more protection from his offensive line after taking 84 hits and 26 sacks last season. The defense is focusing on limiting big plays after giving up 14 passing plays of more than 40 yards in 2011, the fifth-highest total in the NFL.17.8Average yards per reception by Jones, who was just 41 yards shy of a 1,000-yard rookie seasonThe Waiting Game: Ryan, who threw for 4,177 yards and 29 TDs last season, has led the Falcons to the playoffs three times in his four years in the NFL and helped them post back-to-back 10-win seasons for the first time in franchise history. However, he has yet to win a postseason game, throwing for fewer than 200 yards in all three playoff appearances with just four total touchdowns.Carolina Panthers(2011: 6-10) Outlook: Cam Newton's record-breaking rookie season has brought a whole new outlook to Carolina. Apparently his confidence and energy are contagious. Center Ryan Kalil took out a full-page newspaper ad promising that the Panthers would win their first Super Bowl. Amazingly, coach Ron Rivera and Kalil's teammates not only backed the bold move, they affirmed the championship talk. While it may seem premature, there's a lot to like about Carolina, starting with the dual threat of Newton, who accounted for 49 touchdowns while setting five NFL rookie passing records. The fifth-ranked scoring offense has perhaps the best three-headed running attack in league history, with DeAngelo Williams rushing for 836 yards and 7 TDs, Jonathan Stewart following with 761 yards and 4 TDs and Newton adding his 706 yards and 14 TDs.5.4Average gain per rush last season for the Panthers, who averaged 7.9 yards per pass attempt.The Waiting Game: To be considered a serious postseason threat, Carolina must makes strides in their pass defense. The Panthers gave up the sixth-most points (26.8) in the NFL last season and allowed opposing quarterbacks to average a league-high 8.4 yards per pass attempt.Tampa Bay Buccaneers(2011: 4-12) Outlook: QB Josh Freeman had a career year in 2010, throwing 25 touchdown passes and six interceptions while leading Tampa Bay to a 10-win season, but last season couldn't have been more different. Freeman threw 22 interceptions and just 16 touchdowns, and his passer rating plummeted more than 21 points to 74.6. This season, he is getting some help in the form of significant upgrades at wide receiver and tight end. Vincent Jackson is a much better No. 1 option than Mike Williams, and Dallas Clark is more reliable and less moody than Kellen Winslow. The Bucs also signed Pro Bowler Carl Nicks to help beef up their offensive line in the offseason, but they suffered a major blow when Pro Bowl right guard Davin Joseph suffered a season-ending knee injury in the preseason. New coach Greg Schiano's biggest task will be getting better play out of the league's 30th-ranked defense.40.6Average points scored against the Bucs in the final five games of the 2011 season. Their season average of 30.9 was the worst in the league.The Waiting Game: Tampa Bay's defensive line has ranked among the bottom five in the league in sacks the past three seasons. They had 23 last season, which was just one more than Minnesota's Jared Allen had by himself, and they also surrendered a league-high 156 rushing yards per game. If he can overcome a preseason knee injury, DT Gerald McCoy could help boost those numbers.San Francisco 49ers(2011: 13-3) Outlook: With a first-year head coach in Jim Harbaugh and a mediocre quarterback in Alex Smith, no one expected San Francisco to win 13 games last season. However, a dominating defense and a whopping plus-28 turnover ratio nearly carried the 49ers to the Super Bowl. All 11 starters and Defensive Rookie of the Year runner-up Aldon Smith are back on that defensive unit that ranked fourth overall and was absolutely suffocating against the run, holding opposing backs to just 77.2 yards, more than 15 yards lower than any other defense in the NFL. The 49ers added some depth in the backfield with LaMichael James and Brandon Jacobs, and they also improved their receiving corps after finishing 29th in passing last season.5Games in which San Francisco's defense held theopposition to eight points or fewer. For the season, opponents scored an average of 14.3 points per game, the second-lowest total in the NFL.The Waiting Game: Alex Smith showed major signs of improvement last season despite a limited number of playmakers on offense. This year's wide receiving corps is deeper and more versatile with the additions of Randy Moss, Mario Manningham and rookie A.J. Jenkins, which should help free up Michael Crabtree. Crabtree finished 16th among wide receivers with 72 catches in 2011, but he was held to just one catch three times last season, including the NFC Championship Game against the Giants, when he was a nonfactor.Arizona Cardinals(2011: 8-8) Outlook: With the exception of three double-digit defeats, Arizona had a legitimate shot at winning every week in 2011. The Cardinals won seven games by seven or fewer points, including four by a field goal or less, and were 4-0 in overtime games. They also lost seven games by a touchdown or less. It's pretty apparent that it's going to be up to the defense and running game if Arizona is going to have a shot at making the playoffs this season. The Cardinals won seven of their final nine games last season primarily because of strong play from the defense, which gave up just nine total touchdowns during that stretch. On offense, Beanie Wells turned in a 1,000-yard season despite rushing for fewer than 55 yards six times, but both he and fellow RB Ryan Williams are coming off knee surgery. The team's best player is WR Larry Fitzgerald, who was fourth in the league with 1,411 yards, but someone has to get him the ball.19Turnovers generated by the defense in 2011. The Cardinals need to create more opportunities to help out the offense.The Waiting Game: Arizona has been looking for a solid quarterback since Kurt Warner retired at the end of the 2009 season. Neither Kevin Kolb nor John Skelton seems to be the answer, and it wouldn't be surprising if both are used throughout the season. Kolb has had a tough preseason, punctuated when he was called out by Raiders defensive lineman Tommy Kelly for being skittish and scared in the pocket. Skelton was named Week 1 starter.Seattle Seahawks(2011: 7-9) Outlook: Third-round draft pick Russell Wilson was the star of the preseason for the Seahawks, posting quarterback ratings of 91.7, 128.3 and 134.8 in the first three games to beat out Matt Flynn for the starting quarterback job. Against the Chiefs, the athletic rookie led seven offensive drives and the Seahawks scored on six of them. The last drive ended with a missed field goal. If Wilson is able to move the ball like that in the regular season, Seattle could be dangerous. RB Marshawn Lynch is coming off a 1,200-yard season, and the defense looks stronger than ever.23Interceptions by the Seahawks last season, tied for second in the NFL. CB Brandon Browner, a surprise Pro Bowl pick after spending four years in the Canadian Football League, led the way with six picks, the most by a Seahawk in four years.The Waiting Game: The Seahawks aren't getting much return on their investment in their wide receivers. Sidney Rice has started just 14 games in the past two seasons combined and hasn't surpassed 500 yards yet. Rookie free-agent Doug Baldwin was the team's top receiver with 51 catches for 788 yards last year, but second-year WR Golden Tate needs to deliver as well. WR Braylon Edwards was also added to the mix. None of those names will strike fear in opposing defenses, however.St. Louis Rams(2011: 2-14) Outlook: It's looking like another long year for new coach Jeff Fisher and the Rams, who still have major issues on the offensive line after giving up a league-high 55 sacks in 2011. They also haven't been able to stop the run, giving up an average of 152.1 yards per game, including a league-high seven runs of more than 40 yards last season. On the positive side, St. Louis still has reliable RB Steven Jackson, who is coming off his seventh consecutive 1,000-yard season. The defense also received a boost from the addition of DT Michael Brockers, the 14th overall pick out of LSU, and the signings of CB Courtland Finnegan and DE Kendall Langford. However, the Rams are 15-65 over the past five seasons, and they appear to be at least another season away from significant improvement.18Touchdowns scored during the 2011 season. The Rams scored 16 or fewer points in all but three games, and their highest output was 27 points in the season finale against the 49ers.The Waiting Game: QB Sam Bradford didn't show the progress St. Louis fans were hoping for last season. In fact, the former No. 1 draft pick completed just 53.5 percent of his passes, fumbled 10 times, losing seven, and managed just six touchdowns and six interceptions in 10 games. He'll need to improve those numbers significantly if the Rams want to even sniff a .500 season.

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