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NFC capsules: A team-by-team look at the NFC divisions

By Sam Farmer, Los Angeles Times –

In order of predicted finish by division:



2011: 9-7, 1st in East.

2011 playoffs: Beat New England Patriots, 21-17, in Super Bowl XLVI.

They’re going all the way: Go ahead, keep talking about the Jets’ quarterback circus. The Giants will quietly thank their lucky stars for Eli Manning, who tied a league record last season by directing seven fourth-quarter comebacks. Losing Brandon Jacobs and Mario Manningham won’t kill them.

They’re doomed: Everybody remembers the Giants’ out-of-nowhere Super Bowl run, as they should, but this was also a team that was swept by the 5-11 Washington Redskins last season, losing 28-14 and 23-10. Surviving this division is no breeze, and the Giants don’t have the ground game as a fallback.

Now hear this: “It kind of got out of hand. There was a lot of rough-housing.” — cornerback Prince Amukamara, on being dumped in a cold tub by defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul, a scene captured on video and posted on the Internet. Was the incident a hint of a fissure in an ostensibly rock-solid team?


2011: 5-11, 4th in East.

Last year in the playoffs: 2007.

They’re going all the way: Washington has flipped over quarterback Robert Griffin III, and for good reason. The Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback is as charismatic as he is athletic, and that’s saying something. The Redskins already have a stout defense, and if their offense can come close to matching that, this team can play with anyone.

They’re doomed: A quick check, and … yep, Dan Snyder still owns this team. That means the Redskins are the off-season Super Bowl champs-to-be, but they’re heading for another disappointing year. That’s a hard pattern to break, even for a guy as talented as RG3. This team needs a killer instinct; it lost six one-possession games last season.

Now hear this: “There’s really no true face of the franchise, because if we all just had faces, we’d all be dead. There’s got to be a heart, got to be some legs, some arms, some skin.” — Griffin


2011: 8-8, 2nd in East.

Last year in the playoffs: 2010.

They’re going all the way: With last season’s foray into fantasy football an unmitigated flop, the Eagles have moved forward by adding a few standouts to their defense — linebacker DeMeco Ryans and draft picks Fletcher Cox (DL) and Mychal Kendricks (LB) — and the team’s offensive line has matured, although the Eagles will miss All-Pro left tackle Jason Peters (Achilles’ injury) dearly. The team already was loaded with offensive weapons, although Michael Vick is dealing with a rib injury.

They’re doomed: The reins are securely in the hands of Vick, but is the football? He had 14 interceptions and 10 fumbles last season. Although Andy Reid insists Vick is his guy, the Eagles coach would have loved to have landed Peyton Manning in the off-season. That’s telling.

Now hear this: “When I was growing up and the great San Francisco 49er teams, the great Green Bay Packer teams, and the great Dallas Cowboy teams … we have a chance to be that. I think we have a chance to develop a dynasty.” — Vick


2011: 8-8, 3rd in East.

Last year in the playoffs: 2009.

They’re going all the way: If the Cowboys can’t get on track, it won’t be for lack of trying. They were aggressive in free agency this off-season, and made the move of the day in the first round of the NFL draft by trading up to grab Louisiana State cornerback Morris Claiborne. Are they deranged in thinking they belong atop the NFC East?

They’re doomed: The place might be named Cowboys Stadium, but it feels more like Giants Stadium. The Cowboys haven’t notched a home victory over the Giants since 2008, and Dallas is 5-7 in the division over the last two seasons. Jerry Jones can talk about beating up on the rest of the East, but those are just words until the Cowboys actually do it.

Now hear this: “Jerry Jones owns this football team. He has owned it for 23 years, so he can do anything he wants.” — Cowboys Coach Jason Garrett, on Jones’ inviting fans to come watch the Cowboys “beat the Giants’ backside.”



2011: 8-8, 3rd in North.

Last year in the playoffs: 2010.

They’re going all the way: The Bears were 7-3 last season when Jay Cutler was injured. They wound up losing five of their final six games without him. Now, they have the No. 1 receiver they’ve wanted in Brandon Marshall, and he’s a player whose heyday came with Cutler in Denver. Toss in Matt Forte, and that’s a potent offense.

They’re doomed: Once again, Chicago’s offensive line is exceedingly average. The line can’t be blamed for every sack over the last two years, but Bears quarterbacks were dragged down 105 times over that span. Chicago’s defense is talented but graying, with most of the standouts in their 30s. The team is expecting big things from rookie defensive end Shea McClellin.

Now hear this: “If we can continue to do that, it will be really hard for any defensive coordinator to stop us. We’re definitely going to respect teams, but we’ve got to call it what it is. When you’ve got four, five, six guys making plays, it’s scary.” — Marshall, on the chemistry with Cutler after an impressive preseason performance.


2011: 15-1, 1st in North.

2011 playoffs: Lost to Giants, 37-20, in divisional game.

They’re going all the way: In this passing league, you don’t have to look far to make the argument the Packers are heading back to the Super Bowl. MVP Aaron Rodgers threw 45 touchdowns and only six interceptions last season, the team was 15-1, and Green Bay is loaded with top-shelf receivers.

They’re doomed: Nothing’s a sure thing, as the Packers could attest after the Giants’ Eli Manning picked them apart at Lambeau Field in the playoffs. Green Bay needs to generate more of a pass rush, and the Packers are hoping Nick Perry can be a USC bookend to Clay Matthews. The Packers need a running game too.

Now hear this: “We picked the most inopportune time to play our worst ball. The fact is, (the Giants) didn’t beat us; we beat ourselves. We need to play our best ball when it counts. This year, I expect us to be right back where we should be.” — Matthews, to Yahoo Sports, on the 2011 playoff loss.


2011: 10-6, 2nd in North.

2011 playoffs: Lost to New Orleans Saints, 45-28, in wild-card game.

They’re going all the way: The Lions have made a dramatic turnaround. Only three years after becoming the first franchise to finish 0-16, they finally got back to the playoffs. Their three biggest stars come at the three most important spots — quarterback, receiver and defensive tackle. This team has a legitimate chance to be a playoff regular.

They’re doomed: Some team members had another kind of turnaround too — turn around and put your hands behind your back. Within five months of the end of the season, Lions players had been arrested seven times, including two arrests of since-released cornerback Aaron Berry. That kind of distraction can stunt the growth of an up-and-coming franchise.

Now hear this: “I want the defense to fear me. It’s kind of cool I’ve got the nickname Megatron because he is the bad guy. I like to be the bad guy to the defense.” — receiver Calvin Johnson to ESPN the Magazine.


2011: 3-13, 4th in North.

Last year in the playoffs: 2009.

They’re going all the way: By late August, the Vikings said Adrian Peterson was expected to be back by the opener, a remarkable feat considering he suffered a torn knee ligament in Week 16 last season. The Vikings won only three games last season, but nine of their losses were by seven points or fewer. This team could surprise some people.

They’re doomed: Just pulling to .500 would be a huge accomplishment for the Vikings, who have a second-year quarterback in Christian Ponder, a deep-threat receiver in Jerome Simpson, who is suspended for the first three games, and a still-untested Peterson. Rookie left tackle Matt Kalil has been a bright spot so far.

Now hear this: “Just don’t touch me. I’m too old to deal with overzealous rookies right now. Keep your hands out of my face, don’t grab my jersey and we won’t have to fist-fight.” — defensive end Jared Allen, to NBC SportsTalk, when asked about scuffling with Kalil.



2011: 13-3, 1st in South.

2011 playoffs: Lost to San Francisco 49ers, 36-32, in divisional game.

They’re going all the way: Count out the Saints at your peril. They have won 13, 11, and 13 games over the last three seasons, and there’s nothing to indicate their offense will be at all diminished. Drew Brees, who set a single-season record with 5,476 yards passing last season, will yet again be surgically dissecting defenses.

They’re doomed: In the most tumultuous off-season on record, the Saints lost Coach Sean Payton and defensive captain Jonathan Vilma for the season as a result of an alleged pay-to-injure bounty scheme. Not only will they have an interim coach in Joe Vitt, but also an interim-to-the-interim coach (Aaron Kromer) while Vitt is serving his six-game ban.

Now hear this: “Do your job!” — Payton’s parting words to his players before leaving on his suspension.


2011: 6-10, 3rd in South.

Last year in the playoffs: 2008.

They’re going all the way: We laughed when incoming rookie Cam Newton referred himself as an entertainer and an icon. Well, guess what, he was right. Not only did he rack up 35 touchdowns last season — 21 passing and 14 rushing — and win offensive rookie-of-the-year honors, but he also made the Panthers watchable. Now that’s a feat.

They’re doomed: The Panthers are trying a novel defensive concept this season — tackling. They drafted Boston College linebacker Luke Kuechly in hopes of actually wrapping up some opponents. The team’s most inspirational story is also a tale of woe: Linebacker Thomas Davis is trying to become the first player to return from three torn anterior cruciate ligaments in the same knee.

Now hear this: “It was one of those things I was literally up all night and I was thinking about it, and just went to my computer and started writing.” — center Ryan Kalil, to The Charlotte Observer, on the newspaper ad he bought that guaranteed a Super Bowl victory for the Panthers.


2011: 10-6, 2nd in South.

2011 playoffs: Lost to Giants, 24-2, in wild-card game.

They’re going all the way: No team is more overdue to take the next step than the Falcons, who have made the playoffs three of the last four years, yet have been eliminated in the first round each time. At least they can say each the three teams that beat them represented the NFC in the Super Bowl that season.

They’re doomed: Hard to blame Atlanta fans for scratching their heads at the hiring of offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter. His Jaguars were ranked last in the league in 2011 in total offense and passing, and 28th in points. Then again, Koetter didn’t have the same kind of talent on the field that he now has in Atlanta, beginning with quarterback Matt Ryan.

Now hear this: “I love this kid. He’s awesome. He’s big, he’s fast. …I think he’s going to have a breakout season this coming year.” — Hall of Fame receiver Jerry Rice, to ESPN, on Atlanta’s Julio Jones.


2011: 4-12, 4th in South.

Last year in the playoffs: 2007.

They’re going all the way: Coach Greg Schiano takes over a team that lost its last 10 games, and he brings with him Mike Sullivan, Eli Manning’s old quarterbacks coach. Sullivan should be able to mold Josh Freeman, and it helps that the Buccaneers spent to acquire free agents Vincent Jackson and Dallas Clark to bolster the passing game.

They’re doomed: Even with a defense-minded head coach last season, the Buccaneers couldn’t get anything right on that side of the ball. They gave up a franchise-worst 494 points, had the league’s worst rush defense, and couldn’t stop the pass, either. That’s bad news in a division with Brees, Newton and Ryan.

Now hear this: “It’s a fine line between being a physical, aggressive football team and getting a flag. You’ve got to be careful. I don’t ever want to be the least penalized team in the league, because I don’t think you’re trying hard enough then.” — Schiano, to WDAE in Tampa.



2011: 13-3, 1st in West.

2011 playoffs: Lost to Giants, 20-17, in NFC championship game.

They’re going all the way: It’s no wonder Jim Harbaugh was coach of the year, turning around a 6-10 team in his first season and transforming Alex Smith into a reliable winner. The 49ers have a smothering defense, a pounding running game, and might have reached the Super Bowl if not for an overtime fumble.

They’re doomed: The biggest question with this team is whether Smith can string together consecutive stellar seasons. With the team adding some capable receivers — Mario Manningham and Randy Moss — Smith probably will be asked to take more risks with the passing game. First-round pick A.J. Jenkins is buried on the depth chart at receiver and needs to step up.

Now hear this: “If you have the right type of guys in that room, you don’t have to set bounties or pay money for guys to play physical and play hard. It’s going to come naturally. That’s the type of guys we have on our defense.” — Donte Whitner, safety


2011: 7-9, 3rd in West.

Last year in the playoffs: 2010.

They’re going all the way: It’s Year 3 of the Pete Carroll regime, and the pressure is on the former USC coach to prove he can get it done in the pros. The Seahawks were 7-9 in each of his first two seasons. In the second half of last season, they played solid defense, were able to run the ball, and could contend in a division where nobody seems to put together two good years.

They’re doomed: Russell Wilson is a bold and intriguing choice at quarterback. He’s very mobile and that’s a good thing considering the Seahawks have invested a lot of money and draft picks in the offensive line but have yet to see reliable dividends. Receiver is a soft spot for the franchise too, and Sidney Rice is coming off surgeries on both shoulders. Rice also has had concussion problems.

Now hear this: “That’s not going to happen here. No.” — Carroll, stifling a chuckle when asked whether the Seahawks would consider signing Chad Johnson. That said, the club had already signed washed-up receivers Terrell Owens and Braylon Edwards. Owens was released last week.


2011: 8-8, 2nd in West.

Last year in the playoffs: 2009.

They’re going all the way: The Cardinals came alive in the second half of last season, following a six-game losing streak by winning seven of their final nine. Part can be credited to a defense that never gave up more than 23 points in any of the final eight games, and part to the offense, which has playmakers in receiver Larry Fitzgerald and running back Beanie Wells.

They’re doomed: Can quarterback Kevin Kolb get the job done? His numbers from last season were less than spectacular — 1,955 yards passing, with nine touchdowns and eight interceptions — and he’s starting to get a reputation of bailing out of the pocket too soon.

Now hear this: “I don’t mind people criticizing my play. Don’t ever question my toughness.” — Kolb, to the Cardinals’ official website, on Raiders defensive lineman Tommy Kelly calling him “scared” and “skittish.”


2011: 2-14, 4th in West.

Last year in the playoffs: 2004.

They’re going all the way: New Coach Jeff Fisher is capable of making a difference quickly, and we’ll probably see a tougher, more physical Rams team. Sam Bradford has a chance to get back to the offensive rookie-of-the-year player he was two years ago. Former Tennessee Titans cornerback Cortland Finnegan should have a positive impact on that secondary, and spread that Fisher attitude.

They’re doomed: The Rams are too broken for a quick fix, having gone 15-65 over the last five years. They’re rebooting again, on their third coach in six years. Although they got a truckload of picks for the trade that sent the Robert Griffin III pick to Washington, that also means the Rams are especially young this season.

Now hear this: “One of the things that we were really looking for in the coaching search process was confidence and swagger. … I think when you walk into our building now, you sense the confidence.” — Kevin Demoff, Rams vice president of football operations, to 590 the Fan.

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