Previewing the NFC Divisions

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The 2015 NFL season is just around the corner and this week, all 32 teams have opened training camp.

Training camp officially marks the opening of the NFL season for most loyal football fans.
The draft is done, as are OTA’s (Organised Team Activities) and now it is time for players, coaches and player personnel staff to build the roster – to compete for the Super Bowl.

Unlike the AFL where teams endure month after month of gruelling training before being able to compete in games, the NFL opens pre-season matches a little under two weeks from the beginning of camps opening.

As is the case with every NFL schedule, there are many unanswered questions heading into the regular season.

All teams will feel they have improved via the draft and free agency period whilst injuries will unavoidably occur throughout the vigorous padded practices throughout camps.

Suspensions also play a major role in the early parts of a regular season with many players sidelined for everything from domestic violence to guns charges and performance enhancing drug use.
Starting running backs LeGarrett Blount and superstar Le’Veon Bell will both miss the opening game of the season after being found guilty of marijuana use.
Reigning Super Bowl champion quarterback Tom Brady is also scheduled to miss the first month of the season for his role in ‘DeflateGate’ but that case is still being appealed, with a final outcome seemingly miles away.

Here is a brief preview for the NFC divisions and who we think will play a major part in the playoffs;

NFC EAST (Predicted Finish – 1st Dallas, 2nd Philadelphia, 3rd New York Giants, 4th Washington)

Was it a catch? Bryant attempts a potential game-winning TD reception in last season's playoffs.
Was it a catch? Bryant attempts a potential game-winning TD reception in last season’s playoffs.

The NFC East is probably the most glamorous, newsworthy in all of football and 2015 will again be the same.
Last season, Dallas had the premier rushing attack in the NFL thanks to workhorse DeMarco Murray who had an amazing 392 carries – naturally, Murray has left the Cowboys after Jerry Jones and co. were unable to come up with a suitable contract offer for the back.
No sooner than had Eagles coach Chip Kelly controversially moved on his star back LeSean McCoy to Buffalo was Murray’s arrival in Philly.
The offensive line is not what it is in Dallas but if the Eagles lineman can hold up, Murray will prove to be a major thorn in the Cowboys hopes to win the division.
Thankfully for the Cowboys, their other big time free agent hung around as Dez Bryant received his long-term deal.
In the Big Apple, the pressure is rising for veteran coach Tom Coughlin to get these Giants back into the playoffs.
Eli Manning is looking for a new contract and usually when the G-Men are counted out, they produce a remarkable season and Manning gets hot, leading them to many unlikely victories.
He will need to pull yet another rabbit out this season to keep the wolves at bay.
In the nation’s capital, things look gloomy.
Redskins coach Jay Gruden and QB Robert Griffin III endured many speed bumps in their first season together with Gruden openly ridiculing RG3’s play and benching him in favour of Kirk Cousins and even Colt McCoy.

PLAYERS TO WATCH: Joseph Randle (Dallas), Jordan Matthews (Philadelphia), Victor Cruz (NYG), Jeron Johnson (Washington)

NFC NORTH (Predicted Finish – 1st Green Bay, 2nd Detroit, 3rd Minnesota, 4th Chicago)

Can 'Megatron' continue to be the league's premier wide receiver?
Can ‘Megatron’ continue to be the league’s premier wide receiver?

Green Bay are the white-hot favourites to again win this division and for good reason.
They return almost all offensive and defensive starters whilst only Julius Peppers and quarterback Aaron Rodgers are above age 30. The Packers are young, talented and hungry after giving up a big lead in the NFC Championship Game in Seattle, eventually falling in overtime after reserve tight end Brandon Bostick fumbled an onside kick to ice the game.
The Cheese Heads re-upped Randall Cobb and big things are expected from DaVante Adams whilst Eddie Lacy should only improve on his 1139 rushing yards and 13 total touchdowns.
In MoTown, the feared leader of their defence has left town – and left a huge hole in the team.
Ndamukong Suh took $100 million to join Miami whilst fellow run-stuffer Nick Fairley also jumped ship, joining St. Louis.
Like years past, the Lions will need to lean on the offence, namely Matthew Stafford, Calvin Johnson and Golden Tate.
Questions linger over Johnson and as to whether he is still among the best receivers in the NFL.
His health has been concerning as he missed three games in 2014 and was ailing in two others.
Reggie Bush’s underachieving stint in Detroit has ended and now Joique Bell will be asked to carry the load.
He will need to improve his yards per carry to at least 4.0 otherwise rookie Ameer Abdullah will be called upon.
Minnesota and Chicago will fight it out for third spot in the division, with the Bears seemingly declining and the Vikings showing some promise for the future.
Teddy Bridgewater will benefit most from the return of Adrian Peterson and whilst Peterson has set himself for a record-breaking season, his presence will really allow Bridgewater the ability to throw to receivers in one-on-one situations.
The Vikings run-stopping will need to improve after ranking 25th last season but the pillars are there to improve on that performance.
TE Kyle Rudolph and receivers Mike Wallace and Cordarrelle Patterson must bring some consistency to the pass-catching unit to aide Bridgewater in his sophomore season.
In the Windy City, things are bleak but certainly not hopeless.
Jay Cutler was the butt of many jokes last season after his capitulation, resulting in him being a $100 million clipboard holder.
His favourite target in Brandon Marshall has departed for New York meaning Cutler will lean heavily on young star Alshon Jeffery.
Matt Forte will again be rock-solid in both the run-game and as a dump-off receiver and big things will be expected of first-round draft pick Kevin White.
The defence is where the major issues remain for the Bears with the unit ranking 30th in pass D and 31st in points allowed.

PLAYERS TO WATCH: DaVante Adams (Green Bay), Eric Ebron (Detroit), Kyle Rudolph (Minnesota), Kevin White (Chicago)

NFC WEST (Predicted Finish – 1st Seattle, 2nd St. Louis, 3rd Arizona, 4th San Francisco)

Love-Hate relationship: Former rivals now team mates Richard Sherman and new Seahawk Jimmy Graham.
Love-Hate relationship: Former rivals now team mates Richard Sherman and new Seahawk Jimmy Graham.

Forget the NFC West, throughout the entire NFC and probably the entire NFL, all things go through the Pacific Northwest.
Seattle has dominant players across every position and things only got better in the offseason as the defensive loss of corner Byron Maxwell was offset by the huge addition of touchdown machine Jimmy Graham from New Orleans.
Russell Wilson and Bobby Wagner both got big contract extensions and whilst Michael Bennett, Kam Chancellor and Bruce Irvin have expressed their views on getting new deals themselves, all are expected to be in Seattle longterm.
Graham’s arrival will ease the load on back Marshawn Lynch, allowing him to focus on producing even more big plays rather than having to carry the offence.
With Wilson re-signed, the secondary healthy after numerous off-season surgeries and a new weapon in Graham, the Seahawks look set to yet again challenge for the Super Bowl.
Seattle won’t have it all their own way however – St. Louis is a really talented and dangerous football team.
We know what that defensive front can do to opposing offences whilst trading the oft-injured Sam Bradford for Nick Foles seems like a win for the Rams.
Foles 2013 season was truly remarkable with 28 TD’s and only two picks.
Now we know those numbers aren’t realistic and last season he did suffer some struggles but he can launch the deep ball as well as any which should see former high draft pick Tavon Austin make plays down the field.
In Arizona, starting quarterback Carson Palmer has returned from a torn ACL and with many returning starters, the Cardinals will be a tough out at any stage in 2015, whether it be throughout the regular season or a playoff clash.
Palmer should provide receivers Larry Fitzgerald, Michael Floyd and John Brown with enough playmaking opportunities whilst the defensive unit should again be a solid performer.
More will be asked of CB Patrick Peterson with the departure of Antonio Cromartie whilst Tyrann Mathieu is capable of having a Pro Bowl season at safety in a division loaded with special safeties.
In the Bay Area, a momentous change in face is going on.
Head coach Jim Harbaugh has gone to the college ranks with Michigan as Jim Tomsula assumes control.
With so many competent defensive players gone via retirement and free agency (Patrick Willis, Justin Smith, Ray McDonald) the defensive juggernaut may be no more in San Fran.
Having said that, Aldon Smith and Ahmad Brooks are desperate to prove their worth in varying contractual situations whilst Pro Bowler NaVorro Bowman is hoping to return from a gruesome knee injury sustained in the 2013 playoffs.

PLAYERS TO WATCH: Chris Matthews (Seattle), Todd Gurley (St. Louis), Tyrann Mathieu (Arizona), Aldon Smith (San Francisco)

NFC SOUTH (Predicted Finish – 1st Atlanta, 2nd Carolina, 3rd New Orleans, 4th Tampa Bay)

Julio Jones is a pass-catching, yard-eating machine but can he enter the end zone more in 2015?
Julio Jones is a pass-catching, yard-eating machine but can he enter the end zone more in 2015?

Last year’s laughing stock division, things appear more uplifting in the NFC South for 2015.
You can make a strong case for anyone of the four teams to claim the divisional title, however all teams also have significant holes in their rosters – making for many unknowns.
In the ATL, Seahawks defensive coordinator Dan Quinn takes the reins as he tries to rebuild an under-performing defensive group.
At best, first-round pick Vic Beasley is a clone of DeMarcus Ware but the rookie out of Clemson will need to produce massively as a rookie on a defence that lacks significant playmakers.
Offensively, the combination of Matt Ryan, Roddy White and Julio Jones is a terrifying prospect for opposition teams.
The Falcons were a top 10 offence in 2014 but ranked dead last on D, meaning Quinn will have his work cut out here.
Last season, quarterback Cam Newton looked banged up. He suffered from a lingering ankle injury for much of the season and was involved in a frightening car accident which forced him to miss a match.
He was clearly hampered in the zone-read game and looked a shell of his normal self when tucking and running.
Rookie Kelvin Benjamin was a bright spot for the Panthers as he used his 6-5″ frame to overpower defenders and rack up 1008 yards and nine scores.
The defence is elite – led by backers Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis.
Shaq Thompson out of Washington was the team’s top pick and his versatility will add even more punch to an already staunch defensive scheme.
In San Francisco, the Niners are undergoing a reconstruction like few others but one of those teams that faces a similar task is New Orleans.
Drew Brees is the constant but most of his Super Bowl-winning team mates are gone.
Running back Mark Ingram was re-signed to a nice deal and centre Max Unger was brought in to complete the identity change in NOLA.
As good as Brees is, it’s now a ground and pound game in the Superdome with Ingram, CJ Spiller and Khiry Robinson readied to carry the offence.
Brandin Cooks is a talented receiver but the Saints top weapon is in rainy Seattle.
Brandon Browner was acquired from the champion Patriots but he will see plenty of balls thrown his way as the Saints will have troubles getting to the quarterback, especially with Junior Galette recently released.
In recent seasons, Tampa have slowly built a nice offensive squad.
Vincent Jackson came to town on a juicy contract, Texas A&M wideout Mike Evans and tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins were drafted and just a few months ago, No.1 overall pick Jameis Winston was selected.
There are still issues in the run game but last season – with shoddy quarterback play – both Evans and Jackson had 1,000 yards receiving as Evans entered the end zone a dozen times.
Defensively, Gerald McCoy is the stud and often controls the line whilst Lavonte David is in-line for a big payday after three stellar seasons at outside linebacker.

PLAYERS TO WATCH: Jake Matthews (Atlanta), Shaq Thompson (Carolina), Brandin Cooks (New Orleans), Mike Evans (Tamp Bay)

NFC CHAMPIONSHIP GAME PREDICTION
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