Best in the NFC: Who Are 2011’s Top Contenders?

1. Green Bay Packers

The Super Bowl Champions are a complete team. They have faced adversity and had their back against the wall and they prevailed. Offensively, they struggled out of the gate but finished with stratospheric displays in two of their last three playoff games, winning the Super Bowl with Aaron Rodgers winning the MVP. The Pack have 2 of the 10 best corners (Woodson and Williams), the best receiving corps in football, the 2009 Defensive Player of the Year (Woodson) and the 2010 runner-up Clay Matthews. They proved they can be competitive when Rodgers gets hurt and they added intriguing offensive skill players in the draft (Kentucky WR Randall Cobb, Hawai’i RB Alex Green). Due to their lack of players workouts, be prepared to hear a new level of “Super Bowl hangover” predictions. Don’t believe it. The Packers are the class of the NFC by far this year and won’t see a challenger in their division until Minnesota in 2012. It’s a passing league and Aaron Rodgers has thrown for 423 yds/4 TD/1 INT, 366/3 TD/0 INT, and 304/3 TD/0 INT in 3 of his last 5 playoff games.

2. Dallas Cowboys
Bob Sanders and O.J. Atogwe are no longer free agents. Ray Edwards, Darren Sharper, Danieal Manning, Jason Babin and Dawan Landry will be pursued by many teams. The biggest defensive addition for any team in the off-season was not a player. Rob Ryan comes over from Cleveland to coach the Cowboys defense. This hire was perfect, giving the defense an engaging, motivational coach with high standards. The 2011 Cowboys will have a more streamlined, hard-nosed feel to them and I believe they will immediately validate Jerry’s faith in Jason Garrett. The offense is loaded with young weapons – Dez Bryant, Jason Witten, Miles Austin, and Felix Jones are all under 30 – and they added DeMarco Murray in the draft. They finished 7th in scoring, mostly due to the preparedness and savvy of Jon Kitna, who started 9 games. He played like a man knowing this might be his last time in command. The defense was awful last year but still has all four of the Pro Bowlers from its 2009 incarnation that was 2nd in points allowed. I expect Romo to rise to this challenge and – with help from his newly-focused teammates – finally solidify himself as the franchise QB at age 30. I am skeptical that they will get past Green Bay, though.

3. New York Giants
They have a lot of the same momentum that my #1 team in the AFC, San Diego, has. They also have the QB San Diego wanted back in 2004. The Giants – like the Chargers – had injury issues and some fluky mistakes (tipped INTs, punting to Desean Jackson) last season. While their top NFC East competition are bringing in new defensive playbooks, there will be a sense of continuity with Big Blue. While their projected starting 11 on defense (adding Prince Amukamara for at least their base nickel) will be near the upper third of the NFL, I think it was a great move to assemble their receiving corps in consecutive drafts. While their Steve Smith might be on the move, they are loaded with talent as evidenced by the huge preseason by Victor Cruz. Mario Manningham will have a breakout fantasy year and many don’t realize that Eli has thrown for 4000 yards, back-to-back, something Tom Brady has never accomplished.

4. New Orleans Saints
I think physical running backs and pass rushing freaks are the two kinds of players you look to see contributions from right away. I’m certain the Saints got the running back in Mark Ingram, and I’m pretty sure they got that level of pass rusher in Cameron Jordan. The Bucs will get close and the Falcons offense will be enough to carry their average defense but the Saints are the most battle-tested and Drew Brees has been scorching-hot in his last two playoff games. Brees has a Manning-like proficiency in the Payton offense and having a real bruiser like Ingram will only push one of the deadliest weapons of the offense: the play-action. The Saints scored 30 or more points in six straight games last year, and scored 36 in the playoff loss. The Saints have been 5th, 12th, 1st, 1st and 11th in points scored the last five seasons. Ingram replacing Bush and fantasy sleeper Jimmy Graham replacing Shockey only makes the offense scarier.

5. Philadelphia Eagles
One of the most underrated storylines was how troubled the Eagles defense was for much of the year. Blame it on the turf or what have you, but they allowed Jay Cutler and the Bears offense one of their best games. The guy calling the shots for this defense, Sean McDermott, was fired. Looking across the NFC East, I would think the Cowboys’ defense has more holes than the Eagles but I love Rob Ryan’s ability to push players and I also love his attacking schemes. Quietly, the Eagles finished 2-3 including the playoff game down the stretch, were victorious by more than 7 in neither win, and committed 12 turnovers in the last four regular season games. They’ll be a factor, but that could be seriously jeopardized if Michael Vick gets hurt again (hurt twice last year) and Kolb isn’t there to line up under center.

Notable snubs:

Tampa Bay Buccaneers
I have the Bucs getting in the playoffs ahead of the Eagles but I think the Eagles will be a more polished team and also have the pedigree of having won a lot of games in the playoffs, which is the slighter of the two advantages. Their Roethlisberger/Vick-style X-factor QB Freeman, had an identical or lower interception rate than those two last year, despite having rookies at the skill positions.

St. Louis Rams
Barring the re-re-rebirth of Alex Smith being the success that his teammates claim it will be, St. Louis has this division wrapped up. The newly-formed Super Bowl XLII Odd Couple (Spagnuolo and McDaniels) are bringing back the best defense in the division last year (20.5 ppg allowed), added more defenders in the draft (freak Robert Quinn and DB Jermale Hines who has great upside), and keep adding dynamic playmakers for Sam Bradford. You can see why Los Angeles wants them. The post-Warner/Boldin Cardinals need O-line help and are going nowhere. The Seahawks are still trying to recuperate from the failed drafts of Ruskell-Holmgren-Mora. If the Rams pick up all six divisional games, they could end up with the #1 seed in the NFC but I’d pick any of those five teams and the Bucs to beat them in a playoff game. The Rams are too young right now.

Atlanta Falcons
The Falcons got fortunate breaks in both games against the Bucs and I simply think – of the three teams competing in the South – Atlanta has the least talent and the worst coach. They have a lot of playmakers on offense but just two – John Abraham and Brent Grimes – on defense.

Detroit Lions
I have never seen a trendier playoff pick. They COULD make it, but the hype for Suh-Fairley-Vanden Bosch is some of the wildest I’ve ever seen. I think – after Green Bay – the division is pretty close.

Also: Best in the AFC: Who Are 2011’s Top Contenders

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