NFL preview: NFC team capsules

Pete Carroll
Pete Carroll won a Super Bowl in his fourth season in Seattle.
(Ted S. Warren / Associated Press)

In predicted order of finish by division:

NFC West

2013 | 13-3, 1st in West
Last year in playoffs | 2013

Going all the way: The last franchise to win back-to-back Super Bowl titles was New England in 2003 and ’04, so the Seahawks have quite a challenge. Then again, Pete Carroll won consecutive national championships at USC, so he can tap into that experience. Seattle did a good job of hanging on to most of its core players, and largely keeping a dominant defense intact.


They’re doomed: The offensive line is a significant concern, having lost some key components. If that line has problems opening holes, it puts more pressure on back Marshawn Lynch, whose bruising style has defined the franchise. Losing Chris Clemons and Clinton McDonald on the defensive front could prove costly.

Now hear this: “I always said at ’SC, ‘We’ll look back someday and tell you how we did.’ Getting that Super Bowl ring to me was not the ultimate. I don’t think our players think about it that way. It’s ‘That’s what happened. Now, what’s next?’ ” — Carroll

2013 | 12-4, 2nd in West
Last year in playoffs | 2013

Going all the way: Colin Kaepernick has more receiving weapons, with a healthy Michael Crabtree, and the addition of Stevie Johnson, Brandon Lloyd and others. Defensive tackle Justin Smith played with a shoulder injury last season, and underwent surgery in the off-season, meaning he could be closer to his dominating form this fall.


They’re doomed: With three new starters in the secondary, including both corners, the 49ers could be vulnerable on the back end. Linebacker NaVorro Bowman is expected to miss at least half the season recovering from his knee injury, and Aldon Smith is suspended for nine games for violating league policies. Offensive line is a concern too, with guard Alex Boone holding out, right tackle Anthony Davis (shoulder) missing training camp, and center Jonathan Goodwin now in New Orleans.

Now hear this: “We know we have the team to win a Super Bowl, we have the talent to win a Super Bowl. But there’s a lot of urgency to get it done.” — Joe Staley, tackle

2013 | 10-6, 3rd in West
Last year in playoffs | 2009

Going all the way: No one wanted to play the Cardinals in the second half of last season. They won seven of their final nine games, and were the only visiting team in two seasons to win at Seattle. Carson Palmer got hot, and so did Arizona’s defense, which was 28th against the run in 2012 but No. 1 in that category last season.

They’re doomed: The Cardinals were dealt a devastating blow in training camp when they lost Pro Bowl defensive tackle Darnell Dockett to a season-ending torn ACL in practice. Typically, the offensive line remains a work in progress, and the right side of this one is particularly suspect.

Now hear this: “The way we finished last year is something we can definitely build on. Obviously, we fell short of our goals of making the playoffs. But the way we finished left a solid taste in guys’ mouths that we were on the right track and have the right people to make a run.” — Larry Fitzgerald, All-Pro receiver

2013 | 7-9, 4th in West
Last year in playoffs | 2004

Going all the way: The Rams had a trio of standouts on the defensive line in Chris Long, Robert Quinn and Michael Brockers, and they added a fourth first-rounder to that group in defensive tackle Aaron Donald. They will present big problems for every offensive line they face. St. Louis is strong on special teams too, with kicker Greg Zuerlein and punter Johnny Hekker.


They’re doomed: Losing quarterback Sam Bradford cripples designs on a big year. Shaun Hill is an experienced journeyman, but faces long odds to succeed. With Jake Long and Rodger Saffold rehabbing injuries, the pressure is on No. 2 pick Greg Robinson to bolster a shaky offensive line.

Now hear this: “I just came in and everything looked like Spanish, it sounded like Spanish. At the beginning of the year, I was kind of slowing myself down. I really didn’t know what was going on.” —Tavon Austin, receiver and No. 8 pick in 2013, on the difficulty of learning the Rams’ playbook

NFC North

2013 | 8-7-1, 1st in North
Last year in playoffs | 2013

Going all the way: For years, the Packers have looked to establish a running game to complement the All-Pro play of quarterback Aaron Rodgers. It looks as if they have their answer in second-year tailback Eddie Lacy, who is both bruiser and breakaway threat. If Rodgers and Lacy are at the top of their game, the Packers will be tough to beat.

They’re doomed: Losing nose tackle B.J. Raji for the season to a torn biceps is a huge blow to the defense, which figured to be significantly stronger up front with the addition of Julius Peppers. The offensive line has been reshuffled, so it should take that unit some time to mesh.

Now hear this: “You look at my last year. Was it one of my better years? Probably not, statistically. But if you compare it to a lot of the guys who played last year, it was better than a lot of guys. So, I don’t really think I need to revitalize anything.” — Julius Peppers, who had 7 1/2  sacks for Chicago last season, fewest in six years

2013 | 8-8, 2nd in North
Last year in playoffs | 2010


Going all the way: For once, quarterback Jay Cutler has all the pieces around him in place — a Pro Bowl running back, good receivers, and a line with five returning starters. The defense is looking to be far more like the 2012 version than 2013, and part of that hinges on the conversion of Shea McClellin from defensive end to linebacker. The defensive line is significantly upgraded with the additions of Jared Allen and Lamarr Houston.

They’re doomed: Yes, all five linemen are back, but right tackle Jordan Mills suffered a broken foot in the 2013 finale, and that’s still bothering him. Backup tackle Eben Britton is hobbled by a bum hamstring that has sidelined him at camp. The Bears are groping for answers at both safety spots.

Now hear this: “He’s the first one in the building, last one to leave, his leadership is through the roof. He’s correcting the coaches. I mean, this is his offense.”  — Brandon Marshall, receiver, on Cutler

2013 | 7-9, 3rd in North
Last year in playoffs | 2011

Going all the way: The Lions have the firepower to hold their own in any shootout. In Golden Tate, they’ve got a suitable sidekick for Calvin Johnson. With his 86-yard touchdown run against Jacksonville this summer, Reggie Bush showed he still has that explosiveness. All five starters are back from an offensive line that played well last season, and quarterback Matthew Stafford has a talented stable of tight ends to target.

They’re doomed: Same old story  — the Lions can’t seem to fix their secondary. Darius Slay is so-so, and fellow corner Rashean Mathis is in the twilight of his career. Ndamukong Suh is a dominant defensive lineman, but Ziggy Ansah is coming off shoulder surgery, and Nick Fairley has been a disappointment.

Now hear this: “It wasn’t easy going through it, that’s for sure, but I think coming out of it on the other side we’ll be better for it.” — Stafford on losing six of the final seven games last season

2013 | 5-10-1, 4th in North
Last year in playoffs | 2012

Going all the way: Adrian Peterson didn’t play in exhibition games, but he’s reliably dominant as the NFL’s best back. Tight end Kyle Rudolph comes in 15 pounds lighter and he’ll be a big part of Norv Turner’s offense. Cordarrelle Patterson had a spectacular rookie year, and he’ll be an offensive centerpiece. New Coach Mike Zimmer is going to move rookie Anthony Barr all over the place, and the UCLA standout should ratchet up the pass rush.

They’re doomed: Matt Cassel is the man of the moment, but finding an answer at quarterback is still an issue for the Vikings, who are hoping rookie Teddy Bridgewater ultimately will be that player. Finding a third cornerback is a major issue, and strong safety is up for grabs too.

Now hear this: “If we can get better at that, being unselfish, and allowing other guys to make plays within the play we make, we can be a really good football team.” — Greg Jennings, receiver

NFC South

2013 | 11-5, 2nd in South
Last year in playoffs | 2013

Going all the way: The schedule sets up beautifully, not facing a team with a 2013 winning record until Week 8 and four of the first six games coming against teams with new coaches. With Drew Brees at the helm, and weapons such as Jimmy Graham, Marques Colston, and speedy newcomer Brandin Cooks, this figures to be an offensive powerhouse. The defense has turned the corner too, and coaches are especially excited about cornerback Keenan Lewis.

They’re doomed: The Saints need some key pieces to fall in place for their secondary to come together. They added safety Jairus Byrd, who’s coming off back surgery, and corner Patrick Robinson is recovering from knee reconstruction. Champ Bailey was cut Saturday.

Now hear this: “I understand the challenges that come along with that. But why not? If I can stay healthy, and I’m having fun and playing at a high level, why wouldn’t I wanna do that?”  — Brees, 35, who says he wants to play until he’s 45

2013 | 12-4, 1st in South
Last year in playoffs | 2013

Going all the way: He’s not always the most accurate passer, but Cam Newton is so athletic he constantly keeps defenses honest. So far, rookie receiver Kelvin Benjamin is absolutely worth the first-round pick, although he’ll see a lot of double-team coverage. The defensive front seven that led the league last season with 60 sacks returns intact, led by linebacker Luke Kuechly and defensive end Greg Hardy. Ron Rivera, last season’s coach of the year, knows how to get his players ready.

They’re doomed: The Panthers shifted a lot of pieces on the offensive line. The secondary is basically starting from scratch, and safety Roman Harper, 31, missed camp with a bad case of turf toe.

Now hear this: “Michael Jordan used to go to the hole all the time and dunk. But if you ask Michael, he realized that later in his career, he had to develop that jumper. So he went to work at it. Cam’s the same way. He needs to develop as a passer.” — Rivera, on Newton

2013 | 4-12, 4th in South
Last year in playoffs | 2007

Going all the way: Tampa Bay’s first-string defense was on the field for 14 possessions in exhibition games and gave up only a field goal. The Buccaneers have top-notch players at defensive tackle (Gerald McCoy), weakside linebacker (Lavonte David), and strong safety (Mark Barron). On offense, a towering trio of pass catchers should give defenses problems — Vincent Jackson, Mike Evans, and Austin Seferian-Jenkins.

They’re doomed: Quarterback Josh McCown played great in place of the injured Jay Cutler in Chicago, but can he keep up that pace? It won’t be an easy task for the 35-year-old behind a shaky Tampa Bay line that’s still in need of some guard help despite the recent addition of six-time Pro Bowl guard Logan Mankins via a trade with New England. Last year’s starter, Mike Glennon, backs up McCown.

Now hear this: “We’re the Dunkaneers.” — Jason Licht, general manager, on Buccaneers’ trio of 6-foot-5 receiving targets

2013 | 4-12, 3rd in South
Last year in playoffs | 2012

Going all the way: Before dropping off the ledge last season, the Falcons collected 56 victories from 2008 to 2012, so they know how to win. Matt Ryan is still a top-notch quarterback, and receivers Julio Jones and Roddy White are explosive when healthy.

They’re doomed: The offensive line played a big role in surrendering 44 sacks last season, and its luck has been worse this summer. The Falcons lost left tackle Sam Baker to a knee injury, forcing rookie Jake Matthews into that pivotal spot, then lost potential starting right tackle Mike Johnson to a season-ending foot injury. The defense absorbed a big loss when linebacker Sean Weatherspoon suffered a torn Achilles’ tendon in an off-season workout.

Now hear this: “I think that as an offense, the goal is to put points up on the board, every time you get it. If we can figure out ways to run the ball, be a little bit more-balanced than we have been in the past, I think that’s going to happen.” — Ryan

NFC East

2013 | 10-6, 1st in East
Last year in playoffs | 2013

Going all the way: Quarterback Nick Foles is coming off an unbelievable season (27 touchdowns, two passes intercepted). If he can come close to that type of efficiency, the Eagles will be golden. LeSean McCoy is the defending rushing champion and is the game’s most devastating cutback runner. If Jason Peters isn’t the best left tackle in football, he’s certainly in the conversation.

They’re doomed: Poor safety play has been Philadelphia’s bugaboo since the departure of Brian Dawkins, and it remains to be seen if Malcolm Jenkins will be the answer. The era of DeSean Jackson is over and, although Darren Sproles will produce, the Eagles probably won’t get as many forehead-slapping explosive plays.

Now hear this: “I’m taking Foles. Not even close. Russell Wilson is just . . . because of that system he is in.”  — Ron Jaworski, ESPN analyst and former Eagles quarterback, on whether he’d take Foles or Seattle’s Russell Wilson

2013 | 7-9, 3rd in East
Last year in playoffs | 2011

Going all the way: After a decade in the same offense, Eli Manning is working out the kinks in a new one, and it hasn’t been pretty. Still, he’s a quarterback with two Super Bowl rings, and he’s got some good weapons around him, including receiver Victor Cruz and capable running backs Rashad Jennings and rookie Andre Williams. The secondary is improved with the addition of Walter Thurmond III and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie.

They’re doomed: The offensive line was hurt by guard Chris Snee’s retirement and a foot injury to guard Geoff Schwartz. There’s a vacuum at tight end, and the hamstring injury to first-round receiver Odell Beckham Jr., thought as a game-breaker, has everyone frustrated.

Now hear this: “There are two guys on our team that have to play really well and it’s Eli Manning and Jason Pierre-Paul. If those guys play well, I think we’ve got a chance to be really good.” — Jerry Reese, general manager

2013 | 8-8, 2nd in East
Last year in playoffs | 2009

Going all the way: The Cowboys are going to be in a lot of shootouts, and they are built to put a lot of points on the board. A sturdy offensive line, featuring three first-rounders, should create ample time for Tony Romo and push open holes for DeMarco Murray. Dez Bryant is an elite playmaker, and Terrance Williams is headed that way.

They’re doomed: There’s no D in Dallas. The three best defensive players from last season are gone — defensive linemen DeMarcus Ware and Jason Hatcher are elsewhere, and linebacker Sean Lee is out for the season with a bad knee. What’s more, secondary leader Orlando Scandrick is suspended for the first four games. There’s a lot of pressure on defensive tackle Henry Melton, who spent training camp recovering from a torn ACL.

Now hear this: “The positive part is we have a younger team, way younger than it was three years ago. We think that’s a good thing.”  — Jason Garrett, coach

2013 | 3-13, 4th in East
Last year in playoffs | 2012

Going all the way: There’s offensive talent galore, starting with quarterback Robert Griffin III. Pierre Garcon reeled in 113 catches last season, a franchise record, and running back Alfred Morris has rushed for 2,888 yards in his first two seasons. Jordan Reed set a club record for receiving yards by a rookie tight end, even though he missed the last six games. Add receiver DeSean Jackson into that mix, and there won’t be enough footballs to go around.

They’re doomed: First-time Coach Jay Gruden faces a big task turning around a franchise that has finished last every year but one since 2008. Griffin looked like a rookie this summer, tentative at times, careless at others. The kick coverage teams were a disaster last season.

Now hear this: “Kirk Cousins has played much better at the quarterback position than Robert Griffin III has.” — Joe Theismann, Washington great, on the quarterback play this summer