NFL preview: How the NFC teams match up

Jimmy Graham, Russell Wilson

Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson (3) now has All-Pro tight end Jimmy Graham to target in the passing game.

(John Froschauer / Associated Press)

A preview of each NFC team. Listed by division in order of predicted finish.



2014 | 12-4, 1st in West


Last year in playoffs | 2014

Going all the way: Considering the devastating choke in the Super Bowl, Seattle needed an across-the-middle receiving threat. Boy, did it get one, by trading for New Orleans tight end Jimmy Graham. Teamed with Marshawn Lynch, Seattle has a pick-your-poison threat in the red zone. There doesn’t figure to be any defensive drop-off for Seattle, which has only gotten deeper in its front seven with the addition of rookie defensive end Frank Clark, and the now-healthy Cassius Marsh, Kevin Pierre-Lewis and Jordan Hill.

They’re doomed: For a second consecutive year, there are questions swirling around the offensive line. Gone are center Max Unger and guard James Carpenter. Safety Kam Chancellor missed training camp as a contract holdout.

Now hear this: “I’d definitely consider it.” — Quarterback Russell Wilson, when asked by TV host Jimmy Kimmel if he’d try playing baseball too if the Texas Rangers traded his rights to the Seattle Mariners




2014 | 11-5, 2nd in West

Last year in playoffs | 2014

Going all the way: The Cardinals won 21 games in their first two seasons under Bruce Arians, second only to Seattle in the NFC during that span. Quarterback Carson Palmer is back from his season-ending knee surgery, and his team was 9-1 in games he started in 2014. The defense is led by cornerback Patrick Peterson, who made the Pro Bowl in each of his first four seasons, even when he was sluggish last fall and was diagnosed with diabetes. He says he has never been in better shape.

They’re doomed: Losing defensive magician Todd Bowles could be costly. He was hired as oach of the New York Jets. Veteran defensive tackles Darnell Dockett and Dan Williams are gone, and the Cardinals had high hopes for replacement Corey Peters, but he is out with a season-ending Achilles’ tendon injury. Team didn’t do much to address weak running game.

Now hear this: “His arm looks phenomenal, the best that I’ve seen it since he’s been here.” — Peterson on Palmer




2014 | 8-8, 3rd in West

Last year in playoffs | 2013

Going all the way: Quarterback Colin Kaepernick spent a lot of time in the off-season working on his mechanics with Kurt Warner in Arizona. The 49ers expect that to pay dividends. The team added a couple of explosive offensive weapons in receiver Torrey Smith and running back Reggie Bush. Even after losing Justin Smith and Ray McDonald, the 49ers defensive line remains talented and deep.

They’re doomed: So much upheaval and turnover, and so many lingering questions. It starts at the top, and whether blue-collar Coach Jim Tomsula can ably step in for the dynamic and successful (and sometimes off-his-rocker) Jim Harbaugh. The offensive line is of particular concern, especially on the right side. The run blocking is good, but pass protection is an issue.

Now hear this: “It was my idea. I told the coaches I wanted to return punts again. And they were excited about it. We’re still working at it, still chipping away.” — Bush, on returning punts




2014 | 6-10, 4th in West

Last year in playoffs | 2004

Going all the way: It all starts with defense. Coordinator Gregg Williams, in his second season, could have all 11 starters back from last season. The defensive front features five first-round picks, and since Coach Jeff Fisher arrived in 2012 only Buffalo has collected more sacks (147) than the Rams’ 145. The St. Louis offense has struggled, but the Rams have high hopes for rookie running back Todd Gurley, when he’s healthy enough to return.

They’re doomed: The Rams are notoriously slow starters. They have been 3-5 at the midway point in all three of Fisher’s seasons. The offensive line has a pair of rookies on the right side, and the center job is up for grabs. That’s not good news for new quarterback Nick Foles, who wants to prove his success in Philadelphia wasn’t a fluke.

Now hear this: “Because of the type of system that they have and the type of player I am, it’s going to be great.” — New defensive tackle Nick Fairley.




2014 | 12-4, 1st in North

Last year in playoffs | 2014

Going all the way: Quarterback Aaron Rodgers is coming off a most-valuable-player season and is in his prime. He has a bruising back in Eddie Lacy, who forces defenses to honor the run. The Packers went from a bad defense to a decent one last season by moving Clay Matthews from outside to inside linebacker. The team lost two corners in free agency but has done well finding young replacements, using its first two draft picks on corners Damarious Randall and Quinten Rollins, and signing the undrafted Ladarius Gunter.

They’re doomed: Losing receiver Jordy Nelson to a season-ending knee injury was a big blow, especially considering how he stretches the field. Matthews has been slowed by knee and elbow issues. Much is resting on outside linebacker Julius Peppers, who at 35 is a senior citizen by NFL standards.

Now hear this: “It’s difficult to lose a guy like that in a meaningless game.” — Rodgers on Nelson



2014 | 7-9, 3rd in North

Last year in playoffs | 2012

Going all the way: If the way Adrian Peterson bounced back from his 2012 ACL injury is an indication, he will come back strong from missing the 2014 season. Quarterback Teddy Bridgewater has looked sharp and comfortable in the second year with Norv Turner’s offense. Tight end Kyle Rudolphis healthy after missing 17 games the last two seasons. The young defense, in part led by linebacker Anthony Barr from UCLA, is teeming with potential.

They’re doomed: The Vikings have had to reshuffle their offensive line, and are particularly inexperienced on the right side. They haven’t decided on a middle linebacker, although that could be Eric Kendricks, an undersized but playmaking rookie from UCLA. Kicker Blair Walsh, dealing with a revolving door at long snapper, has looked especially shaky lately.

Now hear this: “It’s going to be a fun year. I have a ton of weapons at my exposure; I can’t wait to get everyone going.” — Bridgewater, to the Minneapolis Star-Tribune



2014 | 11-5, 2nd in North

Last year in playoffs | 2014

Going all the way: After a season of injuries and protection problems, the Matthew Stafford-led offense should be better. The Lions really like second-round pick Ameer Abdullah, who’s not the fastest running back but has excellent vision and good hands. Outside linebacker DeAndre Levy made the Pro Bowl last season and should be a leader. Defensive coordinator Teryl Austin is a rising star on track to become a head coach.

They’re doomed: Losing All-Pro defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh completely changes the look of Detroit’s defense. Haloti Ngata is a solid replacement, but he’s 31 and hasn’t practiced because of a bum hamstring. No one on the roster has had more than eight sacks in a season. The offensive line is young and inexperienced, and right tackle LaAdrian Waddle is eight months removed from ACL surgery.

Now hear this: “We’re trying to shake the ‘same old Lions.’ ” — Receiver Golden Tate, to the Detroit Free Press



2014 | 5-11, 4th in North

Last year in playoffs | 2010

Going all the way: The Bears have a renewed commitment to the running game, so that means getting the ball into the capable hands of Matt Forte. He has some promising backups, too, in Jacquizz Rodgers and rookie Jeremy Langford. The Bears are happy with defensive end Pernell McPhee’s ability to get to the quarterback. Coach John Fox and coordinators Adam Gase and Vic Fangio all have experience getting teams to the Super Bowl.

They’re doomed: Quarterback Jay Cutler is on his fifth coordinator in seven seasons, and he led the league with 24 turnovers in 2014. Top receiver Alshon Jeffery has been sidelined by a calf injury, and fellow wideout and top pick Kevin White could miss his rookie season because of a stress fracture in his leg. The roster has next to no one experienced in a 3-4 defense.

Now hear this: “Why does everyone always assume the quarterback is the leader?"¿— Tight end Martellus Bennett, to Chicago magazine




2014 | 7-9, 2nd in South

Last year in playoffs | 2013

Going all the way: It doesn’t hurt the Saints that they play in a bad division, and they must be able to produce better at the Superdome than last year’s team, which went 3-5 at home. They still have a great play caller in Coach Sean Payton, an elite quarterback in Drew Brees, and a speedy young receiver in Brandin Cooks, who could be the NFC’s version of the Colts’ T.Y. Hilton.

They’re doomed: The New Orleans defense is uninspired and didn’t pick up a sack in its first two exhibition games. The Saints parted ways with linebacker Junior Galette a year after giving him a big contract, and he was their best pass rusher. The mystique is gone from the Superdome, and there’s no telling when it will return.

Now hear this: “The worst call they’ve ever made. It was a terrible call to kick me when I’m down.” — Galette, to the New Orleans Times Picayune, on the Saints’ cutting him



2014 | 7-8-1, 1st in South

Last year in playoffs | 2014

Going all the way: The Panthers are riding a high after reaching the playoffs in back-to-back seasons for the first time in club history. They’re also the first team in NFC South history to win the division in consecutive years. They have a quarterback with a unique skill set in Cam Newton, and a playoff-caliber defense led by star linebacker Luke Kuechly.

They’re doomed: Having lost 6-foot-6 receiver Kelvin Benjamin to a knee injury is devastating to Carolina, which has no one to step in and fill that void. If there’s an element that’s missing from Carolina’s defense, it’s a strong pass rush. The team didn’t do much to address losing defensive end Greg Hardy, who had 15 sacks two years ago, was suspended last season, and is now in Dallas. Michael Oher, coming off a bad year in Tennessee, is a question mark at left tackle.

Now hear this: “We think he’ll take us to the promised land.” — General Manager Dave Gettleman on Newton



2014 | 6-10, 3rd in South

Last year in playoffs | 2012

Going all the way: The Falcons were in the hunt for a division title down to the final game, when they collapsed against Carolina, and Mike Smith was fired as head coach. With Matt Ryan at quarterback, and Julio Jones and Roddy White at receiver, Atlanta should be able to put a lot of points on the board. New Coach Dan Quinn is excited, too, about rookie defensive end Vic Beasley breathing life into the pass rush.

They’re doomed: The Falcons have had issues for years on both their offensive and defensive lines, and those don’t get solved overnight. White turns 34 this fall and is showing his age. He also had minor elbow surgery in late August.

Now hear this: “Speed. I watched him the other night … and said to myself, ‘Holy crap. That’s not a defensive end.’ And I just watched him run during special teams. It was like, ‘Are you kidding me?’ So, I like what I see.” — Falcons owner Arthur Blank, to ESPN, on Beasley



2014 | 2-14, 4th in South

Last year in playoffs | 2007

Going all the way: Despite last season’s failures, the Buccaneers have one of the best young collection of linebackers and interior defensive linemen. Linebacker Lavonte David and defensive tackle Gerald McCoy are the cornerstones. Coach Lovie Smith has always done a good job of building defenses that force turnovers.

They’re doomed: No. 1 pick Jameis Winston might be the club’s first franchise quarterback since Vinny Testaverde, but he’ll be playing behind a line that’s heavily under construction. Tampa Bay will start rookies at left tackle and right guard, and right tackle Demar Dotson, the steadiest lineman last season, is nursing a knee sprain and is expected to miss time.

Now hear this: “I’ve only been around two other quarterbacks. I played with one who was really good. He reminds me of a very young version of him.” — Buccaneers center Evan Smith, to Yahoo Sports, comparing Winston and Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers




2014 | 12-4, 1st in East

Last year in playoffs | 2014

Going all the way: The Cowboys defense looked better last season, but mostly because it wasn’t on the field as long thanks to Dallas’ ball-control offense. This year, the defense is legit, especially with the additions of ends Greg Hardy and Randy Gregory. Plus, linebacker Sean Lee is back.

They’re doomed: So much of the team’s success last season was because of the running of DeMarco Murray, now playing for Philadelphia. As outstanding as their offensive line is, the Cowboys need someone to step up and pick up the running-game slack. Their three-headed running attack of Joseph Randle, Darren McFadden, and Lance Dunbar is promising but no guaranteed smash.

Now hear this: Randle “has the potential to be the kind of back that would step in there and be your No. 1 back. If he were not here, then I wouldn’t feel as good as we go into the season and what might happen.” — Cowboys owner Jerry Jones



2014 | 10-6, 2nd in East

Last year in playoffs | 2013

Going all the way: Even though his team is coming off consecutive 10-victory seasons, Coach Chip Kelly isn’t satisfied. The Eagles have made major changes in hopes of breaking through to the elite level, trading for quarterback Sam Bradford and adding running back DeMarco Murray, two guards, linebacker Kiko Alonso, and three defensive backs.

They’re doomed: So many changes, so much risk. Kelly’s roster shake-up could easily backfire. There could be as many as a dozen new starters. Bradford has looked sharp this summer, but his ability to stay healthy always has been an issue. The No. 1 overall pick in 2010 has suffered season-ending knee injuries in consecutive years.

Now hear this: “The changes in the off-season sent us in the right direction. We’ve got our defense sound, we’ve got our offense sound. We’ve got the pieces of the puzzle connecting, and now it’s just time to go out there and execute on the field.” — Offensive tackle Lane Johnson



2014 | 6-10, 3rd in East

Last year in playoffs | 2011

Going all the way: Eli Manning is in the second year of the modified West Coast offense, and he should be even more comfortable running it. The Giants have addressed some of the offensive-line issues that plagued them last season, though the capability of the line is very much in question. The team added versatile running back Shane Vereen, who should be a good pressure valve for Manning as a running/receiving threat.

They’re doomed: New York’s defense is under construction. Steve Spagnuolo is back as coordinator, but now he’s got to get a young crew up to speed quickly. The Giants are particularly vulnerable at safety.

Now hear this: “Just the type of players we have on this side of the ball, if we can protect Eli, give us time to get open downfield, there’s not really a coverage you can put out there to stop us.” — Receiver Rueben Randle on the passing game, to the New York Daily News



2014 | 4-12, 4th in East

Last year in playoffs | 2012

Going all the way: The Redskins did a solid job of bolstering their roster in the draft and free agency, upgrading their offensive line with first-round pick Brandon Scherff, and bulking up on the defensive front with tackles Stephen Paea and Terrance Knighton. Safety Dashon Goldson should bring toughness to a secondary that was abysmal last season.

They’re doomed: No surprise here — the Redskins need to fix the quarterback position, and the fix turned out to be Kirk Cousins. He was named the starter ahead of Robert Griffin III, and Coach Jay Gruden said that decision had nothing to do with RGIII’s concussion issues during the preseason. Unfortunately for the less mobile Cousins, he will be taking over behind a porous offensive line. Colt McCoy is the other quarterback.

Now hear this: “Really, this is about Kirk doing an excellent job and winning the job. Robert is disappointed, as I’m sure Colt is disappointed.” — Gruden

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