Our rockin' (sort of) NFC predictions
Cold, Hard Football Facts for Sep 03, 2008
We made our AFC predictions yesterday by looking through our political prism of pigskin. Today we tackle the NFL's senior circuit with the musical romp through rock 'n roll history.
NFC East – "Glory Days"
The NFC East is back on top of the NFL and it's impossible to argue otherwise. The division, of course, boasts four old-school teams in four major media markets. It's always going to be in the pigskin public's eye. But then consider the performances in 2007:
Dallas tied a franchise record for victories (13), garnered the NFC's No. 1 playoff seed, appeared on TV coast to coast almost every single week, and regained its status as "America's Team."
Philly brought up the bottom of the division – but with an 8-8 record. If the Eagles played in the pathetic NFC South or NFC West, they might have carried the division. Now the team that dominated the NFC for the first few years of the 21st century boasts a great quarterback back at full strength.
Even the so-so Redskins reached the playoffs, sending Joe Gibbs off into the sunset with a final postseason appearance – albeit a short one.
And, of course, the Giants entered the playoffs with a 10-6 record and as the senior circuit's No. 5 seed, yet concluded their postseason run with the biggest upset in NFL history.
Not a bad year for the NFL's Glory Division.
Its status is confirmed. But one question remains: which of these traditional powers are going to shake out on top over the next 17 weeks?
We hate to follow the clichéd picks, but the answer is Dallas.
The Cowboys last year ranked in the top 10 in seven of our nine Quality Stats. The followed up that performance with a fairly solid off-season in which – as our Fillability Index proved last month – they plugged the few statistical holes they had in 2007.
And they did it without going recklessly overboard in the quest for talent, a la baseball's biggest front-office donkey, Brian Cashman. They Cowboys boasted just six draft picks this year, and added only two key free agents.
This is a team that knew it was good last year, and just needed a few tweaks here and there. Losing RB Julius Jones, and replacing him with the potentially explosive Felix Jones (8.3 YPA last season as Darren McFadden's understudy in Arkansas), may even prove to be an upgrade at that position, too.
At the very least, the flee-footed runner should be a great complement to Marion Barber. Rumor has it that Barber visited Europe this summer, where he chased bulls through the streets of Pamplona, mauling and goring those that were too slow.
The surprise of the division? A healthy McNabb – he of the second lowest INT rate in NFL history – leads the Eagles back to respectability, and maybe a surprise run through the playoffs.
Dallas remains the class of the division, at least in the regular season. They've yet to show the same class in the past two postseasons, were they were bounced in humiliating fashion both times. Led by a media-darling quarterback who's now 0-2 in the playoffs, and a successful regular-season coach who's now 0-4 in the playoffs, the Cowboys are the new "team that can't win the big game" until evidence tells us otherwise.
Division champ: Dallas
NFC North – "The Times They Are A-Changin'"
Yes, the song choice is a tip of the cap to Black & Blow Division native Bob Dylan (Hibbing, Minnesota). But it's also symbolic of the state of the NFC North.
The Rex Grossman Experience has sold its last album in Chicago. Kyle Orton is now No. 1 with a bullet – or, more likely, with a series of wobbly ducks.
The Vikings are poised to return to return to the dominant days of the late 1960s and 1970s and have created so much excitement that there's been a run on fried cheese curd in Minnesota.
And, of course, the figure who lorded over the division for the past 16 years – Old What's-His-Name – has been shipped off to the gridiron hinterlands of New Jersey, where his legacy will die a slow, gruesome death in a strange, gruesome uniform.
Other than the fact that Detroit still sucks, it looks like a whole new ballgame in the NFC North.
The big question, of course, is who will emerge from this simmering stew of newness.
The "pundits" are betting on Minnesota, saying it's just a quarterback away from being competitive. That may be the case. After all, as only the Cold, Hard Football Facts have noted, the Vikings were just good running the ball and stopping the run last year – they were among the very best in the history of the game at both.
So the belief that they're just a decent season from Tarvaris Jackson away from being a contender is perfectly valid.
But the same can be said of the Packers. Don't forget, Green Bay, like Minnesota, has an unproven player at the helm this year.
The difference, of course, is that – even if we ignore quarterback play and the passing game – the Packers were more solid in almost all phases of the game last year than the Vikings.
The Packers should be better all around this year, too, than the Vikings. In a league in which an unproven quarterback will have to make a statement, we're rolling the dice on the guy with the best supporting cast.
Division champ: Green Bay
NFC South – "With or Without You"
If there's one division that NFL that could disappear between now and Sunday without causing a ripple in the Football Force, it's the NFC South.
Think of it as the anti-NFC East: a division of mostly small-market teams with limited histories of success, and in which the oldest franchise (Atlanta) wasn't founded until the dawn of the Super Bowl Era (1966).
And while the NFC East matched its historic success with recent success last year, the NFC South matched its historic lack of success with a lack of success last season. Only one team, Tampa, boasted a winning record (9-7), and the Bucs were quickly bounced from contention with a home playoff loss in the wildcard round. Even that playoff game was indicative of the division's anonymity: it was the first time all year the NFC South champs appeared on national television.
Compare that to the NFC East, where the 2007 champs are known as America's Team and appear on TV coast to coast virtually every single week.
It gets worse: Tampa boasted the NFC's best defense last year. But not one of its anonymous players made the Pro Bowl. The inferior defense of the highly visible Cowboys sent four defenders to last season's Pro Bowl.
At the end of the day, the division race comes down to one of two flawed teams: the strong defense/punchless offense of the Bucs, or the star-studded offense/sieve-like defense of the Saints.
Neither present much of a threat to the wider league that plays actual real NFL football.
But one team did a better job shoring up its team in the off-season and therefore has the inside track on the division title.
The Saints added former Jets tackling machine Jonathan Vilma at middle linebacker. They grabbed stud DT Sedrick Ellis with the seventh overall pick of the draft. The offensive roster, which disappointed last year, includes a gallery of talented playmakers and added this year Jeremy Shockey.
We'll be watching Shockey's performance last year. His stock in the eyes of the Cold, Hard Football Facts plummeted drastically when he went down with an injury and the Giants went on to win the Super Bowl with unheralded tight end Kevin Boss.
But Shockey brings a lot of talent and promise – much like the rest of the Saints offense. And like the rest of the Saints offense, if the performance lives up to the potential, this could be a very good team.
Carolina, meanwhile, has too many defensive holes to fill, as noted in our Fillability Index. There's hope for the new-look Falcons in the future ... just not the immediate future.
Division champ: New Orleans
NFC West – "Ain't That a Shame"
And by "Ain't That a Shame" we don't mean the boogie-woogie Fats Domino version or the rockin' 1970s Cheap Trick version. We're talking the lily-white, utterly forgettable, truly shameful Pat Boone version of "Ain't that a Shame."
Yes it is, Pat. Yes it is.
The NFC West is such a shame, that we're actually taking the historic step of pegging – excuse us while we remove the phlegm from keyboard – Arizona as the ... team to beat???
Considering the Cardinals have been the butt of countless CHFF jokes over the past few years, considering we named them the worst franchise in the history of the NFL earlier this year, considering the organization (not sure we mentioned this before) has won just two playoff games in 88 years of professional football – it is, well, shameful, to consider that they are in fact the best team in the division this year.
But the momentum started to build last year, believe it or not: Arizona won three games against Quality Opponents – quite a feat considering that the only team in the NFC last year with more Quality Wins was No. 1 playoff seed Dallas, and that the rest of the NFC West combined chalked up just two Quality Wins.
The momentum – or what passes for momentum among this itinerant Joad Family of a franchise – continued in the off-season. The Cardinals made a series of bold and, dare we say, even smart moves, at least by their lowly standards.
First, the Cardinals performed well on our Fillability Index, eschewing the typical Arizona-Detroit model of unsuccessfully stocking up on wide receivers, and instead grabbing a series of much-needed defensive players in free agency and in the draft.
Second, the Cardinals actually benched their highly-touted 2006 No. 1 draft pick of a quarterback in favor of the proven veteran who gives them the past chance to win. Seems like a no brainer, of course. But past Cardinals teams would have gone with the unproven bust.
The 49ers will be lucky to win five games again this year under the guidance of J.T. O'Sullivan, he of the "seven teams in seven years and 26 career pass attempts" O'Sullivans. St. Louis was an overflowing Mississippi River-sized flood of a statistical disaster last year and may have less hope than the 49ers.
And even the perennial division champs from Seattle look to be on a downward trend: they did little to nothing this year to shore up their statistical weaknesses, following a year in which they clung to the division crown with a 10-6 record, but were then destroyed by the Packers in the divisional playoffs, despite taking an early 14-0 lead.
The Cardinals might only win seven games this year, making it a downright successful season by their standards. But they will walk away with the division crown.
Division champ: Arizona
CONFERENCE CHAMPION: Philadelphia
We don't normally play the whole "hunch" thing, though this pick clearly has the feel and appearance of a hunch. And if it looks like a hunch, and sounds like a hunch, then it must be a hunch.
But there is some statistical merit to the argument.
The Eagles entered the 2007 season with a wounded wing in the form of their veteran quarterback Donovan McNabb. They muscled their way through an 8-8 season, in what we know now was the best division in football last year. They fared fairly well in many of our Quality Stats last year, and even finished +36 in scoring differential, which was greater than the scoring differential of two of the division's three playoff contenders. The Redskins were a mere +24 last year, and the Super Bowl champ Giants were a mere +22 (lowest ever by a Super Bowl champ).
Of course, that entire differential in Philly can be attributed to a single game: a 56-21 win over the Lions early in the year.
With that said, Philly has been the most consistently competitive team in the NFC this decade. It would be no surprise for them to go 4-2 against the division, which should be good enough to propel them into a wildcard spot. And from there, well, we've seen in 2005 and 2007 that wildcard teams can make a Super Bowl-winning run.
SUPER BOWL XLIII: Eagles over Patriots
Andy Reid and the entire City of Brotherly Prison Shanking get revenge for the 3-point defeat in February 2005. McNabb hangs on to his lunch this time and leads the Eagles to three fourth-quarter TDs, as the New England defense collapses in historic fashion for the third straight season in the biggest game of the year.
Call it a hunch.
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