Gerry Dulac's 2012 NFC Forecast

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(In order of predicted finish)

NFC EAST

1. New York Giants

2011 record: 9-7

Coach: Tom Coughlin, 9th season.

Key players: QB Eli Manning, RB Ahmad Bradshaw, WR Victor Cruz, WR Hakeem Nicks, DE Jason Pierre Paul, DT Justin Tuck, DE Osi Umenyiora, LB Mathias Kiwanuka.

What's different: Despite doing a good job of protecting Manning, the offensive line will need to improve after having the league's worst running game in 2011. The loss of T Kareem McKenzie and RB Brandon Jacobs will not help. Manning, the most-accurate passer in the league, lost one of his top receivers, Mario Manningham.

The skinny: A lot of people thought the Giants got hot at the right time and were lucky to win their second Super Bowl in the past five years. But they're not lucky; they're good. If Manning stays healthy -- he never missed a game in eight years -- there's no reason the Giants shouldn't win the division and make another run to the Super Bowl.

2. Philadelphia Eagles

2011 record: 8-8

Coach: Andy Reid, 14th season.

Key players: QB Michael Vick, RB LeSean McCoy, WR DeSean Jackson, WR Jeremy Maclin, TE Brent Celek, LB DeMeco Ryans, DE/LB Trent Cole, DE Jason Babin, CB Nnamdi Asomugha.

What's different: The Eagles need to make sure they get off to a quick start, unlike last season when they began slowly with a roster of very expensive offseason acquisitions. They lost their best offensive lineman, T Jason Peters, and they've had to deal with the tragedy of the death of Reid's son, Garrett. They also have to try to keep Vick healthy.

The skinny: The Eagles have a nice mix of young players and veterans, plus an aggressive defense to pair with an explosive offense. But, after nine playoff appearances, five NFC titles games and just one Super Bowl appearance under Reid, anything short of the Super Bowl is a disappointment

3. Dallas Cowboys

2011 record: 8-8

Coach: Jason Garrett, 2nd season.

Key players: QB Tony Romo, RB Felix Jones, RB DeMarco Murray, WR Miles Austin, WR Dez Bryant, LB DeMarcus Ware, NT Jay Ratliff, LB Sean Lee.

What's different: The Cowboys tried to repair one of the worst secondaries in the league by drafting CB Morris Claiborne with the No. 1 pick and bringing in Brandon Carr in free agency. Romo is coming off one of his best seasons, but he needs to show he can win important late-season games.

The skinny: Jerry Jones talked about returning to the glory days of the franchise when the Cowboys won three Super Bowls in four years under his ownership. Since then, the Cowboys have one playoff victory in 15 years. The glory might have to wait.

4. Washington Redskins

2011 record: 5-11

Coach: Mike Shanahan, 3rd season.

Key players: QB Robert Griffin III, WR Pierre Garcon, LB London Fletcher, OLB Brian Orapko, OLB Ryan Kerrigan, S Brandon Meriweather, CB DeAngelo Hall.

What's different: The Redskins brought in Garcon to give RG3 some weapons for his first season, but that's about it. Offensive line was not upgraded, despite allowing an average of 40 sacks the past three years. And they don't have a running back who has gained more than 1,000 yards. The Redskins haven't been to the playoffs since '07.

The skinny: The Redskins have a solid defense with an aggressive front seven, but most of their success will depend on Griffin's learning curve. He does not have a solid cast around him, which means he will have to use his considerable talents to merely survive.

NFC NORTH

1. Detroit Lions

2011 record: 10-6

Coach: Jim Schwartz, 4th season.

Key players: QB Matthew Stafford, RB Jahvid Best, WR Calvin Jackson, TE Brandon Pettigrew, DT Ndamukong Suh,

What's different: Just four years after they went 0-16, the Lions are relevant again. They made the playoffs for the first time in 12 years last season and could challenge the Packers for the division title. While they have one of the best, if not the best, passing combo in the league with Stafford and Johnson, they have to find a running back to be their main threat. They haven't had a 1,000-yard rusher since'04.

The skinny: In addition to two games against the Packers and Bears, they also face the Falcons, Eagles, Texans and 49ers this season, meaning they must wade through a tough schedule to beat out the Packers. But they just might.

2. Green Bay Packers

2011 record: 15-1

Coach: Mike McCarthy, 7th season.

Key players: QB Aaron Rodgers, WR Greg Jennings, WR Donald Driver, WR Jordy Nelson, TE Jermichael Findley, OLB Clay Matthews, NT B.J. Raji, S Charles Woodson, CB Tramon Williams.

What's different: The Packers scored 63 touchdowns and outscored opponents by 201 points last season, and there is no reason to believe they won't do much the same this season. But their defense has to be better. There are weakness in the secondary, where Woodson has moved to safety. And someone other than Matthews has to pressure the quarterback, which is why they drafted USC's Nick Perry with the first pick.

The skinny: Certainly the Packers are capable of dominating the division again, especially with that offense. And it seems silly that they could finish second in the NFC North. But it also is very possible for them to return to the Super Bowl for the second time in the past three years.

3. Chicago Bears

2011 record: 8-8

Coach: Lovie Smith, 9th season.

Key players: QB Jay Cutler, RB Matt Forte, WR Brandon Marshall, WR Johnny Knox, WR/KR Devin Hester, DE Julius Peppers, MLB Brian Urlacher, CB Charles Tillman.

What's different: The biggest thing the Bears need to compete in the league's most difficult division is for Cutler to stay healthy. He has a new coordinator in Mike Tice, who replaces Mike Martz, which means less seven-step drops and fewer hits in the pocket from defensive linemen and blitzers. And he has been reunited with Marshall, his favorite receiver in Denver.

The skinny: In any other division, the Bears would be considered a title contender. They have a gunslinger quarterback, an all-purpose running back and an aggressive defense that can harass the passer and force turnovers But they're probably battling for a wild card.

4. Minnesota Vikings

2011 record: 3-13

Coach: Leslie Frazier, 2nd season.

Key players: QB Christian Ponder, RB Adrian Peterson, WR Percy Harvin, WR Jerome Simpson, DE Jared Allen, DT Kevin Williams, DE Brian Robison, CB Antoine Winfield.

What's different: After failed QB experiments with Brett Favre and Donovan McNabb, the Vikings are relying on Ponder to reshape their fortunes. Since the end of '11, the Vikings added 41 new players to their roster, including two No. 1 picks, LT Matt Kalil and S Harrison Smith, and Simpson.

The skinny: The Vikings are coming off their worst season in franchise history and are rebuilding with one of the youngest rosters in the league. Also, Peterson, the league's best back, is coming off ACL surgery. If there is a definite, it is that they will finish last in maybe the toughest division in the NFL.

NFC SOUTH

1. Atlanta Falcons

2011 record: 10-6

Coach: Mike Smith, 5th season

Key players: QB Matt Ryan, RB Michael Turner, WR Roddy White, WR Julio Jones, TE Tony Gonzalez, DE John Abraham, DE Ray Edwards, CB Asante Samuel, S Chris Hope.

What's different: Ryan is one of the best protected quarterbacks in the league -- just 26 sacks last year, 23 in '10 -- which is why he rarely is forced into mistakes. And he has a pair of game-breaking receivers with White and Jones. But the Falcons were one of the worst teams in the league in getting off the field on third down, a problem that plagued them in their playoff loss against the Giants and one reason they brought in Samuel and Hope.

The skinny: The Falcons won at least 10 games for the second year in a row for the first time in franchise history. And they are capable of doing it again with their passing game. With all the Saints' issues, they should win the division.

2. New Orleans Saints

2011 record: 13-3

Coach: Joe Vitt, 1st season.

Key players: QB Drew Brees, RB Darren Sproles, RB Pierre Tomas, WR Marques Colston, TE Jimmie Graham, DT Sedrick Ellis, S Roman Harper.

What's different: Bountygate has thrown the season into a state of disrepair and uncertainty, costing the Saints their head coach and best defensive player, among others. That will put a lot of pressure on Brees to be the player he was last season when he had the most-prolific season by a quarterback in NFL history, passing for a record 5,476 yards

The skinny: Losing their head coach for the season is unprecedented and puts the Saints in uncharted waters, especially after the impact Sean Payton has had on the franchise. They probably won't duplicate their 13-3 record last season, but they have the talent to win the division and, who knows, play in the Super Bowl in their own stadium.

3. Carolina Panthers

2011 record: 6-10

Coach: Ron Rivera, 2nd season.

Key players: QB Cam Newton, WR Steve Smith, WR Brandon LaFell, RB Jonathan Stewart, RB DeAngelo Williams, LB Jon Beason, LB Luke Kuechly.

What's different: Newton quickly dispelled any concern about him adapting to the pro game by having the most-prolific season by a rookie QB in NFL history -- throwing for more than 4,000 yards and accounting for 35 TDs. Now he has to do it the second time around. If not, the Panthers will be in real trouble. Especially because their defense was one of the worst in the league last season.

The skinny: Having one of the most exciting young players in the game is a plus for the franchise. And Newton certainly has the pieces around him for an explosive offense. But Kuechly, their No. 1 pick, needs to have same impact on the defense.

4. Tampa Bay Buccaneers

2011 record: 4-12

Coach: Greg Schiano, 1st season.

Key players: QB Josh Freeman, RB LaGarrett Blount, RB Doug Martin, WR Mike Williams, WR Vincent Jackson, G Carl Nicks, TE Dallas Clark, DE Gerald McCoy.

What's different: The Buccaneers are two years removed from a 10-win season, but they are starting over with Schiano, who has to prove he can transition from the college to professional game. And they have overhauled their roster after a mistake-prone and careless season. The Buccaneers are hoping free agents Nicks, Clark and Jackson will help Freeman.

The skinny: The Buccaneers are hoping to change their attitude and culture with Schiano, who is the complete opposite of Raheem Morris. He is strict, disciplined and detail-oriented and not afraid to get rid of veterans who don't buy into his way. That approach might take another year to set in.

NFC WEST

1. San Francisco 49ers

2011 record: 13-3

Coach: Jim Harbaugh, 2nd season.

Key players: QB Alex Smith, RB Frank Gore, WR Mario Manningham, WR Michael Crabtree, TE Vernon Davis, DE Aldon Smith, LB Patrick Willis.

What's different: The good news is, not much. The offense that outgunned the Saints in the NFC playoffs is intact and so is the defense that led the league against the run and was second in points allowed. Smith should be better after the way he performed in the postseason, especially after the 49ers added outside threats Randy Moss and Mario Manningham in the offseason. And they plan to get defensive rookie of the year Aldon Smith (14 sacks) on the field more.

The skinny: The turnaround with a rookie coach and a QB that nobody liked was astounding. The 49ers won't sneak up on anybody this year, and their schedule includes road games against the Packers, Patriots and Saints. But it is not foolish to think they could land in the Super Bowl.

2. St. Louis Rams

2011 record: 2-14

Coach: Jeff Fisher, 1st season.

Key players: QB Sam Bradford, RB Steven Jackson, WR Steve Smith, TE Lance Kendricks, C Scott Wells, DE Chris Long, DE Robert Quinn, MLB James Laurinaitis, CB Cortland Finnegan.

What's different: The Rams entered last season as one of the division favorites, and the reason was Bradford. Instead, they tied for the worst record in the league. That's the reason they brought in Fisher, their third head coach in seven years. He comes with a better pedigree than the franchise's previous two hires -- Scott Linehan and Steve Spagnuolo -- and will have an instant impact, especially on defense. And he brought in three players to help -- Finnegan, Wells and Smith.

The skinny: The Rams have won a league-low 15 games over the past four years, but they have a franchise quarterback in Bradford, a Pro Bowl running back in Jackson and enough young talent on defense to win eight games --which is more than half as many they've won since '07.

3. Arizona Cardinals

2011 record: 8-8

Coach: Ken Whisenhunt, 6th season.

Key players: QB Kevin Kolb, QB John Skelton, RB Beanie Wells, WR Larry Fitzgerald, DE Calais Campbell, DT Darnell Dockett, S Adrian Wilson, ILB Darryl Washington, CB/PR Patrick Peterson.

What's different: The Cardinals have not been able to settle on a quarterback since Kurt Warner retired, and that is the reason they have missed the playoffs each of the past two seasons. They are 13-19 since Warner retired after the '09 season. Arizona will begin the season with Skelton, who won a training-camp battle with Kolb and is nothing more than a game-managing QB. The Cardinals are hoping to ride the momentum of their finishing flurry, when they won five of their last six games with a much-improved defense,

The skinny: The decision to sign Kolb as an expensive free agent looks like a terrible one right now. If the Cardinals can't get the ball to Fitzgerald, one of the league's elite receivers, the best they can hope for is second place behind the 49ers. Adding WR Michael Floyd with the No. 1 pick will help.

4. Seattle Seahawks

2011 record: 7-9

Coach: Pete Carroll, 2nd season.

Key players: QB Russell Wilson, QB Matt Flynn, RB Marshawn Lynch, WR Sidney Rice, WR Golden Tate, WR Braylon Edwards, DE Chris Clemons, LB Bobby Wagner, SS Kam Chancellor, S Earl Thomas.

What's different: The Seahawks are not afraid to rebuild with youth. They reached with their No. 1 pick to take WVU's pass-rush specialist Bruce Irvin to improve their defense and elected to start the rookie Wilson over Flynn, Aaron Rodgers' backup in Green Bay. They are hoping their 5-3 record in the second half of last season will fuel a quick start this season.

The skinny: The Seahawks looked good in the preseason, going 4-0 and outscoring the opposition by a 122-44 margin. But Wilson will find the pace and level of play different in the regular season. Still, they can jump into the battle for second place in the division if their younger players come through.

dulacspicks


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