Gerry Dulac previews the NFC

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One of the Post-Gazette's veteran pro football writers breaks down the four divisions in the NFC for 2013 with his predicted order of finish.

NFC EAST

1 Washington REDSKINS

2012 record: 10-7 • Coach: Mike Shanahan, 4th season

Key players: QB Robert Griffin III, RB Alfred Morris, WR Pierre Garcon, WR Santana Moss, T Trent Williams, LB Ryan Kerrington, MLB London Fletcher, LB Brian Orakpo

What's different: The Redskins won their first NFC East title in 13 years last season mainly because of Griffin, who has helped revolutionize the game with his athletic style. But Griffin did not play in the preseason while recovering from ACL surgery and has often clashed with his coach. The defense finished 30th in the league against the pass last season, which is why they drafted rookies S Bacarri Rambo and CB David Amerson. The return of Orakpo will help.

The skinny: Griffin is the most exciting player to come into the league in years and was the NFL's offensive rookie of the year. But he is coming off a devastating knee injury and his recovery won't be evaluated until he finally plays. The Redskins should be able to put a lot of points on the board, but their defense will have a tough time preventing them.

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2 New York GIANTS

2012 record: 9-7 • Coach: Tom Coughlin, 10th season

Key players: QB Eli Manning, WR Victor Cruz, WR Hakeem Nicks, RB David Wilson, DE Jason Pierre Paul, DE Mathias Kiwanuka, DT Cullen Jenkins.

What's different: Suddenly, the Giants don't seem as fearsome up front, especially if Pierre-Paul doesn't recover from back surgery. The defense ranked 31st in the league last season and defensive coordinator Perry Fewell needs to find answers. They are hoping that the addition of Dan Connor will strengthen the linebackers, but the secondary remains too vulnerable in what is a passing league, especially with an injury to S Stevie Brown.

The skinny: Another second-half swoon saw the Giants miss the postseason for third time in four years. But the NFL is a quarterbacks league, and the Giants have one of the best in Manning, a two-time Super Bowl winner who plays his best in the biggest games. He will be asked to do a lot with Cruz and Nicks if the Giants want to play the Super Bowl in their backyard.

3 Dallas COWBOYS

2012 record: 8-8 • Coach: Jason Garrett, 3rd season

Key players: QB Tony Romo, WR Dez Bryant, WR Miles Austin, RB DeMarco Murray, TE Jason Witten, OLB DeMarcus Ware, ILB Sean Lee.

What's different: The defense is switching back to a 4-3 front under new coordinator Monte Kiffin, and how that affects Ware, a Pro Bowler as a rush LB in a 3-4, remains to be seen. Offensively, protecting Romo will be unpredictable after the Cowboys lost six different guards in training camp. But he has reliable targets if he gets time, especially Witten, who caught a career-best 110 passes last season.

The skinny: Romo received the richest contract in franchise history (six years, $108 million)and needs to prove he is worth the investment. The Cowboys haven't been in the playoffs for the past three seasons and it is time for Romo to go on an extended postseason run. Of course, the Cowboys might not even get out of their own division, one of the league's toughest.

4 Philadelphia EAGLES

2012 record: 4-12 • Coach: Chip Kelly, 1st season

Key players: QB Michael Vick, RB LeSean McCoy, WR DeSean McCoy, LB Connor Barwin, LB Trent Cole, DT Fletcher Cox

What's different: Andy Reid took the Eagles to five NFC championship games and one Super Bowl in his tenure with the Eagles, but he is gone and Chip Kelly was brought in to inject new life and a new philosophy into the franchise. His up-tempo style should be a good fit for the Eagles, but it remains to be seen how well QB Michael Vick operates in the system. The defense is switching to a 3-4, but the secondary sustained big losses in CBs Nnamdo Asomugha and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie.

The skinny: If nothing else, the Eagles should be exciting, at least offensively. They have playmakers in Vick, McCoy, and Jackson who should thrive in Kelly's system, but the loss of WR Jeremy Maclin will hurt. The Eagles are a long-shot for the playoffs and are probably destined for the bottom of the division. But they will be worth watching.

NFC NORTH

1 Green Bay PACKERS

2012 record: 12-6 • Coach: Mike McCarthy, 8th season

Key players: QB Aaron Rodgers, TE Jermichael Finley, WR James Jones, WR Jordy Nelson, RB Eddie Lacy, NT B.J. Raji, OLB Clay Matthews.

What's different: The Packers have decided that Rodgers can't do it alone so they drafted a pair of running backs -- Eddie Lacy and Johnathan Franklin -- to ease the offensive burden. Rodgers lost one of his favorite targets in WR Greg Jennings and long-time star Charles Woodson is gone from the defense. He also lost to injury LT Bryan Bulaga from an offensive line that allowed him to be sacked 51 times last season.

The skinny: Keeping Rodgers upright and his right shoulder healthy are the most important ingredients if the team wants to win a third consecutive division title. The addition of Lacy, if he stays healthy, should help the running game. But, defensive coordinator Dom Capers has to come up with some solutions for a defense that was shredded by the 49ers in last year's postseason. Otherwise, the Pack might not make it past the divisional playoff round again.

2 Chicago BEARS

2012 record: 10-6 • Coach: Marc Trestman, 1st season

Key players: QB Jay Cutler, RB Matt Forte, WR Brandon Marshall, KR/PR Devin Hester, TE Martellus Bennett, DE Julius Peppers, CB Charles Tillman, LB Lance Briggs.

What's different: The Bears are hoping the biggest difference is Trestman, who came from the Canadian Football League's Montreal Alouettes for the sole purpose of getting Cutler to play to his awesome potential. The defense will be without long-time ILB Brian Urlacher, who retired; and some of its core players such as Peppers, Briggs and Tillman are getting older.

The skinny: If Trestman is the quarterback guru everyone says he is, he just might turn the Bears into a reliable offense and Cutler into a more dependable quarterback. Cutler is entering the final year of his contract and might be just the guy who can do what Joe Flacco did last year in the final year of his contract. If the Bears can come up with an offense to match their defense and special teams, they could be very good.

3 Minnesota VIKINGS

2012 record: 10-7 • Coach: Leslie Frazier, 3rd season

Key players: RB Adrian Peterson, QB Christian Ponder, WR Greg Jennings, TE Kyle Rudolph, T Matt Kalil, DE Jared Allen, DT Shariff Floyd, LB Chad Greenway

What's different: The Vikings lost WR Percy Harvin in the offseason, but they have more than made up for his departure by signing Jennings from the Packers and drafting WR Cordarrelle Patterson out of Tennessee. That should give Ponder more options in the passing game when teams gang up to stop RB Adrian Peterson, who is coming off a 2,000-yard rushing season.

The skinny: The Vkings exceeded projections last year by winning seven more games than they did a year earlier and gaining a wild-card spot, and the big reason was Peterson, who won the NFL's MVP award. Ponder, though, remains unproven and needs to show he can elevate the Vikings to a playoff level. But the NFC North is one of the most balanced visions and the Vikings could finish anywhere from second to fourth.

4 Detroit LIONS

2012 record: 4-12 • Coach: Jim Schwartz, 5th season

Key players: QB Matthew Stafford, WR Calvin Johnson, DT Ndamukong Sug, DT Nick Fairley, RB Reggie Bush, DE Ziggy Ansah, TE Brandon Pettigrew

What's different: The Lions have re-tooled their defensive line and made it one of the best in the league by adding rookie DE Ziggy Ansah to a unit that already features Suh and Fairley. But is that enough to help stop the fall in which the Lions went from a playoff team in 2011 to a four-win team in 2012? The Lions finished 20th in sacks last season and were 16th against the run. The addition of RB Reggie Bush will give Stafford a versatile run/receiving threat and an option other than Johnson, the league's best receiver.

The skinny: The Lions have loads of talent and the addition of Bush should help the offense. But Schwartz is on a short leash entering his fifth year as coach. After showing so much promise in 2011 when they made the playoffs, the Lions lost a lot of close games and fell on their collective faces last season.

NFC SOUTH

1 Atlanta FALCONS

2012 record: 13-3 • Coach: Mike Smith, 6th season

Key Players: QB Matt Ryan, RB Michael Turner, WR Roddy White, WR Julio Jones, TE Tony Gonzalez.

What's different: Not content with a division-winning team that went 13-3, the Falcons added RB Steven Jackson and DE Osi Umenyiora to their roster -- moves that could push them closer to the Super Bowl. That's why Gonzalez put off retirement for one more year. The Falcons came up 10 yards short of the Super Bowl last season in their NFC title game loss to the 49ers. But, to get there, they will need to improve their defense, which isn't as talented as their offense.

The skinny: The Falcons have been consistent winners under Smith and GM Thomas Dimitroff the past five seasons, going 56-24 in the regular season with four playoff appearances and two NFC South titles. There is plenty of explosve talent on offense with Ryan, White, Jones and Gonzalez, and Jackson makes them even better. Even if the defense doesn't hold, the Falcons can outscore any team they play. But it's Super Bowl or bust for them.

2 New Orleans SAINTS

2012 record: 7-9 • Coach: Sean Payton, 8th season

Key players: QB Drew Brees, WR Marques Colston, TE Jimmie Graham, RB Darren Sproles, RB Mark Ingram, LB Jonathan Vilma, CB Keenan Lewis.

What's different: Sean Payton is back after serving a one-year ban for his involvement in Bountygate. The Saints allowed a single-season record 7,012 yards last season, and the 454 points they surrendered were more than all but one NFL team. So Rob Ryan was brought in to fix the defense, especially the secondary, where former Steelers CB Keenan Lewis was signed in free agency and Texas S Kenny Vaccaro was a priority in the draft.

The skinny: Payton's return from suspension has generated excitement and optimism within the franchise because his ability to work with Brees and call the plays was sorely missed in 2012. Beating out Atlanta for the division title might be a tough task, but, with Payton's return, the Saints should make it back to the postseason for the fourth time in five years.

3 Tampa Bay BUCCANEERS

2012 record: 7-9 • Coach: Greg Schiano, 2nd season

Key players: QB Josh Freeman, RB Doug Martin, WR Vincent Jackson, WR Kevin Ogletree, DE Gerald McCoy, CB Darrelle Revis, S Dashon Goldson.

What's different: The Buccaneers have missed the postseason the past five years and don't have a playoff victory since winning the Super Bowl 11 seasons ago. Schiano is trying to change the performance of a defense that couldn't stop the pass in 2012 -- not a good thing in division that features QBs Matt Ryan, Drew Brees and Cam Newton. And he is doing it by bringing in players who he feels better fit his style of play.

The skinny: They need a big season from the inconsistent Freeman, who is in a contract year and didn't play to the level he showed in 2010. They have a budding star in Martin, a deep threat in Jackson, and have bolstered a porous secondary that ranked last in the league in 2012 with the addition of Revis and Goldson. But that is probably not enough to challenge the Falcons and Saints.

4 Carolina PANTHERS

2012 record: 7-9 • Coach: Ron Rivera, 3rd season

Key players: CB Cam Newton, RB DeAngelo Williams, RB Jonathan Stewart, WR/PR Ted Ginn Jr., WR Steve Smith, T Jordan Gross, MLB Luke Kuechly, LB Jon Beason

What's different: The Panthers surged at the end of last season, winning five of their final six games, with three of those victories coming on the road. But they need to find a way to get their two talented running backs -- Williams and Stewart -- involved more in the offense. Newton rushed for a team-high 741 yards last season, but not what the Panthers need when they have backs such as Williams and Stewart. Newton has a new offensive coordinator this season -- Mike Shula, who replaces Ron Chudzinski.

The skinny: The Panthers have enough talent to be a playoff team, but they need to get off to a quick start after beginning the past two seasons 1-5 and 1-6 -- Rivera's first two seasons. It doesn't help they have the toughest schedule in league and play in the competitive NFC South.

NFC WEST

1 San Francisco 49ERS

2012 record: 11-4-1 • Coach: Jim Harbaugh, 3rd season

Key players: QB Colin Kaepernick, RB Frank Gore, RB LaMichael James, WR Austin Collie, TE Vernon Davis, G Mike Iupati, LB Patrick Willis, LB Navorro Bowman, DE Aldon Smith

What's different: Already loaded with talent, the 49ers added players such as WRs Anquan Boldin and WR Jonathan Baldwin, K Phil Dawson and CB Nnamdi Asomugha in the offseason. They will need Boldin and Baldwin to help make up for the injury loss of WR Michael Crabtree. But history has not been kind to teams coming off Super Bowl losses. Only two teams have won the Super Bowl a year after losing it, and that was Dallas and Miami in 1971 and '72, respectively.

The skinny: The 49ers have everything -- a stifling defense, a sturdy running game, a revolutionary quarterback and an energetic coach. Getting out of their own division will be tough because of Seattle and the improving Rams, whom they never beat last year. But this is a Super Bowl winner waiting to happen.

2 Seattle SEAHAWKS

2012 record: 11-5 • Coach: Pete Carroll, 3rd season

Key players: QB Russell Wilson, RB Marshawn Lynch, WR Percy Harvin, DE Chris Clemons, LB Bruce Irwin, CB Richard Sherman, S Earl Thomas.

What's different: Losing new WR Percy Harvin hurts -- he had hip surgery and isn't expected back before November -- but Seattle is settled just about everywhere else with Wilson, Lynch and the league's best secondary featuring All-Pros Thomas and Sherman. But a lot depends on the recovery of Clemons (11 or more sacks in each of the past three seasons) from ACL surgery. Also, Irvin will miss the first four games because of suspension for using a banned substance.

The skinny: The Seahawks won seven of their final eight regular-season games, won a playoff game at Washington and nearly won in Atlanta. They have loads of talent, can play defense and are very capable of beating out the 49ers for the division title. This might be the best 1-2 punch in any division.

3 St. Louis RAMS

2012 record: 7-8-1 • Coach: Jeff Fisher, 2nd season

Key Players: QB Sam Bradford, WR Tavon Austin, WR Steadman Bailey, OT Jake Long, TE Jared Cook, DE Chris Long, DE Robert Quinn, OLB Jo-Lonn Dunbar,

What's different: The Rams lost two of their top offensive playmakers in WR Danny Amendola and RB Steven Jackson. But they added maybe the most explosive player in the draft, WR Tavon Austin, and TE Jared Cook. Former No. 1 overall pick OT Jake Long was signed in free agency to help protect Bradford, another former No. 1 overall pick.

The skinny: Keep an eye on the Rams. They have young explosive talent with Bradford, Austin, Bailey and Cook and are good enough to have gone 1-0-1 last season with the 49ers. Fisher came up with seven victories in his first season after five years in which the Rams totaled 15 -- fewest in NFL history. Problem is, they have the 49ers and Seahawks ahead of them.

4 Arizona CARDINALS

2012 record: 5-11 • Coach: Bruce Arians, 1st season

Key players: QB Carson Palmer, RB Rashard Mendenhall, WR Larry Fitzgerald, WR Malcolm Floyd, T Eric Winston, DE Calais Campbell, DT Darnell Dockett, ILB Karlos Dansby, CB Patrick Peterson

What's different: At age 60, Arians finally gets his chance to be an NFL head coach -- one year after serving on an interim basis and leading the Colts to a 9-3 record and winning coach of the year honors. Arians will hope to get some of the same kind of performance out of Palmer that he did with Peyton Manning, Ben Roethlisberger and Andrew Luck. He also needs to get Mendenhall to play as he did when he had him with the Steelers.

The skinny: The Cardinals won their first four games last season, then lost 11 of the next 12 to force the firing of Ken Whisenhunt. They have premier talent with Fitzgerald and Peterson, and are slowly trying to rebuild a woeful offensive line. But it didn't help when G Jonathan Cooper, their first-round pick, broke his leg. That could prove to be a problem for Palmer, who is not mobile and playing in defense-oriented division.

Projected finish: 4th

Steelers


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