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Preview: New faces should spice up NFC


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http://www.redskins.com/story.asp?ContentID=11761

Preview: New faces should spice up NFC

By Gil Brandt

Special to NFL.com

Brandt: AFC title will be up for grabs

(July 11, 2003) -- The NFC was a little more clear-cut than the AFC last season, but with all the improvements most of the losing teams made, this conference could be every bit as competitive.

And not all of the moves were made on the personnnel side. Bill Parcells and Steve Mariucci will look to turn around their new teams while Dennis Erickson will be responsible for maintaining consistency in San Francisco.

Defending Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay could have a tough time repeating in its own division, but the NFC East could be just as tough from top to bottom, especially if all of Washington's offseason moves pan out.

NFC East

Dallas Cowboys: The Cowboys have won only 15 games over the past three seasons, but they should be better under new head coach Bill Parcells. The Cowboys have two big questions on offense: Who will start at quarterback and who will be their running back? Chad Hutchinson and Quincy Carter will vie for the QB spot, while Michael Wiley will challenge Troy Hambrick to start at running back. The team's defense and kicking game will be better. The Cowboys will open against Atlanta and play both New York teams on the road. This team will be improved, but it's not clear how many more games it will win.

New York Giants: They were one deep snap away from reaching the divisional round as a wild card. They need to replace the right side of the offensive line (Jason Whittle and Mike Rosenthal). Kerry Collins was the only NFC player to pass for over 4,000 yards. New York's offense ranked sixth in the NFL last year, and the defense -- which will return practically its entire starting lineup -- was ranked No. 9.

Philadelphia Eagles: When the Eagles play in their new stadium this fall, they will be without two outstanding starters -- Hugh Douglas and Shawn Barber -- who helped solidify the fourth-ranked defense in the league. Both were lost during the offseason and will be difficult to replace. On offense, the team will be lacking a big-time receiver.

Washington Redskins: Patrick Ramsey is key to what this team will do. He missed most of training camp in 2002, but played well in spots. The Redskins, who signed 15 free agents during the offseason, made team speed a priority and picked up former Jets WR Laveranues Coles and Rams RB Trung Canidate. Offensively, the team (ranked 20th in the 2002) should be better if Ramsey comes through. [\b]

NFC North

Green Bay Packers: Everything comes up 12 in Green Bay -- 12 victories in 2002, 12th overall on offense, 12th overall on defense, and last year was No. 4's 12th season. Green Bay starters missed 58 games last year. Joe Johnson, Chad Clifton and Mark Tauscher, who missed 31 of the 58, should be back healthy. The Packers still are almost unbeatable at home, but the window is closing on this team; they need to win this year. They need to create turnovers like they did last year (tied for first in NFL with 17).

Minnesota Vikings: This team did a very good job of upgrading its 26th-ranked defense, which gave up 442 points last season. The overall offense was No. 2 in the league; the rushing game was No. 1. Michael Bennett -- whose left foot is slow to heal from an offseason injury -- and Randy Moss are very good, but they'll need a better year from Daunte Culpepper. New defensive coordinator George O'Leary should help.

Chicago Bears: Remember, they played 16 road games in 2002. They will open with two more away games before returning home against Green Bay in a Monday night game at newly remodeled Soldier Field. Kordell Stewart will help, but Anthony Thomas needs to play like he did in 2001 if the Bears are to have a winning season. The Bears placed 11 players on injured reserve in 2002, and they went from 13-3 to 4-12.

Detroit Lions: New coach Steve Mariucci, along with Charlie Rogers and Joey Harrington, should help the 29th-ranked offense in 2002. The offensive line allowed only 20 sacks last year, 46 fewer than in 2001. The defensive speed on this team is not good; the Lions will have a hard time covering fast receivers. The team has lost 16 consecutive road games. Mariucci is a great hire, but Harrington needs to improve -- and will.

NFC South

Tampa Bay Buccaneers: In order to repeat as Super Bowl champions, you need a Hall of Fame quarterback. Troy Aikman, John Elway, Joe Montana. Brad Johnson is the key for this team, which ranked 24th on offense last year. The trade for Thomas Jones from Arizona could help the running game. The No. 1-ranked defense lost two starters to free agency. Jon Gruden, Monte Kiffin and Bill Muir do a great job as coaches.

Atlanta Falcons: The question is: Will Michael Vick take the next step at quarterback? The trade for Peerless Price will help the 23rd-ranked pass offense, and opposing defenses must respect Vick's playmaking abilities. The signing of three defensive backs should help the 19th-ranked defense. This is a well-coached team on offense and defense, and it has a chance to win the NFC championship. The Falcons will be tough at home in the sold-out Georgia Dome, and won't lose three games there like they did in 2002.

Aaron Brooks and the Saints beat the Buccaneers twice last season but stumbled down the stretch.

New Orleans Saints: They lost to four teams with losing records (Carolina, Cincinnati, Detroit, and Minnesota) in 2002 and failed to make playoffs, even though they beat the Super Bowl champions twice. The Saints have worked to improve their 27th-ranked defense with trades, free agency and draft choices. They have big-play people (Joe Horn, Deuce McAllister, Donte' Stallworth) on offense, and Michael Lewis is great kick returner. Aaron Brooks needs to play like he did in the first half last season.

Carolina Panthers: They had the No. 2-ranked defense in 2002 … and the 31st-ranked offense. The signing of free agents Stephen Davis and Jake Delhomme, plus the drafting of left tackle Jordan Gross, should help. John Fox did a great job in his first year as head coach. The team has a very good defensive line, which is very important.

(Note: I think Tampa Bay and Atlanta have a very good chance to reach the Super Bowl, with New Orleans not far behind.)

NFC West

St. Louis Rams: If Kurt Warner and Marshall Faulk stay healthy, and Orlando Pace reports on time, the Rams will be hard to stop. The offensive line is greatly improved. The defense was the problem in 2002 (almost 24 points per game), and they need to cut down on turnovers (19 in 2002). This team can be a Super Bowl contender or not make the playoffs.

Seattle Seahawks: They played well in the final three games of 2002. The offense scored 30, 30 and 31 points in those games. Matt Hasselbeck finished the season strong with 17 TD passes and six INTs. Pro Bowl tackle Walter Jones is the key for having a good offensive team. Chike Okeafor was signed to help the pass rush (only 28 sacks last season). Rookie Marcus Trufant, veteran Norman Hand and new defensive coordinator Ray Rhodes should help a unit that was ranked 28th last season. Twenty-one of 22 starters will return.

San Francisco 49ers: New coach Dennis Erickson has to take the 49ers to the next step. He has a very good offensive mind. This team will score points (367 in 2002). The key on offense is a big year by Tai Streets, keeping Terrell Owens happy and the running of Kevan Barlow. The defense must improve against the pass. This is a hard team to predict.

Arizona Cardinals: You have to love Dave McGinnis for his upbeat attitude. He is a very good defensive coach who started last season 4-2. Arizona lost Jake Plummer and David Boston to free agency and traded Thomas Jones. The Cards signed all-time rushing leader Emmitt Smith, who has a chance to have a good season in part due to a good (when healthy) offensive line. The team ended up 27th on offense and 29th on defense in the 2002 league rankings.

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