FF-Winners.Com’s 2017-8 NFC North Preview

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Over the past decade, the Green Bay Packers or the Minnesota Vikings have won the NFC North division nine times in 10 years. Given the way the division looks heading into the 2017 season, it would be very surprising if that trend didn’t extend to 10 times in 11 years.

Green Bay Packers

During the 2016 NFL season, the Green Packers not only went undefeated between the Monday after Thanksgiving weekend through the third week in January of 2017, but they beat opponents by an average of more than 12 points per game. But it all came to an end with a resounding thud, when the Atlanta Falcons ambushed the Packers in the NFC Championship game, storming out to a 31-0 lead at one point, and handing Green Bay a 44-21 defeat. But during that second-half-of-the-season run, Green Bay re-established themselves as one of the top contenders in the NFC, and they’ll look to build on that momentum during the 2017 season. Quarterback Aaron Rodgers is one of the early favorites for the Most Valuable Player award, and rightfully so. After leading the league in touchdown passes (40) and touchdown-to-interception ratio (almost 6-to-1), and finished 4th in total passing yards (4,428), he’ll get to throw to an even-better group of receivers this year, with Jordy Nelson another year removed from his season-ending ACL injury (in 2015), Randall Cobb coming into camp healthy after dealing with nagging injuries all of last year, and Davante Adams coming off a breakout season and looking as sharp as ever. On top of that, the Packers went out and acquired tight end Martellus Bennett, who could turn out to be one of the steals of free agency.

The question for the Packers will be if the defense can keep up its end of the bargain, having finished 22nd in total yards allowed last season, and a dismal 31st in passing yards allowed. Green Bay devoted their top two picks in the 2017 NFL Draft to the secondary, taking cornerback Kevin King and safety Josh Jones, and brought back cornerback Davon House to play the nickel spot. But losing safety Micah Hyde, one of the real leaders in the secondary, may prove to be a very difficult endeavor.

The Packers offense can score on nearly anyone in the NFL, but the question will be whether they can stop anyone from scoring on them.

Minnesota Vikings

This year’s Minnesota Vikings will feature the same storyline as last year’s Vikings — a game-managing quarterback, a dynamic running back, a patchwork offensive line, and a ridiculously stout defense — but with different characters filling many of those roles.

Sam Bradford will be back for the second year in a row as the Vikings quarterback, having taken over the role on the heels of the catastrophic knee injury to Teddy Bridgewater. In the backfield, he’ll spend much of this year handing off the football to rookie running back Dalvin Cook, the team’s second round pick in the 2017 NFL Draft (it’s just a matter of time before he takes over the job from free agent acquisition Latavius Murray). And the line that’ll be blocking for Bradford and Cook will feature as many as four new starters from last year’s group, as Minnesota continually looks to fix the beleaguered unit.

But the same “beleaguered unit” description simply cannot be used for the defense, which will return nine of 11 starters from last year’s group, and should be as good as any defense in the NFL. Minnesota ranked third in the NFL in fewest yards allowed per game overall, and fewest passing yards allowed per game as well. They were fifth in the NFL in quarterback sacks, with three different edge rushers racking up seven or more sacks last season (and that’s even with star linebacker Anthony Barr suffering a big slump for much of last year).

The Vikings are essentially the mirror opposite of their division rivals in Green Bay: their defense will be good enough to limit any opponent from putting a lot of points on the board, but will the offense do enough to actually score enough points to squeak out a win?

Detroit Lions

In a conference that’s filled with a good number of teams that will be vying for the six available postseason berths, the Detroit Lions find themselves in a place that most professional sports teams dread: sprinting on proverbial “treadmill of mediocrity.” They’re interesting enough to be relevant, but not relevant enough to be interesting.

Quarterback Matthew Stafford had a fantastic year in offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter’s offense, finishing with his second highest completion percentage, second highest yards per attempt, and second highest passer rating of his career last season, along with the fewest number of interceptions thrown. And even with that, the Lions still ranked outside the top 10 passing offenses last year (they were 11th) and didn’t have a single receiver finish in the top 10 in receiving yards (Golden Tate was 14th). For all the yards they could put up in a game, it didn’t translate to much, considering Detroit finished 20th in the NFL in total points per game.

Things weren’t better for Detroit’s defense, overseen by highly-esteemed coordinator Teryl Austin. The Lions defense was in the bottom half of the league in total yards allowed per game (18th in the NFL), rushing yards allowed (18th), passing yards allowed (19th), and quarterback sacks (tied for 30th).

So, it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that Detroit spent much of the offseason fixing the defensive side of the ball, as almost half the unit will have new starters next season. But in an already loaded conference, and a division with two teams that have postseason aspirations themselves, have the Lions really done enough to make a return trip to the playoffs?

Chicago Bears

For sports fans in the greater Chicagoland area, the mantra this Fall likely won’t be all that much different than it was in the Fall of 2016: “well, at least the Cubs are doing well.”

It was another offseason of offensive upheaval for the Chicago Bears, marked by the team pushing it’s longtime starting quarterback, trading for a quarterback to presumably be the starter, and subsequently drafting a quarterback to also presumably be the starter. And that’s not even mentioning the fact that four of Chicago’s top five wide receivers will be different than the depth chart from last year, after watching their best wide receiver (Alshon Jeffrey) leave town as well.

So now, quarterback Mitchell Trubisky (at some point this season anyway), running back Jordan Howard (who finished second in the NFL in rushing yards last season), and wide receiver Cameron Meredith (the team leader in virtually every receiving category last year) will form the foundation of the rebuilt Bears offense.

Ironically enough, the Bears defense will return all 11 starters from last year’s group. Take what you will from that fact, considering Chicago had the sixth-worst rushing defense in the NFL last year, ranked in the bottom 10 of the NFL in most points allowed per game, and featured exactly zero players with more than eight sacks recorded last year.

Winter is Coming, Chicago fans. And if you root for these Monsters of the Midway, don’t say we didn’t warn you.

FF-Winners.Com 2017-8 NFC West Preview

2019-20 NFL Computer Predictions and Rankings NFL Forecasting Team News  winners preview   The story of the NFC West for the 2017-2018 season doesn’t really appear to be any different than the story we’ve seen in recent years: there are two teams in the division with legitimate aspirations of a deep playoff run, and then two teams that are still mired in a prolonged rebuilding process.

At the start of the season, it’s really hard to see anyone other than the Seattle Seahawks being the favorite to win the division crown. While the team sputtered to a 6-4-1 record over its last 11 games last year, they were decimated by injuries to so many key players. Even from a purely mathematical standpoint, it’s difficult for a team to endure that level of injury issues for yet another season. In doing his part to stay healthy through the course of the season, Russell Wilson came into training camp this year in the best shape of his life, working with celebrity nutritionist Dr. Philip Goglia in the offseason, losing 10lbs of weight and dropping his body fat by 6%. With no real superstud at running back — the team will cobble together a ground game featuring Green Bay Packers castoff Eddie Lacy, incumbent Thomas Rawls, and 2016 draft picks C.J. Prosise and Alex Collins — this offense really belongs to Wilson now. It’s much more about him running the show, throwing the football to Doug Baldwin, Tyler Lockett, Jermaine Kearse, Paul Richardson, and tight end Jimmy Graham. If the patchwork offensive line can simply give him any time to actually get the football out, he could be poised for an MVP-caliber season. And, of course, you can’t talk about the Seahawks without mentioning the defense. The unit will return nine of 11 starters, including defensive backbone Earl Thomas, meaning it should once again be as stout as we’ve come to know it in recent years.

Enduring an injury-riddled season in 2016 themselves, the Arizona Cardinals are looking to rebound closer to the form which saw them win an NFL-high 13 games in 2015. The biggest question for the Cardinals — along the lines of staying healthy — will be whether Carson Palmer’s arm can hold up for all 16 games, especially in an offense that demands a lot of vertical throws. Palmer has shown a penchant in recent years for starting out the season hot, but demonstrating arm fatigue as the year goes on. Of course, the latter the could be mitigated as the team begins to rely more on superstar running back David Johnson, whose combined 2,118 yards from scrimmage last year was second most in the NFL. Johnson’s ability as a running back and pass catcher make him one of the most dangerous weapons in the NFL, and will likely make him the focal point of a somewhat aging Cardinals offense. Arizona’s defense faces questions of their own around health and personnel, especially as they’re looking for the return of a healthy Tyrann Mathieu — who finished last season on injured reserve for the third time in four years — and to overcome the loss of defensive lineman Calais Campbell. However, Arizona has done an excellent job in “restocking the cupboard” on defense with young talent, starting with defensive tackle Robert Nkemdiche (their top pick in the 2016 NFL Draft), linebacker Haason Reddick (taken with their first round pick in the 2017 NFL Draft) and safety Budda Baker (their second round pick in the 2017 NFL Draft). There are still plenty of core players left on this team to lead them to one last deep playoff run, if things can finally break right for them.

During an episode of HBO’s Hard Knocks, (now former) head coach Jeff Fisher of the Los Angeles Rams chastised his team for resembling a football team destined for a 7-9 record. Little did Fisher realize that his team would be so lucky as to finish with a 7-9 record. The Rams finished a 4-12 record at season’s end, and Fisher didn’t even make it through the season before he was dismissed from his position (which many saw as long-overdue move). As his replacement, the Rams went in the total opposite direction, hiring offensive wunderkind Sean McVay — the former offensive coordinator of the Washington Redskins — and making him the youngest head coach in NFL history (he was officially hired just days before his 31st birthday). McVay’s primary responsibility will be to rectify all the damage that Fisher and his staff did to quarterback Jared Goff, the first overall pick in the 2016 NFL Draft. Meanwhile, McVay smartly hired defensive guru Wade Phillips, the latter of whom is only two years away from overseeing a defense that led its team to a Super Bowl victory (in Denver). Supposedly, the early whispers from the new regime are filled with glowing optimism, and everything you hear out of Los Angeles is that the player recognize what a difference in experience, leadership, and intellectual horsepower the new coaching staff has already brought. However, this roster still has major holes to fill — mostly on offense — before it can consider itself a contender in this division.

Rounding out the NFC West is the San Francisco 49ers, who underwent a much-needed housecleaning of their own last season, dismissing long time General Manager Trent Baalke and embattled head coach Chip Kelly. In their place will be new head coach Kyle Shanahan, fresh off leading the Atlanta Falcons to one of the most prolific offenses in NFL history, and new General Manager John Lynch, a surprise hire who lobbied Shanahan for the unorthodox opportunity of jumping straight from the broadcast booth to being the man in charge of a team’s front office. The two of them went to work adding numerous players to a roster that was badly in need of a talent infusion all over the board. At quarterback, journeymen Brian Hoyer and Matt Barkley will vie for the team’s starting job in the near future, but it wouldn’t be the slightest bit surprising to see them them address the position with one of their picks in the 2018 NFL Draft (which looks to have a quarterback class absolutely loaded with talent). Early on, they’ll look to the defense to keep them in games, after spending a first round pick on a defensive lineman — Soloman Thomas from Stanford University — for the third year in a row, and then trading up into the latter part of the first round to select linebacker Rueben Foster from the University of Alabama. The defense has some really intriguing players in pass rushing specialist Elvis Dumvervil, stalwart linebacker NaVorro Bowman, free safety Jimmy Ward, and defensive linemen DeForest Buckner and Arik Armstead (their first round picks in 2016 and 2015 respectively). But, with a much-needed roster turnover taking place over the long-term, this team is still years away from being ready to make any real noise in the division.

FF-Winners.Com 2017-8 NFC East Preview

2019-20 NFL Computer Predictions and Rankings NFL Forecasting Team News  winners preview   Here’s one thing we know, for sure, about the NFC East: history tells us that, for as good as the Dallas Cowboys were last season, it’s far from a foregone conclusion that they’ll repeat as division champions. After all, a different team has won the division in each of the last six years, and only one team has won the division crown in back-to-back seasons over the past decade (Philadelphia did so in 2010 and 2011).

You could easily make the argument that the Dallas Cowboys were, in fact, the second best team in the NFL last season, behind the New England Patriots. They finished with 13 wins, which was more than anyone else in the NFC. They didn’t lose a single game between the middle of September and the middle of November. And they featured what was far and away the most dominant rushing attack in the NFL. So, the simple question for them is: what can they do in 2017 for an encore? For as magical as the rookie seasons were for quarterback Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott, the harder part will be replicating their performances from their first year during their second year in the NFL, now that teams have much more film to study. The Cowboys might have brought back 10 of their 11 starters on offense to help keep things familiar, but this team will have a target on its back all season long.

The New York Giants finished the 2016 ranked eighth in the total number of passes they threw on offense last year, but they apparently decided that their solution to dethroning the Dallas Cowboys involved throwing the football even more. How else would that explain their acquisition of wide receiver Brandon Marshall, in what could have been the most underrated free agent acquisition in the entire league. Putting Marshall on the opposite side of Odell Beckham Jr. has the potential to create nightmares for any opposing defensive coordinator who even considers the idea of rolling their coverage towards Beckham’s side of the field. On top of that, the Giants went and drafted tight end Evan Engram out of Ole Miss, who perfectly fits the mold of the new age, ultra-athletic tight end we’re seeing in the league. His combination of size (6’3 and 236lbs) and speed (a legitimate 4.41 in the 40 yard dash) will give quarterback Eli Manning a weapon the likes of which he’s never had in his career at tight end.

Conversely, the Washington Redskins decided to try and keep last year’s third-ranked offense together with duct tape and cheap replacements, while devoting their offseason resources to fixing a defense that was the fifth worst in the league in 2016. The Redskins totally revamped the defensive line that was the source of much consternation last year, adding defensive linemen Terrell McClain and Stacey McGee via free agency, and pouncing on defensive lineman Jonathan Allen with the 17th overall pick in the 2017 NFL Draft (after he shockingly fell that far on draft night). On top of that, they added former Pro Bowl linebacker Zach Brown and safety DJ Swearinger to patch up a couple of their other major trouble spots from last year. If they can get contributions from the oft-injured Junior Galette (who’s missed the last two seasons due to injury) and Ryan Anderson (their second round pick in the last draft), the offense is still plenty good enough to help this team make some serious noise next year.

For the Philadelphia Eagles, who are coming off back-to-back losing seasons (the only team in the NFC East with that dubious distinction), their modus operandi for the immediate future is simple: do everything they can to help quarterback Carson Wentz develop. In Wentz’ rookie season last year, he looked absolutely terrific for stretches of the first half of the season, but looked much more like a rookie during the second half of the year. In his defense, having one of the worst groups of wide receivers in the NFL certainly didn’t help him. That’s a big reason why the Eagles went out and acquired wide receiver Alshon Jeffrey, the top ranked receiver in free agency last season. Philadelphia also decided to kick the tires on receiver Torrey Smith, which raised a few eyebrows from those observing the league, as Smith looked like he had nothing left in the tank during his last two seasons in San Francisco. But if Jeffrey and Smith both work out as the outside receivers, that’ll allow promising young receiver Jordan Matthews to operate from the slot, where he presents a major match up dilemma because of his size advantage against nickel cornerbacks.

Simply put: no matter who might be the favorite to win this division in the beginning of the season, any of these four teams has the chance to be the one wearing the division crown by the end of the season. That’s just the way it is in the “NFC Beast.”

Preview: Oakland versus Kansas City

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Coming off a win against Buffalo, the Oakland Raiders have continued their hot streak and look to catch up to New England for the number one seed in the playoffs. The Kansas City Chiefs on the other hand hold a wildcard spot and hope to hold on to it and make a good postseason run. This is a big game for both teams, and it could play a pivotal role in deciding each team’s playoff rankings.
Derek Carr’s injured finger didn’t seem to play a role in last week’s win against the Bills, as he was able to fight it off and have a great game. He moved the ball efficiently and the Oakland defense eventually got its act together to get him out onto the field as much as they could. However, Oakland overall still has a very poor defense, and Andy Reidâ’s West Coast scheme that he runs with the Chiefs is built to destroy the type of defense Oakland has. Oakland’s main weaknesses on defense are against the run and their linebackers, so not only will running the ball be effective, but short, quick passes will stop Raiders defensive ends Bruce Irvin and Khalil Mack from putting their pass rushing skills to good use. Khalil Mack had another big game against Buffalo, forcing the hit that led to Tyrod Taylor’s interception, and also the strip sack that sealed the game for the Raiders. He can be used all over the field, and coach Jack Del Rio will want to use his versatility in defending against the Kansas City Chiefs style of offense.
On defense the Chiefs have good players all around. An interesting player to watch will be Justin Houston, who has been a monster since he came back from injury. While the Raiders have given up the least sacks in the league, they have a noticeable weakness on the right side. The Chiefs may want to put Houston there to do the most damage, but they can switch it up due to teammate Tamba Hali being a very good pass rusher himself. An interesting matchup to watch will be Raiders wideout Amari Cooper against Chiefs corner Marcus Peters. Peters has a knack for being boom or bust at the corner position, and Amari Cooper is known to make great plays on deep routes. Do not be surprised if Peters gets an interception but also lets Cooper have a big game as well. It is also possible that Peters may protect one side and line up against Michael Crabtree on occasion, who is quite good as well. Just another story to watch this week, and it makes for a very exciting game.

On paper the Raiders have the better team, but the Chiefs are no pushovers. This should be a very competitive game, and both teams have their case for a win.

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