ARENA: Saints to reclaim top perch in NFC

Published 11:45 pm Friday, August 8, 2014

We hit the AFC last time, now to hit the NFC (and some overall NFL) predictions. 

1. New Orleans Saints. I think I should be safe from most “homer alert!” calls here since I’m hardly the only person touting the Saints to have another one of “those years” in 2014. 

It’s not difficult to see why. The combination of an elite defense and elite quarterback is a tough one to beat, and the Saints have seemingly addressed the major weak spots that plagued them a year ago: lack of gamebreakers offensively and on special teams (Brandin Cooks, while  a more mature Kenny Stills should also help), lack of playmakers in the secondary (Jairus Byrd and perhaps Champ Bailey and Stanley-Jean Baptiste) and at left tackle (Terron Armstead, who stepped in to the role late last season but should be there from day one in 2014). 

The Saints showed an incredibly deep defensive line last season and its secondary held strong for the most part despite a rash of injuries there last season. Keenan Lewis, Kenny Vaccaro and Byrd form the heart of an impressive unit no matter what team it’s compared to. 

Offensively, the Saints were largely still the Saints last season, except with more exaggerated splits: the world-beaters at home were such as much as ever, but the “mere mortals on the road” storyline was strengthened. The team scored at will against overmatched defensive foes; the league’s elite, at times, embarrassed the offense. 

Health will help. Jimmy Graham, Marques Colston and Darren Sproles all suffered significant maladies at different points. Graham maintained effectiveness all season but slowed down after his foot injury. Colston caught fire late after a slow first-half, while Sproles was mostly a non-factor after the team’s unbeaten start. Sproles is now gone, but if Stills, Cooks or both can make teams pay consistently for doubling Graham, that’ll be enough for Brees. 

Schedule will as well. The Saints will face a slate that posted a .469 winning percentage last season. Of last season’s playoff teams, only the Colts face an easier slate. 

2. Philadelphia Eagles. Last season the Eagles overachieved, many don’t know what to make of QB Nick Foles, Desean Jackson is gone and many of the Chip Kelly naysayers are likely doubling down, waiting for his game to be figured out.

I’m not so sure a regression is likely here, though. Philadelphia adjusted extremely quickly to Kelly’s fact-paced system and overcame the preseason loss of WR Jeremy Maclin to a torn ACL. Jackson’s loss hurts for sure, but the additions of Maclin, Darren Sproles, rookie Jordan Matthews and an expected progression from second-year tight end Zack Ertz gives Foles a number of places to go with the football when he’s not handing off to LeSean McCoy. It doesn’t hurt that the rest of the NFC East is floundering. 

3. Seattle Seahawks. A small step back for the Super Bowl champs, mostly because it’s hard to maintain focus in a “repeat” attempt and those off days, for Seattle, are likely to come against strong competition. The NFC West is war. The offense may need a healthy year from Percy Harvin to reach its potential and Marshawn Lynch has racked up a lot of carries over the past few years. Still, this team is loaded and should win more than 10.

4. Green Bay Packers. I give up on the rest of the NFC North. The Packers spotted everyone else eight games without Aaron Rodgers and ACTUALLY TRAILED Chicago in the standings the week after Rodgers went down. Packers still won the division, clinching things on a 4th and 8, 47 yard touchdown pass from Rodgers to Randall Cobb in the season finale against the Bears. Anyway, Rodgers is back, the team restocked its pass catchers in the draft and the offensive line, in shambles a year ago, should be healthier.  Rodgers always delivers.

5. Tampa Bay. I actually like Josh McCown and this situation couldn’t be more like the one he left in Chicago. He’ll have some big boys to throw to in Vincent Jackson and Mike Evans. Doug Martin’s return also helps and the team has a pair of showcase defensive players in Gerald McCoy and Lavonte David. Ugly uniforms, though. 

6. Washington Redskins. Robert Griffin III will have to be all the way back from his knee injury, and he’ll have to stay healthy. The first is likely, the second highly questionable. But Griffin played at a legitimate MVP level in his rookie season —unheard of for a first year passer. Jay Gruden is very likely to unleash the hounds in the passing game and Griffin will have more targets than ever before in DeSean Jackson, Jordan Reed, Pierre Garcon and Andre Roberts. If Griffin can recapture his form, he could do a major carry job here. 

Just missing: San Francisco is the shocker and I think their offense will be world’s better. Still, they’ve lost an all-world middle linebacker in NaVorro Bowman and, again, the schedule is daunting … Carolina may survive its receiving corps losses if Kelvin Benjamin steps up, but four retired offensive lineman may stall a ground-and-pound team.

Super Bowl: New Orleans over New England (Seattle and Denver title game runner-ups)

NFL MVP: Drew Brees, QB, New Orleans

Offensive Player of the Year: LeSean McCoy, RB Philadelphia

Defensive MVP: J.J. Watt,  DE, Houston

Offensive Rookie of the Year: Sammy Watkins, WR, Buffalo

Defensive Rookie of the Year: Jadeveon Clowney, OLB/DE, Houston