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NFC road might once again run through New Orleans

 

Thanks to everyone for the dissenting opinions you left on my AFC rankings, letting me know, loud and clear, where I might have erred.

Examining the AFC
With training camp on the horizon, Michael Lombardi pairs his NFC preview with a detailed look at the AFC teams built for the long haul -- and those just pretending. More ...

One of my favorite quotes comes from actor Jack Nicholson. "I love discourse. I'm dying to have my mind changed. I'm probably the only liberal who read Treason, by Ann Coulter. I want to know, you understand? I like listening to everybody. This to me is the elixir of life."

Nicholson is right. Listening to every point of view might slightly alter your thoughts or make you change your mind; it also might galvanize your own opinion -- which is the real value in hearing others'. So, keep the comments coming. As long as they're well thought out with facts to support your opinion, I'm all ears.

Now it's time for the NFC to take center stage. Here's the grading system for examining where each team stands heading into training camp:

Blue-chip team: Super Bowl contender
Red-chip team: Playoff contender
Green-chip team: Middle-of-the-pack team
Orange-chip team: Improving but still not near the playoffs
Brown-chip team: No chance to win and the year will be a long one

Note: Teams are listed alphabetically within each grouping.

Blue-chip teams

Green Bay Packers: I want to put the Packers in the Super Bowl every year, and this year I really do. I have loved them since I was a little kid, only to then become a Redskins fan in 1969 (obvious reasons, starting with my last name) and remained a Skins fan (more about that later) until I received my first paycheck from the 49ers. And there are many reasons to love the Packers for the Super Bowl this year, but how can a team that gave up 51 points in one playoff game be considered a legitimate Super Bowl team? I understand they had multiple injuries in their secondary last year, and most of those players will return, but is this enough to make them a Super Bowl contender? After much video review, I am willing to go out on the limb and believe in "my" Packers. I believe they will be better in Year 2 of Dom Capers' defensive system, be a better red-zone defense, and be much improved at protecting quarterback Aaron Rodgers.

New Orleans Saints: The Saints might be a better team this year on paper then last. Now, I am not saying they are going to repeat as champions, but they are very solid. Coach Sean Payton has that one unique quality that makes repeating slightly easier -- he is not afraid of confrontation. He is not afraid to call the players out, he is not afraid to ruffle feathers and make things slightly uncomfortable, yet conducive to winning. Consider my favorite scene from the Super Bowl in February. When running back Mike Bell comes walking off the field after he failed to score, Payton walks over to him to inspect his shoes. "Figures," Payton says. He had told Bell and the entire team to wear a certain-length spike in their shoes, and Bell failed to comply. (It's not a surprise the Saints chose not to match the Eagles' free-agent offer to Bell this offseason, allowing him to leave). Payton's not going to ease up; he learned his lesson after his Saints lost the 2006 NFC Championship Game to the Bears and started the following season 0-4, failing to make the playoffs. He will be tough and demanding, and have Drew Brees' back, which makes them a Super Bowl contender again.

Red-chip teams

Atlanta Falcons: In their 2008 playoff season, the Falcons had a certain style they needed to play in order to win games: make big plays passing, run Michael Turner right, run him left, gain the lead at the half, then let pass rusher John Abraham take over the game. In 2008, the Falcons led the league in first-half point differential (a critical statistic I monitor each week during the season) at plus-95. Last season, they ranked 15th with just a plus-16 advantage for the half, which means opponents did not allow them to play their style and Abraham was not a one-man wrecking crew. The Falcons have to get back to their style. They need Turner to prove he wasn't a one-hit wonder, they need to be able to pressure the passer, and they need Matt Ryan to be better. This is especially true on first down where, last season, the Falcons finished 29th, averaging 4.70 yards per play.

Dallas Cowboys: Jerry Jones has to be feeling good right now. Besides owning a great team that is a perennial playoff contender, he owns a new state-of-the-art stadium that will host the next Super Bowl (not to mention, he also got to meet Ari Gold from Entourage). Now, that's living a good life. But for Jones to make it a complete life, he needs his football team to be in the game he's hosting next February -- the 2011 Super Bowl. And for that to happen, he must be crossing his fingers and toes that his old and aging offensive line stays healthy and that Doug Free can be the answer at left tackle. The problems in his line are not just at left tackle, though. His right guard, Leonard Davis, is too big and, at times, too slow. He can't block on the second level finding roaming linebackers and has trouble with his pass protection, which then forces the Cowboys to always want to send the center his way.

Minnesota Vikings: One of the hazards of Brett Favre not being able to make up his mind is that it creates work for everyone. (I am sure the Vikings have two playbooks -- one with plays for Favre, one with different plays.) An evaluation of the Vikings that includes Favre will be much different than the one with Tarvaris Jackson as the starter. The Vikings with Favre have to win a Super Bowl now, or they risk being compared to those old Houston Oilers teams that had great talent, but only made it to one AFC Championship Game. Those Oilers were loaded, from top to bottom. From 1987 to 1993, they were a playoff team, but could never get over the top. This Vikings team is solid, though it has concerns in the secondary. The Vikings struggled last year to defend the passing game consistently (they lost their last four road games counting the playoffs), allowing opposing quarterbacks to have a 94 rating and ranking 28th overall. The Vikings with Favre are a blue-chip team. Without him, the playbook will be scaled back, the offense will become more conservative, the defensive problems -- especially in the secondary -- will become magnified, and road wins will become difficult.

New York Giants: The Giants, as an organization, believe that to win championships a team has to be able to control both lines, which I enthusiastically support. Last year, the Giants' defensive front played poorly (an understatement), as did their entire defense. They never could control the game with their front, which tended to expose the lack of speed in their secondary. Are these problems fixed with the new additions, including a new coordinator and line coach? On paper, there appears to be enough talent in the defensive line to play at a higher level, but the core issue is that too many of the current players want to assume the Michael Strahan role (remember, this is New York City, with big ad dollars) without being the complete player that made Strahan great. "When a player shows you who he is, believe him," Bill Parcells used to always preach. With the uncertain health of Kenny Phillips and an inconsistent defensive line, the Giants appear to be a team smoldering somewhere between a green and red chip. Today, they are a red chip, but I might regret this one.

Philadelphia Eagles: When I was in college I worked a summer job as a bartender (on the Jersey Shore), which allowed me to learn valuable life lessons. One of those applied to the Eagles last year. A veteran bartender told me to never trust the bartender who accuses others of stealing as it diverts the attention away from him, so he can steal. With all the attention that the Donovan McNabb trade received in Philadelphia, the issues at quarterback diverted the attention from the real problem, which is Philly's overall defense. The Eagles last year were like the Denver Nuggets of the old ABA -- they can run and gun and score points, but could not keep their opponents from scoring or making plays, especially in the red zone. In the final eight games of the season, the Eagles' defense was 21st in points allowed and they gave up as many touchdown passes -- 27 -- as their offense scored. The Eagles have always wanted their defense to complement their offense, meaning they wanted their defense to be very active rushing the passer in the framework of their blitz scheme. Adding first-round draft pick Brandon Graham will help, as will getting Stewart Bradley back healthy to solidify their middle linebacker position. But the biggest help will be if second-year defensive coordinator Sean McDermott can grow into the job and make the right adjustments. If so, it could move the Eagles into blue-chip territory.

San Francisco 49ers: The 49ers are a solid team in almost every area. In fact, they might have made the playoffs last year had they not faced the AFC South. Losing on the road to Houston and Indy, and then at home to the Titans, all but ended their playoff chances. But the 49ers discovered their offensive identity during that losing stretch and the best way to utilize quarterback Alex Smith. Smith is best when he can run the spread offense like he did in college, and if the 49ers can pass protect better and improve their ability to convert on third down, they will be a very good team in 2010. They have many of the pieces in place to be a playoff team, but playoff teams win on the road; the 49ers can't go 2-6 when they leave San Francisco this coming season. They won their road opener and finale, but lost every away game in between. Winning on the road in the NFL requires an offensive line that can handle the elements without affecting execution. Behind an improved offensive line, I believe the 49ers will be a red-chip team.

Washington Redskins: I loved the Redskins' "Over the Hill Gang" when I was growing up, loved their uniforms and loved the roar coming from RFK Stadium. Now, the Skins seem to be trying to become the latest version of the "Over the Hill Gang," acquiring any veteran player willing to sign a low contract. But the combination of McNabb and new coach Mike Shanahan will greatly improve the Skins and make them a viable playoff team in 2010. The Skins have talent, but last year they had too much inconsistency. This year they eliminate those inconsistencies and will be one of the best-coached teams in the NFL. Shanahan will tailor his offense after the skill set of McNabb, which is to make big plays down the field coming off play-action fakes. Their defense will be improved and if -- a big if -- Albert Haynesworth comes in and gives them a nickel rush from the inside, they will be in the NFC East race down to the end.

Green-chip teams

Arizona Cardinals: The Cardinals remind me of a hit television show that suddenly loses the main character and everyone is apprehensive about whether the show can maintain ratings or even stay on the air. Could Seinfeld have survived without Jerry? Could The Sopranos have survived without Tony? Can the Cardinals survive without Kurt Warner? The Cardinals have a good team, a very good head coach, and they play in a division that does not have a dominating quarterback. Yet, for the Cardinals to be the same kind of team they were with Warner, Matt Leinart must do his best Warner impression from the left side. Last year, Arizona's strength was its passing game. The Cardinals finished last in the NFL in rush percentage, relying on the arm of Warner and the skill set of their wideouts to make big plays down the field. They will have to be different to compensate for the loss of Warner as Leinart can't single-handedly fill the role. They are capable of moving up as the preseason unfolds and we see exactly what the new show with the new actor might look like.

Carolina Panthers: I told Panthers coach Jon Fox at the scouting combine this year that if he can win eight games with this team, then he should be coach of the decade, not of the year. He cordially laughed, but in that laugh I could sense a level of confidence that he would win at least eight games. But how can he win eight games with this roster? He lost his best rusher (Julius Peppers), and must rely on Everette Brown to fill the void. Furthermore, he has two offensive tackles coming off of injuries, he lost a starting linebacker in offseason camps, he does not have a dependable second wide receiver, he has two very young players at quarterback, and he has a coaching staff working on one-year deals, with no guarantee of his own future. Fox is an extremely good head coach who knows how to feature the strength of his team and play effective red-zone defense. Will that be enough to win eight games? Maybe, but not enough to be a playoff team.

Chicago Bears: Mention the Bears to anyone and the first reaction you might get is that they need a wideout, or that quarterback Jay Cutler turns the ball over too much. Never does anyone mention that their defense is bad, their red-zone defense is really bad, and they can't tackle well (they ranked 25th last year in yards after the catch allowed). For coach Lovie Smith and general manager Jerry Angelo to keep their jobs in Chicago, they must get their defense to play better in every area -- coaching, players and scheme. The Bears had some embarrassing game tape last year on both sides of the ball, resulting in the offensive coaches losing their jobs -- but the defensive staff remained. My belief is offensive coordinator Mike Martz will improve their offense, but will the Bears be improved on defense, where the problems last year were more than just players? Until they get this fixed, I am not sold.

Seattle Seahawks: Pete Carroll returns to the NFL brimming with confidence and knowing exactly what he wants on both sides of the ball. The Seahawks in the past have been too small, not physical, and seemingly more interested in adding wide receivers than improving both lines. But all that has changed and the new Seahawks have a purpose and a mission, and they have been acquiring players to fit their philosophy. Matt Hasselbeck is finally healthy, which will be the first part of the improvement of the Seahawks. He will give them stability on offense and their defense will be much improved in part because Carroll will be heavily involved. The Seahawks are one draft away from being a contender, but they will make some noise this year and improve as the year goes along.

Orange-chip teams

Detroit Lions: Watching the Lions play defense last season was painful. Of the 140 defensive statistics kept by Stats Pass, the Lions finished last in 26 of them. They finished in the top 20 in just 18 categories. That is expansion-team bad. The good news is they doubled their win total from the previous year and made progress this offseason by rebuilding their talent base. This is not going to be an overnight success in Detroit; it will take time and two more solid drafts to keep up with the elite teams in the NFC North. They have made huge strides on offense -- much like the Cowboys did when Jimmy Johnson took over -- and they have a quarterback and some skill players to build around. Johnson went 1-15 in his first year, 7-9 is his second, and made the playoffs in Year 3. The Lions must be patient.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers: The bad news for the Bucs is they only won three games last year. The good news is they won two of the last three games. Is that a signal that they are improving? Is this the momentum needed to launch a successful campaign in 2010? I am not buying it. The Bucs are a young team on and off the field. Young quarterback, young wide receivers, young defensive lineman, young head coach, and young general manager, which means they make mistakes. And last year they made them all over, from players signed, to play-calling, to game management, to turning the ball over. They are, however, starting to collect talent, which leads you to believe on paper they could be a team capable of breaking out and doubling their win total. However, winning in the NFL with youth is a challenge and the Bucs will use the 2010 season to grow up (all over) and possibly be ready to challenge in 2011.

Brown-chip team

St. Louis Rams: Rebuilding the Rams will take some time, but at least they have their quarterback of the future as the centerpiece of the rebuilding project. The Rams, like the Lions, are lean on talent, but they play hard, they are well coached, and will compete every week. Many wonder if Sam Bradford should become the starter from Day 1, and my reaction is similar to what former Cowboys coach Tom Landry said when he took over the Cowboys. When questioned about the lack of players he had to properly run the flex, Landry simply said he was willing to sacrifice wins in order to lay the foundation for future success. And the flex was part of that foundation. Bradford is the foundation for the future success of the Rams. Playing will allow him to learn the league, learn the pro game, and it will not hinder the Rams because no matter who plays quarterback, the Rams will need to manage the game correctly around their offensive line. They are a long way from being the "Greatest Show on Turf" again, but they are headed in the right direction.

» Follow me on Twitter at @michaelombardi

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