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2014 NFC playoff predictions: Trends emerge in division races

  • By NFL.com
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On the cusp of the 2014 NFL season, our analysts provide their predictions, including the winners of individual awards, playoff teams for each conference and Championship Sunday/Super Bowl forecasts.

NFC EAST

Judy Battista: Philadelphia Eagles. The Cowboys' defense is awful, Robert Griffin III has to prove he can stay healthy for the Redskins and the Giants' offense is in transition. So, Philadelphia it is, by default in a weak division.

Brian Billick: Eagles. Nick Foles might have set the bar too high in 2013 (27:2 TD-to-INT ratio), but the 2014 Eagles will be a better overall team from top to bottom.

Gil Brandt: Eagles. Buttressed by an improved defense, Chip Kelly's offense will just be too much for a division that is otherwise not very impressive.

Bucky Brooks: Eagles. Mark Sanchez takes over for Nick Foles in the middle of the season and guides the Eagles to their second straight division crown.

Charley Casserly: Eagles. Despite average defensive play, Philly wins again in a weak division. The Redskins are sleepers, but Robert Griffin III has to get going and their secondary is a weakness. I still believe in Eli Manning, but does he have enough help around him in New York? Dallas can't stop anybody.

Dave Dameshek: Eagles. Of all the Super Bowl contenders, the Eagles are the most prohibitive favorite to win their division. Even if Nick Foles regresses a bit -- and even if the defense is nothing more than mediocre -- who else in the woeful East can pose a challenge? (That was a rhetorical question, the answer to which is: no one.)

Elliot Harrison: Eagles. Repeat business for Chip Kelly's Eagles, who have better quarterback play than the Redskins, are more consistent than the Giants and can rely on defense more than the Cowboys.

Gregg Rosenthal: Eagles. With a soft schedule in the division and four games against the AFC South, the Eagles could wind up with a bye.

Adam Schein: Eagles. I was mocked last year when I was the only one to pick Philly. A year later, the NFC East is a one-team race. Chip Kelly is fantastic. Nick Foles, LeSean McCoy and the offense will hum. And the defense has improved.

Michael Silver: Dallas Cowboys. There is no rational reason for me to make this selection, especially after watching them play defense last year and seemingly get worse on paper this offseason. I just feel like it's their time.

Chris Wesseling: Eagles. In Chip Kelly I trust. I want to believe in the Redskins as a playoff team, but they have yet to give me a reason to do so.

 

NFC NORTH

Judy Battista: Green Bay Packers. With an improved defense, this has the look of a well-balanced team that can make a deep playoff run -- if, of course, Aaron Rodgers remains healthy.

Brian Billick: Chicago Bears. On paper, the Bears have the best-looking offensive unit in football.

Gil Brandt: Packers. When you consider all the facets of the game, the Packers have the best team in this division. I'm not worried about the loss of B.J. Raji, who hasn't been that big of a player lately -- certainly not when Aaron Rodgers is slinging the ball from under center. Plus, Green Bay has what is probably one of the best home-field advantages in the NFL.

Bucky Brooks: Packers. The implementation of a hurry-up offense takes the Packers' attack to another level. Aaron Rodgers posts big numbers and makes Green Bay one of the league's most feared teams in the postseason.

Charley Casserly: Packers. This is the most competitive division in the NFL now that the Rams have lost Sam Bradford in the NFC West. Minnesota is a QB and some good cornerback play away from the playoffs -- and there is the potential for both of those areas to be better in 2014. Chicago has enough offense to win the division and -- on paper -- is better on defense. Detroit is the sleeper. The Lions have the pieces to form a top-five offense, but their secondary remains an issue (especially at the CB position). Since the Pack have Aaron Rodgers under center, though, I'll roll with them.

Dave Dameshek: Packers. If the fact that the Packers have the best quarterback in a quarterback league isn't enough to justify my pick here, take a look at the D. With a young and speedy secondary ready to complement what should be a fierce pass rush, the Pack will (finally) be tough on both sides of the ball.

Elliot Harrison: Packers. Aaron Rodgers stays healthy and Eddie Lacy provides the most balance Green Bay has enjoyed since the halcyon days of Ahman Green.

Gregg Rosenthal: Packers. Aaron Rodgers is good at football.

Adam Schein: Packers. Aaron Rodgers is the best quarterback in the NFL. Rodgers and Mike McCarthy represent the best QB/coach combo in the game. Eddie Lacy is a beast. The Green Bay defense has too much talent to be that bad again.

Michael Silver: Packers. That they won this division last year -- despite serious injury issues -- was somewhat of a miracle. This year, they could set offensive records.

Chris Wesseling: Packers. The Packers have the best player in the NFL and a much deeper defense than last year's version.

 

NFC SOUTH

Judy Battista: New Orleans Saints. Their defense can cause mayhem and their offense is -- well -- Drew Brees. With significant questions facing every other team in the division, the Saints should stroll into the playoffs, perhaps with home-field advantage.

Brian Billick: Saints. The first part of a winning formula is the defense of one's home, and the Saints were one of just three teams to go undefeated in the friendly confines last season. In fact, the Saints are 20-4 at the Superdome since 2011.

Gil Brandt: Saints. Sean Payton is as good an offensive coach as there is in the NFL. Between Payton, Drew Brees, an improving defense and a home crowd that will be a factor, I like the Saints to put together the best record in football this year.

Bucky Brooks: Saints. The Superdome becomes a house of horrors for opponents, with a high-octane offense complementing a nasty defense that comes together under coordinator Rob Ryan.

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Charley Casserly: Saints. I'll take the most well-rounded team: New Orleans. Carolina has issues on offense (O-line, wide receiver). Tampa Bay is poised to potentially make a jump with a strong roster, but can Josh McCown lead the charge? Atlanta can bounce back on offense if Julio Jones stays healthy, but I am not sold on the defense.

Dave Dameshek: Saints. With incumbent stars Drew Brees, Jimmy Graham, Cameron Jordan and Keenan Lewis now joined by Jairus Byrd and Brandin Cooks, there are very few holes for a team that already enjoys one of the best home-field advantages in the NFL.

Elliot Harrison: Saints. New Orleans reclaims the NFC South, winning the division for the first time in three years. Drew Brees has an MVP-type season, while Kenny Vaccaro establishes himself as one of the game's best safeties.

Gregg Rosenthal: Saints. Anything less than a Super Bowl appearance will be a disappointment.

Adam Schein: Saints. The Saints are loaded. They have a great passing attack and a solid running attack, while the Jairus Byrd signing makes Rob Ryan's defense even better.

Michael Silver: Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Yes, I believe the Panthers will fall off -- and Lovie Smith's guys will seize the opening.

Chris Wesseling: Saints. They had the NFL's No. 4 defense last season. I expect them to ascend to No. 1 on the other side of the ball this season.

 

NFC WEST

Judy Battista: Seattle Seahawks. With Percy Harvin fully healthy and most of the championship roster still intact, a repeat is a real possibility.

Brian Billick: Seahawks. The Seahawks will return 17 of 22 starters from Super Bowl XLVIII (which they won 43-8).

Gil Brandt: Seahawks. I don't think the 'Hawks will win 13 games again, but I do like them to be serious contenders to return to the Super Bowl. Russell Wilson just keeps getting better every game, and he'll have Percy Harvin for a full year. Watching Seattle in the preseason, I saw nothing not to like about this team.

Bucky Brooks: Seahawks. The "Legion of Boom" struggles a bit in 2014, but a high-powered offense led by Russell Wilson saves the day and ensures another run at the Super Bowl.

Charley Casserly: Seahawks. The defending Super Bowl champions will successfully defend their NFC West title. Russell Wilson is poised to take the next step as a QB, with a healthy Percy Harvin giving the offense a major jolt.

Dave Dameshek: Seahawks. It's not just Richard Sherman who plays with a chip on his shoulder; this entire team knows how to use the slightest slight as fuel. In other words, the typical Super Bowl hangover doesn't apply here. And if he's healthy, Percy Harvin will swing the NFC playoff race more than any free agent or rookie.

Elliot Harrison: Seahawks. Seattle has as good a shot as any team to repeat since the 2003-04 Patriots. Eyeing the division race, San Francisco has looked bad in the preseason, Arizona has lost key players and St. Louis, well ...

Gregg Rosenthal: Seahawks. The Seahawks were one of the youngest Super Bowl teams in recent history, and there's no reason to think they get worse.


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Adam Schein: San Francisco 49ers. Jim Harbaugh is a fantastic coach. I believe in Colin Kaepernick. Frank Gore is still a rock. And even with NaVorro Bowman's injury and Aldon Smith's potential suspension, this team is deep.

Michael Silver: Seahawks. Richard Sherman insists he'll keep making me look smart. He's even louder than I am, so why bother arguing?

Chris Wesseling: Seahawks. The Super Bowl champs have shown no signs of slowing down. Expect the offense to be more explosive with Percy Harvin in 2014.

 

NFC WILD CARD 1

Judy Battista: Chicago Bears. They certainly would have been a playoff team last season if the defense had been even marginally better.

Brian Billick: Green Bay Packers. Even with a steady rushing attack, the Packers aren't anything without Aaron Rodgers -- keeping him healthy has to be priority No. 1. Green Bay gave up 45 sacks last season; only the Cardinals have given up more since 2009. If Rodgers plays all 16 games, the Packers make the playoffs.

Gil Brandt: San Francisco 49ers. I think San Francisco has a chance to have as good a defense as any in the NFL, even with the uncertain availability of NaVorro Bowman and Aldon Smith. That should carry the Niners, though Frank Gore and the running game will slow down.

Bucky Brooks: Dallas Cowboys. The Cowboys make an improbable run to the playoffs despite lacking a smidgen of defense for most of the season.

Charley Casserly: 49ers. The Niners have not looked good in the preseason, but they have the same old winning formula to punch a ticket to the playoffs: strong running game and a solid defensive front seven.

Dave Dameshek: Bears. Jay Cutler's occasional bad decision notwithstanding, the Bears are going to be an offensive juggernaut in Year 2 of the Marc Trestman era. If the defense can stuff the run -- one of the few legit concerns this team has right now -- Chicago might even take down the Packers for the NFC North title.

Elliot Harrison: Bears. Marc Trestman's offense runs relatively smoothly under Jay Cutler. But more importantly, the defense does not repeat its horrific 2014 performance. We hope.

Gregg Rosenthal: Arizona Cardinals. In Bruce Arians we trust. (And Larry Fitzgerald, Andre Ellington, Michael Floyd and John Brown.)

Adam Schein: Seattle Seahawks. It's tough to repeat, especially in such a competitive division. But Russell Wilson and the Seahawks are stacked. The defense is still elite.

Michael Silver: Bears. If Jay Cutler can stay healthy for a full season in Marc Trestman's offense, this team will be very tough to outscore.

Chris Wesseling: 49ers. Jim Harbaugh has a lot working against him this year, but the other wild-card contenders just aren't strong enough to overtake his team.

 

NFC WILD CARD 2

Judy Battista: San Francisco 49ers. The expected extended absences of Aldon Smith and NaVorro Bowman are the difference between winning the division and getting a wild-card spot.

Brian Billick: 49ers. The 49ers are the second-best team in the NFC, but unfortunately for them, they are also the second-best team in their division. San Francisco will make the playoffs for the fourth time in four seasons under Jim Harbaugh.

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Gil Brandt: Carolina Panthers. I think everybody's kind of writing off the Panthers, given how much receiving talent they lost, but the pass catchers they ended up with -- including first-round pick Kelvin Benjamin -- are as good as last year's guys. Plus, their defense is still excellent.

Bucky Brooks: Chicago Bears. Jay Cutler gets the Bears on track down the stretch and Chicago sneaks into the playoffs on the final day of the regular season.

Charley Casserly: Arizona Cardinals. The Cards will continue to ride the momentum they had at the end of last year, edging their way into the playoffs behind strong showings from Carson Palmer and the defense.

Dave Dameshek: Detroit Lions. Sorry, Niners fans, but a lot of people are starting to see what I've been saying for the past eight months: That dominant defense is gonna regress. Meantime, the Lions' offense -- in an NFC North sure to feature tons of shootouts -- is loaded for bear. If Ziggy Ansah can build on his promising rookie season, the defense might be pretty good, too.

Elliot Harrison: Panthers. The defense is simply too stout for this team to not make the postseason, although we envision a drop to 10-6 or perhaps 9-7. Cam Newton must stay healthy.

Gregg Rosenthal: Bears. The defense has to get better, but the passing game should be among the league's best.

Adam Schein: Bears. The Bears' defense is much better with Lamarr Houston and Jared Allen added up front. Jay Cutler has a bevy of weapons to exploit at the skill positions, including Matt Forte -- the best rusher/receiver combo in the game. Oh, and Marc Trestman is a great coach.

Michael Silver: 49ers. This was where the Rams were supposed to be. Then ... well, you know. I could still see St. Louis sneaking in with Shaun Hill, though.

Chris Wesseling: Lions. Defenses can't find a way to double-team Calvin Johnson, Reggie Bush, Golden Tate and Eric Ebron.

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