2016 NFC playoff predictions: East should be hotly contested

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On the cusp of the 2016 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 NORTH

EDITOR'S NOTE: The Vikings acquired quarterback Sam Bradford from the Eagles in exchange for a first-round draft pick in 2017 and a fourth-rounder in 2018 on Saturday. The predictions were made before the Vikings made the trade for Bradford.

Judy Battista: Green Bay Packers. They have the easiest strength of schedule in the league AND Jordy Nelson coming back to restore order to the offense AND a slimmed-down Eddie Lacy?

Jeffri Chadiha: Packers. The Packers have more than enough pieces to reclaim the division crown they lost to Minnesota last season.

Gil Brandt: Packers. The return of a healthy Jordy Nelson and a slimmed-down Eddie Lacy leads this offense to a big season. The play of safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix will really help Green Bay's defense.

Maurice Jones-Drew: Packers. Jordy Nelson is back, Eddie Lacy has slimmed down and the Packers are back on top of the NFC North.

Brian Billick: Packers. It's still a quarterback-driven league and I'm not going to pick against the best one in the NFL. Particularly when he has his favorite weapon back.

Gregg Rosenthal: Packers. The weapons around Aaron Rodgers are as good as ever. (That includes an underrated offensive line and improved secondary that will get the ball back for the Packers.)

Willie McGinest: Packers. I just don't think the Teddy Bridgewater-less Vikings can overcome Aaron Rodgers and the Pack.

Adam Schein: Packers. Jordy Nelson is healthy. Eddie Lacy slimmed down. Mike McCarthy is back to calling plays. Everything is set up for a special season for Aaron Rodgers. The Packers will have the best offense in the NFL this year.

Bucky Brooks: Minnesota Vikings. Despite losing their franchise quarterback on the eve of the season, the Vikings roll through the NFC North to claim their second straight division title. Shaun Hill doesn't post big numbers as the starter, but he leans on Adrian Peterson and a young WR corps to guide Minnesota back to the winner's circle.

Elliot Harrison: Packers. Green Bay's defense is slightly behind Minnesota's, but the Packers' offense will be much more explosive than the Vikings' Bridgewater-free unit. Green Bay's immense advantage at quarterback -- with Jordy Nelson healthy and Eddie Lacy slimmer -- should make the difference.

David Carr: Packers. Jordy Nelson is back and Aaron Rodgers is going to take advantage of that.

Charley Casserly: Packers. Initially, I thought this would be the best race in the NFL, but the Teddy Bridgewater injury really hurts Minnesota.

Ike Taylor: Packers. The Packers' offense will be more balanced and the defense is solid. It will come down to the end, but Green Bay edges Minnesota here.

Dave Dameshek: Packers. Like Ali v Frazier, Green Bay v Minnesota is compelling because of the massive stylistic differences. The Vikings' rugged approach knocked Rodgers & Co. down last year. This year, the Pack soars back to the top -- and would've even if Teddy B had been under center for Minnesota. (12-4, No. 2 seed)

Chris Wesseling: Packers. Outside of an Aaron Rodgers injury, everything that could go wrong did go wrong in 2015. That won't happen to the re-stocked 2016 Packers.

Colleen Wolfe: Packers. Sort of process of elimination in this division.

Heath Evans: Packers. I initially had the Vikings winning their second straight division title, but Teddy Bridgewater's injury will hurt them. Green Bay is back on top in the North.

Marcas Grant: Packers. This offense could set records this season. When healthy, this team is head and shoulders above everyone else in the division.

Adam Rank: Packers. I really want to put the Bears here. I'll show some decorum.

Alex Gelhar: Packers. The Vikings are an ascending young team, but the Bridgewater injury is a huge blow and we all know who the true King of the North is.

 

NFC EAST

Judy Battista: New York Giants. The Cowboys were the pick, until Tony Romo got hurt. The Cowboys won't collapse like last year, but this is just enough of an opening for a vastly improved Giants defense to pair with an explosive offense to prevail in a middling division.

Jeffri Chadiha: Washington Redskins. The Cowboys are the most talented team in this division, but the Redskins will have their starting quarterback available in Week 1.

Gil Brandt: Giants. Eli Manning and a defense that has to improve on its No. 32 ranking from 2015 will carry the East despite having to start and end the season on the road.

Maurice Jones-Drew: Dallas Cowboys. Dak Prescott/Tony Romo, Dez Bryant and Ezekiel Elliott will make up for a mediocre defense and get this team back to the postseason.

Brian Billick: Giants. Often times, winning free agency doesn't translate to winning games in the following season, and while the Giants made some splashy signings, they were also very strategic. Not to mention, Eli Manning is easily the most stable quarterback presence in the division.

Gregg Rosenthal: Philadelphia Eagles. In the worst division of football, I'll take Philadelphia's front seven over anything else.

Willie McGinest: Eagles. I think the Eagles have the most talent on the roster, especially on the defensive side of the ball.

Adam Schein: Redskins. I was all set to pick Dallas, and I still think the Cowboys will be in the mix with Dak Prescott. But I'll take the Redskins to go 10-6, Cowboys 9-7.

Bucky Brooks: Giants. Eli Manning and the Giants' electric receiving corps torch foes up and down the schedule. Odell Beckham Jr., Sterling Shepard and Victor Cruz each top the 1,000-yard mark, as the Giants roll into the playoffs behind one of the hottest offenses in football.

Elliot Harrison: Cowboys. Taking a chance on Dak Prescott here. Dallas stays in the race until Week 8. Tony Romo will return by then, with key defensive players also back in the lineup.

David Carr: Cowboys. I want to pick the Giants, but their offensive line makes me nervous. If Romo plays more than five games, the Cowboys win this division.

Charley Casserly: Giants. Despite an unimpressive preseason, they will win the division with the best QB and defense.

Ike Taylor: Redskins. The Redskins are the most balanced team in this division. They will hold their place at the top.

Dave Dameshek: Giants. It's hard not to like what Kirk Cousins did last year -- and the roster in D.C. is even better this season -- but future HOFer Eli Manning is gonna put up some huge numbers in a defensively-poor East. (10-6, No. 4 seed)

Chris Wesseling: Cowboys. With Ezekiel Elliott entering the league at the superstar level, the offense is loaded enough -- yes, even without Tony Romo for at least the first couple months -- to carry a questionable defense for the second time in three years.

Colleen Wolfe: Cowboys. Dak leads them to the division title, and Tony Romo cries himself to sleep in a Fort Worth motel.

Heath Evans: Eagles. This division might be the worst in the NFL, but I think Philly is the team with the least amount of holes.

Marcas Grant: Giants. This could be the most topsy-turvy division in the league. Tony Romo's injury leaves a big opportunity for Big Blue to prosper in 2016.

Adam Rank: Cowboys. Somebody has to win this division, I guess. Looking forward to the Dak Prescott era.

Alex Gelhar: Redskins. Tony Romo's injury and questions all across the roster for both New York and Philadelphia leave the Redskins as the favorite to win this division and repeat.

 

NFC SOUTH

Judy Battista: Carolina Panthers. The division is improved, the Panthers have a tougher schedule than last year and the impact of losing Josh Norman's attitude is yet to be seen, so maybe they don't get to 15 wins. But a young and deep roster should get them back to the playoffs.

Jeffri Chadiha: Panthers. The Panthers won't go 15-1 again, but they are still the class of this division.

Gil Brandt: Panthers. This team won't win 15 games again, but repeat MVP Cam Newton and repeat Coach of the Year Ron Rivera push this super-complete team to at least 12-4.

Maurice Jones-Drew: Panthers. After last season, I can't go against Cam Newton.

Brian Billick: Panthers. It's hard to argue with Cam Newton's development, and while his play is never going to resemble the dropback approach the NFL has been defined by for decades, he is knocking on the door of the elites at the position.

Gregg Rosenthal: Panthers. Can they turn into a Seahawks or Patriots-like organization that ranks in the top five each year? Expect them to come back to the pack in a better division.

Willie McGinest: Panthers. The other teams in this division will be improved from last season, but the Panthers will win it once again.

Adam Schein: Panthers. Cam Newton once again brilliantly guides the Panthers to the playoffs.

Bucky Brooks: Panthers. Cam Newton is unable to sustain his MVP-caliber play in 2016, but he finds a way to keep the offense humming with Kelvin Benjamin and Devin Funchess playing big roles in the passing game.

Elliot Harrison: Panthers. Carolina takes the division again. While Cam Newton might not be able to replicate his 2015 campaign, the Panthers simply are better than every team in their division.

David Carr: Panthers. Nothing convinces me that they will drop off.

Charley Casserly: Panthers. Tampa is a year away.

Ike Taylor: Panthers. Ron Rivera's offense is only going to get better with the return of Kelvin Benjamin. Cam Newton must be happy about that.

Dave Dameshek: Panthers. There's very little to quibble about with this roster, so instead I'll provide a tepid reminder that most Super Bowl runners-up tend to fall back the following year. (12-4, No. 1 seed)

Chris Wesseling: Panthers. Make it four consecutive division crowns for Ron Rivera's squad, which is poised to join the Patriots and Seahawks as perennial superpowers.

Colleen Wolfe: Panthers. Run it back.

Heath Evans: Panthers. The other three teams in this division aren't strong enough to overtake Ron Rivera's group.

Marcas Grant: Panthers. Cam Newton is still a bad man, and even without Josh Norman, the Panthers' defense is still one of the most fearsome in the NFL.

Adam Rank: Panthers. Should be motivated still after last year's disappointing finish.

Alex Gelhar: Panthers. Cam Newton and this defense are too good to not win this division for the fourth straight season.

 

NFC WEST

Judy Battista: Arizona Cardinals. They and the Seahawks could flip spots, but the Cardinals' powerhouse offense -- which set a franchise record for points scored last year -- could be the difference maker.

Jeffri Chadiha: Cardinals. The Cardinals have talent up and down their roster, with defensive end Chandler Jones giving them the pass rusher they desperately need.

Gil Brandt: Cardinals. With an improved defense (thanks largely to Chandler Jones), the Cardinals will edge the Seahawks in a very close race.

Maurice Jones-Drew: Seattle Seahawks. Even without Beast Mode, Seattle is going to take back the West.

Brian Billick: Cardinals. Arguably the most complete roster from top to bottom in the NFL, the Cardinals can win by putting up 40 points or pitching a defensive shutout.

Gregg Rosenthal: Seahawks. Their defense is as loaded as ever and Russell Wilson's young receiver group has a chance to grow up with him.

Willie McGinest: Cardinals. This team just has so much talent and the right man leading the way.

Adam Schein: Cardinals. 1-53, the Arizona Cardinals have the most talented roster in the NFL.

Bucky Brooks: Seahawks. The "Legion of Boom" helps the Seahawks' D rank as the top-scoring defense for the fifth straight season. With Russell Wilson and Co. lighting it up on offense, the Seahawks head into the playoffs with the NFC's No. 1 seed.

Elliot Harrison: Cardinals. The Cardinals might not have enjoyed a fantastic preseason on multiple levels, but they can still equal the talent level of any team in the league. Carson Palmer must fare better than he did in the postseason.

David Carr: Cardinals. They are probably the most complete team in the league, despite struggling a bit in the preseason.

Charley Casserly: Cardinals. Throw out the preseason. The Cards will edge out Seattle.

Ike Taylor: Seahawks. The defense has proven it can lead this team far. The run game should open up the pass for Russell Wilson and Co., getting them back to the top of the NFC West.

Dave Dameshek: Seahawks. In the latest NFC West Juggernaut head-to-head rivalry, I'll take the team with Wilson over the one with Palmer. (11-5, No. 3 seed)

Chris Wesseling: Seahawks. This could be the most talented roster of the Pete Carroll/John Schneider era, which is high praise indeed.

Colleen Wolfe: Cardinals. Don't worry about Carson Palmer's preseason. Write that on the chalk board 100 times until you believe it.

Heath Evans: Cardinals. This team is so talented and knows how to win. The Cardinals have a perfect mix of veterans and young guys, along with one of the best coaches in the league.

Marcas Grant: Seahawks. Marshawn Lynch might be gone, but this team will live and die on the play of Russell Wilson. That's not the worst position to be in right now.

Adam Rank: Cardinals. The Cardinals are poised to make that next step. And really, I just kind of want it to happen after watching "All or Nothing" on Amazon.

Alex Gelhar: Seahawks. A rejuvenated ground game with Christine Michael and Thomas Rawls helps get the Seahawks back on top in the West.

 

NFC WILD CARD 1

Judy Battista: Seattle Seahawks. They easily could win the division, too, and another Super Bowl run wouldn't be a surprise. With Jimmy Graham returning and Russell Wilson's continuing development, the offense should be better than ever.

Jeffri Chadiha: Seahawks. Russell Wilson took another big step in his development during an impressive second half in 2015. Watch what he does this fall.

Gil Brandt: Seahawks. A great defense along with a very good quarterback leads a squad that could very well finish first in the NFC West.

Maurice Jones-Drew: Arizona Cardinals. This team is way too talented to be at home in January.

Brian Billick: Seahawks. The Seahawks play the Cardinals in Week 16 and that very well might decide the division. While I picked the Cardinals to win, the Seahawks might be the second-best team in the entire NFC.

Gregg Rosenthal: Cardinals. It's a shame that perhaps the best two rosters in football reside in the same division.

Willie McGinest: Seahawks. Pete Carroll always has this group in the mix. This year will be no different.

Adam Schein: Seahawks. The Seahawks still have an elite defense with an MVP-caliber quarterback in Russell Wilson.

Bucky Brooks: Cardinals. The Cardinals challenge the Seahawks for the best record in football but are forced to settle for a wild-card berth when the offense falters down stretch.

Elliot Harrison: Seahawks. Seattle will be a wild card once again, but it doesn't mean the 'Hawks can't make it to the Super Bowl. The offensive line and running game will be key. The Seahawks should be a tough out.

David Carr: Redskins. This team is solid and made the playoffs last year. Kirk Cousins will help lead this team back.

Charley Casserly: Seahawks. Russell Wilson and the defense lead them to the postseason.

Ike Taylor: Minnesota Vikings. Adrian Peterson and the defense will carry this team into the playoffs.

Dave Dameshek: Cardinals. The Cards' third-best WR is better than many team's No. 1. Question is, which of their three great WRs gets the bronze medal? (11-5, No. 5 seed)

Chris Wesseling: Cardinals. Every skill-position player returns from a high-octane offense, and the defensive pass rush should be significantly improved. The Cardinals remain a Super Bowl contender.

Colleen Wolfe: Seahawks. Russell Wilson and Ciara will Instagram every second of the season. Pray for America's children.

Heath Evans: Vikings. The Vikings rely on their defense and run game, and both are strong enough to get them back into the playoffs.

Marcas Grant: Cardinals. The Redbirds could lose a tough division battle to the Seahawks, but it would be a major upset if they missed the playoffs altogether.

Adam Rank: Chicago Bears. The Bears were really close in a lot of games last season.

Alex Gelhar: Cardinals. The new additions on defense (Robert Nkemdiche, Chandler Jones) help the Cardinals make another trip to the postseason.

 

NFC WILD CARD 2

Judy Battista: Washington Redskins. The Vikings would have edged Washington for this spot before Teddy Bridgewater's injury, but now the well-balanced Redskins have enough balance to take the final wild card.

Jeffri Chadiha: New York Giants. The Giants added a lot of defensive talent in the offseason. Those moves will pay off big in the long run.

Gil Brandt: Tampa Bay Buccaneers. A new head coach (former offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter) and improved play by Jameis Winston make the Bucs much better than they were in 2015.

Maurice Jones-Drew: Minnesota Vikings. With last year's playoff loss in mind, the Vikings will make a good run. It doesn't matter that they won't win the division.

Brian Billick: Vikings. Adrian Peterson's window is closing and the Vikings will need him to dominate once again and carry them to the playoffs after the loss of Teddy Bridgewater.

Gregg Rosenthal: Buccaneers. A team is ripe to emerge from the NFC South as a contender to Carolina's throne. Jameis Winston's second-year leap will edge out a Saints resurgence for the last spot.

Willie McGinest: Vikings. Teddy Bridgewater's injury hurts, but a defense with talent on every level carries this team into the postseason.

Adam Schein: Buccaneers. Jameis Winston takes a major step forward in Year 2. Dirk Koetter is a major improvement as the head coach. And Roberto Aguayo makes kicks!

Bucky Brooks: Dallas Cowboys. Against all odds, the Cowboys roll into the playoffs behind a pair of rookie playmakers (Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott) occupying key roles on offense. The duo plays at an all-star level to help the mask a defense that struggles getting stops.

Elliot Harrison: Redskins. Washington takes advantage of the Vikings' question marks at quarterback and outlasts the Lions and Giants for the final spot.

David Carr: Buccaneers. Jameis Winston's improvement will really show this season. The Bucs also have a good defense, so they will be competitive.

Charley Casserly: Redskins. Kirk Cousins proves he is for real.

Ike Taylor: Buccaneers. This is an under-the-radar team. The Bucs have a lot of young players with a lot of potential. Will potential turn into results this season? I think so.

Dave Dameshek: Buccaneers. Teddy B. didn't deserve that awful injury, but like Will Munny said in "Unforgiven," "Deserve's got nothing to do with it." As it is, Jameis is ready to fill the void with what'll be a strong offense and defense built around Gerald McCoy and Lavonte David, two of the very best -- if most underrated -- players at their respective positions. (9-7, No. 6 seed)

Chris Wesseling: Atlanta Falcons. Matt Ryan's offense will be one of the surprises of the 2016 season, flirting with 30 points per game.

Colleen Wolfe: Buccaneers. In an uncomfortably close game, Tampa comes from behind and clinches a wild-card berth on a game-winning field goal. Robert Aguayo never misses again. Years later, headlines read: "Aguayo Kicks His Way to Canton."

Heath Evans: Seahawks. This defense has been at the top for a while and I don't see the unit dropping off. Plus, Russell Wilson is always a threat in the pass and ground games.

Marcas Grant: Redskins. This spot might have otherwise belonged to the Vikings, but an injury to Teddy Bridgewater opens the door for Washington.

Adam Rank: Vikings. Let's be honest: It's not akin to the Packers losing Aaron Rodgers. The Vikings can survive with a game manager. They now go from Super Bowl contender to playoff team.

Alex Gelhar: Buccaneers. Teddy Bridgewater's injury opens the door for a new team here. A slimmed-down, focused Jameis Winston in Year 2 of Dirk Koetter's system pushes the Bucs over the hump and into the playoffs.

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