The San Francisco 49ers, Seattle Seahawks and Atlanta Falcons all reached the NFC Divisional Round last season. They also all made relatively big acquisitions in the past week -- the Seahawks trading for Percy Harvin, the 49ers dealing for Anquan Boldin and the Falcons signing Steven Jackson, in addition to other moves. With this in mind, which team is your early NFC front-runner in 2013?
I like Seattle as the NFC favorite. The Seahawks have made the biggest jump of any of the three teams. They improved their pass rush; I believe Michael Bennett is a very good signing, and Cliff Avril will be a boost, as well. Percy Harvin gives them the deep threat they were lacking a season ago.
Atlanta still has major needs at corneback and pass rusher. Certainly San Francisco still is a very strong team, but Seattle is a more difficult matchup for the 49ers now.
The Seahawks were the best NFC team at the end of the 2012 season, and the moves they've made this offseason have only strengthened their hold.
Percy Harvin is a dynamic playmaker who will not only help Russell Wilson, but also open up things for Marshawn Lynch. But don't overlook the moves the Seahawks made on defense with Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett joining an already impressive group. Avril could have signed a big-money deal with a non-contender and languished for a few years. When he joined the Seahawks, he helped make them the most well-rounded team in the NFL.
Just looking on paper, it's hard to find a weakness. Of course, these things aren't played out on paper. Unless you play Strat-o-matic, which is of course played on paper. But this certainly isn't.
Q: Do you prefer In-N-Out or Five Guys?
A: Trick question. There is no wrong answer. Same goes for Seahawks and Niners.
I love every move Seattle has made. They'd be an easy pick to win any of the other seven divisions. But they are not in any of the other seven divisions. Like the Red Sox and Yankees, LSU and Alabama, and -- for those old enough to recall -- the Oilers and Steelers, the sport's two best teams just so happen to be in the same division ... and I've still got the two-time reigning NFC West champ Niners by a whisker.
I don't think anyone's crazy if they're partial to Seattle. They don't appear to have any holes on the roster. I'm taking the Niners, though, because I have a sneaking suspension Jim Harbaugh and his staff might be the best in the NFL. I know the sample size is small, but in two seasons, his team played in one Super Bowl and should've made it to another. Then again, Pete Carroll and Co. are no slouches. Ooh, this is gonna be good.
What else does Seattle need? Now they're loaded everywhere. Percy Harvin and Cliff Avril were their two missing pieces. These are marquee players in their primes who will help them be even more explosive than they were a season ago.
Anquan Boldin and Steven Jackson are two veterans on the decline who have a little bit left in the tank, but they're not the difference-makers Harvin and Avril are. Especially Jackson -- is he going to be an upgrade over Michael Turner or is he going to be about the same? He's not a red-zone threat, and his production has been slowly decreasing the past three seasons. And Matt Ryan could see a Matthew Stafford-like bounce back to Earth this season after a big breakthrough in 2012.
For San Francisco, there's a bigger worry than its free agency moves. Mentally, it's a lot to get to the NFC Championship Game and lose, then get to the Super Bowl and lose the next season. I can't see San Francisco maintaining that mental edge that's needed over the course of the offseason, 16 more games and the playoffs to make it out of the NFC again. The Niners will keep playing the Super Bowl in their heads over and over, thinking, "When we get back this year, we're going to win it." Teams who do that look at their record in December and see 7-7.
San Francisco takes a step back this season, Atlanta treads water or falls off a little bit, and Seattle rises to make it to MetLife Stadium in February.