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NFL bold predictions: Going out on a limb with each NFC team

The "All or Nothing" Cardinals are making the playoffs again, and Bruce Arians will be a candidate for Coach of the Year. Those are solid predictions, man.

And boring.

It's mid-July. Nearly every player is healthy. Everyone is anticipating when Tony Romo won't be ... and every team besides the Browns have hope. The landscape of pro football is wide open for off-the-beaten-path speculation.

This installment of our "All 32" series focuses on precisely that: bold -- not boring -- predictions for every team in the league. Maybe even the Cowboys and Browns can surprise us. What you won't see here is speculation about Ezekiel Elliott winning the Offensive Rookie of the Year award (not very bold) or the Bengals losing a wild-card game (not bold at all).

So take a gander and provide your thoughts on how plausible you think all 32 predictions are ... @HarrisonNFL is the place.


Dallas Cowboys: Tony Romo plays the whole season.

We've heard so much speculation, from "The Cowboys can win the NFC East if Tony Romo stays healthy" to "Dallas' defense will play better if Tony Romo stays healthy" ... yada, yada, yada. Well, here's a thought: The Cowboys will be employing No. 4 overall pick Ezekiel Elliott, Darren McFadden and the oft-forgotten Alfred Morris at running back. Couple that with the best offensive line in football and a blueprint that should have Romo throwing just 25 times per outing, and the franchise quarterback will see his way through 16 games for the first time since 2012.

New York Giants: Eli Manning wins his first first-team All-Pro nod.

After a dozen years as a starter in the NFL, Manning has won two Super Bowl rings, made the Pro Bowl four times and racked up top-15 totals in career completions (3,695, 10th-best all time), passing yards (44,191, 11th-best all time) and passing touchdowns (294, eighth-best all time). One thing he has yet to cross off his football bucket list: earn first-team All-Pro honors. There have always been passers around that were a little bit better than the Giants' signal caller. Under the radar, however, Manning has enjoyed two of his best seasons over the last two years. With receiver Victor Cruz back and healthy, second-round pick Sterling Shepard contributing and rising star Odell Beckham Jr. entering Year 3, Big Blue's front man could lead the league in passing in 2016 -- and beat luminaries like Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers and Cam Newton for his first first-team All-Pro placement.

Philadelphia Eagles: Carson Wentz only sees the field in garbage time.

Say what?!July proclamations about Wentz's readiness aside, fans likely think the Eagles' brass will want to get the second overall pick of the 2016 NFL Draft -- given that Philly paid through the nose to select him -- on the field rather soon. But what if veteran quarterback Sam Bradford earns every stinking penny of the $22 million he's guaranteed? What if Philadelphia stays afloat in a division that most assuredly will be captured by a team with 10 wins (if not less)? The Eagles finish the regular season at home against the Cowboys, while the Giants will be in Washington in Week 17. It's very possible the NFC East will be decided then. Wentz will not be one of the QBs doing the deciding.

Washington Redskins: The defending NFC East champs finish third.

Kirk Cousins got hot late last season, the defense held up and the next thing you knew, the Redskins were hosting their first playoff game since Robert Griffin III put this team on his back in 2012. Now, with rookie receiver Josh Doctson on board, fans in Washington are salivating over the offense. Sure, Josh Norman is alsoon board. And the defensive front could be more stout (enter Su'a Cravens). DeSean Jackson must be consistent. Second-year pro Matt Jones -- four fumbles lost in 2015 -- must hold on to the football. Tight end Jordan Reed must stay on the field. Oh, and Cousins must rinse ... and repeat. That's a helmet full of musts. Meanwhile, the Giants are much better, and the Cowboys are a completely different team with Tony Romo healthy.


Chicago Bears: John Fox's bunch wins 10 games.

Ten wins ... did you mean to type that?! Well, yes, I did. Sort of. My original idea for a bold prediction: John Fox will emphasize the ground game so prominently that Chicago ranks in the top five in rushing. But working with Jamie Dukes on "NFL HQ" the other morning, I rethought it. Er, he rethought it for me. Take it away, Jamie: "Ten wins." Ten ... for this group of tomato cans? "Hey, you said, 'Bold.' They got Alshon [Jeffery] on one side ... Kevin White on the other ... [Jeremy Langford] in the backfield. That defense is going to be better. And in that division, they'll split with the other teams. It's possible. Bold, but possible." Word.

Detroit Lions: Matthew Stafford enjoys his most efficient season ... without Megatron.

It's July, and we're still lamenting Calvin Johnson's decision to hang 'em up. But did anyone ever think Stafford might be more efficient now? Stafford himself implied that he would need to apply himself more, study more, with Johnson not in the mix. While it should be slightly disturbing for Lions fans that their quarterback -- a seven-year veteran -- might have been avoiding cracking the books until now, it does make sense that Stafford will have to read the whole field and go through his progressions. One other note on this: Johnson averaged 13.8 yards per catch last season, nearly 2.5 yards under his career average entering 2015. It was time for the offense to have a slightly different focus.

Green Bay Packers: The Pack represents the NFC in Super Bowl LI.

Putting myself out there, in July, and saying the Packers make it to Houston in February, despite the mass affinity for the aforementioned "All or Nothing" Cardinals and the logical assumption among Carolina partisans that the Kelvin Benjamin-is-backPanthers will be better. A huge reason is the schedule. Have you seen it? Did you know it's the easiest in the NFL, based on opponents' 2015 winning percentage? That means Mike McCarthy's group has a heckuva shot at securing home-field advantage for the playoffs. And the Packers' all-time home postseason record just so happens to be 17-5.

Minnesota Vikings: Laquon Treadwell wins the Offensive Rookie of the Year award.

Mike Zimmer has publicly asked that quarterback Teddy Bridgewater take more of a leadership role. Everyone not named Mike Zimmer wonders if Bridgewater will take more vertical shots. If he does, that will certainly help Treadwell's productivity. Really, though, the first-round pick's body positioning and ability to compete (successfully) should make a difference on third-and-6 and in the red zone, and that is precisely where Minnesota needs him. It's between the receiver and running back Ezekiel Elliott for the hardware, man.


Atlanta Falcons: I see a last-place finish for the first time since the Joey Harrington era.

The Joey Harrington era ... surpassed in Atlanta sports lore only by the late-'80s Braves, led by Bob Horner, Rick Mahler and Rafael Ramirez. (We refuse to toss Dale Murphy under the bus.) Look for the Panthers to win the division for the 90th straight year. Tampa will be better -- read below -- and should beat the Falcons twice. That leaves the Saints, who landed a quality -- albeit small -- draft class, and who still feature a QB the equal of Cam Newton.

Carolina Panthers: After going 15-1 in 2015, the reigning NFC champs lose at least six games.

Staying with the "end product" theme, Carolina isn't coming close to matching its 15-1 finish. The projected drop rests on three factors:

a) The departed Josh Norman might be a "system" corner, but he was a doggone good system corner.

b) Who is rushing from the edge? Charles Johnson (30) is getting on in years. Sure, Kony Ealy (three sacks, a forced fumble and a pick) enjoyed a fine Super Bowl performance. But so did guys like Timmy Smith, Larry Brown and Desmond Howard.

c) Much went the Panthers' way during their epic 2015 campaign. What if Jonathan Stewart can't stay healthy?

I wouldn't be surprised if every team in the division splits with Carolina. And with the Panthers playing the AFC West, including the Week 1 Super Bowl rematch with the Broncos, 10-6 is believable.

New Orleans Saints: Brandin Cooks tops 1,500 receiving yards.

Drew Brees simply gushed when talking on-air about working with Cooks. He posted 1,138 yards as a second-year pro last season -- and that was withMarques Colston (who has since been released) and Ben Watson (who has since joined the Ravens) taking away targets. Obviously, 1,500 yards is no small benchmark. Only four guys surpassed it last year. Ditto 2014. In 2013, only Josh Gordon pulled it off. But considering Brees' confidence in Cooks, and with New Orleans bound to participate in track meets again, we are confident in this bold prediction.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Dirk Koetter wins as much in one year as Lovie Smith did in two.

No more losing seasons in Tampa Bay. Well, maybe not forever. In terms of 2016, however, the Bucs will at least break even. They'll split with the Panthers. They'll finish ahead of the Falcons, too, who many feel will be better in Year 2 of the Dan Quinn era. The key is not Jameis Winston taking a step forward (although if the quarterback regresses, that could be problematic). It's the improvement of the defense, which finished 26th in points allowed in 2015. With free agent Robert Ayers and rookies Vernon Hargreaves and Noah Spence in the fold, we can do better than 26th, fellas.


Arizona Cardinals: David Johnson leads the NFC in yards from scrimmage.

David Johnson turned it on last season after Chris Johnsonwent down in San Francisco in Week 12. Which is important, as this bold prediction isn't solely based on David Johnson's talents. While the kid showed what he could do, including in the passing game, bear in mind that Chris Johnson was fourth in the NFL in rushing at the time he got injured. For all the banter about Bruce Arians being an aggressive play caller, the man likes to run the football. Arizona was a top-10 rushing offense last year.

Los Angeles Rams: Todd Gurley leads the NFL in rushing -- by a healthy margin.

It's tough to decipher how the Rams will fare with rookie quarterback Jared Goff potentially starting sooner rather than later. But Gurley, who rushed for over 1,106 yards in 13 games en route to capturing the Offensive Rookie of the Year award, made believers out of everyone. OK, so can he lead the league in rushing, beating out the likes of Adrian Peterson, Le'Veon Bell and Doug Martin?

Yes. Peterson is 31. Bell is a fantastic all-around running back who is also in a passing offense and is coming off a major injury. Martin has his own injury history, and he might be pass-blocking more than he expects this season. Gurley will finish with 1,631 yards, tops in the NFL. Mark it down.

San Francisco 49ers: Blaine Gabbert starts the whole season.

Are we all merely waiting for the realColin Kaepernick to emerge and send us on a time warp to the 2012 playoffs, when Clay Matthews was futilely chasing the Niners QB as he ran a bazillion yards to the end zone? It doesn't look like it's happening. What if Kaepernick's abilities aren't perfect for Chip Kelly, Gabbert really is the better overall player and ends up starting the whole season, and the 49ersdon't finish last? It's looking more and more like that vision could become reality.

Seattle Seahawks: The stingiest scoring defense's four-year reign ends.

It's over, folks. The Seahawks might give up the second-fewest points in the league! Get worried. This might be the weakest of the NFC predictions, but it's still a tiny bit bold. And it provides me an excuse to talk about a record not enough fans know about: The Seahawks are the only team to lead the NFL in points allowed for four seasons in a row. They still have the personnel and home-field advantage to make it five. But the defensive-line changes could be problematic, as could the questions about Thomas Rawls' ability to produce at running back all season.

Elliot Harrison is an analyst on NFL Network and can also be seen regularly on NFL Now. Follow him on Twitter @HarrisonNFL.

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