Who might surprise this year in NFC?

After looking last week at surprising candidates to capture AFC division titles, let’s turn to the NFC teams that are looking to go from drafting high this spring to hanging banners high next winter. As with the AFC, we focus on teams with division odds of 4-1 or higher and examine why each could be this season’s Cinderella. Analyzing every division winner’s odds in recent history, the data overwhelmingly indicates that it’s probably not a matter of if a major division title upset will happen this season, it’s a question of who and how many. Let’s open the menu and find something we might like. 


Giants (9-1) 

The case: A juicy number at 9-1 will tempt some, considering the name recognition the Giants have at the skill positions, especially to the large majority of fans and bettors who play fantasy football. Saquon Barkley was popular atop fantasy drafts last summer, while Daniel Jones and Darius Slayton showed glimpses of stardom with a handful of eye-catching performances as rookies. New York will add to this core with the fourth pick in the draft. But despite this trio’s skill, there is a reason the Giants are picking fourth. The essence of football remains blocking and tackling, two areas in which the Giants are bereft of talent. And Jones prompts a divide: Some laud his skill set and cite his ability to move the football, while others point out his glaring inability to protect it. Barkley is a highlight reel but needs to provide fewer highlights for defenders who draw him in pass protection if new coach Joe Judge is to get this team out of picking in the top six for the fourth consecutive season. Even with expanded playoffs, it’s not enough to include the Giants.  


Redskins (16-1) 

The case: ... Is hard to make. “Adult in the room” is a phrase you will hear plenty this summer when reading Redskins previews. While Ron Rivera does provide a sense of stability, he will not only have to be the head coach, he also must moonlight as a janitor to clean up the mess he has inherited. Any unforeseen leap must include an ascension by second-year QB Dwayne Haskins. The last two MVPs have been second-year QBs who vaulted into the upper tier of the league seemingly overnight, capturing top seeds for their teams in the process. Haskins has ability but also has quite a journey ahead of him if he wants to elevate himself into being even an average starter. Presumably Chase Young will be drafted and added to Montez Sweat to provide a potentially lethal pass-rushing duo. But any chance of winning the NFC East will require a mini-miracle that would likely have to include injuries to the Eagles’ Carson Wentz or the Cowboys’ Dak Prescott. Progress is reasonable to expect since Washington won only three games last year.  


Lions (9-1) 

The case: Being “due” is a flimsy reason to expect improvement, but Detroit certainly would qualify. The Lions pick third in the draft. The player they pick will have high expectations to contribute right away. He will also have a birthday about five years after the Lions’ last division title. What is now called the NFC North was then called the NFC Central, a division the Bucs won six years more recently than Detroit, despite Tampa Bay being realigned to the NFC South two decades ago. You get the point. Detroit was playing well last year before QB Mathew Stafford went out. They were 3-3-1, including a last-second loss to the Chiefs, a Monday night mugging by the refs in Green Bay and a tie in Arizona in which they blew a huge second-half lead. Stafford gets heat for being highly paid, but he can point to what life was like without him, as the Lions went winless the last two months in his absence. With Aaron Rodgers aging and Minnesota rearranging its roster, the division is perhaps up for grabs. It’s tempting to take a shot at 9-1, but the porous defense needs too much work. And while perhaps it is wide open, this division provides no easy outs.  


Falcons (6-1)

The case: The 1-7 Falcons decided to shake up their coaching staff in November, and what ensued is the reason I like Atlanta at this price. Not only did they quietly go 6-2 in the second half of the season, they collected probably the most impressive pair of wins any team had last season. A dominant 26-9 victory in New Orleans as well as a road victory against the 49ers are proof of this team’s potential. While the novelty of having 10 former first-round picks is more an oddity than an achievement, it does speak to the pedigree and talent of this group. While the addition of RB Todd Gurley will grab headlines, he is more icing than he is cake at this point. Still, many will pick Tampa or New Orleans to win this division, but those teams have quarterbacks who will have a combined age of 84 when the season begins. Atlanta shocked the world as a 10-1 NFC South long shot in 2016 and just might stun again four years later.


Seattle (4-1) 

The case: Another number too good to pass up. Much like Atlanta, Seattle is a big underdog with a really good quarterback. I don’t need to tell you how good Russell Wilson is, unless you are the play-caller for the Seahawks, in which case: Russell Wilson is really good, so let him throw! Their commitment to the prehistoric philosophy of establishing the run is often their own worst enemy, as many of their games follow the same script — run early and often, fall way behind, unleash Wilson and mount a furious comeback. I still wonder if Pete Carroll hadn’t punted it back to Green Bay late in the divisional round, would it have been a third Seattle-San Francisco matchup in the NFC title game? The Seahawks were an extension of the wrist from sweeping the 49ers and winning the division title in Week 17, and they will be back in the mix to do the same this year. Aren’t they always?


Rams (4-1) 

The case: Three straight winning seasons ... only 14 months removed from playing in a Super Bowl that was there for the taking in the fourth quarter ... The Rams still have some superstar talent and names we all recognize. In 1993, the famous and still wildly popular video game NBA Jam was created, featuring a two-on-two style of basketball that emphasized the element of fun over the burden of managing a roster. Depth and nuance weren’t part of the game. The idea was to find an exciting tandem and fire away. The Rams are unfortunately about to find out the NBA Jam philosophy does not convert well to the NFL. Shedding cap space and draft picks as if they have an imminent expiration date is about to catch up with the Rams. They lack depth as well as assets and are simply locked in to a roster that isn’t good enough to justify going all in on a bet. 


Panthers (12-1) 

The case: On Aug. 30, 2016, Teddy Bridgewater woke up and went to practice. He was in his third season, about to enter his second full year as the Vikings’ starter. They were coming off an 11-win division-title season in which a Blair Walsh chip shot would have put them two victories from the Super Bowl. The horrific injury Bridgewater suffered this day at practice set off a head-spinning chain of events, instigating a game of QB musical chairs that altered the paths of too many players and teams to recount without doing a one-hour documentary. What gets forgotten is that Bridgewater has never had another chance to be the guy — until now. He gets probably the best back in the league, as well as an underrated duo of WRs in Robby Anderson and D.J. Moore, plus a new coach whose appeal created a bidding war for his services. As hard as I think they’ll play, and although I like the Over 5.5 wins, the Panthers are the longest shot on the board in the NFC for a reason. Matt Rhule signed a seven-year contract, so this new regime will be playing the long game, taking its lumps in Year 1 with hopes of better days to come. 


Cardinals (7-1) 

The case: ... Will be made for me by plenty of people this August, as I have a feeling this will be a trendy upstart pick. The acquisition of DeAndre Hopkins will garner the Cardinals the attention they were never given last year. I find it interesting that Kyler Murray’s decision to play football over baseball generated much more conversation than his rookie-year performance. Despite coming in as the No. 1 overall pick and still managing to exceed expectations, he did so in a fairly under-the-radar manner. With Lamar Jackson’s weekly highlight show on center stage, Murray quietly put up an extremely productive first year for the pesky Cards, who were a tough out all season. With San Francisco a candidate to fall victim to the traditional hangover and regression teams often experience the year after losing a Super Bowl, the division may be more up for grabs than many would think. The Cardinals are trending up, and though I am high on them, I think a wild-card spot is a more realistic possibility this year. 


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