NFL Nation: 2012 More or Less NFC

NFC North: More or Less

June, 20, 2012
6/20/12
12:00
PM ET
AFC More or Less: East | West | North | South NFC: East | West | North | South

After running the numbers, ESPN.com pro football writer John Clayton arrived at a win total for every team in the division for 2012. Is the figure too high, too low or spot on?

CHICAGO BEARS: Given that they were 7-3 last season before quarterback Jay Cutler was injured, I would think 10-6 and a wild-card bid would be the low end of the Bears' expectations this season.

The Bears have surrounded Cutler with the best offense he has had since arriving in Chicago, and it could be among the league's most explosive if the offensive line can settle in. The Bears' defense is going to get old at some point, but it appears to have at least one more season of high-level play in it.

The real question is whether the Bears can challenge for the division title, which they claimed just two years ago. I think they can.

More or less? I could see the Bears with 11-plus victories in 2012.

DETROIT LIONS: There is every reason to believe the Lions are on their way to a second consecutive winning season and once again challenge for a playoff spot. Clayton suggests they will fall short of that latter goal, and that isn't a totally unreasonable thought.

Remember, the Lions trailed the Bears in the playoff race last season before Cutler was injured. They will return the same team, presumably one that can build off last season's performance, but the division is more competitive now than it was when the Lions clinched last year's playoff spot.

More or less? Give or take a game, this is a reasonable prediction.

GREEN BAY PACKERS: History suggests the Packers won't match their 2011 record, but 12-4 would give them the NFC North championship in this scenario and put them on pace for another playoff run. As long as the Packers have a healthy Aaron Rodgers at quarterback, there is every reason to think they will be an annual Super Bowl contender.

Some of the Packers' 2012 success depends on how their attempts to shore up the defense work out. You can cover for a leaky pass defense in the regular season, but it can spell an early end to a playoff run.

More or less? A 12-4 record sounds about right to me.

MINNESOTA VIKINGS: The Vikings have made some improvements to quarterback Christian Ponder's periphery and, at the moment at least, have a healthier and more skilled defensive backfield.

But the Vikings are competing in one of the NFL's toughest divisions, against three legitimate playoff contenders. There remain some serious personnel holes -- especially at middle linebacker, safety and nose tackle -- and it will take some time for some of the young players they are counting on to develop.

This is a better team than last year's 3-13 team, but even doubling that win total will leave them at 6-10.

More or less? I think they'll win more than three games.

NFC South: More or Less

June, 20, 2012
6/20/12
12:00
PM ET
AFC More or Less: East | West | North | South NFC: East | West | North | South

After running the numbers, ESPN.com pro football writer John Clayton arrived at a win total for every team in the division for 2012. Is the figure too high, too low or spot on?

ATLANTA FALCONS: Clayton has the Falcons going 11-5. He also has them as the only NFC South team going to the playoffs. I think the first part is right, but I’m not so sure on the second (more on that later). The Falcons went 10-6 last season, and it was a somewhat disappointing 10-6 because the team went 13-3 in 2010 and thought it had made upgrades. This time around, the Falcons didn’t make any big trades to jump up high in the draft and they didn’t sign any big-name free agents. That’s because the coaching staff and front office believe the roster is very talented and that changing both coordinators and the offensive and defensive schemes was the best way to improve this team.

More or less? I think 11 wins sounds just about right. If Clayton is wrong, it may be because the Falcons win 10 games.

NEW ORLEANS SAINTS: Clayton has the Saints going 9-7 and not making the playoffs. I’m assuming Clayton believes all the offseason turmoil will take a toll on the Saints, and I understand that thinking. But I think the Saints are still a team that can win 10 games and go to the playoffs. Yes, it will be difficult without coach Sean Payton. But the Saints upgraded at linebacker with Curtis Lofton and David Hawthorne, and coordinator Steve Spagnuolo should make the defense better. We all know that Drew Brees and the offense are going to be very good. The Saints also are adopting an us-against-the-world mentality, and I think that will motivate them nicely.

More or less? Clayton could end up being right because the team certainly faces some challenges. But I think there’s enough veteran leadership and motivation in place that this team won’t tumble too much.

CAROLINA PANTHERS: Clayton has them going 8-8. I think he’s being a little conservative. If things break right and the Saints do stumble or the Falcons get caught up in all the pressure they’re facing, I could see Carolina winning as many as 10 or 11 games. The Panthers already have the kind of offense that can score points with just about anybody, and the offense should only be better in Cam Newton’s second season. The defense remains the big question mark. But linebacker Jon Beason and defensive tackle Ron Edwards are back from injuries, and the Panthers drafted linebacker Luke Kuechly with its first-round pick. That’s going to help a lot.

More or less? If the Panthers can just put a middle-of-the-pack defense on the field, they should be better than a .500 team.

TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS: Clayton has the Bucs going 6-10. That would be a two-win improvement over last season, which ended with 10 consecutive losses. But I think the Bucs have their eye on something better than 6-10, and I think this team is capable of more. The cupboard isn’t bare here. The Bucs have stockpiled some nice young talent in recent drafts. Those players haven’t completely proven themselves yet. But I think players such as quarterback Josh Freeman, defensive tackle Gerald McCoy and defensive end Adrian Clayborn can prosper under the guidance of new coach Greg Schiano. The Bucs also gave themselves an infusion of veteran talent by signing receiver Vincent Jackson, guard Carl Nicks and cornerback Eric Wright. That should bring veteran leadership that was lacking.

More or less? I think the Bucs have a chance to finish closer to 8-8.

NFC West: More or Less

June, 20, 2012
6/20/12
12:00
PM ET
AFC More or Less: East | West | North | South NFC: East | West | North | South

After running the numbers, ESPN.com pro football writer John Clayton arrived at a win total for every team in the division for 2012. Is the figure too high, too low or spot on?

SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS: The 49ers return just about all the key players from the squad that went 13-3 and reached the NFC Championship Game last season. They appear stronger on paper after adding to their offensive weaponry through the draft and free agency. Having a full offseason should also let the 49ers more fully implement and grasp schemes that were new to the team when the lockout ended a year ago.

While all signs point to another strong season for the 49ers, it's tough to win 13 games once, let alone again. Sixty-one teams went 13-3 or better from 1978 through 2010. Five won as many games the next season. Zero won more games.

San Francisco was unusually healthy on defense last season. Quarterback Alex Smith started every game despite taking 44 sacks in the regular season and seven more in the playoffs. A plus-28 turnover differential will be difficult to duplicate. The NFC West appears to be getting more competitive.

More or less? Clayton's projection seems reasonable. Ten or 11 victories feels about right. That would give the 49ers back-to-back winning seasons for the first time since 2000-2001.

SEATTLE SEAHAWKS: After ranking 23rd in points scored and seventh in points allowed last season, Seattle surprisingly used eight 2012 draft choices for defense. No team used more picks for defensive players this year. Seattle has added most of its key skill players through free agency (Zach Miller, Sidney Rice, Kellen Winslow, Matt Flynn) and trade (Marshawn Lynch, Leon Washington) over the last couple seasons.

The Seahawks were a quarterback upgrade away from reaching and probably surpassing .500 last season. They upgraded their depth at the position without question. Their as-yet-unnamed starter will probably fare better than incumbent Tarvaris Jackson, who played much of the 2011 season with a torn right pectoral muscle. The team has reason for optimism as a result, but there are still question marks surrounding the position.

The running game should remain strong with Tom Cable coaching the line and Lynch pounding away. Seattle will not ask its quarterback to carry the team. A strong defense will keep the Seahawks competitive. Taking that next step will require better play at quarterback, most likely from Flynn.

More or less? Clayton's expectations match my own. Seattle has been stuck at 7-9 over the past two seasons. The 2011 team did improve, however. I'd expect to see that reflected in the record.

ARIZONA CARDINALS: Nothing has come easy for the Cardinals since quarterback Kurt Warner retired following the 2009 season. The starting job remains open until Kevin Kolb or John Skelton wins it. Their race is critical for the team, of course, but an improved defense figures to keep the Cardinals competitive.

All but one key defender (Richard Marshall) returns after Arizona's defense allowed 12 touchdowns over its final nine games last season. The team needs increased contributions from young outside linebackers Sam Acho and O'Brien Schofield to ensure continued improvement on that side of the ball.

Arizona won seven of its final nine games last season after a 1-6 start. The Cardinals' eight total victories came by 4.25 points on average. No team since at least 1970 has won as many games in a season by so few points on average, another reminder that nothing has come easy for this team lately.

Like Seattle, Arizona is banking on improved quarterback play. Kolb is in better position to succeed now that he knows the offense. But he has to win the job, first. Skelton played well enough in fourth quarters and overtime to earn the team's trust. Kolb has ground to make up.

More or less? Kolb's disappointing first season in Arizona gives skeptics an easy reason to discount the Cardinals. There's a risk in discounting them too much. I'll project more than seven victories for Arizona.

ST. LOUIS RAMS: Coach Jeff Fisher faces the biggest rebuilding project of his career. While his Houston Oilers improved from 2-14 to 7-9 in Fisher's first full season as head coach (1995), that organization had posted seven consecutive winning seasons before its big fall. The Rams are 15-65 over their previous five seasons. They haven't finished a season .500 or better since 2004.

The last time the Rams went 2-14, in 2008, they followed it up with a 1-15 record in 2009. The other three teams to finish 2-14 from 2008-2010 improved their records. One went 4-12 the next year. Two went 6-10.

St. Louis should benefit from improved health. The team finished last season with 16 players on injured reserve, including six cornerbacks, three offensive linemen and three wide receivers. The Rams lacked sufficient depth to weather that many injuries, especially with quarterback Sam Bradford missing games or playing hurt.

Bradford, Jason Smith and Robert Quinn are three pivotal players for the Rams this season. All three are young and highly drafted. Bradford is more important than the others, but the team needs more from all three.

More or less? The projections I made last month set the Rams' over-under at 5.5 victories, behind those for San Francisco (10), Seattle (8.5) and Arizona (7.5). I'll say Clayton's figure is on the low side, but I won't say it very loudly.

NFC East: More or Less

June, 20, 2012
6/20/12
12:00
PM ET
AFC More or Less: East | West | North | South NFC: East | West | North | South

After running the numbers, ESPN.com pro football writer John Clayton arrived at a win total for every team in the division for 2012. Is the figure too high, too low or spot on?

PHILADELPHIA EAGLES: As disappointing as last year's Eagles were, they still managed to win eight games. Upgrades to the linebacker corps, a tightening up of the coverage schemes and an improved comfort level in the new defense all stand as reasons to believe things will be better in Philadelphia this year. They appear to be loaded with top athletic talent at every position, and on paper (yes, we've heard those words before) they look like the best team in the division and one of the best in the league. After last year, I am far from sold, and I think a lot of this rides on quarterback Michael Vick and his ability to limit the turnovers that were so costly during last September's slow start.

As for the schedule breakdown, John has the Eagles going 4-2 in the division. They were 5-1 in the division last year, and I don't see any good reason to think they should do much worse. I guess the Redskins should be better, but it's hard to see how the Cowboys (who weren't in either game) or the Giants will be much tougher to beat than they were a year ago. And out of the division, John has the Eagles 6-4. Tough road trips to Pittsburgh, New Orleans and Arizona loom, but road games in Cleveland and Tampa Bay don't look so tough.

More or less? You guys know I don't like to make predictions this early, but since I must, I'm saying Clayton's number for the Eagles turns out to be a bit low.

NEW YORK GIANTS: This would, of course, match the Giants' win total from last year, when they became the first team ever to win the NFC East and the Super Bowl with fewer than 10 wins in a non-shortened regular season. It also would be one fewer than their win total from 2010, when they missed the playoffs. With Eli Manning at quarterback, Hakeem Nicks and Victor Cruz back at wide receiver and all of those great pass-rushers back for another year, the Giants are strong where it counts, and that's the reason for their year-to-year consistency. But within the confines of the 2011 regular season, they were anything but consistent. They looked terrible twice against the Redskins but beat the Cowboys twice when it counted, then of course got on that January roll that carried them to their second championship in five years.

John has the Giants 3-3 in the division, which is a fair expectation. (I mean, we can't assume they'll beat the Redskins until we see it, right?) And he has them 6-4 outside the division, where they play at San Francisco (they were 1-1 there last year, of course, in two very close games), and have back-t0-back trips to Atlanta and Baltimore in December. Free agency ate at their depth, and the Giants will need to do some work to replace the production of important 2011 pieces such as Mario Manningham and Brandon Jacobs. I guess the question is whether they're going to be the playoff-tough team we saw in late December and the postseason, or the team that struggled so badly in November against the tough part of its schedule.

More or less? From this far out, this just doesn't strike me as a Giants team that should win as many games as it won last year. For that reason, I say John's nine-win figure is a little bit high. Though I fully acknowledge the folly of picking against the Giants.

DALLAS COWBOYS: The Cowboys' defense -- particularly their secondary -- imploded completely over the final month of the season, and that and the two losses to the Giants were the reasons they finished 8-8 and missed last year's playoffs. They attacked the secondary by signing Brandon Carr and trading up to draft Morris Claiborne, and they added an inside linebacker in Dan Connor. But the rest of the team looks basically the same -- a potentially elite offense with Tony Romo throwing to Miles Austin and Dez Bryant and handing off to DeMarco Murray, but the same old questions in the middle of the offensive line and on defense.

John has the Cowboys going 3-3 in the division, which again seems fair for a team that looks to be around the middle of the league pack. And with out-of-division games against the Bears, Falcons, Ravens, Steelers and Saints, it's not hard to imagine a 6-4 record outside the NFC East is possible either. If the upgrades at cornerback really do help the pass rush and put less pressure on the safeties, then the Cowboys could make a leap. The Romo-led offense should score more than enough points. I just don't feel as though this Dallas team has elevated itself to the top echelon of the league's defenses.

More or less? John's number seems about right to me. I don't think they go 0-2 against the Giants again.

WASHINGTON REDSKINS: The Redskins' biggest need was, of course, quarterback, and they dealt four high draft picks to get one. Robert Griffin III carries the hopes of a desperate fan base and the promise of being better than Rex Grossman, even as a rookie. The Redskins also outfitted him with a pair of new free-agent wide receivers, Pierre Garcon and Josh Morgan, and will team him with a young defense on the come. Will it be enough to vault Washington into actual playoff contention? John thinks no. And in fairness, as great as Griffin projects to be, he is a rookie, and rookies tend to struggle. Questions remain in the running game, on the offensive line, at receiver and in the secondary. More work to be done in Washington before the Redskins can threaten the playoffs, most likely.

As for the breakdown, John has the Redskins 2-4 in the division, which is what they were last year, and 4-6 outside of it. They feel as though they should have had both of the Cowboys games, and it's not ridiculous to think they can get one this year, but regardless of the joke I made earlier, it's hard to imagine them beating the Super Bowl champs twice in the same year again. I just don't think their non-division schedule looks all that terrifying. A road game in Pittsburgh and home games against the Ravens and Falcons, sure. But I think the opener in New Orleans looks ripe for a fired-up team with a new quarterback, what with the Saints' coaches all suspended and especially if the Jonathan Vilma suspension holds up. It's not too hard to squint and find five or six potential non-division wins if the Redskins play slightly better than they did last year.

More or less? I think the Redskins will win more than six. But again, it's June, and I reserve the right to make my real predictions at the proper time.

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