Yesterday, I broke down the AFC, now I move on to the NFC.
1. The New Orleans Saints - the defending Super Bowl Champions return a very good squad, have a great coach in Sean Payton, and QB Drew Brees is at the top of his game. The addition of Defensive Coordinator Gregg Williams last season propelled the Saints to the championship, and another year under Williams should make them more consistent on the defensive side of the ball.
The Key: The key to the Saints returning to the promised land is the takeaways on defense. They led the league in turnovers forced last season, and although I think their defense is improved, they aren't a dominating defense...they rely on getting turnovers.
2. The Dallas Cowboys - the Cowboys have an excellent squad talent wise. Very good running backs, offensive linemen, good receivers, and a talented defense. Tony Romo is a playoff caliber quarterback, and it's now up to Wade Phillips and his staff to take this team to the next level.
The Key: Finding an offensive identity. Are they going to be a punishing running team with Marion Barber, and Felix Jones? Or, are they going to sling the ball around the field to Dez Byrant, Miles Austin, Jason Witten, and Roy Williams. When I watch the Cowboys I wonder which team I am going to see. Developing their offense to utilize their talent is the key for Dallas.
3. The Green Bay Packers - the Packers return a very solid team from last year's playoff squad. Aaron Rodgers has developed into one of the best young signal callers in the game. Their defense should be improved, and I have been impressed with Coach McCarthy.
The Key: Pass Protection. I thought Rodgers was going to get killed last season. The Packers drafted a good Tackle in Brian Baluga. His development, and the continued improvement of the offensive line is they biggest question surrounding the Packers.
4. The Minnesota Vikings - the Vikings were just an errant Brett Favre pass away from going to the Super Bowl last season. They return a ton of talent on both sides of the ball. Stellar offensive and defensive lines, a dominating running back, exciting receivers, good linebackers, what's not to like? Well, there's the Quarterback position. I'm of the opinion that Favre is coming back this year, but he's another year older and would be hard pressed to repeat last year's performance.
The Key: Quarterback. If Favre does actually retire, the vikings offense goes from great to average. If Favre comes back, you can bet that teams took note of the Saints gameplan in the NFC Championship. Hit him hard, and often. Get in his face continually. It's going to be tough for a 40 year old man to take that kind of punishment. However, if the vikings can protect Favre, and he can play close to last year's level they would vault to #1 in my rankings.
5. The San Francisco 49er's - The Niners have been building towards this the past few years. They have a very good defensive team, LBer Patrick Willis is possibly the best defensive player in the league. They have a nice running game with Frank Gore and Glen Coffee. TE Vernon Davis is developing into a dominating offensive weapon. The big question mark is QB Alex Smith.
The Key: QB Alex Smith. Can Smith elevate his game to playoff level? To be honest, I feel kind of bad for the guy, he had a different coordinator every season for his first 5 years in the league. I don't think he needs to carry the team, he just needs to play smart and not make big mistakes.
The Darkhorse: The Philadelphia Eagles - most people are down on the Eagles with the departure of Donovan McNabb and Brian Westbrook. However, I'm not sure this is a step back. Kevin Kolb is a quality player and has had a few years to learn the system. I anticipate this being something like when Philip Rivers took over the Chargers, they have a lot of weapons with DeSean Jackson, Jeremy Maclin, and Anthony Avant at reciever. Nice running back in LeSean McCoy, and underrated TE Brett Celek. The Defensive will be under the tutelage of Sean McDermott for a second year. I think Andy Reid is underrated as a coach, the Eagles have been competitive since he took over.
The Key: most people would put this on QB Kevin Kolb. But I'm looking at the defense. They had a decent squad last season, but they need to improve. If you can put a good defense on the field, and establish a decent, not great, but decent running game... Kolb has enough weapons to keep you in the game. Eagle Defense, it's up to you.