The Monk started this yesterday, picked the Pats, Bengals, Colts, and Broncos for division winners (way to go out on a limb -- pick all four of last year's division champs -- Ed. Uh, fact is, I DID go out on a limb because that hasn't happened in the 8-division era of 2002-present) and today the preview is for the NFC.
Unlike last year, when the NFC was substantially inferior to the AFC, the NFC is decent. The younger teams that were on the rise last year (Giants, 'Skins, Bucs, Bears) now have a season with real pressure and playoff intensity under their collective belts. The conference also has few weak teams with virtually no playoff chance (Niners, Lions, Pack, Saints), unlike the AFC (Raiders, Titans, Browns, Jets, Bills, Texans). Most "experts" think that any team in the NFC East can win the division and/or a wild card berth. Paul Zimmerman, SI's lead expert, smoked his pipe so deeply he predicted all four would end up 9-7! On we go.
If defense wins championships, the Cowboys should be the conference favorite. They have the best defense in the division, the conference and potentially the league. Before the Giants' meltdown against the Panthers, the 'Boys were the only team to hold Big Blue under 20 all year, and turned the trick twice. But they also make stupid mistakes, have 5 question marks on the offensive line, have potential T.O. issues and a miniature self-created and idiotic quarterback controversy (why give all the snaps in preseason game 1 to Tony Romo?). Thus, you get experts like Peter King predicting Super Bowl wins, and TMQ predicting 6-10. Yipes. The Monk thinks that if the Cowboys are between serviceable and solid on offense and keep the T.O. idiocies to a minimum, they can win 12.
The Giants, Redskins and Eagles seem to be a mush. The latter two have easier schedules (no Chicago or Seattle); the Giants have more raw talent. Last year the Giants went 3-1 against the best division in the AFC, should have dropped Seattle in Seattle and won the NFC East. This year, they should be good enough for the wild card or better if the defense stiffens against the run, Manning stops throwing off his back foot, and they do unto the NFC South this year as they did to the AFC West last year.
Washington and Philly have questions and holes, but both are capable of winning the division or a wild card spot. The 'Skins lost more in free agency than they replaced, but still have Portis and a decent defense. The Eagles have questions at every offensive skill position (QB health, RB health, WR effectiveness) but should still be dangerous and can rattle off 10 wins against a fourth-place schedule.
Here's the situation: Rod Marinelli could make the Lions suck less, but that would get them to 8 wins tops. So how does Peter King put them 10-6? This division is the Bears' to lose.
That said, they might. Chicago has fiddled around with Cedric Benson too long already -- a kid who lacks desire and intensity and never had the skill to be drafted as highly as he was. That situation has divided the team (the players prefer Thomas Jones) from the coaches. Who knows if Rex Grossman will suck or not? But defense wins championships . . . and the Bears' is the best in this division by far.
The Vikings should also fare better. They have enough talent and skill to threaten for a wild card berth. The Lions and Pack should be cannon fodder.
Lost in the Panthers' fine run to the NFC title game last year was the fact that the Bucs, with Chris Simms at QB, won the division. The Bucs have an excellent defense and are on the rise, the Panthers have historically struggled to put good seasons together so . . . The Monk takes the Panthers this season. It's a hunch, period, based on John Fox's coaching and the addition of a viable option at receiver (Keyshawn) opposite Steve Smith. I think the Bucs could go to the NFC title game this year -- the second for Simms as a starter and for Cadillac Williams as a player.
The Falcons will again have a middling offense and people will wonder what's wrong with Michael Vick. The answer is: nothing, he's just not that good.
The 'aints have no defense. But Bush and Brees will make them fun to watch.
This is the year that the Super Bowl Loser Jinx gets broken. For the past five years, the Super Bowl runner-up failed to make the playoffs the next year. If Seattle does not win this sorry division, it will make the Jets win in Super Bowl III look routine. Every other team in this division stinks, including Arizona. The S'hawks, if no catastrophic injury occurs, should waltz to 11 wins. And the fact that the division plays the NFC North round-robin this year means some nice cupcakes for the S'hawks on the schedule: they replace Washington, Dallas and the Giants with Detroit, Minnesota and the Pack.
Arizona needs an OL to protect Warner and a better defense. They get help from the fact of playing the Niners and Rams four times, but need wins elsewhere and the Denver/San Diego/KC games hurt that possibility.
The Rams will again have a good offense and make fewer mistakes without Martz and his laissez-faire attitude toward turnovers, but they will struggle to compete in the conference. The Niners stink, and their franchise QB leaves a lot to be desired.
Conference champ: Dallas
Super Bowl champ: The Pats, again, to tie the Steelers' mark of four wins in six years.
If I'm wrong, what do I know -- I'm just a dingdong at a computer.
If I'm right, you read it here first.