King Kaufman's Sports Daily

NFC preview: With a healthy McNabb, the Eagles can take a weak conference. Plus: Opening night pick.


Salon Staff
September 6, 2007 3:00PM (UTC)

Now that you've digested the all-gimmick AFC preview from Wednesday, it's time for the gimmick-free NFC preview.

All those things that look like gimmicks aren't gimmicks. They're art. This column's Super Bowl gimmick, er, prediction, comes at the end. Here's a hint: It won't be Atlanta.

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NFC WEST [PERMALINK]

1. San Francisco 49ers (7-9, third place in 2006)
A team on the rise again, and if Seattle stumbles, as I think it will, your NFC West champ for the first time since 2002. The 49ers are back to being a well-run franchise after years of chaos. They've drafted well and made smart trades and free-agent signings. Alex Smith all of a sudden has a big cache of weapons. There's still work to be done, but no division has an easier road to the playoffs than the NFC West.

A word to those noting my recent return to San Francisco and looking for hidden bias: I hate the 49ers. This column favors open bias. It divides its loyalties between the St. Louis Rams and Oakland Raiders, in roughly that order at the moment, and has never once, not even in an exhibition game, rooted for the Niners to so much as kick a field goal.

Best gimmick: Playing in the NFC West
Worst gimmick: They're a way chic pick, and I'm on the bandwagon, so they're doomed
If they were a silent movie star they would be: Clara Bow

2. St. Louis Rams (wild card) (8-8, second place)
OK, maybe this is just the open bias talking, but keep in mind I've been mostly pessimistic about the Rams in recent years. I haven't picked them to make the playoffs since 2002. But I'll buy the idea that top pick Adam Carriker will anchor the defensive line and make everybody else a little better. The offense has been overrated since the Kurt Warner-Marshall Faulk heyday ended, but with Steven Jackson's emergence as a workhorse back, it's back to being pretty good as long as the line stays together. One and out, but a playoff team.

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Best gimmick: Playing in the NFC West
Worst gimmick: Wearing the same uniforms as the "Greatest Show on Turf" team
If they were a Baldwin brother they would be: About a Billy*

3. Seattle Seahawks (9-7, first place)
Their post-Super Bowl year probably looked better than it was. They got fat -- if 9-7 can be called fat -- on a soft schedule in a bad division, then they got lucky to beat Dallas in the playoffs. The rest of the division is rising to meet them. But it's still a pretty weak division. The Super Bowl team might have one good year left, but I think the Seahawks won't be back in the playoffs.

Best gimmick: Playing in the NFC West
Worst gimmick: They're past their prime
If they were a starlet romantically linked to Brad Pitt they would be: Jennifer Aniston

4. Arizona Cardinals (5-11, fourth place)
The Cardinals have been the fashionable pick for way too many years this century without ever actually turning into a good football team. Former Pittsburgh assistant Ken Whisenhunt is the latest to attempt to turn the Cards around, and if a rebuilt offensive line can give Matt Leinart enough time to get the ball to his pack of talented receivers, Arizona could be on to something. But that's a big if. Meanwhile, the Cardinals don't appear to have the horses on defense.

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Best gimmick: Home field for the Super Bowl
Worst gimmick: No winning seasons since 1998
If they were a chocolate cookie with a cream center they would be: Hydrox

NFC SOUTH [PERMALINK]

1. New Orleans Saints (10-6, first place in 2006)
The Saints had a magical year in '06, complete with some good bounces, and they can't count on that again. Nor can they rely on the emotional lift they got from returning to New Orleans following their post-Katrina exile. Then again, the NFC South is there for them to take, and after the Thursday night opener against Indianapolis, they won't face another team expected to be among the league's elite until the last two weeks, when they meet Philadelphia and Chicago.

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Best gimmick: Drew Brees and Reggie Bush
Worst gimmick: They have to score a lot to win a lot
If they were an Elmore Leonard novel they would be: "Rum Punch"

2. Carolina Panthers (8-8, second place)
The Panthers were a hipster Super Bowl pick last year -- ahem, not that I feel the need to remind you of this, but yours truly correctly picked Chicago as NFC champion last preseason, and also, as long as you brought it up, pegged Indianapolis as the Super Bowl champ. But they stumbled out of the gate and never really got it together. Now, I think the window's closed. The defense is still good enough to get Carolina into the playoffs, but I'm throwing my darts elsewhere. Side prediction: David Carr will be the starting quarterback before the year's out, and he'll do pretty well.

Best gimmick: Julius Peppers, the athlete's athlete
Worst gimmick: Underachievement
If they were a teenage phenom baseball pitcher they would be: David Clyde

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3. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (4-12, fourth place)
Jon Gruden is hoping that Jeff Garcia will be his new Rich Gannon and no one will notice that the once-great Bucs defense, the template for so many cover-2 defenses around the league, isn't great anymore. Good luck with that. Garcia was pretty good in Philly last year. But how was he in Detroit and Cleveland before that?

Best gimmick: They're not the Falcons
Worst gimmick: Should have rebuilt by now
If they were an ESPN announcer they would be: Chris Berman

4. Atlanta Falcons (7-9, third place)
So, heard any news about this team lately? Yeah, me neither. It's possible that this team will pull off a surprising rally-round-the-bad-news run similar to what the Saints did last year. But I wouldn't bet -- sorry, poor word choice -- wouldn't count on it. The Saints had Drew Brees at quarterback, the Falcons have Joey Harrington. The Saints had dynamic young coach Sean Payton. The Falcons have a college coach, Bobby Petrino. Well, at least he's not a retread.

Yet.

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Best gimmick: Joe Horn, who at least should bring some levity to what could be dismal proceedings
Worst gimmick: Franchise player going to prison
If they were an NFL quarterback they would be: Michael Vick

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NFC NORTH [PERMALINK]

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1. Chicago Bears (13-3, first place, NFC champs in 2006)
The Bears dominated the conference for most of 2006, but not all of it. Their ferocious defensive reputation carried all the way through to the Super Bowl, but they weren't the same team after losing safety Mike Brown and, especially, tackle Tommie Harris. They're both back, Harris having missed most of the preseason and Brown having been moved from strong to free safety to make room for Washington washout Adam Archuleta.

Troubled tackle Tank Johnson was cut, and linebacker Lance Briggs has been one long distraction, from his threatened holdout to his recent car wreck-and-dash. Meanwhile, leading rusher Thomas Jones was traded and Rex Grossman is still the quarterback. In other words, the Bears are hardly a slam dunk to return to the Super Bowl, but in this weak conference, they're a serious contender as long as they don't fall victim to a post-Super Bowl hangover.

Best gimmick: Coach Lovie Smith and a punishing defense
Worst gimmick: Unless he turns it around, it's Grossman
If they were a chocolate cookie with a cream center they would be: Oreos

2. Green Bay Packers (wild card) (8-8, second place)
It's Brett Favre's last year again. The last one till next year, that is. Which will be his last year. Unless this one is, which it will be. Unless it's not.

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I'm not really buying what the Packers are selling, that their defense will be good enough to let Favre be a ball-control game-manager type and get them back to the playoffs. But I think this will be Favre's last year -- he'll pass some of Dan Marino's significant records -- and I have this trick-knee feeling that the Packers will get a kind of mystical boost and play well enough to capture a wild card. After all, someone has to.

Best gimmick: The Lambeau Leap
Worst gimmick: The Favre chuck and duck
If they were a silent movie star they would be: Charlie Chaplin

3. Minnesota Vikings (6-10, third place)
The Vikings had a good run defense and a horrible pass defense last year, which means they might as well have had a bad run defense too, because if you can't stop the pass in this league, nothing else matters. They don't appear to have fixed things, so the interesting things to watch will be rookie running back Adrian Peterson, who should be great, second-year quarterback Tarvaris Jackson, who's likely in over his head, and whether the Vikes can finish ahead of the Lions, which doesn't look like it's going to be saying much.

Best gimmick: Playing in the same division as Detroit
Worst gimmick: Didn't the Vikings used to be good?
If they were a starlet romantically linked to Brad Pitt they would be: Courtney Love

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4. Detroit Lions (3-13, fourth place)
The Matt Millen era continues. I'm not as high on top pick Calvin Johnson as the rest of the world is, for what that's worth, which is nothing.

Best gimmick: Lots of first-round picks at wide receiver
Worst gimmick: Lots of first-round picks at wide receiver
If they were a Baldwin brother they would be: Shecky

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NFC EAST [PERMALINK]

1. Philadelphia Eagles (10-6, first place)
The Eagles looked dead in the water when Donovan McNabb went down with an injury last year, but Jeff Garcia rallied them to the division championship and a playoff win.

That's why I say the Eagles are the class of the conference -- but only if McNabb stays healthy. Brian Westbrook is a terrific, versatile running back, there are enough good receivers even after the loss of Donte' Stallworth and the offensive line and defense are solid. The Eagles aren't a great team, but they look like the best one in the NFC.

Best gimmick: Eerie consistency
Worst gimmick: Drafting quarterback Kevin Kolb with their first pick, then denying that McNabb's on the hot seat
If they were a kind of soup they would be: French onion

2. Dallas Cowboys (9-7, second place)
Eh. Wade Phillips is the retread coach here. Tony Romo returns from the playoff disaster -- the fumbled snap -- for his first full season at quarterback. He did that thing I always try to do at a new job: He did really well at first and got a great reputation that followed him around even after he stopped being any good. I don't know whether his early success was just beginners' luck or he hit a slump or the league figured him out, but I suspect the last one.

The Cowboys, like everyone else in this division and almost everyone in the conference, will compete for a wild card.

Best gimmick: Terrell Owens dissing the quarterback
Worst gimmick: What, Dennis Green wasn't available?
If they were a "Rocky" sequel they would be: "Rocky III"

3. Washington (5-11, fourth place)
This team seems to be in a sort of malaise, and I think the cure is to move past the era of Washington's own retread, Joe Gibbs, who's no ordinary retread, but who doesn't seem to have the old Joe Gibbs stuff. Washington's personnel decisions are annually puzzling, and there doesn't seem to be much of a plan beyond trading away draft picks and overpaying for free agents and assistant coaches.

The Jets have made great strides by bringing the Bill Belichick philosophy from Foxboro to New Jersey. Washington would be wise to bring it a little farther south.

Having said all that, there's some talent here, and I think it's going to be a bad year for Big Blue, so third place.

Best gimmick: Clinton Portis
Worst gimmick: The team name
If they were a kind of beer they would be: Overpriced

4. New York Giants (8-8, third place)
The Tom Coughlin era figures to be over after this year. The team gave him a one-year extension for some reason, but his "you're late if you're not early" routine has obviously grown thin. For a disciplinarian type, his team sure is chaotic. The best player on the offense, Tiki Barber, retired -- because of Coughlin, he now says -- and the anchor of the defense, Michael Strahan, held out for the whole preseason.

Onward! Eli Manning may be a better quarterback than he's shown, but he's not going to show it behind the line that's in front of him. I think the Giants' season is going to be a spiral, and it wouldn't surprise me if Coughlin doesn't survive it.

The good news for Giants fans, as long as they don't think too much about their tax bill: They've broken ground on the new stadium.

Best gimmick: They can still win a wild card
Worst gimmick: These guys can't stand each other
If they were a present you got when you were a kid that was really exciting but incredibly disappointing they would be: NFL Electric Football

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Here, for ease of ridicule, are my NFC picks:

West: San Francisco
South: New Orleans
North: Chicago
East: Philadelphia
Wild cards: St. Louis, Green Bay
NFC champion: Philadelphia

And, to review, my AFC picks:

West: Denver
South: Indianapolis
North: Pittsburgh
East: New England
Wild cards: San Diego, Jacksonville
AFC champion: New England

Super Bowl: New England over Philadelphia

*Joke stolen from former Salon TV critic Joyce Millman.

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NFL Week 1, Part 1 [PERMALINK]

For the fifth year, this column will pick the winner -- straight up, not vs. the spread -- of every NFL game. I'll be impaneling my Panel o' Experts as usual, with old friends like defending co-champions Charles Robinson of Yahoo and Mike Golic of ESPN, porn star Adriana Sage and others.

Assuming they pick games again this year, that is.

A new wrinkle this year is that my son, Buster, the coin-flippinest 4-year-old west of the Mississippi, has handed over his quarter to his sister, Daisy, who becomes the coin-flippinest 2-year-old in the Milky Way.

Who am I kidding? He didn't give her squat. It's a new quarter.

Buster has agreed to actually pick winners himself, just like a real NFL expert or porn star, making him the NFL-predictinest 4-year-old in the Lower 48. Both kids will go with any team favored by at least six points by USA Today. That includes the opener:

New Orleans (10-6) at INDIANAPOLIS (12-4)
Dad's going with the favorite too. Playing at home, Peyton Manning shouldn't have too much trouble picking apart the Saints defense, which, starting with Week 2, will be the key to how far New Orleans can go.
Kids' pick: Indianapolis (6-point favorite)

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On the radio [PERMALINK]

I'll be making my regular appearance to talk sports with Bob Edwards on "The Bob Edwards Show" Thursday. The show airs live at 8 a.m. EDT on XM Radio Channel 133, then repeats at 9 and 10 a.m. and 8 p.m. You can also listen live online, where the show repeats hourly throughout the day.

Previous column: AFC preview

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