NFC NORTH RIVALS
Green Bay Packers
Mike McCarthy's club will enter the 2008 season as the defending NFC North champions at 13-3, and there is a lot to be excited about around Lambeau Field these days. The ageless Brett Favre doesn't seem to be slowing down despite being 38 years old, and he's got a lot of young talent around him in the huddle. Nick Barnett and A.J. Hawk form a fierce pair of linebackers, and the cornerback combination of Al Harris and Charles Woodson can shut down most any passing game with man-to-man coverage.
Brad Childress and Co. started to figure it out this season and just about made the playoffs at 8-8, so the arrow is pointing up around the Metrodome as well. Adrian Peterson is the best pure tailback to come into the league in years and already a special player, plus Tarvaris Jackson has shown flashes of ability should the organization stick with him under center. Mammoth defensive tackles Kevin Williams and Pat Williams provide a brick wall against the running game, and play-making safety Darren Sharper is a Pro Bowler once again.
Rod Marinelli's team raced off to a 6-2 start in 2007 and made Jon Kitna look like Nostradamus at the season's midpoint, but an inability to run the football consistently and a brutal pass defense ultimately led to a 7-9 disappointment. Mike Martz will not be back as offensive coordinator, so expect a different philosophy when it comes to scoring points – Calvin Johnson will be heavily involved because he's the real deal. There is a lot to like defensively in the front seven, specifically hard-hitting linebacker Ernie Sims, but the secondary is in shambles.
New Orleans Saints
Like the Bears, Sean Payton's club exceeded expectations in 2006 but endured a precipitous fall from grace in 2007 to 7-9. While Drew Brees has proven that he can throw the ball on just about anybody no matter who is in the lineup at receiver, the offense really missed the power of Deuce McAllister in the running game since the multi-talented Reggie Bush isn't a true featured back. Mike McKenzie may have been deserving of a Pro Bowl berth this season, but the secondary as a unit still has a lot of holes to plug.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Jon Gruden once again put together a brilliant coaching performance, bringing the Bucs from the outhouse to the penthouse with a 9-7 record and an NFC South title. The tailback position will be interesting to watch since Earnest Graham performed so well after Carnell "Cadillac" Williams was moved to injured reserve, and Joey Galloway is still one of the most explosive receivers in the league at 36 years of age. And after losing their identity to some degree in recent years on the other side of the ball, leading tackler Barrett Ruud and his minions ranked second in total defense.
Andy Reid has had a lot on his mind lately away from the football field, and it sometimes looked like his players felt the same way during an up-and-down 8-8 season. Brian Westbrook has become arguably the most complete back in the league not named LaDainian Tomlinson, and Trent Cole is an emerging star on the defensive line. This game will be awfully interesting no matter which uniform Donovan McNabb is wearing next season with all the rumors afoot that he could be on the way back to his native Chicago.
Outside of the perfect Patriots, Jack Del Rio's bunch just might be the scariest of the AFC title contenders as they head into the playoffs with an 11-5 mark. David Garrard was sensational in his first full season as the starting signal-caller, and the one-two punch of Fred Taylor and Maurice Jones-Drew in the backfield is scary good. This defense simply beats up opponents for 60 minutes with its physical style, and it will only get better next year with a healthy Marcus Stroud back in the trenches alongside John Henderson.
Jeff Fisher continues to prove that he is one of the best – and certainly underrated – head coaches in the league, guiding his team to a 10-6 record and a wild-card berth despite minimal talent. Vince Young didn't quite set the world afire during his sophomore NFL campaign as some expected, but he knows how to win games in the fourth quarter and is a better passer than most scouts expected him to be. The defensive line is one of the best around, with tackle Albert Haynesworth and end Kyle Vanden Bosch both making the Pro Bowl this season.
We don't know yet who will be leading the Dirty Birds in 2008 after Bobby Petrino woo-pig-sooied to Arkansas midseason, but this is an organization in a state of chaos to say the least. Roddy White incredibly put up 1,202 receiving yards while catching passes from the likes of Joey Harrington, Byron Leftwich, and Chris Redman this season, and look for this team to invest a first-round pick on yet another quarterback in the draft this April. Last year's first-rounder, defensive end Jamaal Anderson, is still looking for his first career sack despite playing all 16 games as a rookie.
Jon Fox's club has all kinds of talent up and down the roster, which makes this season's 7-9 record – including a dreadful 2-6 at home – quite perplexing. The quarterback position is in trouble right now since Vinny Testaverde walked out of the old folks' home and into the starting lineup after Jake Delhomme got hurt, rendering high-octane receiver Steve Smith utterly useless at times. First-round linebacker Jon Beason is a keeper, although annual Defensive-Player-of-the-Year candidate Julius Peppers somehow managed only 2.5 sacks in 14 games.
St. Louis Rams
Scott Linehan was supposed to be leading a sleeper in the NFC West this year, but his squad lost its first eight games and then its final four en route to a puzzling 3-13 finish. A rash of injuries along the offensive line stalled a once fast-and-furious attack, but there are still weapons aplenty at the skill positions with Marc Bulger, Steven Jackson, and Torry Holt. While Oshiomogho Atogwe is the best safety in the league you've never heard of and led the conference with eight interceptions, the rest of the defense is awful and surrendered 27.4 points per game.
Gary Kubiak is starting to get things turned around with this franchise and finished the season at a respectable 8-8, which is doubly impressive since the other three members of the AFC South all made the playoffs. Matt Schaub posted a fine 87.2 passer rating in 11 games, but this team will be in the market for a primary runner because giving all that money to 30-year-old Ahman Green wasn't very wise. Last year's No. 1-overall pick, defensive end Mario Williams, made huge strides in his development and might be the league's most improved player.
Tony Dungy will face his good friend Lovie Smith in a rematch of Super Bowl XLI, but the teacher will be coming off a 13-3 record and yet another postseason appearance while the pupil stumbled to 7-9. This offense will always be formidable so long as Peyton Manning is at the controls, and Reggie Wayne showed in 2007 that he is more than ready to replace Marvin Harrison as the top target in the passing game. While physical safety Bob Sanders just became a very rich man after signing a contract extension, this defense needs Dwight Freeney to come back healthy.
John Crist is the Editor in Chief of BearReport.com and a member of the Professional Football Writers of America. To read him every day, visit BearReport.com and become a Chicago Bears insider.
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