Pigskin predictions for NFC

The end of summer means sadness to many—slo-pitch players, sun worshippers, and students, to name a few.
But the fall leads to so much joy for others: leaf-blower salesmen, kite flyers, and parents of students, for instance.
Among those in a celebratory mode are those who follow the NFL, which begins another season Sept. 5 when the defending Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens travel to the Mile High City to take on the team many believe will unseat the Ravens as kings of the AFC, the Denver Broncos.
So huddle up, make sure you know the snap count, and get ready to go long as I throw out my best guesses (er, I mean visionary prognostications) of how the NFL season will unfold.
I’ll give you the NFC this week and the AFC next week.
Warning: these predictions are by no means intended to be called into the odds-makers in Las Vegas with the expectation of any financial windfall.
So take these for what they’re worth—which, combined with a quarter, will get you one of those month-old gumballs you find sitting in a vending machine.
NFC East
1. Dallas (11-5)
Nothing has changed since I left you nine years ago. The Cowboys still haven’t won a sixth Super Bowl but they have enough talent in a competitive division to come out in front.
The Cowboys remain my favourite team. So this remains my automatic selection until such time I’m kidnapped and brainwashed into becoming a Redskins’ fan (a chill just ran down my spine).
2. Washington (10-6)
The Redskins clinched the division and knocked the Cowboys out of the playoffs on the last day of the regular season last year.
Nothing personal about this selection. Really.
Truth be told, I’m not buying the reportedly miraculous recovery of quarterback Robert Griffin III from major knee surgery until I see him stay on his feet for 16 games.
3. New York (9-7)
The Giants can never be discounted, considering they shocked the world in 2007 and 2011 with their Super Bowl conquests.
But the lack of a consistent running game and an early-season injury to top receiver Victor Cruz are going to hamper their offence.
The defence also is not what it was even two seasons ago.
4. Philadelphia (6-10)
New head coach Chip Kelly brings his offensive bag of tricks from the college ranks to the City of Brotherly Love.
Opposing defences will struggle to contain Philly, but only until defensive co-ordinators catch on to his schemes, which never takes long in the NFL.
And as for the Eagles’ defence . . . the less said, the better.
NFC Central
1. Chicago (10-6)
I’m going out on a limb here with the belief quarterback Jay Cutler will stay more upright this season thanks to an upgraded offensive line, giving him more time to find the dangerous Brandon Marshall downfield.
The Bears’ defence, meanwhile, will prove life without long-time middle linebacker Brian Urlacher won’t be as difficult an adjustment as some think.
2. Green Bay (9-7)
The Packers are counting on rookie running back Eddie Lacy to take the heat off quarterback Aaron Rodgers to win every game with his arm.
That’s a questionable proposition.
And with injuries already mounting in the Green Bay secondary, the “Pack” will be vulnerable against strong passing attacks.
3. Minnesota (7-9)
Adrian Peterson (nicknamed A.D. for All Day) can talk all day about hitting the 2,500-yard rushing mark this season.
But to repeat and surpass his 2,097 yards from a season ago seems a long shot considering no running back in NFL history has rushed for consecutive 2,000-yard seasons.
Defensive coaches aren’t stupid. They will be ready for him.
4. Detroit (4-12)
The Lions took steps backwards last year. Matthew Stafford can’t throw every pass to Calvin Johnson and Reggie Bush isn’t going to revive a subpar backfield by himself.
The defensive line could do some damage, but a below-average secondary will doom the Lions on more than one occasion this season.
NFC South
1. New Orleans (11-5)
The Saints are angry at the world after what they perceive as the injustice of last year’s “Bountygate” suspensions.
The Saints have head coach Sean Payton back on the sidelines. They have Drew Brees lining up behind centre. And they can’t possibly be as bad on defence as they were last year.
The Saints are, I repeat, angry. Watch out.
2. Atlanta (8-8)
Another much-hyped Super Bowl contender I don’t see living up to the hype.
How will the Falcons react after their playoff meltdown last year against Seattle? How will the defence make up for the loss of pass rusher John Abraham and starting cornerback Dunta Robinson?
How will new starting running back Steven Jackson fend off Father Time?
Too many questions to ignore.
3. Tampa Bay (5-11)
Josh Freeman is down to his last chance as a starting quarterback in this league. I don’t see him lasting the season as the starter and Tampa has less-than-adequate talent behind him.
Darrelle Revis only improves a bad defence if his surgically-repaired knee holds up while the Bucs’ pass rush is non-existent.
This could get ugly fast.
4. Carolina (3-13)
The football world awaits Cam Newton’s ascendancy to elite quarterback status.
I find it difficult to believe given his inconsistency and a receiving corps whose top player is past-his-prime Steve Smith that Newton reaches those lofty heights this year.
And when their best two defenders may be a sophomore (Luke Kuechly) and a rookie (Star Lotulelei), that’s not a recipe for success.
NFC West
1. San Francisco (13-3)
Quarterback Colin Kaepernick and a loaded defence will make the 49ers a headache to play each week for their foes.
The loss of top receiver Michael Crabtree is more than offset by the arrival by trade of Anquan Boldin; he of the newly-sparkling Super Bowl ring after his Ravens edged San Fran in last year’s title game.
2. Seattle (10-6)
The Seahawks’ bandwagon is getting crowded in a hurry. Everybody loves the hard-hitting defence and quarterback Russell Wilson’s ability to turn nothing into something on virtually every play.
But I look at oft-injured former Vikings’ receivers Percy Harvin and Sidney Rice as starters and think: are opposing secondaries really that concerned about Seattle’s passing game?
3. St. Louis (8-8)
Head coach Jeff Fisher has the Rams believing in themselves after a strong divisional record (4-1-1) last season.
Quarterback Sam Bradford has new, lethal playmates in rookie receiver Tavon Austin and former Tennessee Titans’ tight end Jared Cook.
But a no-name running game and a leaky offensive line could prove troublesome, along with a pass rush that was more of a pass crawl last year.
4. Arizona (2-14)
Carson Palmer wasn’t good enough anymore to quarterback the lowly Oakland Raiders. Now he’s going to save the Cardinals?
Sure, he’s an improvement over the cast of clowns taking snaps last year for the Desert Birds. But he’s going to find the boo birds in Arizona are no less enjoyable than the ones in the Black Hole.
The Cards go 0-6 against this stacked division barring divine intervention.