Youth could prevail in NFC

By David Mullen

This could be the year the Dallas Cowboys really make a difference in building the future of the franchise. They are young, talented and look like a different team than last year. And despite competing in the same division as the defending World Champion Philadelphia Eagles, they could surprise. At least they have shaken things up. This is not your same-old Cowboys, despite the presence of owner Jerry Jones and his robo-coach Jason Garrett.

Dallas possesses the best offensive line in the National Football Conference (NFC). Good thing, because quarterback Dak Prescott needs protection to throw to a retooled corps of wide receivers. With a full season on the horizon, this should be a monster year for running back Ezekiel Elliott. And barring injury, the defense will be improved, at least in the front seven. This team should be highly entertaining.

But the Eagles are loaded. They have decided that Super Bowl MVP Nick Foles will be their quarterback, at least until Carson Wentz is healthy enough to return. They should be serviceable on offense and strong enough on defense to win the NFC East. 

The New York Giants, with Odell Beckham and rookie Saquon Barkley, have plenty of eye candy. But it will be on the shoulders of quarterback Eli Manning, pressured by the New York media, to return the Giants to contention. There is just not a lot to like with the Washington Redskins. They are relying on newly-acquired quarterback Alex Smith to run head coach Jay Gruden’s offense. It doesn’t feel like the right fit.   

There is a lot of money being thrown around in the NFC North. Recently, the Green Bay Packers made quarterback Aaron Rodgers the highest-paid player in NFL history with more than $100 million in guarantees. And then the Chicago Bears suddenly became respectable by giving former Oakland Raiders defensive star Khalil Mack a six-year, $141 million contract with $90 million in guaranteed money.

The Packers are extremely balanced and Rodgers, if possible, will prove he is worth the money. Mack alone can’t make the Bears that much better. They just have too many weaknesses on offense. The Minnesota Viking will be the Packers aggressor. They are sneaky good and are banking on Kirk Cousins to lead them to the playoffs. Plus, the Vikings may have the best defensive backfield in the NFC.

Highland Park High School alum Matthew Stafford will lead the Detroit Lions again this year, and he has become the most reliable quarterback in the NFL by not missing a game in seven years. But the Lions just don’t have enough defense to hold off the Packers or Vikings. Nonetheless, this could be the most exciting division in the NFC.   

The New Orleans Saints, led by quarterback Drew Brees, should run up and down the field in the NFC South. Running back Alvin Kamara is arguably the most exciting player in football. When you think about the Atlanta Falcons, you tend to think about their offense led by quarterback Matt Ryan and wide receiver Julio Jones. But they have actually put together a stout defense. Both teams should beat up on the Carolina Panthers and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, which will make their road to the playoffs that much easier.

Everyone seems to be in love with San Francisco 49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, and he has brought impressive results to the NFC West. But, the Los Angeles Rams quickly got really good while led by quarterback Jared Goff. After years of mediocrity, the 49ers and Rams rivalry becomes relevant again. But I think that the 49ers may be one year away from a division crown.    

The Arizona Cardinals still have future Hall-of-Famer Larry Fitzgerald, but at 35, he is in the twilight of his career. The Seattle Seahawks, once a perennial powerhouse, have lost so many players that they are simply playing catch-up.

So, when the playoffs roll around, let’s take the Eagles, Packers, Saints and the Rams as division winners, with the Falcons and Vikings as the Wild Card representatives. 

The Cowboys come up just short, but should provide a lot of excitement this year. It is just this conference is just too strong, which the Packers will prove when they beat the New England Patriots in Super Bowl LIII on Sunday, Feb. 3 in Atlanta.