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Hot Spots

Team-by-team breakdown of what to look for in the NFC

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Posted: Tuesday September 04, 2001 4:12 PM
  Jim Fassel On paper, Jim Fassel's defending NFC champs look solid. Andy Lyons/Allsport

By Don Banks, Sports Illustrated

If you tabbed the Falcons, Rams and Giants as the past three NFC Super Bowl teams, step right up and enlighten us. You're qualified to predict who will represent the conference in New Orleans come January. Otherwise, stand to the right and quietly submit your guesses like everybody else.

If there's a chic pick this year, it's St. Louis, with its multi-faceted offense and rebuilt defense. But the Rams have to beat defending NFC West champion New Orleans first, something they failed to do twice last season.

Another one-sided intra-division series should play a big role in determining the conference titlist. New York has defeated the onrushing Eagles nine consecutive times. The consensus says the hex ends this season. The under-appreciated Giants say otherwise.

In the Central, the tendencies remain the same. Everybody talks up Tampa Bay and downplays Minnesota. But the Vikings, usually followed by the Bucs, are always there in the end. This year, thanks to the Pack showing signs of being back, the race could get crowded.

NFC EAST

Team Page | Schedule
Arizona Cardinals: Preseason record (3-1) -- Any discussion of the Cardinals' attempts to break their 9-23 two-year slide begins with the requisite mention of quarterback Jake Plummer's crossroads season. Like Kordell Stewart before him, Plummer climbed high and was laid low almost before we got used to the look of his game. But Plummer hasn't been the only problem. The Cardinals will be better if wide receiver Rob Moore is healthy, guard Leonard Davis is dependable and running back Thomas Jones runs like a top first-round pick.

Team Page | Schedule
Dallas Cowboys: (2-3) -- It's tough to decide which is more unbelievable: Jerry Jones' prediction of a 10-6 season for his 'Boys, or the pronouncement that rookie Quincy Carter is ready to start at quarterback. Think maybe the two will have some correlation by season's end? You can't fault Dallas for not wanting to waste the season on Tony Banks, but you can fault it for signing him in the first place. While this has all the makings of another 1989 in Dallas, there's no Jimmy Johnson or Troy Aikman in sight.

Team Page | Schedule
New York Giants: (1-3) -- Look for the Giants to ride the no-respect angle for as long as possible. Heck, it took them to the Super Bowl last year, so why not trot it back out? On paper, head coach Jim Fassel's bunch is solid almost everywhere, and New York owns the one team in the division (the Eagles) that can give it a run for the division title. Still, so much went right for the Giants in 2000 that the law of averages figures to tilt. A tougher schedule and getting every opponent's best shot will play a role, as will the media's expectations.

Team Page | Schedule
Philadelphia Eagles: (2-1) -- It's tough to quantify, but something tells me the Eagles are the NFC's hungriest team. They got a taste last year, a bigger helping than even they expected, and now they want more. Philly's defense is the league's next big thing. No problems there. The key question is whether quarterback Donovan McNabb has enough help. Running back Duce Staley's foot is a scary proposition, but if it holds up, the Eagles should win the East. At receiver, it was addition by subtraction.

Team Page | Schedule
Washington Redskins: (1-3) -- Let's count the warning lights that blinked on for new head coach Marty Schottenheimer this preseason: Quarterback injuries. Offensive line an ineffective mish-mash. No running game to speak of. First-team offense outscored 78-23. Bruce Smith hobbled. No wonder players had alarms on their doors to keep them in at night. Abandoning ship seemed a tempting option. In this division, the Redskins still might be a third-place team, but last year's 8-8 will pass for the glory days before 2001 is done.

NFC CENTRAL

Team Page | Schedule
Chicago Bears: (1-3) -- Almost everything surrounding the Bears this season has a temporary feel. Shane Matthews is the starting quarterback, for now. Dick Jauron is the head coach, for now. New general manager Jerry Angelo is reserving judgment on many matters, for now. Alas, with all the uncertainty it's hard to imagine Chicago in anything other than last place. For now, and the foreseeable future if the Bears don't get their quarterback situation solved by this time next year.

Team Page | Schedule
Detroit Lions: (1-3) -- By temperament, new CEO Matt Millen is not a patient man. Stunt or statement, new head coach Marty Mornhinweg already bailed on his team once, firing up his motorcycle and leaving everyone in his dust. All of which doesn't bode well for quarterback Charlie Batch, should he start slowly in the new West Coast offense. Batch's history of inconsistency makes him the perfect starter for the unpredictable Lions. But with newly acquired backup Ty Detmer on hand, the clock is ticking on Batch's tenure.

Team Page | Schedule
Green Bay Packers: (2-2) -- General manager Mike Sherman had to cut defensive tackle Russell Maryland this week, even though head coach Mike Sherman really liked what Maryland brought to the team. That's Exhibit A of how Sherman's dual role can create tricky situations for him in the locker room. That said, the Packers believe in their quickly elevated leader and have bought into his program. Green Bay was the best team to not make the playoffs last year, and that momentum looks ready to be carried over.

Team Page | Schedule
Minnesota Vikings: (4-0) -- The Vikings' annual pattern bore itself out even in the microcosm that is preseason. After suffering one of the most devastating losses imaginable with the death of tackle Korey Stringer, Minnesota prospered on the field, going 4-0 to produce the league's only undefeated record. Never underestimate head coach Dennis Green's ability to use the low expectations of others to further his team's goals. Sadly, Stringer's death will be a constant source of motivation this season.

Team Page | Schedule
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: (1-3) -- The pressure will be on everywhere in Tampa Bay this season. On defense, the addition of edge rusher Simeon Rice will only increase the impressive heat that the Bucs' front puts on opposing passers. On offense, both quarterback Brad Johnson and wide receiver Keyshawn Johnson must produce to warrant their big-money signings. And on the coaching staff, new offensive coordinator Clyde Christensen and head man Tony Dungy will be working in the crosshairs. A 1-3 preseason didn't help.

NFC WEST

Team Page | Schedule
Atlanta Falcons: (3-1) -- There was a lot of nostalgic talk about similarities to 1998 in Falcons camp. With the reacquisition of wide receiver Tony Martin, and the return to form of running back Jamal Anderson, Atlanta believes its offense will harken back to the Super Bowl season of three years ago. Some of the signs are positive, and quarterback Chris Chandler may have one last big season left in him before he steps aside for Michael Vick. But so far, around the league the believers are few. Only victories will win them over.

Team Page | Schedule
Carolina Panthers: (2-2) -- Has anyone ever pulled a Jeff Lewis before? Has a projected starting quarterback wound up not even making the squad? To the Panthers credit, they didn't try and save face when Chris Weinke beat out Lewis for the No. 1 job. Head coach George Seifert swallowed hard and handed the job to the 28-year-old rookie with the Heisman on his shelf. Then to make things as clear as possible, Seifert banished Lewis from the roster, cutting his second starting quarterback in five months. All yours, Chris.

Team Page | Schedule
New Orleans Saints: (1-3) -- If the Saints were trying to send running back Ricky Williams a message with the Deuce McAllister pick on draft day, consider it sent. A leaner, meaner and more mature Williams looks poised for a monster season. He and quarterback Aaron Brooks give the Saints two of the game's most exciting play-makers at the two most important positions. On defense, the Saints are concerned about their secondary, which got scorched at times this preseason. It'll be up to that tremendous pass rush to once again set the tone.

Team Page | Schedule
St. Louis Rams: (3-2) -- In last season's first half, no one talked about anything else in the NFL except how good the Rams' offense was. In the second half, the topic was just how bad is the Rams' defense? St. Louis left the former practically intact and totally overhauled the latter. The results should be intriguing. With as many as eight new starters, the Rams' defense is starting over. If rookies Damione Lewis (defensive tackle) and Adam Archuleta (strong safety) live up to their promise, the talent gap in St. Louis will be closing.

Team Page | Schedule
San Francisco 49ers: (1-3) -- Wrecked by the cap excesses of the past, the 49ers made it back to the cusp of respectability faster than anyone imagined last season. They look like they're still headed up, although a playoff berth is probably one rung too high to shoot for. If running back Garrison Hearst is even close to his 1998 form, the 49ers' big three of quarterback Jeff Garcia, wide receiver Terrell Owens and Hearst is very formidable. On defense, the 49ers have drafted wisely in recent years and are about to reap the benefits.


 
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