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September 9, 2004 Edition > Section:  Sports

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2004 NFC Preview

BY Sean Lahman
September 9, 2004

The NFC looks wide open this year. Ten of the 16 teams in the conference have been to the playoffs at least once in the past two seasons, and at least that many teams have a legitimate chance to reach the postseason in 2004.

There are seven head coaches in the NFC who have led a team to the Super Bowl. Bill Parcells of the Cowboys and Seattle's Mike Holmgren are hoping to make that trip for the first time with their current teams. Holmgen and the Seahawks will take their shot with an exciting young offense; Parcells is going with veterans and a more conservative approach.

Three teams hope to bounce back from disappointing seasons and find their way back to the postseason. The Vikings, Falcons, and Buccaneers have all spent the off-season addressing the unexpected problems that kept them at home last January.

The Philadelphia Eagles look like the cream of the conference, having been to the NFC Championship game each of the past three years. By adding established stars such as Terrell Owens and Jevon Kearse, the Eagles may finally be ready to take the next step.

A few teams start the season without realistic playoff aspirations, but even in places like Arizona and New York, new coaches and exciting young players give reason for optimism. It's hard to say anything definitive about the 2004 season except that it's sure to be an exciting one.

NFC EAST

Eagles

STRENGTHS The Eagles added big playmakers to address their weakest positions. Owens finally gives QB Donovan McNabb finally a dangerous deep threat to throw to. Kearse will also have a big impact on the defense. He's a disruptive force up front who should dramatically improve the Eagles' sagging pass rush.

WEAKNESSES Despite the big off-season additions, there have also been some painful losses. Starting CBs Troy Vincent and Bobby Taylor (with five Pro Bowls between them) depart ed in free agency and the Eagles will go with two undersized and inexperienced CBs. They also lost two-thirds of their running back platoon, leaving Brian Westbrook as the only experienced back.

X-FACTOR At the end of the season, Owens will be either the hero or the villain. There's no denying his talent, but T.O.'s antics had become too much of a distraction in San Francisco. He complained about not getting the ball enough, though he averaged 92.5 catches over the last four seasons and scored an NFL-best 51 TDs. Will he help the Eagles take the next step or end up complaining when they don't?

Cowboys

STRENGTHS The defense is suffocating. It starts with a secondary that doesn't let receivers get open and creates turnovers if opposing QBs try to squeeze passes into coverage. The linebackers - Dexter Coakley, Dat Nguyen, and Al Singleton - hit hard and pursue relentlessly. The addition of DE Marcellus Wiley will help improve the pass rush, the only part of the defense that wasn't outstanding in 2003.

WEAKNESSES Is there a plan? Dallas passed up the stud RB they needed on draft day, trading down for a 2005 first round pick. But after explaining they were thinking long-term, they rebuilt the offense with Vinny Testaverde, Keyshawn Johnson, and Eddie George - all three on the downhill side of their 30th birthday.

X-FACTOR Rookie Julius Jones will have to confound his critics who felt the Cowboys should have taken one of the best backs available in the first round instead of settling for him in the second. Jones has the speed and quickness that could make him dangerous both between the tackles and on the perimeter. George doesn't have any gas left in his tank, so the fate of the offense rests with Jones.

Redskins

STRENGTHS The off-season brought two huge additions. By luring Joe Gibbs away from NASCAR, owner Dan Snyder landed one of the all-time great football coaches, and rekindled glorious memories. The other big move was the trade for Clinton Portis, who rushed for more than 1,500 yards in each of his first two seasons. It's a huge upgrade for a running game that sputtered last year.

WEAKNESSES The coaching staff is new, as are 12 of the starters and nearly half of the roster. The run defense does not appear to have improved, and the secondary will suffer from the loss of CB Champ Bailey. The QB situation remains unsettled. Mark Brunnel was once a star, but at 34 he's fading. Neither he nor 25-yearold Patrick Ramsey played well during the preseason

X-FACTOR Under Steve Spurrier, the Redskins offense was all about gimmicks. With Gibbs and offensive coordinator Don Breaux, it will be back to basics. This team is probably a year away from making the playoffs. But they've got some key pieces in place and should be competitive every week.

Giants

STRENGTHS Michael Strahan led the NFL in sacks last year despite facing constant double teams. The addition of LBs Carlos Emmons and Barret Green should be a big help. If he's healthy, Jeremy Shockey is one of the game's best TEs. A resurgent Ron Dayne should help revive the running game.

WEAKNESSES The offensive line is still the weakest link, and it limits the Giants' ability to run and pass. The CBs have a size disadvantage against the big receivers who have come into their division, and three of the four starters in the secondary are coming off of major injuries.

X-FACTOR The difference for the Giants this season won't be how well Eli Manning plays in December, but rather how well Kurt Warner plays in September. The early schedule is brutal, and Warner has thrown just 4 TDs against 12 interceptions in his last two seasons. The better he plays, the less urgency there is to rush Manning into the lineup. The best-case scenario is that Manning takes over the starting job in early November. The worst-case scenario is Warner getting knocked out of the opening game in Philadelphia.

NFC NORTH

Vikings

STRENGTHS The most explosive offense in the league wears purple. Everyone knows that Randy Moss is a threat to score every time he touches the ball, and he's nearly impossible to defend. But what makes the passing game so dangerous is that the Vikes have one of the best rushing attacks in football. Michael Bennett, Moe Williams, and Onterrio Smith each wield a different set of skills, and together they form a deadly backfield.

WEAKNESSES The pass defense slumped last year and the Vikings lost seven of their last 10 games, missing the playoffs after starting the season with a 6-0 record. Too often their defensive backs give up big plays in failed attempts to create turnovers. The Vikings have two new starters at LB and a third who is coming back from injury.

X-FACTOR The Vikings think their problems defending the pass will be solved with a better pass rush. If rookie Kenechi Udeze and second-year man Kevin Williams can get consistent pressure on opposing QBs, the defensive backs won't have to hold their coverage for so long, and they will have more opportunities to create turnovers.

Packers

STRENGTHS In each of the past three seasons, Bret Favre has finished first or second in TD passes. During that time, Ahman Green has quietly become one the most productive running backs in the NFC. Third-year receiver Javon Walker is poised for a breakout season, and with this trio of stars, the Packers won't have any trouble scoring points.

WEAKNESSES The prolonged holdout by CB Mike McKenzie is exacerbating the problems in the Green Bay secondary. New defensive coordinator Bob Slowik wants to run an aggressive blitzing defense, but that could be risky if the coverage doesn't improve.

X-FACTOR Safety Darren Sharper and middle LB Nick Barnett are playmakers, but they need to boost the play of the guys around them. If the defense plays well as a unit, this team should be headed back to the playoffs.

Bears

STRENGTHS Middle LB Brian Urlacher anchors a solid defense, and the trade for DE Adewale Ogunleye gives defensive coordinator Ron Rivera all of the pieces he needs to play an attacking style. The Bears think that RB Thomas Jones is a good fit for their system, with his receiving skills and his cutback ability.

WEAKNESSES Rex Grossman is the most talented young QB the Bears have had in a generation, but the lack of experienced receivers hurts. Justin Gage and Bobby Wade have shown promise, but it will take some for them to learn the nuances of the Bears' new West Coast offense.

X-FACTOR These aren't your father's Bears. Head coach Lovie Smith has promised an aggressive defense and a wide-open offense, a stark contrast to the conservative style of play that has become a Chicago trademark. Their success will depend on how quickly the young players can master the passing game.

Lions

STRENGTHS QB Joey Harrington finally has a supporting cast around him. Exciting young receivers Charles Rogers and Roy Williams both possess the size and speed to excel in the West Coast offense. Rookie RB Kevin Jones will force defenses to respect the runs, creating opportunities for the receivers downfield.

WEAKNESSES The new offense will make the Lions more exciting to watch, but the overmatched defense will force them to win a lot of shootouts. The pass defense is a big problem: They don't do a great job in coverage and can't generate much of a pass rush. Strong side LB Boss Bailey will miss at least a month with a knee injury, which further weakens the defense.

X-FACTOR Many young QBs take a terrible beating when they're thrown into the starting job for a bad team. In two years, Harrington has been sacked just 17 times, but he's done little more than survive as the Lions have gone 8-24. With some talented players assembled around him, it's time for Harrington to prove he can play at this level.

NFC SOUTH

Panthers

STRENGTHS Jake Delhomme emerged as a solid QB after he assumed the starting job last season. He should be even better with a full off-season of preparation under his belt. RBs Stephen Davis and De-Shaun Foster are a devastating one-two punch. The defensive line dominates most opponents and creates havoc on the line of scrimmage.

WEAKNESSES Carolina lost four of their five starters on the offensive line, and it will take some time for them to learn to play well together. The schedule is brutal, which means the Panthers will have to play better than they did in 2003 just to get back to the playoffs.

X-FACTOR The young starters in the secondary could encounter some problems if the Panthers don't put continuous pressure opposing QBs. The return of strong side LB Mark Fields should help, but rookie CB Chris Gamble and second-year CB Ricky Manning will be tested.

Buccaneers

STRENGTHS The defense is still excellent, even after losing veterans Warren Sapp and John Lynch. Brad Johnson is among the NFL's most underrated QBs, posting good numbers despite an inconsistent supporting cast.

WEAKNESSES The offensive line is showing cracks, and the Bucs' inability to consistently run the ball made it difficult for them to protect the lead last year. The receiving corps is thin, despite the presence of some veterans. Tim Brown is 38, Keenan McCardell is 34, and Joey Galloway is 32.

X-FACTOR Five of the Bucs nine losses came by a field goal or less, and they were one of only two NFL teams whose offense and defense both ranked in the top-10 (the Broncos were the other). The special teams were horrible, and if they can improve there's no reason this team can't get back to the playoffs.

Falcons

STRENGTHS QB Michael Vick appears to be healthy. The combination of T.J. Duckett and Warrick Dunn in the backfield will be more effective with Vick under center. The receiving corps seems ideally suited to the new West Coast offense. A move to the 4-3 defense should enable DE Patrick Kerney and LB Keith Brooking to make more plays.

WEAKNESSES The Falcons' hopes were deflated last year when they lost Vick to a preseason injury, but it was clear that wasn't their only problem. The running game suffered because of spotty blocking, and the defensive line was horrible. It's unclear whether either problem has been completely resolved.

X- FACTOR The Falcons' new coaching staff is implementing new schemes on offense and defense. That's a lot of change all at once, and it may take some time before everything starts running smoothly.

Saints

STRENGTHS Deuce McAllister is a dominant RB, and the Saints' offensive line simply wears down opponents. QB Aaron Brooks had the best year of his career in 2003, cutting down on his turnovers and becoming a much better passer as he scrambled less. The pass rush appears to be much improved over a year ago.

WEAKNESSES The Saints traded up on draft day last year to get DT Jonathon Sullivan, and he was a disappointment as a rookie. Unless he makes some dramatic improvements, the run defense will be a major weakness. The lack of playmakers on defense also makes it hard to generate turnovers.

X-FACTOR Two years ago, the Saints started fast, winning six of seven before fading in the second half. Last year they started 1-4, only to turn things around in November. That sort of inconsistency has plagued the Saints under head coach Jim Haslett and kept them out of the playoffs for the last three seasons. They won't get back to the postseason until they find a way to avoid those kind of season-killing slumps.

NFC WEST

Seahawks

STRENGTHS The offense is good and they know it. Matt Hasselbeck has finally turned into the top QB that Holmgren promised he would become. He's accurate and has a strong arm. Shaun Alexander is becoming one of the league's best all-around RBs, a threat to run inside or outside and an able pass catcher.

WEAKNESSES The defense was the Seahawks' Achilles' heel last year. They believe they have upgraded the secondary, but three of the four starters are entering their second sea son of play, and their lack of experience could lead to inconsistency. Problems remain at LB, and Chad Brown's broken leg only makes matters worse.

X-FACTOR Ray Rhodes has had success as a defensive coordinator everywhere he's worked. In Green Bay, Washington, and Denver, he took over moribund defenses and made them fierce. The Seahawks are hoping he can do the same thing for them in 2004.If Rhodes transforms them into a top-10 defense, this could be a Super Bowl team.

Rams

STRENGTHS Torry Holt and Isaac Bruce remain the league's most dangerous pass-receiving duo. First-round draft pick Steven Jackson is a game changing running back who can lighten the load Marshall Faulk has been carrying.

WEAKNESSES Injuries are a problem already. Once their greatest strength, the offensive line is crumbling. The team has used first-round draft picks on DTs Jimmy Kennedy and Damione Lewis in recent years, and their lack of production has made the run defense suffer. CB Travis Fisher's broken arm puts pressure on a thin secondary.

X-FACTOR For the first time, Marc Bulger arrived at training camp as the starting QB. With Kurt Warner gone, the pressure is on Bulger to keep the high-flying offense soaring. He led the NFC with 3,845 passing yards last year, but threw too few touchdowns and too many interceptions (22 of each). Bulger must prove that he's a quality QB and that his success is not solely due to the players around him.

49ers

STRENGTHS Kevan Barlow rushed for 1,024 yards in part-time duty last year. He'll be the focal point of the offense. The 49ers have the makings of a strong offensive line, which should help compensate for a plethora of changes at the skill positions. Julian Peterson, one of the best outside LBs in the game, has returned after a lengthy holdout.

WEAKNESSES The 49ers will suffer after an alarming talent drain: Since the end of last season, the Niners got rid of starters at QB, RB,TE, and both receiving positions. The team is also switching to the 3-4 defense, a curious move considering their linemen are already undersized.

X-FACTOR San Francisco has sent a QB to the pro Bowl 18 times in the past 23 seasons. With Joe Montana, Steve Young, and Jeff Garcia, the Niners took players that nobody else believed in and developed them into great passers. Now they are hoping that they can do the same thing with Tim Rattay. He was impressive in three starts last year, but things will be harder with all of the other new faces on the offense.

Cardinals

STRENGTHS Optimism. Head coach Dennis Green took over a team that was in terrible shape, but he seems to have begun turning things around. The team has a trio of talented young receivers, led by Anquan Boldin, who caught 101 passes last year and was named Rookie of the Year. DE Bertrand Berry should give them a decent pass rush for the first time in years.

WEAKNESSES Almost everything. Green has shuffled the offensive line, but it's unclear if it has ended up any better. RB Emmitt Smith should retire before he embarrasses himself. The defense has some more holes to plug before it will show real improvement.

X- FACTOR The Cardinals passed on several promising young QBs in the draft - Phillip Rivers, Ben Roethlisberger, and J.P. Losman. That's a pretty firm commitment to the young QB they already have, Josh McCown, who started just three games last year. If McCown is a bust, Green has made a terrible first step, but if he turns out to be good, this team could be competitive sooner than most people think.

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