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Analyzing The NFC

Posted Jul 14, 2014

As training camp approaches, a look across the Cardinals' conference

Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III, here being hit by 49ers linebacker Aldon Smith, leads a Washington team that could bounce back this season in the NFC East.

The Cardinals won 10 games a year ago but it wasn’t enough to secure a playoff berth in the NFC.  They expect to be in the hunt again in 2014, although competing in the same division as the Seahawks and 49ers makes the road tougher. Here is a look at how the NFC stacks up as training camp approaches:

MOVERS AND SHAKERS

While there was no LeBron-level hype, several stars changed teams this offseason. Wide receiver DeSean Jackson went from Philadelphia to Washington. Defensive end Julius Peppers went from Chicago to Green Bay, while the Bears replaced him with Vikings pass-rusher Jared Allen. Wide receiver Golden Tate left the Seahawks for the Lions, and the Saints pumped up their defense by signing Bills safety Jairus Byrd. Those are just a few of the moves in a league where turnover is extremely high. Every team in the NFC will have adjustments to make as new personnel shuffles in.

THE BOUNCE-BACK CANDIDATES

Injuries, bad luck and other factors can affect a team’s fortunes in a heartbeat in the small sample of a 16-game regular season. Luckily for the teams mentioned below, franchises can return to form just as quickly.

The Giants finished 7-9 last year due in part to an unexpectedly poor season from quarterback Eli Manning (3,818 yards passing, 57.5 completion percentage, 18 touchdowns, 27 interceptions). The Giants have question marks on offense, but if Manning returns to the form that led New York to a pair of Super Bowls in 2007 and 2011, they could contend for a division title.

The Redskins stumbled to a 3-13 finish a season ago, but with quarterback Robert Griffin III expected to be fully recovered from a knee injury and with Jackson at wide receiver, improvement is expected. Last year was certainly unpleasant in Washington, but the team did win the NFC East just two seasons ago.

The Falcons finished 4-12 in 2013 -- one year after making the NFC Championship game -- largely because star wideouts Julio Jones and Roddy White were injured much of the year. Now healthy, that duo could help Atlanta more than double its win total from a season ago.

The Cardinals play all three teams next season.

BOUND FOR REGRESSION?

The Cardinals missed the playoffs in part because of the surprising ascent of the Panthers, who won the NFC South, which dropped perennial powerhouse New Orleans to the final wild card spot.

The Panthers, though, have been pegged as a team likely to regress. They lost wideouts Steve Smith, Ted Ginn and Brandon LaFell and cornerback Captain Munnerlyn to other teams while left tackle Jordan Gross retired. Quarterback Cam Newton is back after a Pro Bowl season and the defense should again be solid, but there are a lot of unproven parts heading into the season.

The bad news for Arizona: Carolina is the only NFC playoff team projected to take a tumble in the standings. The Seahawks, 49ers, Saints and Eagles return solid nucleuses, while the Packers should be better as long as quarterback Aaron Rodgers stays healthy.

THE AFC FACTOR

While the Cardinals won’t be competing with AFC teams for playoff berths, the cross-conference matchups will still affect the standings. The NFC West is matched up with the AFC West this season, so in addition to beating up on each other, the Cardinals, Seahawks, 49ers and Rams must face three AFC playoff teams from a season ago (the Broncos, the Chiefs and the Chargers).

The AFC West had the second-best winning percentage by division (.578) behind only the NFC West (.656) in 2013.

THE BOTTOM LINE

Coach Bruce Arians and General Manager Steve Keim have fortified strengths and improved on weaknesses the past year-and-a-half, and it has put the Cardinals in a promising position. If the offense picks up where it left off in the second half of 2013, and if the losses of key linebackers Karlos Dansby and Daryl Washington can be weathered, double-digit wins are a possibility again.

Despite last year’s impressive finish, many pundits have the Cardinals regressing in 2014, and it’s less about the team and more about the schedule. The Cardinals face a gauntlet not only in the NFC West but throughout the regular season, with eight games against 2013 playoff teams, including a combined five against Seattle, San Francisco and Denver.

The Cardinals could very well have their best team since the retirement of quarterback Kurt Warner after the 2009 season, but based on the schedule and the strength of the NFC, there is no cheap way into the playoffs.

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