Packers and 49ers expected to go far this season

NFC East

1. Philadelphia Eagles (12-4)

2. New York Giants (9-7)

3. Dallas Cowboys (8-8)

4. Washington Redskins (8-8)

Each year the NFC East is one of the most competitive divisions in the NFL, and 2012 should be no exception. Philadelphia came into last season with high expectations after the acquisitions of Nnamdi Asomugha and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, but disappointed with their subpar 8-8 season. This year, they return with a new anchor for their defense in linebacker Demeco Ryans.

The Giants come off last year’s Super Bowl win with basically the same roster, so they should have a competitive team. Victor Cruz will look to build on his break out season of 2011. However, New York has never been known for their regular season success. Their schedule may be too difficult to get them into the playoffs and duplicate their 2011 Super Bowl run.

To counter all the great wide receivers in the East, Dallas improved its pass defense by signing Brandon Flowers. With the emergence of Demarco Murray and Dez Bryant, the Cowboys should return with an explosive offense next season. However, they will still have difficulty reaching the playoffs again this year with Tony Romo at the helm.

Finally, Washington enters the season with the highly touted second overall pick, Robert Griffin III. The Redskins have been a revolving door for quarterbacks lately, with Donovan McNabb and Rex Grossman the most recent culprits of subpar QB play. Some are skeptical and believe RGIII will bring the same incompetency as those in the past, but the Redskins should at least be able to improve on last year’s abysmal season. With a talented defense lead by Brian Orakpo, they should be able to scrounge together at least eight wins.

NFC North

1. Green Bay Packers (13-3)

2. Chicago Bears (12-4)

3. Detroit Lions (10-6)

4. Minnesota Vikings (2-14)

The Green Bay Packers are a perennial favorite to win the NFC, and this year is no different. As long as Aaron Rodgers is at the helm, Green Bay will be able to compete. Even though they finished last season at 15-1, their early playoff exit to the Giants was very disappointing. Expect them to learn from their mistakes and advance deeper this year.

Last season, the Bears were cruising. They were on their way to the playoffs and looked like a formidable team in the NFC. Then, Jay Cutler broke his thumb and missed the rest of the season. Chicago still has the same great defense they had last year, and with the addition of Brandon Marshall, the Bears get the superstar wide receiver they’ve desperately needed to handle Jay Cutler’s cannon of an arm. They should reach the playoffs with ease this season.

Although Detroit was one of the surprise teams last year, they shouldn’t have caught the NFC off guard. It was Matt Stafford’s first healthy season in the NFL and Calvin Johnson is the most physically gifted receiver in the league. They have also built an incredibly talented defensive line anchored by Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley. They will regress slightly this season, but as long as Stafford stays healthy, they still have a playoff caliber roster.

The Vikings are a mess. Star running back Adrian Peterson is coming off a devastating knee injury which resulted in a tear in his ACL and MCL. There is no telling if he will ever return to his form of years past. Christian Ponder showed signs of promise last season, but he doesn’t appear ready to lead a playoff team. This will be a rebuilding year for Minnesota.

NFC West

1. San Francisco 49ers (13-3)

2. Seattle Seahawks (7-9)

3. St. Louis Rams (3-13)

4. Arizona Cardinals (3-13)

Alex Smith showed why he wasn’t a bust last season, coming one drive short of leading San Francisco to a Super Bowl appearance. With one of the most tenacious defenses in the NFL, the 49ers will rack up plenty of sacks this season from Justin and Aldon Smith. Randy Moss is a positive acquisition for the 49ers, but it shouldn’t greatly change their offensive production.

The Seahawks signed Matt Flynn in the offseason, presumably to be their quarterback of the future. However, after the preseason coach Pete Carroll named third round pick Russell Wilson the starter. Wilson shows potential, but the team just doesn’t have enough to reach the playoffs, even in a weak division.

The Rams continue trying to reclaim their past glory from the early 2000s behind QB Sam Bradford and RB Steven Jackson, but they just don’t have enough talent on either side of the ball to compete on a consistent basis. They have a good young nucleus so they will be relevant again in the near future.

Arizona has a quarterback battle brewing between Kevin Kolb and John Skelton, but it shouldn’t matter who wins out. The Cardinals’ rush defense is lacking and the NFC West is full of bruising running backs going up and down the field. Even with a great wide receiver like Larry Fitzgerald, Arizona needs someone to get him the ball, and they won’t succeed until they do.

NFC South

1. New Orleans Saints (12-4)

2. Atlanta Falcons (10-6)

3. Carolina Panthers (10-6)

4. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (3-13)

After the bounty scandal this offseason, the Saints are in turmoil. Without Sean Payton, Gregg Williams, and Jonathan Vilma, they will have some defensive problems. Especially in a tough division, this may be an issue. A team led by Drew Brees can never be forgotten, however, especially since he is coming off a record-setting season. There shouldn’t be too much offensive regression, due to the emergence of tight end Jimmy Graham.

Atlanta is a puzzling team. Led by Matt Ryan (a proven regular-season winner), Atlanta never seems to capitalize on their playoff opportunities. With a greater development of Julio Jones, however, the Falcons sport one of the best 1-2 wide receiver combos in the NFL with Jones and Roddy White. They should be playoff-caliber again this year.

Every year, there are teams that surprise everyone and take the NFL by storm. Last season, Cincinnati and Detroit greatly improved on their previous records and even made the playoffs. This season, the Cam Newton-led Panthers look to be that unexpected contender. After improving last year due to Newton’s outstanding rookie campaign and Steve Smith’s resurgence, Carolina should ride their momentum into this season and contend for a playoff position. They might even make it to the Super Bowl.

Tampa Bay is a confusing team. Two years ago, rookie QB Josh Freeman led them to a very promising 10 win season and it looked as though the team was regaining their championship caliber play they showed in the early 2000s. Freeman suffered a major sophomore slump last season, however, and the Bucs fell to four wins, never establishing themselves as a factor in the tough NFC South. Their problem constantly comes back to the lack of offensive firepower, and until they can sign or draft some play makers, they will continue to be the bottom feeders of the division.