Few contenders, more pretenders in NFC
The last four teams to play for the NFC championship have the same goal: Super Bowl or bust.
Carolina, Arizona, Seattle and Green Bay are still the class of a conference that has far more pretenders than contenders. It's a smart bet one of the four teams will be in Houston playing for the Vince Lombardi Trophy in February.
Reigning NFL MVP Cam Newton led the Panthers to a 17-1 record before Von Miller and the Broncos stifled them in the Super Bowl. Carolina returns the bulk of its roster except All-Pro cornerback Josh Norman, now in Washington. The offense should be even better because star receiver Kelvin Benjamin is back after a knee injury forced him to miss last season.
"Given the talent we have on the offensive side, it's about every guy maximizing their role," Newton said. "We don't want to look back and say we didn't maximize our opportunity with all these talents."
The last eight teams to lose the Super Bowl have won at least 10 games the next season. But no team has reached the title game a year after losing since the 1993 Bills.
"You can never be satisfied," Panthers coach Ron Rivera said. "We didn't win the Super Bowl. So that right there is enough for us to stay motivated and keep moving toward our goal."
The Cardinals were 13-3 last year and are 34-14 under Bruce Arians. A blowout loss at Carolina in the NFC title game was a bitter end to a fine season. Carson Palmer is coming off his best season, but threw four interceptions against the Panthers. Palmer turns 37 in December, so there's urgency to win now.
Seattle also was knocked out of the playoffs by the Panthers. The Seahawks might have even more depth than they did when they almost won consecutive Super Bowls in 2013-14.
Running back Thomas Rawls — Marshawn Lynch's replacement — and tight end Jimmy Graham are back from significant injuries that ended their 2015 seasons early. Russell Wilson led the NFL in passer rating and is still improving.
"We know what it takes to win a lot of games," Wilson said.
Aaron Rodgers and the Packers are looking to rebound after Minnesota ended their four-year reign in the NFC North. Star receiver Jordy Nelson is back after missing the season with a knee injury. Running back Eddie Lacy slimmed down. Even Rodgers altered his diet after minor knee surgery in the offseason.
If everyone around him stays healthy, Rodgers should return to MVP form. He had 3,821 yards passing, 31 touchdowns and eight interceptions in a "down" year for him in 2015.
The Vikings round out the top 5 in the NFC. But they need much more production from Teddy Bridgewater to have a chance to win the conference. Bridgewater finished in the bottom third of the NFL in most quarterback categories last season.
Minnesota's offense still relies on Adrian Peterson, who led the league with 1,485 yards rushing last season. If the 31-year-old Peterson slows down, the Vikings could be in trouble.
Whoever wins the NFC East could be an underdog in the playoffs, though a home game comes with winning the division.
The Redskins finished first thanks to a breakout year from Kirk Cousins. They added Norman in free agency to bolster a poor defense. But no team has repeated in the division since the Eagles won four in a row from 2001-04.
The Giants have a new coach, Ben McAdoo, and revamped defense. They re-signed Jason Pierre-Paul and added defensive end Olivier Vernon, defensive tackle Damon Harrison, cornerback Janoris Jenkins and linebacker Kennan Robinson.
With Eli Manning and Odell Beckham Jr. leading the way on offense, New York could end its four-year playoff drought.
McAdoo is one of four new coaches in the NFC. The Eagles hired Doug Pederson to replace Chip Kelly, who took over in San Francisco. Tampa Bay hired Dirk Koetter.
Tony Romo's back injury means Dallas might start the season with rookie Dak Prescott at quarterback. If so, it tempers the excitement surrounding running back Ezekiel Elliott, the No. 4 overall pick.
Matthew Stafford and the Lions have to adjust to life without Calvin Johnson. Megatron retired in the offseason.
Drew Brees is playing for a new contract 37 at age, so the Saints could be a surprise team. The Falcons aim for consistency after losing eight of 11 following a 5-0 start. The Rams try to bring a winner to town in the NFL's return to Los Angeles. The Bears will go as far as Jay Cutler takes them, usually nowhere.
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