NFC preview: Philadelphia Eagles still birds of prey with strengthened squad from Super Bowl run

Jay Asser 5/09/2018
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It’s been 13 years since anyone has repeated as Super Bowl champions, but the Philadelphia Eagles are uniquely positioned to change that this season.

After lifting the Lombardi Trophy in February to cap off an improbable run with a back-up quarterback, the Eagles begin their title defence with a significantly stronger squad than the one that brought the franchise its first banner.

In Carson Wentz alone, Philadelphia will get back their starting quarterback and face of the team, as well as someone who was an MVP candidate before going down with an ACL tear in the middle of last season.

Nick Foles was unassailable in the postseason, but Wentz – who will be inactive for Week 1 – protects the Eagles from having to find out if their Super Bowl hero will turn back into a pumpkin when he returns to the field.

Philadelphia also welcome back nine-time Pro Bowl left tackle Jason Peters, linebacker Jordan Hicks and running back Darren Sproles – all of whom were sidelined by injuries in the playoffs.

As if getting healthy wasn’t enough, the Eagles went out in the offseason and added two stalwarts on the defensive line with the additions of veterans Michael Bennett and Haloti Ngata.

Arguably the most talented roster in the league last season has only gotten deeper, affording Philadelphia with all the ammo they need to break the drought of repeat champions.

In a loaded NFC, however, the Eagles will be tasked with going through a field that is as dangerous as any in recent memory.

Up north, the Minnesota Vikings and Green Bay Packers are more than equipped to knock Philadelphia off their throne.

After upgrading from Case Keenum to Kirk Cousins at quarterback, getting running back Dalvin Cook back from an ACL tear, and retaining, by the numbers, the best defence in the league from a season ago, the Vikings are primed to avenge their NFC Championship loss.

The ‘Minneapolis Miracle’ – which saw the Vikings pull off a legendary last-second win over New Orleans in Divisional Round – wrote a new, memorable chapter in the team’s history, but the franchise is still searching for its first Super Bowl in its 58 years of existence.

Cousins

In Green Bay’s case… well, they get Aaron Rodgers back from a broken collarbone, and when the best quarterback in the game is upright, he’s a one-man wrecking crew capable of putting the Packers on his back.

The last four seasons in which Rodgers has been on the field for all 16 regular season games, Green Bay have reached at least the Divisional Round each time.

In ‘The Big Easy’, there’s nothing laissez-faire about the Saints’ intentions this season as they aim to erase the bad taste left in their mouths from the aforementioned debacle against Minnesota.

Drew Brees, much like Tom Brady in New England, continues to churn out his usual production in his relatively old age (39), but flanked by a pair of stud running backs in Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram, and supported by a defence on the rise, the quarterback no longer has to shoulder the entire load.

Though all of the NFC’s contenders will deal with great expectations, arguably no team in NFL is under more pressure this season than the Los Angeles Rams.

A redux of the 2011 Philadelphia Eagles ‘dream team’, the Rams are under the microscope after adding several big-name players to a squad that won 11 games and the NFC West in head coach Sean McVay’s first year.

Joining reigning Defensive Player of the Year Aaron Donald on the defensive line is Ndamukong Suh, while newcomers Aqib Talib and Marcus Peters form a ball-hawking cornerback duo in a secondary also featuring free safety Lamarcus Joyner.

Considering the money and contracts Los Angeles have on their books, their title window with this current roster may not be more than two years, which ups the urgency to win now.

McVay

The Seattle Seahawks may not be as much of a threat now that their defence looks unrecognisable, but the San Francisco 49ers could make the Rams earn another NFC West crown thanks to the pairing of Jimmy Garoppolo and Kyle Shanahan.

Garoppolo has yet to lose as a starting quarterback as he holds a flawless 7-0 mark, which includes the five consecutive victories he led the 49ers to at the end of last season.

Elsewhere in the conference, the Atlanta Falcons will attempt to get back to the Super Bowl after taking a step back last year, while the New York Giants are banking on Eli Manning having something left in the tank and the Chicago Bears look to play dark horse under first year head coach Matt Nagy.

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Green Bay Packers and Minnesota Vikings lead loaded division in NFC North preview

Jay Asser 5/09/2018
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Arguably the best division in football this season, the NFC North is stacked with teams that are, at best, Super Bowl contenders, and at worst, capable of making the playoffs.

At the top, the Minnesota Vikings and Green Bay Packers are built for January with the former possessing a dominant defence and the latter boasting the best quarterback in the game.

The Detroit Lions may take a step forward with a new head coach, while the Chicago Bears have vastly improved the roster and could be on the rise sooner than later.

Learn more about the teams with our NFC North team guides.

CHICAGO BEARS

Head coach: Matt Nagy

Star player: Khalil Mack

Last season: 5-11

Key ins: Khalil Mack (Oakland), Trey Burton (Philadelphia), Taylor Gabriel (Atlanta), Allen Robinson (Jacksonville), Roquan Smith (rookie), James Daniels (rookie), Anthony Miller (rookie)

Key outs: Josh Sitton (Miami), Pernell McPhee (Washington), Cameron Meredith (New Orleans)

Strengths: Trade for Mack makes their front seven even more formidable.

Weaknesses: Offence has the potential to thrive, but has several question marks, including Mitchell Trubisky at quarterback.

Verdict: They’ve upped the urgency to win now and have the talent to vie for a playoff spot.

Trubisky

DETROIT LIONS

Head coach: Matt Patricia

Star player: Matthew Stafford

Last season: 9-7

Key ins: LeGarrette Blount (Philadelphia), Eli Harold (San Francisco), Kerryon Johnson (rookie), Frank Ragnow (rookie)

Key outs: Eric Ebron (Indianapolis), D.J. Hayden (Jacksonville), Haloti Ngata (Philadelphia), Dwight Freeney (retired)

Strengths: Golden Tate and Marvin Jones were the only receiver duo in the league last season to both top 1,000 yards.

Weaknesses: Ranked dead last in rushing last year, although they’ve addressed that by bringing in Blount and Johnson.

Verdict: Even though they’re better on paper than last year, they’ll struggle to come out of one of the toughest divisions.

Stafford

GREEN BAY PACKERS

Head coach: Mike McCarthy

Star player: Aaron Rodgers

Last season: 7-9

Key ins: Jimmy Graham (Seattle), Muhammad Wilkerson (NY Jets), Tramon Williams (Arizona), DeShone Kizer (Cleveland), Marcedes Lewis (Jacksonville), Jaire Alexander (rookie), Josh Jackson (rookie)

Key outs: Jordy Nelson (Oakland), Damarious Randall (Cleveland), Morgan Burnett (Pittsburgh)

Strengths: Have the best quarterback in the league, who is fully healthy and back on the field.

Weaknesses: Surrendered the second-highest passer rating to quarterbacks last year (102.0).

Verdict: Always a Super Bowl contender with Rodgers, but need to hit on the changes they’ve made.

at Lambeau Field on August 16, 2018 in Green Bay, Wisconsin.

MINNESOTA VIKINGS

Head coach: Mike Zimmer

Star player: Harrison Smith

Last season: 13-3, lost in NFC Championship

Key ins: Kirk Cousins (Washington), Sheldon Richardson (Seattle), George Iloka (Cincinnati), Mike Hughes (rookie), Brian O’Neill (rookie)

Key outs: Sam Bradford (Arizona), Teddy Bridgewater (New Orleans), Tramaine Brock (Denver), Jerick McKinnon (San Francisco), Case Keenum (Denver), Joe Berger (retired)

Strengths: Defence allowed the fewest yards (275.9) and points (15.8) in the league last year.

Weaknesses: Banged up offensive line is the biggest area of concern.

Verdict: Oozing with talent as legit Super Bowl challengers.

Smith

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Pittsburgh Steelers heavy favourites while Cleveland Browns try to turn it around in AFC North preview

Jay Asser 5/09/2018
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The AFC North has been a three-horse race for years, with the Cleveland Browns an afterthought as continuous bottom-dwellers.

After going 1-32 over the past two seasons, the Browns are banking on turning around their woes by notching multiple wins this year, but have a long climb up the division.

The Pittsburgh Steelers, who are flush with talent, remain the team to beat, while the Baltimore Ravens and Cincinnati Bengals are also built to challenge for a playoff spot.

Learn more about the teams with our AFC North team guides.

BALTIMORE RAVENS

Head coach: John Harbaugh

Star player: Marshal Yanda

Last season: 9-7

Key ins: Michael Crabtree (Oakland), Willie Snead (New Orleans), John Brown (Arizona), Lamar Jackson (rookie), Haydan Hurst (rookie)

Key outs: Mike Wallace (Philadelphia), Jeremy Maclin (free agent), Danny Woodhead (retired), Lardarius Webb (free agent), Ben Watson (New Orleans)

Strengths: Defence had the most takeaways in the league (34) and second-best passer rating against (72.4) last season.

Weaknesses: Passing game was abysmal under Joe Flacco.

Verdict: Jackson’s presence may push Flacco and his weapons have improved, so a return to the playoffs is within their reach.

Flacco

CINCINNATI BENGALS

Head coach: Marvin Lewis

Star player: A.J. Green

Last season: 7-9

Key ins: Cordy Glenn (Buffalo), Preston Brown (Buffalo), Billy Price (rookie), Jessie Bates (rookie), Sam Hubbard (rookie)

Key outs: Jeremy Hill (New England), A.J. McCarron (Oakland), George Iloka (Minnesota), Adam Jones (Denver), Russell Bodine (Buffalo), Andre Smith (Arizona), Eric Winston (free agent)

Strengths: Talented skill players on offence.

Weaknesses: Shaky offensive line play resulted in second-fewest rushing yards in the league last year (1,366).

Verdict: Have finished third in the division in consecutive years but possess the tools to change that.

Green

CLEVELAND BROWNS

Head coach: Hue Jackson

Star player: Myles Garrett

Last season: 0-16

Key ins: E.J. Gaines (Buffalo), Jarvis Landry (Miami), Tyrod Taylor (Buffalo), Carlos Hyde (San Francisco), Chris Hubbard (Pittsburgh), Damarious Randall (Green Bay), Baker Mayfield (rookie), Denzel Ward (rookie), Nick Chubb (rookie),

Key outs: Isaiah Crowell (NY Jets), DeShone Kizer (Green Bay), Danny Shelton (New England), Joe Thomas (retired)

Strengths: Could have one of the best receiver duos with Landry and Josh Gordon.

Weaknesses: Allowed the highest passer rating of any team last year (102.2).

Verdict: They’ll make progress and (finally) win a handful of games.

Hue

PITTSBURGH STEELERS

Head coach: Mike Tomlin

Star player: Antonio Brown

Last season: 13-3, lost in Divisional Round

Key ins: Jon Bostic (Indianapolis), Morgan Burnett (Green Bay), Terrell Edmunds (rookie), James Washington (rookie), Mason Rudolph (rookie)

Key outs: Ryan Shazier (injury), Martavis Bryant (free agent), Mike Mitchell (free agent), Chris Hubbard (Cleveland)

Strengths: Have arguably the best offensive weapons in the league.

Weaknesses: They’ve yet to recover from the loss of Shazier, making their linebacking unit a soft spot.

Verdict: Along with New England and Jacksonville, they’re one of the top contenders in the conference once again.

Bell

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