Capsules compiled by Associated Press for the 16 NFC teams for the 2005 season, listed by record for last season:
2004: 13-3, 2-1 playoffs
OPTIMISTIC: Eagles remain class of NFC East and can win fifth straight division title. Return most starters and have improved offense with additions of rookie RB Ryan Moats and rookie WR Reggie Brown, and return of G Shawn Andrews. Jim Johnson-coached defense is always a strength. Determined and hungry to win championship after coming close last season.
PESSIMISTIC: Must avoid post-Super Bowl letdown. Five of last six teams that lost Super Bowl didn’t make playoffs in following season. Have to overcome distraction and disruption caused by disgruntled WR Terrell Owens. Loss of WR Todd Pinkston is magnified if Owens doesn’t last the season.
ON THE RISE: RB Brian Westbrook, WR Greg Lewis, TE L.J. Smith, CB Sheldon Brown, SS Michael Lewis.
ON THE DECLINE: LT Tra Thomas, RT Jon Runyan.
EXPECT: NFC East championship with strong shot at reaching Super Bowl if Owens stays and plays whole season.
2004: 11-5, 1-1 in playoffs
OPTIMISTIC: Second-year coach Jim Mora sets fiery tone and insists he won’t let team become complacent after 2004 success. QB Michael Vick is special player and was rewarded with NFL’s richest contract. League’s top running game powers offense, led by Vick and RBs Warrick Dunn and T.J. Duckett. TE Alge Crumpler is Vick’s favorite receiver. Defensive coordinator Ed Donatell continues to upgrade speed. MLB Ed Hartwell could be one of best free-agent signees, escaping Ray Lewis’ shadow in Baltimore. DE Patrick Kerney and OLB Keith Brooking are longtime stalwarts. CB DeAngelo Hall is lockdown defender.
PESSIMISTIC: WR Peerless Price was major disappointment and now battling second-year player Michael Jenkins to keep starting job. Lack of big-time receiver puts major pressure on running game. DL depth could be problem. S also looks thin. Must find punter who can also handle kickoff duties. New K Todd Peterson is accurate on field goals, but doesn’t have a strong leg.
ON THE RISE: TE Crumpler, CB Hall, LB Hartwell, DT Rod Coleman, WR Jenkins.
ON THE DECLINE: WR Price.
EXPECT: Another playoff appearance and end of stigma of never having back-to-back winning seasons — as long as Vick stays healthy. Two years ago, he broke his leg in preseason and Falcons slumped to 5-11.
Green Bay Packers
2004: 10-6, 0-1 playoffs
OPTIMISTIC: Brett Favre worked tirelessly in off-season to get more mobile and add arm strength. He has deepest pool of WRs ever in Javon Walker, Donald Driver, Robert Ferguson and Antonio Chatman, plus RBs Ahman Green, Najeh Davenport and Tony Fisher. Green will be 29-year-old free agent next year and is primed for money season if his refurbished OL can give him running room.
PESSIMISTIC: One of NFL’s elite OLs has been broken up. Gs Marco Rivera (Dallas) and Mike Wahle (Carolina) were two reasons Favre stayed upright last few years. Financial mistakes by coach Mike Sherman in former capacity as GM (Joe Johnson, Jamal Reynolds, Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila, Cletidus Hunt) means problems for new coordinator Jim Bates, who doesn’t have S Darren Sharper (Vikings) around.
ON THE RISE: WRs Walker, Driver, Ferguson and Chatman; RB Davenport; rookie S Nick Collins; LB Nick Barnett; P B.J. Sander; K Ryan Longwell gets better and better in unpredictable conditions at Lambeau Field.
ON THE DECLINE: Favre? He’ll be 36 in October, but does he have more 4,000-yard, 30-TD seasons left in his aching body? C Mike Flanagan is coming off knee surgery that cut short his 2004 season; NTs Hunt and Grady Jackson.
EXPECT: Favre has led the Packers to playoffs 10 times in salary cap era, tops in NFL. He always gives them a shot, but after three straight division crowns, it will be hard.
2004: 9-7, 0-1 playoffs
OPTIMISTIC: The firing of ex-president Bob Whitsitt after last season was owner Paul Allen’s vote of confidence for coach Mike Holmgren. Offense remained intact, with QB Matt Hasselbeck and T Walter Jones getting long-term deals. RB Shaun Alexander is coming off franchise-record 1,696 yards rushing and 20 TDs. Defense, prone to breakdowns last year, starts fresh with DE Bryce Fisher, DT Chuck Darby, LB Jamie Sharper and CB Andre Dyson as off-season pickups.
PESSIMISTIC: Still winless in playoffs since 1984. Despite last year’s division title, lost three times to Rams. Seahawks are 0-3 in postseason under Holmgren. Time for WRs Darrell Jackson and Bobby Engram (replacing the troubled Koren Robinson) to catch the ball. Young defenders must prove they have matured.
ON THE RISE: DT Marcus Tubbs, Seattle’s first-round pick in 2004, is ready to shine. SS Michael Boulware had fine rookie season: three of his five interceptions saved wins. FB Mack Strong, turning 34 in September, could be NFL’s most underrated player.
ON THE DECLINE: G Chris Gray.
EXPECT: Photo finish with Arizona and St. Louis in the NFC West. Seahawks believe they can win division, then hope for their first playoff victory in two decades.
2004: 8-8, 1-1 playoffs
OPTIMISTIC: QB Daunte Culpepper, coming off career season, has plenty of reliable receivers, backs and tight ends to throw to even with his favorite target, Randy Moss, now in Oakland. Five starters were added to defense via free agency or trades, and coordinator Ted Cottrell shouldn’t have to worry as much about young players learning his system. Locker room harmony improves with trade of Moss and his antics.
PESSIMISTIC: Strong starts have given way to frustrating finishes in last two seasons, when seven losses in final 10 games cost them division title each time. Coach Mike Tice, entering his fourth year, hasn’t yet proven he can help team sustain success. Moss can’t really be replaced, and rookie WR Troy Williamson is raw. Despite obvious talent upgrade, defense has ranked in league’s bottom 10 each season since Tice took over. Still need to settle on a kicker, Aaron Elling or Paul Edinger.
ON THE RISE: DT Kevin Williams, WR Nate Burleson. Williams was All-Pro last year and should benefit from deep DL bolstered by addition of veteran NT Pat Williams. Burleson, coming off 1,000-yard sophomore season, shows potential to be a No. 1 receiver.
ON THE DECLINE: P Darren Bennett, S Corey Chavous. Coming off so-so year, Bennett has struggled during preseason. Chavous, who had eight INTs and went to Pro Bowl in 2003, was one of many inconsistent defensive players last year.
EXPECT: NFC North championship, with chance to make a long playoff run if defense comes together.
St. Louis Rams
2004: 8-8, 1-1 playoffs
OPTIMISTIC: Addressed deficiency at LB by signing free agents Chris Claiborne and Dexter Coakley. One-two punch at running back with Steven Jackson and Marshall Faulk, beginning new phase of career as backup. OL bolstered by free agent Rex Tucker and first-round pick Alex Barron should provide better protection for Marc Bulger. Barron likely won’t make immediate impact due to two-week holdout.
PESSIMISTIC: Defense was weak link most of last season, capped by horrid performance in a 47-17 second-round playoff loss to Falcons, and must show that coordinator Larry Marmie’s system can work. SS Adam Archuleta must bounce back from herniated disc in back that hampered him all last year. OL issues: position juggling with Tucker moved to RT, late signing of T Matt Willig, rookie Claude Terrell starting at LG.
ON THE RISE: Jackson is starter ahead of Faulk; WR Kevin Curtis is coming on. DT Jimmy Kennedy, first-round pick in 2003, has been inside force in camp. DE Anthony Hargrove could add balance to pass rush opposite Leonard Little. LB Pisa Tinoisamoa could thrive alongside Claiborne and Coakley.
ON THE DECLINE: Faulk, slowed by succession of knee injuries, enters first year as a backup. G Adam Timmerman, entering 12th season, finished last year with injuries to both shoulders and foot that limited him throughout camp.
EXPECT: Rams should be in three-way fight with Cardinals, Seahawks in NFC West.
New Orleans Saints
OPTIMISTIC: Looking to continue momentum from four-game winning streak to close last season, which may have saved coach Jim Haslett’s job. While defense was last in yards allowed, lineup that played final four games yielded 100 yards below average. Most of that lineup returns, plus free agent safety Dwight Smith. Offense returns marquee players Aaron Brooks, Deuce McAllister and Joe Horn and has deeper line with top draft pick Jammal Brown and free agent addition Jermane Mayberry.
PESSIMISTIC: Switching to run-oriented, ball-control offense is risky for team plagued by slow starts that forced it to play from behind much of last season. If line does not play as well as expected or McAllister has injury problems, it could mean rethinking offensive approach in midseason. Must hope young LBs continue to improve and stay healthy.
ON THE RISE: WR Donte’ Stallworth, LB Courtney Watson, CB Mike McKenzie. McKenzie was acquired in trade last season. After adjusting to defensive schemes, he led team in interceptions. Saints gave him new contract.
ON THE DECLINE: CB Fred Thomas.
EXPECT: Good shot at playoffs for first time since 2000, likely as wild card.
OPTIMISTIC: After losing more than a dozen players to season-ending injuries, the Panthers have everyone back healthy except safety Colin Branch, who tore ligaments in his knee this preseason. Additions to offensive line (Mike Wahle) and secondary (Ken Lucas) have given Carolina hope it can return to level it was at two seasons ago when Panthers went to Super Bowl.
PESSIMISTIC: It’s not clear how effective running back Stephen Davis will be after microfracture surgery on knee. If he is healthy, he’ll be fighting for carries in crowded backfield with DeShaun Foster and rookie Eric Shelton. Carolina is also thin at quarterback after backup Rodney Peete’s retirement. Should Jake Delhomme get hurt, options are Chris Weinke and rookie Stefan LeFors.
ON THE RISE: WRs Steve Smith and Keary Colbert, DE Julie Peppers. Smith has shown he hasn’t missed a step since breaking his leg in last year’s opener and Colbert might be suitable replacement for Muhsin Muhammad. Many believe Peppers is on verge of competing for NFL’s MVP award.
ON THE DECLINE: DT Brentson Buckner, who has been slowed the past few seasons by nagging injuries.
EXPECT: If Panthers stay healthy, they should get shot at NFC championship.
OPTIMISTIC: Another strong draft and some key free agent acquisitions have Cardinals a trendy pick to win weak NFC West. Coach Dennis Green, in second season, brought in QB Kurt Warner to run revamped offense under new coordinator Keith Rowen. Top draft picks — CB Antrel Rolle and RB J.J. Arrington — are expected to start. Warner has two of league’s best young receivers in Anquan Boldin and Larry Fitzgerald. In a sign owner Bill Bidwill really is changing financial ways, Boldin got new contract this year. Quick defense, a strength last season, should be better with free agent DE Chike Okeafor. The Cardinals are one year away from moving into new stadium, and Bidwill family wants winner, or at least competitive team to play there.
PESSIMISTIC: First of all, this is Arizona, a team that has had one winning season since moving from St. Louis in 1988. Offensive line remains suspect, especially on right side, where OT Oliver Ross came in as free agent. Warner, who struggled last season behind shaky line for Giants, is using three-step drop to help combat that problem. Warner must return to old form for offense to work. Cardinals need to win on road. They were 1-7 away from mostly empty Sun Devil Stadium last season.
ON THE RISE: DT Darnell Dockett, tough and aggressive, is growing in ability alongside Pro Bowl DE Bertrand Berry. LB Karlos Dansby, fast and hard hitter, is starter in second season. WR Bryant Johnson, often overlooked in favor of Boldin and Fitzgerald, is fastest of the trio and has shown marked improvement. RB Marcell Shipp, back from severe leg injury, will show Green same tenacity and hard-hitting style he used to impress previous coaching regime.
ON THE DECLINE: QB Kurt Warner.
EXPECT: There is no doubt young, aggressive Cardinals are improving, but questions on offense temper their prospects. Still, in NFC West, they might be good enough to make run and shed another layer of well-earned “loser” label.
New York Giants
OPTIMISTIC: Improved offensive line could give QB Eli Manning better protection and help RB Tiki Barber approach stellar 2004 numbers. Return of healthy DE Michael Strahan and acquisition of LB Antonio Pierce from Washington can improve run defense. TE Jeremy Shockey’ return to form he displayed as a rookie and Manning showing more poise and maturity in his second season. But Manning, who has the tools but is still finding his bearings as an NFL starter, injured elbow against Minnesota.
PESSIMISTIC: A team that has gotten used to losing last two seasons and must figure out how to win close games. Defensive backs have to prove they can hold onto ball. Players on both sides of ball have had a year to adjust to schemes of coach Tom Coughlin and defensive coordinator Tim Lewis — now it’s time to put up or shut up.
ON THE RISE: Rookie RB Brandon Jacobs, DB Curtis DeLoatch, LB Pierce, WR Plaxico Burress.
ON THE DECLINE: LB Barrett Green, QB Jesse Palmer, DT Fred Robbins.
EXPECT: If numbers fall right, a backdoor entrance into playoffs. If they don’t, an improvement over last year’s record and a foundation to build upon.
OPTIMISTIC: Defense has been drastically upgraded, with proven veterans replacing raw rookies at CB and big, speedy, high draft picks joining free agent NT Jason Ferguson on revamped front seven that will use more of coach Bill Parcells’ beloved 3-4 scheme. Offense should be better with second-year RB Julius Jones healthy from start, WR Terry Glenn back at full speed, new RG Marco Rivera shoring up line and QB Drew Bledsoe replacing mistake-prone Vinny Testaverde.
PESSIMISTIC: RT and FS remained open halfway through preseason. About a dozen players in their 30s hold key roles and owner Jerry Jones admits he’s worried about them breaking down. Watch out especially at WR: deep-threat Glenn rarely plays 16 games and Keyshawn Johnson is coming off two surgeries and has been limping lately. There could be trouble if Bledsoe goes down; Tony Romo, who has never taken a snap, appears to have beaten out Drew Henson as backup, although Testaverde is still available.
ON THE RISE: RB Jones, TE Jason Witten, CB Terence Newman, SS Roy Williams, rookie DE/LB DeMarcus Ware, rookie DL Chris Canty, a first-round talent taken in fourth because of knee and eye injuries feared to keep him on IR all season, but won’t.
ON THE DECLINE: DT La’Roi Glover because he’s undersized for 3-4, landing him on bench at times.
EXPECT: Wild-card contenders if 30-somethings stay healthy.
OPTIMISTIC: In Matt Millen’s fifth year in charge and Steve Mariucci’s third as coach, Lions are due for winning season after averaging four victories the past four seasons. It has been difficult to evaluate Joey Harrington because QB hasn’t had much help, but he does now with WRs Charles Rogers, Roy Williams, Kevin Johnson, Mike Williams, TE Marcus Pollard and RB Kevin Jones. DT Shaun Rogers, LB Boss Bailey and CB Dre’ Bly are playmakers on defense.
PESSIMISTIC: A long-suffering franchise, with one playoff victory since 1957 title, has beaten down a collection of players who were winners in college. As linebacker, Millen won four Super Bowl rings and as a TV analyst, he was one of the best. As an executive, he has struggled. Detroit is counting on two players – Charles Rogers and Bailey – who haven’t proven they can stay healthy.
ON THE RISE: OT Kelly Butler starts in place of Stockar McDougle (signed with Miami) after sixth-round pick didn’t play in one game last year as rookie. DE James Hall is one of best players few talk about, making 11 1/2 sacks last year with a broken hand.
ON THE DECLINE: DT Dan “Big Daddy” Wilkinson, No. 1 pick overall in 1994, can’t do much other than occupy linemen. FB Cory Schlesinger’s body is breaking down after years of vicious blocking.
EXPECT: A step toward respectability with 8-8 record.
OPTIMISTIC: Joe Gibbs isn’t too stubborn to learn from his mistakes. His game plans were too tepid when he emerged from retirement a year ago, so he’s added wrinkles designed to produce more downfield plays for an offense that ranked 30th. New WRs Santana Moss and David Patten are small but fast. New C Casey Rabach and RT Jon Jansen, back from injury, should strengthen offensive line. Assistant coach Gregg Williams’ defense ranked third last year despite injuries to key players.
PESSIMISTIC: Offensive talent doesn’t scare many defenses. Patrick Ramsey, given a last-gasp chance at the starter’s job, needs to polish his game to become a top-level QB. Moss and Patten aren’t as formidable as Laveranues Coles and Rod Gardner, who both asked to be traded because they didn’t like offense. Defense lost two leaders, LB Antonio Pierce and CB Fred Smoot, who left via free agency in peculiar show of frugality from big-spending owner Dan Snyder.
ON THE RISE: H-back Chris Cooley, S Sean Taylor (unless he ends up in jail as a result of off-season arrest), LB Lemar Marshall.
ON THE DECLINE: LB LaVar Arrington, a poor fit for defense who can’t seem to get healthy.
EXPECT: Another season trying to get back to .500.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
OPTIMISTIC: With addition of rookie Carnell “Cadillac” Williams, coach Jon Gruden hopes to finally have an offense with balance Bucs lacked even when they won Super Bowl three seasons ago. Absence of consistent running attack has placed too heavy a burden on one of NFL’s top defenses the past two years.
PESSIMISTIC: Injuries in training camp depleted an already porous offensive line that had difficulty protecting QB Brian Griese and opening holes for one of league’s least productive ground games in 2004. Derrick Brooks-led defense is looking to redeem itself after ranking among best statistically, but struggling shutting opponents down early and late in games.
ON THE RISE: RB Williams, second-year WR Michael Clayton, rookie LB Barrett Ruud, SS Jermaine Phillips. Clayton was league’s top rookie receiver a year ago with 80 receptions for 1,193 yards and emerged as leader in locker room.
ON THE DECLINE: OT Todd Steussie, cut in salary cap move after being one of reasons offensive line struggled last year, only to be re-signed because of injuries in camp. FB Mike Alstott is six-time Pro Bowl selection whose production has declined because of injuries and reduced role.
EXPECT: Bucs have lost 20 of 32 games since winning Super Bowl. A .500 record would be step forward, but winning record and return to playoffs could still be year away.
OPTIMISTIC: Defense will be much improved with healthy Brian Urlacher and Adewale Ogunleye, even though backs Jerry Azumah and Bobby Gray have been injured in preseason. DL, also featuring Alex Brown and Tommie Harris, might be strength of team. Lance Briggs, who has played in Urlacher’s shadow, is one of league’s most unheralded linebackers.
PESSIMISTIC: QB Rex Grossman is out at least three months after breaking ankle, his third injury in as many seasons. Chad Hutchinson is not a proven winner at quarterback with 3-11 record for Cowboys and Bears (five games last year). Has trouble avoiding sacks. Rookie Kyle Orton will get valuable reps now as No. 2 and if Hutchinson falters there will be yet another quarterback controversy for team that can’t solidify position.
ON THE RISE: DE Brown, DT Harris, LB Lance Briggs; WR Muhsin Muhammad (at age 32 he’s coming off 93-catch season at Carolina), WR Mark Bradley, who’s had strong preseason.
ON THE DECLINE: K Doug Brien, like predecessor Paul Edinger, whose kickoffs are way too short. OL Qasim Mitchell. RB Cedric Benson — after a month-long holdout he might not be a factor at all.
EXPECT: Defense will keep them in most games, but quarterbacking will make playoffs out of reach.
San Francisco 49ers
OPTIMISTIC: Can go .500 with new sense of direction for floundering franchise. Defense should be revitalized under coach Mike Nolan’s new 3-4 scheme that takes advantage of talented linebackers, including returning Pro Bowler Julian Peterson. Offense can’t be much worse than last season, with RB Kevan Barlow looking stronger behind better offensive line. Nolan hopes for progress from No. 1 draft pick Alex Smith, who will earn his $24 million in guaranteed money as backup to Tim Rattay for now.
PESSIMISTIC: Niners didn’t get much better on paper, and first-team offense and defense looked terrible in both early preseason games. So did Smith, who might not be ready for speed of NFL game. C Jeremy Newberry, key to shaky OL, might miss second straight season with serious knee problems. Star-crossed team also shaken by death of young OL Thomas Herrion.
ON THE RISE: RB Barlow, RG Justin Smiley, WRs Arnaz Battle and Brandon Lloyd, NT Isaac Sopoaga, CB Shawntae Spencer. Sopoaga missed all of rookie season with back injury, but the Samoan has been outstanding in camp.
ON THE DECLINE: C Newberry, who hasn’t caught a break in two years — just like his team.
EXPECT: Slight improvement on last season’s 2-14. Even Nolan acknowledges this rebuilding project will take years.
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