With minicamps coming to a close and only six weeks until training camp, the Armchair NFL staff takes a look at the most anticipated matchups in the NFC for the upcoming season. Rivalries are still alive and well in the NFL, but the individual battles and storylines have grasped the attention of fans. So here’s what to look for in the NFC during the 2017 season.
1. Dallas Cowboys
Everyone is still talking about Josh Norman and his battles with Odell Beckham Jr, but we can’t forget what transpired in Dallas last Thanksgiving. This is still one of the most anticipated individual matchups in the league this season. After all the fireworks last year between these two, Dez and Norman have already verbally established that there will be more to come when they meet in Dallas on Thursday Night Football. Norman even going as far as saying that fines and suspensions should be expected. Last November, they got into some heated verbal and physical exchanges on the field. Afterwards, the war continued post game as Dez told the media that he was going to post film the entire following week showing how he exposed Norman. These two are both a couple of the elites at their positions. The wide receiver/cornerback matchup is always a fan favorite in the NFL as well. Norman will be expected to shadow Dez when they meet, and Dez will surely be up for the challenge. Both are extreme competitors, and are looking to re-establish themselves after somewhat down seasons a year ago. Look for lots of physicality before and after the whistles, plus tons of trash talk.
2. New York Giants
Arguably for the past several years, Eli Manning has held the title as the elite quarterback in the NFC East (sorry Romo fans, rings speak). But last year, a young up-start 3rd round draft pick named Dak Prescott dethroned the apparent “King of the East” with an unexpected MVP-type season. The Giants seem to be in one of those lulls between dramatic Super Bowl seasons, and furthered that cause by adding weapons WR Brandon Marshall and rookie TE Evan Engram during the offseason. Dallas is more a run-centered offense, but Eli and the Giants should look to light up a weakened Cowboys’ secondary with their new firepower. These two quarterbacks both want to be back on top of the NFC East, and each matchup will be a tactical battle between two great quarterbacks. The NFC East title might come down to which quarterback is able to lead their team to victory in this series of games.
3. Philadelphia Eagles
While the Alshon Jeffery versus Janoris Jenkins matchup will be intriguing, it won’t matter if Carson Wentz does not have time to get the ball to his receivers. See the battle in the trenches, more specifically the edge rushers on the Giants. JPP and Olivier Vernon make up an imposing duo that can rattle any quarterback and take him out rhythm. Veteran Jason Peters had arguably one of his best seasons last year in the twilight of his career. And Lane Johnson was essentially the team’s MVP after his absence dropped the Eagles from a 5-1 team to a below .500 squad. The G-Men and Birds matchup twice this season, and all eyes should be on which powerhouse linemen can get the upper-hand in these two titanic battles. Because as many Birds’ fan saw last year, Wentz needs that entire offensive line in sync to find his receivers in this offense.
4. Washington Redskins
Kirk Cousins vs. Washington’s Front Office
Kirk Cousins has arguably been the closest thing to a franchise quarterback Washington has seen in recent memory. And yet here we are, back in the summer sports lull, talking about Cousins’ indefinite future with the team. If Cousins and Washington can’t ink a long-term deal by the July 15th deadline, Cousins will be auditioning on a week-to-week basis trying to earn that contract he rightly deserves. Dan Snyder, Bruce Allen and company will have three options: cough up the money in a long-term deal (by July 15th or next year), eat upwards of $34 million signing Cousins to another franchise tag, or let him walk. Regardless of what they end up doing, Cousins will be the real winner. The front office is doing their part on the field, trying to surround Cousins with the similar talent he had in his first two years as a full-time starter. Pierre Garcon and DeSean Jackson were both 1,000 yard receivers last season and the Redskins let them both walk. But with returning talent like the dynamic Jamison Crowder wreaking havoc in the slot, the dominant force of Jordan Reed, and the addition of free agents Terrelle Pryor and Brian Quick, the field general seems armed for success this year. Even if he doesn’t quite live up to his last two years, he’ll make his money, whether it’s in D.C. or somewhere else.
5. Chicago Bears
Atlanta’s Pass Attack vs. Chicago’s New Secondary
It’s tough to know what to expect of the Chicago Bears this season. That is one reason why their most anticipated matchup is the home opener Week 1 against the Atlanta Falcons. The other reasons are these: a matchup against the reigning NFC champion will be a good measurement of where Chicago is in the league. We know Chicago is not a Top 20 team. But a competitive game at home against a solid all-around team would obviously be a positive sign that the new offensive pieces are getting along. The specific matchup within this game that will be most educational is the Falcons’ passing offense against the Bears’ new secondary. Harold Jones-Quartey, Deon Bush, and Tracy Porter have been replaced by Quintin Demps, Prince Amukamara, and Marcus Cooper. If the fearsome d-line is going to be successful again this season, the DBs have to disrupt the skies better than the young group from yesteryear.
6. Detroit Lions
The Offensive Line vs. Elite Pass Rushers
Detroit suffered a huge blow early in OTAs, losing left tackle Taylor Decker to a torn labrum. The Lions hit the panic button and traded a sixth-round pick to the Rams to acquire a former first-round pick, Greg Robinson. For Detroit’s offense to succeed Matthew Stafford will need to stay upright and healthy. The key to an offensive line’s success is their ability to work together on a consistent basis. When there are multiple changes and new lineups, an offensive line unit tends to struggle. Detroit will have to find the right group to put on the field when the season starts. If not, don’t expect the Lions to beat a team like the Falcons, or any other team early in their schedule while Taylor Decker rehabs.
7. Green Bay Packers
Packers’ Defense vs. Elite Offenses
Green Bay made a strong commitment to improving its defense in 2017 by spending its first four draft picks on that side of the ball. Cornerback Kevin King and safety Josh Jones will be especially welcome for a secondary that got torched routinely last season and lost Micah Hyde, one of its most versatile members, to Buffalo in free agency. The Packers’ 2017 schedule is loaded with high-powered offenses like the Falcons, Cowboys, Saints, Bengals (who weren’t elite last year, but have all the weapons to boast a high-scoring attack), and Steelers. These five games against some of the better offensive units in the league will be a measuring stick for the Packers’ improvement on the defensive side of the ball.
Aaron Rodgers is a transcendent talent, but he can only do so much when his defense is allowing the opponent to score at will (see the 2016 NFC title game for evidence of this). When the Packers won Super Bowl XLV, they boasted both a Top 5 offense and a Top 5 defense. If this year’s defensive squad can come anywhere near that level of success, look for the Packers to be a favorite to represent the NFC in Super Bowl LII. Their regular season games against tough opponents will be a good indicator of whether or not that type of success is attainable.
8. Minnesota Vikings
This is a matchup many thought NEVER would happen. But unless you have been living under a rock, you probably have heard by now that Adrian Peterson is no longer a Minnesota Viking, and is now a New Orleans Saint. Funny thing is the Vikings and Saints are set to match up in Week 1…on Monday Night Football. The Saints are notorious for their aerial attack, and AD will most likely split carries with Mark Ingram, and potentially rookie Alvin Kamara during the season. But for Week One, Sean Payton may let the beast loose. Peterson racked up over 11,000 rushing yards and over 100 total TDs for the Vikings during his tenure there, so he’s looking to prove he’s still got it. But that won’t come easy. Under head coach Mike Zimmer, the Vikings have re-branded their old “Purple People Eater” defense into the modern “Purple Reign” defense (RIP Prince). The Vikes became one of the premier defenses in the entire NFL last season, and this Week One matchup against the former face of their franchise should be a good one.
9. Atlanta Falcons
Atlanta Falcons vs. The Super Bowl Hangover
A lot of people on this list have matchups against the Falcons as their most anticipated, and that comes with the territory of being the best team in the NFC last season. The target will be on Atlanta’s back next season and it’s a target that every other team wishes they had. But Atlanta’s most anticipated matchup this season isn’t anyone else on this list. It also isn’t anyone on the AFC list next week. Atlanta’s most anticipated matchup is against themselves. It’s against the Super Bowl hangover.
Not since the Buffalo Bills did it three times in four losing efforts has a team returned to the Super Bowl after losing. And Atlanta will be the first team that had seemingly won the Super Bowl by a wide margin for it all to fall apart. It should be interesting to see if they can put that loss behind them, because this team got better in the offseason by a substantial amount. The only thing that should prevent them another Super Bowl berth is themselves.
10. Carolina Panthers
In a Week 4 matchup the Carolina Panthers face off against the defending Super Bowl Champion New England Patriots. Two of the NFL’s elite quarterbacks square off in an anticipated thriller. Cam Newton and this high powered offense will have their hands full with this experienced Patriots’ defense. Carolina will definitely find a way to put some points up on the board, but the Patriots need no explanation. They’ve solidified themselves as one of the greatest sports’ franchises of all time with arguably the best quarterback of all time. Tom Brady will definitely be expected to have a great game. This will be a tough early road test for this Panthers team. They’ve added some key pieces to this offense which gives Cam Newton more weapons to work with. Tom will do what Tom does best and that’s working with the pieces he has in Coach Bill Belichick’s system. I believe this game will be a high scoring affair and a great one to tune into come Week 4.
11. New Orleans Saints
The Saints’ Offense vs. The Saints’ Defense
Poor Drew Brees. That has been the best football analysis that can be given to the Saints over the last five years. Over that span they have been 7-9 four times and only made the playoffs once. The reason isn’t the Saints’ offense, which remains high flying and explosive, but the defense which never seems to get it right. Worse than the fact that the Saints’ defense isn’t great, but over the last three years it hasn’t even been competent. Just last year Drew Brees threw for 5,200 yards with 37 touchdowns while Mark Ingram added 1,000 yards on the ground. Yes they lost a 1,000 yard receiver in Brandin Cooks but the ceilings that they could have by adding both Ted Ginn Jr. and Adrian Peterson outweighs what Cooks produced. So yes you could say an offense that was second in the league in scoring, with 29.3 points a game got even better.
And none of it will matter if the defense doesn’t vastly improve. They were the second worst defense as far as points per game are concerned allowing 28.4 per game. Only ahead of a Niners’ team that ran no huddle for most of the game and won two games. The Saints were also last in the league at pass defense allowing 273 yards per game. In the end, they did add cornerback Marshon Lattimore in the draft as a huge upgrade in the cornerback position, but they will need everyone to step up more on defense. In reality the only defense in the league that can truly stop the Saints is their own.
12. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The Bucs have high aspirations for this season and into the future. With loads of talent on both offense and defense, they seem to be ready to take that next step. Though they do play in a tough, high flying division with powerhouse offenses. One of which is the Atlanta Falcons, who they will be trying to dethrone in the NFC. These two meet for the first time in 2017 on November 12th in Atlanta. The difference makers for me don’t come on the offensive side of the ball, but on the defense. Linebackers Alexander (Tampa) and Beasley (Atlanta) are two of the most talented at their position in the league. It will be up to them to make the big plays against the high powered offenses, and maybe force a key turnover at a pivotal moment. Expect to see these two all over the field when they meet.
13. Arizona Cardinals
Arizona Cardinals vs. The Injury Bug
In 2016, the Cardinals had Tyrann Mathieu, Carson Palmer, Jared Veldheer, Tyvon Branch, John Brown, and Deone Bucannon all missed time due to injuries. Every one of those players is a major contributor to the Cardinals’ success and without them they faltered, finishing 7-8-1. The Cardinals versus injuries is majorly anticipated because on paper Arizona is a Super Bowl contending team. If the Cardinals can stay healthy, and that’s a big if, they should be able to push the Seahawks for the NFC West crown. They return the second best defense in the NFL with Mathieu, Branch, and Bucannon returning to the field.
The Cardinals also used their top two picks on linebacker Haason Reddick and defensive back Budda Baker. The combination of veterans and young guns make this defense Super Bowl worthy, but they need to stay healthy. Offensively the Cardinals lost their best offensive linemen, Veldheer, to an injury and the line as a whole fell apart. As a result, Palmer was getting hit far more frequently and had to play through injuries himself. Palmer began to flash near the end of 2016 when the offensive line began to play better, but the Cardinals need Veldheer to stay healthy in 2017. The offensive line issues paired with John Brown struggling with hamstring problems hurt the Cardinals deep passing game, the bread and butter of Bruce Arians’ offense. If these major contributors to the Cardinals success stay healthy they should be playoff bound in 2017.
14. Los Angeles Rams
This will be the first battle of the top two picks from the 2016 NFL Draft. The LA Rams don’t take on the Philadelphia Eagles until Week 14 of the 2017 season. Ny then most fans will have a good idea of what types of quarterbacks Goff and Wentz are. Wentz had a stronger rookie campaign than Goff, but both showed major struggles adjusting from the college game to the pros. Like Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota, Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III, and Peyton Manning and Ryan Leaf, these two quarterbacks will be linked together for the entirety of their careers. This first matchup between the two will lead to many storylines, especially since it’s late in the season and their teams will either be dubbed successful or struggling. These two both need to flash more in 2017 to prove they truly are franchise quarterbacks capable of carrying their teams for the next decade. They will be compared to each other for years to come whether they pan out or not. Rarely are the first two selections in a pro draft both traded up for. Goff and Wentz are the exception not the rule. This first matchup will give fans an idea of which team made the move for the right quarterback, a storyline that will surely come up throughout the 2017 season.
15. San Francisco 49ers
San Francisco vs. Expectation
Anybody would be lying to your face if they said the San Francisco 49ers are Super Bowl contenders. The 49ers would be fortunate if they could even win seven games with the roster in place. But for a second imagine this: San Francisco sneaks in the playoffs barely via a wildcard. The odds are definitely stack against the Bay area team, so victories may come as a shock to many NFL fans. The 49ers are primed to shock the league if John Lynch and Kyle Shanahan can get the team behind them with a great gameplan and a dash of hope. The roster is lackluster, but teams built the right way and coached the right way have had good season here and there. Well, okay, there might be a bit of exaggeration with that statement. But it would be very entertaining to see the 49ers compete this year and surprise many fans.
16. Seattle Seahawks
There has recently been a lot of news surrounding Richard Sherman and the Seattle Seahawks. Many are saying that Sherman isn’t all too pleased with the franchise and its direction. Other reports are saying that Sherman is welcoming a trade and Seattle may be shopping around. Whatever the case, look for Sherman to play at his usual elite level and silence his critics. But if there is any chance of him being traded within the NFC, he could come back to haunt the Seahawks. Either way, Sherman’s displeasure with the team has already created some rifts and can have a major affect on the locker room. It will definitely will be intriguing to see how tame or toxic this situation will be and it all hinges on Seattle’s offensive performance and Pete Carroll.