2018 NFC Playoff Outlook

Every season we tend to see around five new teams emerge during the season and make their way into the playoffs.  Most of them are surprises too. 

Last season the Rams and Eagles took two giant premature steps forward.  I didn't expect much from either team last year but now they both have the appearance of perennial contenders.  An injury to Aaron Rodgers allowed for three NFC South teams to book a playoff ticket. 

A lot can happen so let's take a look at a few certain contenders along with some of those potential surprises.   

Tier 1: Locked In

New Orleans Saints
Minnesota Vikings
Los Angeles Rams

The Saints were one Stefon Diggs touchdown away from having a real shot at winning the Super Bowl last year.  No more wonders of how Adrian Peterson is going mesh with the offense. Mark Ingram will be suspended for the first four games but they have no problem making Alvin Kamara the focal point of the offense until then. Michael Thomas, Cameron Meredith, and Ted Ginn Jr. are already a solid foundation but rookie Tre'Quan Smith adds even more raw speed.

Speaking of rookies, first round DE Marcus Davenport makes his way onto a stout defense led by sophomore CB Marshon Lattimore. 

The Vikings made all the way to the conference finals on the back of Case Keenum before getting embarrassed by the Eagles. They've been contenders for the past several seasons thanks to their elite defense so they have no concerns on that side of the ball. Their offense has gotten better every year and now it takes another step forward.

Replacing Keenum is Kirk Cousins, who's is a more willing runner and deep ball thrower. Dalvin Cook returns from an injury that derailed his rookie season after four games.  He possesses the best traits of both Jerick McKinnon and Latavis Murray and was actually on pace to lead the league in rushing at the time of his injury. 

Sean McVay was the blessing that Jared Goff and Todd Gurley needed. New life was injected into the Rams' passing game and the addition of Andrew Whitworth at left tackle gave Gurley some actual lanes to run through. Sammy Watkins was a great asset in the red zone but I think Brandin Cooks is an upgrade for the type of uptempo offense they run.

The defense lost Trumaine Johnson but added Marcus Peters, Aqib Talib, Sam Shields, and Ndamukong Suh so they should be all set. 

Tier 2: Not Far Behind

Philadelphia Eagles
Carolina Panthers
Green Bay Packers
Atlanta Falcons

The only reason I have the defending Super Bowl Champion Eagles right here is because Carson Wentz and Alshon Jeffrey are currently working their way back from injuries. If they're forced to missed time then that may cost them a couple of games. Regardless, their defense alone should win them games. I'm not concerned.

The Carolina Panthers have one of the most consistently disciplined defenses in the league regardless of who they plug in there. The offense tends to be a tad on the inconsistent side but everything is currently aligning. Greg Olsen and Curtis Samuel are back and healthy. Christian McCaffrey is expected to take a big leap this year as the projected three-down back.

On top of that, first-round rookie receiver DJ Moore was viewed by many as the most talented prospect in his position's draft class. If everything clicks, they could beat anybody.

Green Bay still had a chance to make the playoffs even with all of the time that Aaron Rodgers missed. Ted Thompson is no longer the GM so now they'll actually participate in free agency going forward.  Brian Gutekunst made that apparent with the signings of Muhammad Wilkerson and Jimmy Graham this offseason.  Graham has surely lost a step but he'll have no problem hauling in all those red zone targets that Jordy Nelson left behind.

From a fantasy perspective, their RB situation is messy. From a real-life perspective, they have three guys (Ty Montgomery, Aaron Jones, Jamaal Williams) that can start and produce on any given week. We all know their offense is a threat but their defense is sneaky good and is loaded with talent at all three levels. 

The Falcons' offense looked watered down in 2017 as they transitioned from a Kyle Shanahan offense to a Steve Sarkisian-led side.  Despite the step down, they still made the playoffs in a difficult division.  If they can get a better grasp on Sarkisian's scheme then they have all the pieces to return to form.  

Tier 3: Don't Be Surprised

New York Giants
Chicago Bears
San Francisco 49ers
Arizona Cardinals

In 2016 we saw the emergence of a stingy Giants defense that paved a way to the playoffs.  We didn't see that same defense in 2017.  The offense couldn't help them at all.  The entire receiving corps was depleted with injuries and there was zero semblance of a run game.  Now that 2016 team gets Evan Engram and Saquon Barkley.  I'm sure they're excited about a healthy Odell Beckham too. 

The Bears had a top 10 defense last year which a lot of people don't realize.  It's pretty impressive considering their offense was at the bottom of the league in terms of total plays ran. Jordan Howard has managed to be successful in vanilla schemes but now the training wheels are off in Matt Nagy's new offense.

Just like the Giants, they didn't have anybody to throw the ball to last season. Allen Robinson, Trey Burton, Taylor Gabriel, and Anthony Miller hope to aid Mitchell Trubisky make a leap similar to Jared Goff with his revamped team.

If I wrote this a couple months ago then I might have had the 49ers a tier higher. The hype surrounding them has been immense so I've tried to temper my expectations recently. The once elite defense has been a place mat in recent years but the front seven is young and promising. Richard Sherman also provides a type of intelligence and star power the team hasn't seen since Patrick Willis and Navarro Bowman were together. Jerick McKinnon isn't as good between the tackles as Carlos Hyde but has a better knack for catching the ball which is what Kyle Shanahan is looking for.

The Cardinals could hover around 8-8 or even 9-7 this season, but they face a similar problem to the other teams in their tier. If everything goes right for the previous teams then the conference may be too crowded to let everyone into the playoffs. The Cardinals are probably one more year out from returning to prominence.

Their defense always lands in the upper half of the league, David Johnson is back, and they have a Hall of Famer in Larry Fitzgerald at wide receiver. The glaring problem is the quarterback situation. Sam Bradford is talented enough to lead a playoff team but can never stay healthy for a full season.  Even if he is healthy, they may be too eager to get Josh Rosen on the field. Rosen will probably have the QB position set in stone by next season but Larry Fitz may be gone by then.