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NFC previews



Arizona Cardinals (10-6)

Big question: With Matt Leinart being cut on Saturday, is Derek Anderson up to the challenge of replacing Kurt Warner?

Big moves: Alan Faneca will be a stabilizing element on a reshuffled line. Gone is play-making linebacker Karlos Dansby.

Bottom line: San Francisco looks to be closing fast in the division, but overlooking Arizona is a dangerous game.


San Francisco 49ers (8-8)

Big question: Will having the same offensive coordinator in consecutive years for the first time in his career make the difference for quarterback Alex Smith?

Big move: The team used its two first-round picks on tackle Anthony Davis and guard Mike Iupati, and it’s trying to do what the Jets did in 2006: make the playoffs with two rookie first-rounders on the offensive line.

Bottom line: If the 49ers don’t make their move in the division now, will they ever?


St. Louis Rams (1-15)

Big question: Is quarterback Sam Bradford really ready to start in Week 1?

Big move: Before opening a new chapter by drafting Bradford, the Rams closed an old one by releasing Marc Bulger.

Bottom line: The Rams have won six games in three seasons. Few people, if any, are expecting miracles from Bradford. But it’s hard to imagine things getting much worse.


Seattle Seahawks (5-11)

Big question: Here’s one that’s been around for most of a decade — Pete Carroll is a great college coach, sure, but can he get it done in the pros?

Big moves: No one in the NFL has made more roster moves than Carroll. Rookies to watch are left tackle Russell Okung, who’s recovering from a high ankle sprain, and safety Earl Thomas, a playmaker taken over USC’s Taylor Mays.

Bottom line: Carroll installed a new coaching staff and a new philosophy, and reshaped the roster. The club has won nine games in two seasons but is making strides toward being competitive.



Chicago Bears (7-9)

Big question: How will Jay Cutler work with offensive coordinator Mike Martz, and can Martz take advantage of the quarterback’s strong but occasionally erratic arm?

Big move: Julius Peppers could be close to a $100 million man, and the Bears are hoping he will help restore their defensive tradition.

Bottom line: The Bears haven’t been to the playoffs since their Super Bowl trip in the ’06 season. It’s now or never for Lovie Smith.


Detroit Lions (2-14)

Big question: Will Matthew Stafford take a step forward, or is he headed for a sophomore slump?

Big move: Kyle Vanden Bosch was a dominating force on the defensive line when playing for Jim Schwartz, then Titans defensive coordinator. Can the two rediscover that success in Detroit?

Bottom line: The Lions are gradually recovering from their lost decade and could wind up being the NFL’s most improved team.


Green Bay Packers (11-5)

Big question: Is Aaron Rodgers headed for a career year?

Big moves: The window of opportunity is wide open for the Packers, who didn’t do a lot of shuffling in the offseason.

Bottom line: The Packers showed last season they have as much offensive firepower as anyone. One key will be generating a better pass rush.


Minnesota Vikings (12-4)

Big question: Does Brett Favre have another season like ’09 in him, and how much will his surgically repaired ankle bother him?

Big moves: Favre’s decision to come back dwarfs everything. And the Vikings return all 22 starters from a team that almost got to the Super Bowl.

Bottom line: If Favre plays the way he did last season, the Vikings are among the favorites to win it all.



Tampa Bay Buccaneers (3-13)

Big question: Can the Buccaneers regain their defensive prowess with Raheem Morris calling the shots?

Big move: Tampa Bay has been looking for a dominant defensive tackle since Warren Sapp left, and the team thinks it could have one in Gerald McCoy.

Bottom line: Every year since the NFL realigned its divisions in 2002, the team that finished last in the NFC South made the playoffs the next year. It would be a shock if the Bucs continued that trend.


Atlanta Falcons (9-7)

Big question: With an even better grasp of the offense, is Matt Ryan poised for a breakout year?

Big moves: The Falcons spent $22.5 million in guaranteed money to sign Dunta Robinson, the cover corner they have long sought. The summer hasn’t gone smoothly, as he’s recovering from a torn hamstring.

Bottom line: A year after having the league’s fourth-toughest schedule, the Falcons are 20th in that category. That should help a promising team coming off an injury-riddled year.


Carolina Panthers (8-8)

Big question: Who will emerge as the best quarterback, Matt Moore or Jimmy Clausen, and how much of an issue will Clausen’s injured toe be?

Big moves: Losing Julius Peppers will take some real adjusting.

Bottom line: Under coach John Fox, the Panthers have typically rebounded from a so-so year with a strong one.


New Orleans Saints (13-3)

Big question: With virtually all their offensive weapons in place, are the Saints positioned to repeat?

Big moves: The addition of defensive end Alex Brown fills the void left by Charles Grant and gives the Saints a quicker bookend to Will Smith.

Bottom line: Before they clear space for another Lombardi Trophy, the Saints can become the first NFC South team to win consecutive division titles.



Dallas Cowboys (11-5)

Big question: How will Doug Free do at left tackle in place of longtime starter Flozell Adams?

Big move: Expectations are lofty for wide receiver Dez Bryant, a first-round pick who looked outstanding right away in camp before suffering a high ankle sprain.

Bottom line: The Cowboys are coming off their first playoff victory in 13 years, and Tony Romo has rounded into a reliable, top-shelf quarterback. This could be their year.


Philadelphia Eagles (11-5)

Big question: Is Kevin Kolb better suited than six-time Pro Bowl quarterback Donovan McNabb for the Eagles’ version of the West Coast offense?

Big moves: Trading McNabb is as big as any move in team history, and it shows that Andy Reid simply thinks Kolb is better.

Bottom line: It’s sink or swim for Kolb, who has had the luxury to sit back and absorb the offense for three seasons.


New York Giants (8-8)

Big questions: Can a switch to Perry Fewell as defensive coordinator help the Giants return to their familiar attacking style?

Big moves: Defensive leader Antonio Pierce is gone, but the Giants picked up a couple of respectable veteran safeties — Antrel Rolle and Deon Grant — who can help on and off the field.

Bottom line: This Giants season hinges on defense. If the team can come around in that department, it can write off last season’s collapse as a hiccup.


Washington Redskins (4-12)

Big question: For years the Redskins have sold promise. Can Donovan McNabb make good on that?

Big move: The McNabb trade was monumental, especially considering it was within the division.

Bottom line: The ‘Skins haven’t made a lot of great moves the past decade, but at least they don’t sit still.


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