1) Arizona Cardinals (2009 Record: 10-6)
Over the last couple of seasons Arizona has reaped the benefit of playing in the lackluster NFC West and used the cakewalk to their advantage -- winning division titles in back-to-back years.
With the loss of veteran QB Kurt Warner, a dip in offensive production is imminent. They will likely try to re-establish their run game to take the pressure off QB Matt Leinart who is in a contract year and has looked very shaky in his NFL career thus far. However, even with the addition of LG Alan Faneca who is excellent at pulling and should give them a boost at O-Line, methinks they are still a long way away as their OL ranked 27th in NFL by ProFootballFocus. They don't have the star-studded OL that can suddenly spawn a run-game, and RB Beanie Wells has not shown that he can be a big-play, game-changer yet (however we have a very small sample size on him). However, Wells did average 4.5 ypc last season, which is impressive for a rookie.
I look for Arizona to struggle with ball control/time of possession for a couple of reasons. Arizona Ranked 24th in turnover margin last year at (-0.4/game) and that was with veteran QB Kurt Warner behind center, and surely QB Matt Leinhart will not help that ratio. Also, the Cards ranked 27th in pass defense last year. I see them giving up a lot of points on defense, but not having the total offense to put up enough points to keep their head above water. This is a very aggressive defense that was lucky to live off 43 sacks last season. Division rivals San Francisco and Seattle should be very good at controlling the clock/time of possession this season, and this is something I think Arizona will really struggle in, which really puts a lot of pressure on your defense.
2010 W/L Prediction: 7-9
2) Denver Broncos (2009 Record: 8-8)
I've placed the Broncos at #2, because this team is obviously in a rebuilding year and I don't think they'll win more than six games this year. They are extremely young at almost every position on offense, specifically RB/WR/TE, and I expect a lot of drops and turnovers as the young guys work their kinks out and become acclimated to playing in the bigs.
When the 2009 season began, the Broncos made it a point that they would be playing a lot more 3-4 on defense. The team reaped benefits in the first half of the season because of the deceptiveness that the base package provided. They used it to shut down opposing offenses, holding opponents to only 66 points in the first six games, en route to starting the season 6-0. However, they finished the season 2-8, and really struggled down the stretch losing to some lackluster teams. How did they respond? By wasting a first-round pick on Tim Tebow.
Call it unlucky, but this team has already sustained some massive injuries. DE Elvis Dumervil suffered a torn pectoral muscle, and is now likely out for the entire season. The Bronco's pass rush takes a huge hit here, as he accounted for 70%+ of hits, sacks, and knockdowns on opposing QBs last season. In a 3-4 defense, getting pressure on an opposing QB is extremely important to help out the secondary, so tell me who's going to provide it for them in his absence? On offense, LT Ryan Vlady, suffered a patellar tendon tear in his knee. Furthemore, RB Knowshon Moreno (hamstring) and RB Correll Buckhalter (back) are also ailing.
IMO, after they traded Brandon Marshall, they rid themselves of their only playmaker on offense and made a statement that they would be rebuilding from top to bottom. However, I think in the future WR Eddie Royal can be a vertical threat, and WR Demaryius Thomas can be a go-to guy, but they do not have the experience yet and the Broncos are in for a uphill battle this season.
2010 W/L Prediction: 6-10
3) Minnesota Vikings (2009 Record: 12-4)
I may take a lot of heat for this selection, as the Vikings return 22 starters this season. HOWEVER, my rationalization behind this choice stems from the new-found parity I expect to exist in the NFC North. The Vikings managed to go 5-1 against divisional opponents last year, and I can guarantee they will not repeat that feat again this year. From top to bottom, this division is now much more competitive. You've heard me talk about the Chicago Bears, and how I feel that their WR corps is loaded with speed and young talent and they will be one of the top WR corps by 2011. OC Mike Martz was brought in to run the offense and to coach Jay Cutler into better decision making. On the other side of the ball, the defense will finally be healthy and they've brought in Julius Peppers to fortify their pass-rush. The Lions (although they may still be a year or two away from being a playoff team had a great offseason and will be much improved this season. Various analysts and handicappers are taking flyers on the Packers to win the NFC, and why not? They field one of the most prolific passing attacks and the defense will now be more acclimated to DC Dom Capers' schemes in his second year there. It will be a tough road for the Vikings this year.
The Vikings made it to the NFC Championship game last year, and I think the long season really took a toll on 20-year-veteran Brett Favre. The Favre Show had offseason surgery yet again, and recently visited Dr. James Andrews. He has been less active while working out this offseason than previous ones, and in watching him in interviews, IMO he even appears a bit less confident about his health this season. If he's back, I don't think there's any way he puts up numbers like last season, and I'm not sure he'll be able to perform once December rolls around.
On top of all that, WR Percy Harvin has been suffering from migraines and WR Sidney Rice is recovering from a hip injury. With RB Chester Taylor gone, rookie RB Toby Gerhart must step up and establish himself as Adrian Peterson's backup. If AP continues to have ball security issues like in previous seasons, it could be an uphill battle for the Vikings' run-game, even behind one of the top O-Lines in the NFL
Oh yeah, and the icing on the cake? HC Brad Childress, who I still believe is nothing but a puppet and is quietly one of the most incompetent coaches in the NFL. If he wasn't loaded with talent every year, he'd be out of a job, as his decision-making with the game on the line is awful (see NFC Championship game last season).
2010 W/L Prediction: 9-7