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Thursday, September 6, 2001
Updated: September 7, 2:01 PM ET
Handicapping the NFC

By Bill Simmons
Page 2 columnist

I've been holed up in my office at the Sports Guy Mansion all week, sifting through countless magazines and previews, surfing the 'Net, watching game tapes, working the phones, staring into my Magic 8-Ball ... no stone was left unturned in my never-ending quest to toss a no-hitter with my two-part NFL Preview.

Who knows? One of these years, I might correctly predict every playoff team and sleeper in each conference. If Trent Dilfer can lead a team to a Super Bowl victory, anything's possible.

Without further ado, here's one man's glimpse at the NFC this season, from worst to first in each division:

NFC East
5. DALLAS COWBOYS (1-15)

Quincy Carter
Quincy Carter starting at QB in Dallas surpasses Marc-Paul Gosselaar's hiring on "NYPD Blue" as the most inexplicable event of the decade.
Why they'll stink: Good God! Do I even need to say it? This Quincy Carter saga surpasses Marc-Paul Gosselaar's hiring on "NYPD Blue" as the most inexplicable event of the decade -- from "projected fifth-rounder" to "starting NFL quarterback" in a matter of two months! Don't you love reading quotes from the unnamed GM's and scouts in the league? People were legitimately dumbfounded by this Carter thing.

(Here's my favorite part: Cowboys mastermind Jerry Jones brought in Rocket Ismail and Joey Galloway last year to spread the field and provide the Cowboys with an old-fashioned deep game. A year later, he brings in an athletic quarterback known for his lack of arm strength. Good plan.)

Silver Lining: It's always fun to watch Cowboys fans hurtle off the bandwagon for a few years. Don't worry, guys ... we'll wake you up when they're good again. You still have the Yankees and Lakers.

Key to Season: Avoid becoming the first-ever 25-point underdogs during a regular-season game.

Random Thought: Do NFL teams regard Jones the same way we regard that one dreadful owner in every fantasy draft? You know, the guy who flounders every year but keeps coming back for more punishment (aka the "Thanks For the $200" guy)? Isn't that Jerry Jones or am I crazy?


4. ARIZONA CARDINALS (5-11)

Why they'll probably stink: Lousy defense, no running backs, Jake Plummer (and not necessarily in that order) ... the Cards dropped their last seven games of the 2000 season by a combined 197-61 margin ... what else can you say?

Silver lining: With the revamped offensive line (beefed up by Pete Kendall and Leonard Davis) and three quality receivers (including bust-out candidate David Boston), Plummer could bounce back to his old form after three consecutive lousy seasons. Then again, since he has only been in the league for four seasons, and since he has thrown 54 touchdowns over that span with 80 interceptions... well, I guess I have no point.

Key to Season: Other than Plummer, it has to be running back Thomas Jones. Remember, they drafted him ahead of Jamal Lewis with the seventh pick in the 2000 draft ... By the end of November, Jones lost his starting job and found himself embroiled in a class-action suit filed by disgruntled fantasy owners all across America.

Random Thought: After enough beers, the Cards have mild "Sleeper" potential, don't they?


3. WASHINGTON REDSKINS (7-9)

Jeff George
When will Jeff George blow up at Marty Schottenheimer? It's not too late to join the office pool.
Why they're mildly intriguing: They underachieved last season (the Norv Turner Factor) and still finished 7-9 ... now they have a much easier schedule, as well as new coach Marty Schottenheimer, the master of the "Game that's decided by a field goal in the last two minutes" ... even if their depth was wiped out by Danny Snyder's cap-botching, with all their name guys (Davis, Bailey, Westbrook, Samuels, Arrington, etc.), the 'Skins are at least on the map, right?

Mitigating Factor: There's just a bad vibe coming from Jeff George, isn't there? He's the football equivalent of that evil tiki that Bobby Brady found in the legendary three-part Hawaii episode of the "Brady Bunch" -- you bring Jeff George onto your team and suddenly mirrors are falling on Peter's head, Alice's back is going out, Jan's nearly getting bit by a poisonous spider and Greg's nearly drowning in a surfing competition. It happens that fast.

(Quick Hawaii episode tangent: Remember when the Brady Boys were abducted in the cave by Vincent Price, and he tied them up and terrorized them for an entire episode before Mr. and Mrs. Brady saved the day? After all of that, why did the Bradys invite him to the luau that night? Twenty-five years have passed, and I'm still trying to figure this one out. It's the Quincy Carter of sitcom episodes.)

Key to Season: When will the inevitable George-Schottenheimer blowup happen? I have "Monday night, Oct. 15, at Dallas" in the Page 2 office pool.

Random Thought: I thought linebacker Shawn Barber summed up the Norv Turner Era pretty well with this quote in last week's Sports Illustrated: "Last year was a complete circus, full of distractions, where no one was accountable for being on time or even being up on the playbook. Without any discipline -- when players know they can do whatever they want and not be held responsible -- you've got real trouble."

(We'll be back on "Sports Century and Beyond: The Worst Football Coaches of the 20th Century," after these messages ...)


2. NEW YORK GIANTS (9-7)

Kerry Collins
Can Kerry Collins and the NFC champion Giants survive the Year After?
Why they'll disappoint: Because they're the Year-After Team -- a year ago, they overachieved and caught every break possible, but now they're playing a first-place schedule, everyone's gunning for them and they won't stay nearly as healthy. And if that's not enough, Kerry Collins is still involved.

(Sometimes this is too easy.)

Silver lining: They're competing in the easiest division known to man -- six games against the Cards, 'Skins and Cowboys. On the flip side, they have road games against Denver, K.C., Minnesota, St. Louis and Philly, so the Schedule Fairy might cancel itself out.

Key to Season: As far as I'm concerned, the key to the Giants season is Jim Fassel topping last year's "Poker chips" speech. Remember that one?

"The buck stops here! I'm accountable for everything that happens to this team. This is a poker game, and I'm holding all the chips. It's time to ante up. You want in? Push your chips into the middle of the table. It's a car race right now, and I'm driving the last lap. It's gut check time, and I'm passing out the guts. Life is a box of chocolates; you never know what you're gonna get. And I'm holding the box and dispensing the chocolates!"

Random Thought: Kerry, Dusty, Tiki, Ike, Luke, Jaret and Amani. That's the answer.

What's the question? Well, it's either a.) "Name seven starters on the Giants offense," or b.) "Name seven members of the cast in the upcoming all-male porn/football movie. I'll let you decide.


1. PHILADELPHIA EAGLES (11-5)

Why they'll cruise: Cream of a weak crop ... major improvements from last year at running back (the return of Duce Staley) and receiver (a whole new cast) should make things easier for MVP candidate Donovan McNabb ... an always-lively defense ... Andy Reid put on a few more pounds, which is always fun ... it's the 10-year anniversary of the '91 Eagles, one of the greatest video game teams of all-time.

Andy Reid
It's a real treat to watch Eagles coach Andy Reid stalk the sideline.
Mitigating Factor: The hateful Veterans Stadium turf could rear its ugly head and take out one of the marquee Eagles at any time.

Key to Season: The Giants have beaten Philly nine straight times. That's right... nine . For the Eagles to seriously contend, you have to think they need to win at Giants Stadium (Week 7, Monday night) or at home on the final week of the season (Dec. 30th). Nothing pushes a football team to the next level quite like pulling a monkey off its back.

Random Tangent: Where does Andy Reid rank among my "Top Six Favorite Coaches to See During a Football Game"? I'm glad you asked!

Here's my Top Seven:

  • 7. Jeff Fisher: Love the NASCAR look ... all he's missing is a fire retardant suit.

  • 6. Mike Shanahan: Looks like an artery could explode in his right temple at any time.

  • 5. Brian Billick: Seems like the kind of guy who would own a full-length mirror.

  • 4. Andy Reid: Looks like he would cut one during a team meeting and blame it on the running backs coach.

  • 3. Jon Gruden: Definitely drinks too much coffee.

  • 2. Dick Jauron: Looks like a Scooby Doo villain.

  • 1. Dave Campo: For God's sake, when are the Dave Campo Halloween wigs coming out?

    NFC Central
    5. CHICAGO BEARS (4-12)

    Why they'll stink: (Lowest point total over the past four years) X (2001 backfield of Shane Matthews, Damion Shelton and James Allen) = Yikes!

    Silver Lining: A potential Cubs playoff appearance will distract Chicago fans from the Bears at least through early-October.

    Key to Season: Brian Urlacher and David Terrell staying healthy. That's not a bad foundation for the future -- throw in a QB, running back and coaching staff and the Bears would be right back in this thing.

    Random Thought: One of the things I learned as a first-time DirecTV owner last season was that the 2000 Bears had the strangest offense in recent memory. I can't even really describe it -- tons of WR screens and short-timing passes (do those ever work?) with Cade McNown, who couldn't throw any of those passes properly and looked totally overwhelmed. It was excruciating to watch.

    Isn't it amazing how dumb some coaching staffs are in professional sports? My favorite head-scratcher was the time Jim Cleamons took over the Dallas Mavericks in '96 and forced Jason Kidd to run the triangle offense; in other words, he took the ball out of the hands of the premier open-floor point guard of the entire decade. Needless to say, Cleamons didn't last two seasons. Unbelievable. Does anyone else just scratch their heads at this stuff?


    4. GREEN BAY PACKERS (8-8)

    Antonio Freeman
    Is there a worse No. 1 wideout in the league than Green Bay's Antonio Freeman?
    Why they'll fall short: Too many "experts" riding the Packers Bandwagon this season, a bad sign ... it always make me nervous when the coach and the GM are the same guy (in this case, Mike Sherman) ... is there a worse No. 1 wideout in the league than Antonio Freeman? ... and just why are the Packers wasting the prime years of Favre's career by surrounding him with second-rate receivers and tight ends, anyway?

    Silver Lining: The defense doesn't look all that bad. They might even hold Randy Moss in check during the two Vikes-Packers games this season (and by "in check," I mean, "less than 200 yards and three touchdowns").

    Key to Season: A three-week stretch in October that goes "at Tampa, vs. Baltimore, at Minnesota." Yikes. The cow-tipping season could kick off especially early in Wisconsin this fall.

    Random Thought: Is it just me or should white guys be banned from making the Lambeau Leap? There just seems to be something missing when Bill Schroeder's involved.


    3. DETROIT LIONS (8-8)

    Why they're mildly intriguing: They basically played without a coach last season and still finished 9-7 (amazing since they broke the 30-100-50 barrier -- 31 turnovers, 106 penalties, 53 sacks allowed) ... Desmond Howard has been worth two wins per season since the early-1960's ...fairly easy schedule ... good group of receivers ... not sure if they have "Out of Nowhere" potential because they won nine games last year, but people aren't exactly buzzing about them, either ... you have to love any team with a guy named "Luther," just for the Reggie Hammond/Jack Cates flashbacks.

    Silver Lining: Matt Millen's running the team, which means he's finally out of the TV booth (pumping fist). Now we need to give Jerry Glanville control of a franchise, and I'll finally be able to sleep at night.

    Key to Season: Can Charlie Batch operate the West Coast Offense? You've seen him play a few times ... you don't shout out phrases like "Wow, that guy's accurate!" and "How did he thread that baby in there?" when Charlie Batch is involved. Usually, you end up saying things like, "Hey, I've never seen someone bounce a screen pass before!" and "I always wondered what would happen if an NFL referee took a pass right in the face!"

    Random Thought: I say it every year, and I'll say it again: It's not officially an NFL season until a player gets hurt at the Pontiac Silverdome and finds himself strapped to a stretcher with his neck mobilized while the announcers say things like, "You hate to see something like this happen."

    I'm telling you, this is the most underrated running story in all of sports ... yet the national media refuses to address it. The Silverdome is just plain cursed -- it's the Amityville Horror house of football stadiums. You know things are bad when the team ambulance carries advertising on its sides.


    2. TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS (10-6)

    Randy Moss
    The most exciting thing you can hear when watching an NFL game is "Culpepper's looking deep for Moss."
    Why they're in the mix: Best defense in the NFC ... nice QB upgrade from the Erratic Shawn King to the Always-Underrated Brad Johnson ... Warren Sapp's worth 2-3 wins by himself ... there seems to be the proper sense of "We need to win it all this season" urgency here ... it seems like they're finally leaning toward Warrick Dunn and away from Mike Alstott (although they say that every year).

    Mitigating Questions: Is Dunn too light to carry the "every-down back" load? How come Tony Dungy's teams always seem to shoot themselves in the foot in big games, regardless of the offensive coordinator? Does this team seem to have too many strong-willed personalities on the same team or am I crazy?

    Key to Season: Once the "Dungy's on his way out, Parcells is coming in" seed gets planted by the media after Tampa's first tough loss -- possibly Week 3 at Minnesota -- all hell could break loose. Once people start doubting a coach, it's only a matter of time before somebody in the front office pulls a Scatman Crothers on him (the random flying ax out of nowhere, a la the end of "The Shining").

    Random Thought: Who thought up the nickname "Automatica" Grammatica? And can we legally throw him in prison?


    1. MINNESOTA VIKINGS (11-5)

    Why they'll surprise: "Culpepper-to-Moss" is shaping up as the most frightening combination this side of "Shaq-and-Kobe" ... they apparently haven't lost much switching from Robert Smith to Michael Bennett ... they're 36-12 in the past three seasons under Denny Green (21-3 at home) ... finally shored up their secondary (which killed them the past two years).

    Michael Vick
    Believe it or not: Michael Vick could be the key to the Falcons' season.
    Silver Lining: Korey Stringer's death was obviously a full-body blow to the Vikes on a number of levels, but history has shown that teams tend to rally together after tragedies; if anything, the residue emotion seems to carry them to new heights. It's like a distant cousin of the Ewing Theory (the Hank Gathers Theory?).

    Key to Season: Working out the kinks in the offensive line; they lost both tackles (Stringer and Todd Steussie) from last season. Always a red flag.

    Random Thought: Few things in sports genuinely excite me anymore, but Culpepper taking a five-step drop and lofting one deep down the left sideline, as Pat Summerall shouts out, "He's looking deep for Moss!" always puts a hop in my step. Good times ... good times.

    NFC West
    5. CAROLINA PANTHERS (4-12)

    Why they'll stink: It's never a good sign when your rookie QB (Chris Weinke) is old enough to remember ABC's powerhouse Saturday night lineup of "The Love Boat" and "Fantasy Island" ... you wouldn't want one offensive player here starting for your roto team ... their O-line allowed 69 sacks last season; their D-line produced 27 sacks ... defense filled with castoffs from other teams ... other than that, they look pretty good.

    Silver Lining: This will probably be George Seifert's last season of coaching before he gets forced back to the TV studio. Remember his serial killer-like presence on CBS' pre-game show in 1998? Every time Brent Jones started babbling incoherently, you kept waiting for Seifert to remove his glasses during one of those shows and use them to calmly start stabbing Jones in the neck. Those were the days, weren't they?

    Key to Season: Crucial Week 17 tilt against the Cardinals could determine Top-Five draft status. You know Chris Berman will be passing off the highlights to Stu Scott on "NFL Prime Time" that night.

    Random Thought: Do you realize that the Tshimanga Biakabutuka Era has been dragging on in Carolina for six seasons now? How many fumbles, nagging knee injuries, pulled hamstrings, stumbled pronunciations and late-minute scratches can a group of football fans endure?


    4. SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS (8-8)

    Why they'll be intriguing: Jeff Garcia threw for more than 4,200 yards last season (no, that wasn't a misprint) ... rookie D-lineman Andre Carter should give the defense some punch ... they played some quality teams tough last season (Saints, Rams, Raiders) ... Terrell Owens is worth 2-3 wins by himself ... Vegas Rule No. 1: never underestimate any team with a coach whose last name ends in a vowel.

    Silver Lining: They're shaping up as the premier Crappy-But-Fun DirecTV Team in the league (lively schedule, inventive coach, offensive fireworks, etc.). And by the way, is anyone else enjoying this whole Garcia thing? I'm telling you, he's the modern-day Dan Fouts (needs to work on the beard though). I grabbed him in the second round in my fantasy draft this season and didn't waver for a second, even as my friends giggled and high-fived one another. We'll see.

    Key to Season: You'd feel a lot better if there was a Freddie Solomon/John Taylor-type lining up on the opposite end of Owens this season; instead Team Mariucci offers us J.J. Stokes and Tai Streets. Yikes. If you were playing against the Niners offense on "Madden 2002," you'd keep calling the "Nickel/Double WR" package against them over and over again.

    Random Thought: Not to delve back into the "Boogie Nights" playbook, but the names "J.J. Stokes & Tai Streets" have a "Chest Rockwell & Brock Landers" ring to them, don't they? We might need to introduce them to the Colonel and Jack Horner.


    3. ATLANTA FALCONS (9-7)

    Kurt Warner
    Kurt Warner is at the controls of a fantasy team come to life.
    Why they're a potential sleeper: Jamal Anderson spent his summer hooked up to the Juvenation Machine ... they still have a bunch of core players from that improbable Super Bowl team three years ago ... two quality cornerbacks aboard (Ashley Ambrose and Ray Buchanan), which helps in this division ... they could probably milk one more season out of their passing game (Chris Chandler, Terance Mathis, Shawn Jefferson, Tony Martin, Raymond Berry, Frank Gifford) before sending those guys out to pasture.

    Silver Lining: Every NFL season, one team from each conference emerges from the basement, takes advantage of a creampuff schedule and cruises to a playoff season -- like the Saints and Eagles last season, or the Rams in '99 -- as everyone collectively says, "Where the heck did those guys come from?"

    You know the drill. They start off 4-1, pull off an early-season upset and invariably get the token SI feature written about them some time in early-October. And everyone says things like, "This team came out of nowhere!!!!" And the Vegas books have a collective coronary (nobody hates the Out-of-Nowhere Team more than Vegas).

    But even though the Out-of-Nowhere Team changes every year, the constants remain the same:

    1. They stunk the previous season.

    2. They have an easy schedule.

    3. Their roster makes you at least say, "Those guys aren't half-bad."

    Well ... not only did Atlanta stink last season, but the Falcons' schedule includes games against Arizona, Chicago, New England, Dallas and Buffalo, as well as two games apiece against the Niners and Panthers. And if you look at their roster, it isn't half-bad.

    So there.

    Key to Season: As strange as this sounds, I think it's Michael Vick. Remember how the Steelers used Kordell Stewart during those playoff runs in the mid-90's, when Kordell always made things happen in spot duty on third-and-short? Couldn't you see Vick taking the spot duty gig to the next level?

    (I'm telling you, I have a good feeling about this whole Vick thing. Just trust me on this one. I'm the same person who predicted big things for Rob Van Dam, Matt Damon, Johnny Knoxville, Hasan Rahman and Angelina Jolie over the past few years. Don't mess with me on this stuff.)

    Random Thought: If you're picking in the George Allen Memorial Roto Pool for "Coaches Least Likely to Survive a Freezing-Cold Gatorade Bath in January," Dan Reeves and Dick Vermeil have to be the odds-on favorites.


    2. ST. LOUIS RAMS (10-6)

    Ricky Williams
    Ricky Williams is poised to break out for about 1,800 yards.
    Why they're in the hunt: They're a fantasy team come to life ... I still think they could have snuck into last year's Super Bowl if Warner wasn't hampered by a concussion during the Saints playoff game (he had the Aikman Face going).

    Mitigating Factor: The jury is still out on the Mike Martz Era, to put it mildly. His Rams squandered too many games last season by doing Those Things (dumb penalties, defensive lapses, turnovers at big times and so on). As someone who's still seeking therapy over the Pete Carroll Era in New England, lemme tell you something: You can always tell when a team's doing Those Things. And it's never a good thing.

    Key to Season: Word on the street was that Kurt Warner -- who took some of the most brutal hits this side of Tina Turner last season, capped off by his concussion in December -- was showing signs of the Tony Eason Memorial Happy Feet in the pocket during the preseason. Warrants watching.

    Random Thought: Another Warner concussion would set off a fantasy stampede for backup Rams QB Jamie Martin that could rival the ending of "Jurassic Park."


    1. NEW ORLEANS SAINTS (11-5)

    Why they'll be a force: The parallels between Met-RX spokesman Willie Beamon and K-Swiss spokesman Aaron Brooks are officially startling ... a tenacious defense (and they solved their secondary probs that killed them last year) ... Ricky Williams is in his "Ricky Martin just before the '99 Grammys" phase ... as Dennis Miller would say, "You have to like this kid Jimmy Haslett" ... nobody named "Billy Joe" is prominently involved.

    Mitigating Factor: A monster schedule awaits (Carolina, Washington and Buffalo look like the only gimmes).

    Key to Season: Ricky Williams. You can just smell the 1,800-yard season coming, can't you? Think Earl Campbell on Zoloft.

    Random Thought: If the Saints are serious about making a Super Bowl run, they have four months to come up with a dopey gimmick in the "Dirty Bird"/"Ickey Shuffle" vein -- maybe a striptease/Moulin Rouge/touchdown dance motif or something. Let's get Willie Jackson and Joe Horn to work on this, pronto.

    (And just for the record, the Super Bowl is in New Orleans this January. Hmmmmmm...)

    NFC playoff predictions

    First round: Philly over Atlanta, St. Louis over Tampa.

    Second round: St. Louis over Minnesota, New Orleans over Philly

    NFC Championship: New Orleans over St. Louis.

    Check out my AFC preview and my pick for Super Bowl XXXVI

    Bill Simmons writes three columns a week for Page 2.