SAN FRANCISCO, CA - JANUARY 22: Alex Smith #11 of the San Francisco 49ers talks with Eli Manning #10 of the New York Giants after the 49ers lost the NFC Championship Game against the New York Giants at Candlestick Park on January 22, 2012 in San Francisco, California. The Giants beat the 49ers 20-17 in overtime. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
The last time we pulled back from our happy little Packer cocoon we only looked at teams in our division. It's time to pull back our gaze and look around the NFC a bit more and ask one big question for teams that the Packers are going to be competing with down the stretch for a Super Bowl bid.
So what are is the big question for the teams hoping to continue the NFC's dominance in the league's biggest game? Let's see:
The New York Giants: How comfortable are the Giants right now?
I'm going to start by saying I don't believe in Super Bowl hangovers. Also, before all you angry Giant fans come over and think I'm belittling the Giants or trying to downplay their great run....I'm not. The Giants were the best team down the stretch and played like a team on a mission. Nothing can take that away from them and they earned that trophy. That said, when you look at the Giants this is a team that plays different when their backs are against the wall. You doubt me? Compare the 2010 Giants to the 2011 Giants. or the 2007 Giants to the 2008 or 2009 Giants. They are a big ego team in a big ego market. They are also team that is known to be sloppy when everyone is comfortable. After winning a Super Bowl they seem pretty comfy right now so which team is going to show up this year...the team on a mission that appears during Super Bowl runs or the sloppy disappointing team that shows up every other year?
The San Francisco 49ers: What is their offensive identity going to be?
The Niners strike me an awful lot like the Jets last year. Last year the Jets were coming off an appearance in the AFC Championship game led by a strong defense and okay QB. They were okay on defense with no one of note leaving, but they decided to beef up their offense. They brought in some new offensive weapons, led by a big name WR with a checked past (Plaxico Burress) and decided to go from ground and pound to a big passing attack. It didn't work.
The Falcons did something similar last year too. They were a team that minimized mistakes, controlled the clock, and played solid football. They had a great 2010 but there was a disappointing loss in the playoffs. The team decided to roll the dice on a big upgrade at WR and become a throw first offense. It didn't work.
Now the 49ers are coming off a year where they did very well, and a bit unexpected. They went to the NFC Championship game. They were led by a great defense, solid running game, and okay QB. Now they have brought in a big named WR with a checked past (Randy Moss) as well as some other offensive weapons (Mario Manningham and Brandon Jacobs), and now are hoping to be more pass first in the offense. I have my doubts to whether it will work.
When a team changes their offensive identity it takes time for it all to come together. The problem is twofold: 1) changing the identity of a team causes the players to step out of the comfort zone and doubt what they need to do. Football is a game of feel when you get to the NFL level. They know exactly what to do. They've practiced everything ad nausium and now they have gotten to the point where they just need to relax and let it flow....but changing the paradigm means new things to learn and new attitudes to bring. It takes time for that to sink in. 2) The QB may not be up for the challenge. Last year Mark Sanchez and Matt Ryan weren't no matter how much the team hyped them up. Does anyone really think Alex Smith is ready this year?
The New Orleans Saints: Can the offense adjust to a new play caller?
I feel bad for Saint fans, they lost a lot this offseaon. I feel bad for raising this question, I feel like I'm kicking a puppy, but I have to here because this is the biggest thing about not having Sean Payton on the sidelines in my mind. I know Drew Brees is fantastic and matched by only one or two QB's right now. I know having him there will help a lot....but come on. Ironically the Saints had a taste of this last year with Payton's injury. Two of the three losses they had came in that time period (one being the game he was injured and the other a sloppy performance in St. Louis). So on one hand they have some practice with dealing with his presence not on the sideline. On the other it shows that this offense is a little less special without him calling the plays.
I'm going to bottom line this a different way. I believe Aaron Rodgers is the best QB in the league right now. I believe that the Packer offense is stacked better than every other offense right now. If Mike McCarthy isn't on the sidelines calling the plays for the Packers in 2011, I'm seriously worried. I don't care how good the other pieces are and how good the rest of the coaching staff is, I'm really worried. I don't know how this can be addressed to be honest with you.
The Philadelphia Eagles: Can they live up to the hype?
I wish I could form a better question here, but I can't. There are so many little questions that surround this team for me that it any attempt to boil it all into one question just becomes this in my mind. They have a defensive coordinator that's really an offensive line coach. They have a ton of talent that just had a hard time coming together last year. Most of all they have a QB who has had a tough time staying healthy mixed with an injured starting LT. None of that is good....but if you listen to the hype they are supposed to win their division. When the reigning Super Bowl Champion resides in that division and the team has this many questions about it....well I'm skeptical. This team can play with anyone, but they are a bit like the Chicago Bears for me right now....lots of talent, but some serious questions about how it's all going to come together. Because they have very little depth where it counts.
The Atlanta Falcons: Can Matt Ryan become an elite QB?
Earlier I mentioned that the Falcons decided to run their offense through Ryan last year instead of Michael Turner and it didn't go well. The Falcons were a team I had high hopes for and they disappointed me severely. I remember watching them week 1 against the Bears wondering what in the heck went wrong with the team...and that feeling never really went away as the season went on. Add on top of that, I don't know what they really did to become better this year. Sure, they got Asante Samuel, but were they one corner from really be a legit contender? I don't think so. No, it's going to take Ryan showing he can be more than a game manager. If he can't then percpetion of him is going to slide and he's quickly going to be in the conversation with Sanchez, Smith, and the like rather than his classmate Joe Flacco. Then again, if Ryan can step up then the Falcons have enough talent on offense and defense to make a pretty good run in the tough NFC South.