— The NFC boasts arguably the two best divisions in football (East, South), but also probably the worst (West). After a hectic period in late July and early August, these teams are looking to narrow the gap on the Super Bowl champion Packers in the North.
Let's see how they've fared:
(Teams listed by conference, in predicted order of finish)
Training camp solution: Emphasizing youth and pass protection on the offensive line, the Cowboys have cut five years off the average age of last year's starting five. The offense is built to feature the pass with two No. 1-caliber receivers, Jason Witten, and elite athleticism at both tackles.
Hanging problems: The defensive secondary is shaky. Cornerback Terence Newman, 33, missed all of camp with a groin tear, and the safeties looked overmatched in preseason.
Surprise: The team is going all in on Felix Jones as an every-down running back. Jones slumped to a career-low 4.32 yards per carry last season, but has enjoyed perhaps the best camp of any Cowboys player. Rookie DeMarco Murray and Tashard Choice were both injured for all of August.
Outlook: The Cowboys' offense will play aggressively, and be forced to do so perhaps even more than coach Jason Garrett prefers to offset secondary problems. They'll score a lot of points. Working in Dallas' favor over Philadelphia is system continuity and more playmakers in the defensive front seven. We're picking the Cowboys to win the NFC East.
Training camp solution: The Eagles' aggressive offseason approach left them just over a month to get a large chunk of their starting lineup assimilated. New signees couldn't practice until August 4, so the team has since been trying to teach the players the terminology.
Hanging problems: The wheeling and dealing generated headlines entering Eagles camp, but early returns on many of the acquisitions are underwhelming. Receiver Steve Smith has no obvious role and is coming off microfracture knee surgery. Tackle Ryan Harris is out indefinitely after back surgery. The Eagles are asking Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie to cover the slot as a nickel back, and so far it appears to be a poor system fit. The linebackers have been atrocious.
Surprise: This surprise isn't positive. In the preseason's first three games, Michael Vick completed 19-of-36 passes (52.8 percent) for 219 yards, one touchdown, three interceptions, and two fumbles. Vick's 2010 preseason numbers weren't better, but it's surprising he's gotten off to such a slow start. Musical chairs on the offensive line and receiver Jeremy Maclin's absence haven't helped.
Outlook: The Eagles have collected a lot of talent, but they picked an awkward time to do it with so little time for new faces to know their roles and build chemistry. Philadelphia travels to St. Louis for the opener. Expect a verbal beatdown from the media if an upset ensues.
Training camp solution: The quarterback battle got more attention, but the Skins held a running game-oriented camp. Coach Mike Shanahan named his starting five offensive linemen in July, and the unit didn't miss a single day of practice together throughout August. New featured runner Tim Hightower played extensively in preseason -- rare for a starting back -- and exploded for 170 yards on 25 carries (6.8 average), along with two TDs. The zone-blocking scheme is clicking.
Hanging problems: Can the Redskins win games with John Beck or Rex Grossman under center? Both played competently in the preseason, but Grossman often folds in real games and Beck hasn't played in a real game since 2007. This needs to be a run-heavy team to open the season.
Surprise: Some draft prognosticators believed first-round pick Ryan Kerrigan wouldn't transition smoothly from college end to 3-4 outside linebacker. As a pass rusher in the preseason, however, Kerrigan has been exactly what the doctor ordered with a team-high 10 tackles and two sacks. This defense could rival the Giants for best in the NFC East if Kerrigan keeps it up into the winter.
Outlook: Unless we're talking the 2000 Ravens, teams don't win much without a franchise-caliber quarterback. That said, the 'Skins can be competitive if their offensive line stays healthy and the defense doesn't have to be on the field for long stretches. 8-8 is a reasonable, if optimistic goal.
Training camp solution: Like the Cowboys, the Giants revamped their offensive line to get more athletic and younger. William Beatty, 26, takes over at left tackle with David Diehl kicking to left guard. The team paid David Baas $27.5 million to solidify center. Right guard Chris Snee and right tackle Kareem McKenzie are the only staying at the same spots.
Hanging problems: The Giants suffered through a star-crossed August. Quarterback Eli Manning struggled in camp and preseason games, defensive end Osi Umenyiora had knee surgery, and 2010 interceptions and tackles leader Terrell Thomas tore his ACL. This team may start slowly.
Surprise: Brandon Jacobs was a preseason bright spot, rumbling for 115 yards on 19 carries (6.05 average) after coach Tom Coughlin talked him up as more than just a change-up back to Ahmad Bradshaw. The carry split will be more even this year, and the offense more physical.
Outlook: In preseason, the G-Men also lost dime back Bruce Johnson (Achilles) and promising rookie defensive tackle Marvin Austin (pectoral) to season-ending injuries. First-round pick Prince Amukamara (foot) is probably out until Week 5. It's going to be tough sledding early this year.
Training camp solution: The Packers have a franchise quarterback and continuity on both sides of the ball, so the lockout wasn't an especially threatening circumstance. The most "difficult" tasks Green Bay faced were re-involving Jermichael Finley and Ryan Grant after season-ending injuries and finding a home for first-round pick Derek Sherrod. Sherrod will begin the season as a backup tackle. Finley dominated in August, and Grant is being pushed for a starting job by James Starks.
Hanging problems: There are question marks at right defensive end, right outside linebacker, and running back, but none is of pressing concern. The first position will likely go to power end Mike Neal, a 2010 second-round pick. The linebacker opposite Clay Matthews should be Erik Walden, a postseason star. Grant may open the year as the top tailback, but Starks outplayed him in the preseason. Ultimately, it's a good problem to have. This team is loaded at virtually every position.
Surprise: In a sparkling preseason, T.J. Lang outplayed Sherrod to win the Packers' left guard job. Lang has battled pass protection woes before, but appears to have turned the corner in his third year. "He's taken a big step," confirmed coach Mike McCarthy. "He's done a lot of good things." The left guard job became open when incumbent Daryn Colledge left for more money in Arizona.
Outlook: The Packers have the NFL's deepest, most talented roster and a coaching staff that instills confidence. There's no good reason to pick against them as repeat Super Bowl champs.
Training camp solution: The Lions entered camp with both offensive tackles on the shelf, Jeff Backus nursing a partially torn pectoral muscle and Gosder Cherilus still rehabbing a surgically repaired knee. The team patiently waited for both to get healthy, and neither has experienced a setback or even missed a practice since returning two weeks ago. This is a fragile situation because injuries have cost quarterback Matthew Stafford 19 games over the past two seasons.
Hanging problems: The Lions traded up in the second round to draft power back Mikel Leshoure. His season ended Aug. 8 due to a ruptured Achilles' tendon, leaving Detroit without any hint of an inside run presence. Whether Jerome Harrison or Maurice Morris can solve the problem remains to be seen, but we suspect Stafford will be forced to push for the league lead in pass attempts.
Surprise: Just prior to camp, the Lions landed run-stuffing linebackers Justin Durant and Stephen Tulloch on the cheap, plus new right cornerback Eric Wright. All met expectations in practice and preseason. First-round pick Nick Fairley (foot) might not be an early-season factor, but the Lions have the makings of an exciting, up-tempo defense with high potential for sacks and turnovers.
Outlook: The Lions will go to the playoffs this year if Stafford stays healthy. There is no shortage of talent on either side of the ball, and the division is on a clear downswing behind Green Bay.
Training camp solution: The Bears hoped to get bigger and more physical at receiver by signing Cowboys castoff Roy Williams, but quickly and smartly reopened the job to competition when Williams reported out of shape. Now, it looks like Johnny Knox may regain the "X" wideout spot opposite Devin Hester. Knox isn't as big as Williams, but he's the Bears' best receiver.
Hanging problems: The offensive line was a sieve all last season, forcing coordinator Mike Martz to abandon his spread-like offense for a run-first scheme. Rookie Gabe Carimi is an upgrade at right tackle, but the rest of the front five played poorly throughout August. Pass protection remains a major concern for Jay Cutler. It's hard to imagine Martz fully implementing his offense this year.
Surprise: Left for dead by Texas teams, new tailback Marion Barber (Cowboys) and defensive tackle Amobi Okoye (Texans) were bright spots of Chicago's preseason. Okoye racked up three sacks in August, while Barber's robust 4.6 yards per carry has made Chester Taylor expendable.
Outlook: The Bears got lots of good luck last season, frequently facing backup quarterbacks due to opposing starters' injuries, and staying healthy all year. The team must continue to rely heavily on its run game and defense while the good luck continues. A single bad injury to a core player like Matt Forte, Julius Peppers, or Lance Briggs could send the season into a tailspin.
Training camp solution: Whereas the Packers, Bears, and Lions all avoided scheme change and roster overhaul where unnecessary, the Vikings have a new look. New offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave is expected to run a two-tight end offense, though Visanthe Shiancoe missed training camp with a hamstring strain. Unchallenged by struggling rookie Christian Ponder, new quarterback Donovan McNabb finished the preseason 24-of-37 passing (64.9 percent) for 285 yards, one touchdown, and an interception. The offense will still lean heavily on Adrian Peterson.
Hanging problems: Protecting McNabb is something the Redskins couldn't do last year, and the problem may follow him to Minnesota. The Vikings were forced to release overweight left tackle Bryant McKinnie at the start of camp. Replacement Charlie Johnson held his own in preseason, but was beaten like a drum in practices. In a division of Julius Peppers, Clay Matthews, and Kyle Vanden Bosch, Johnson will need to pick it up quickly in order for McNabb to stay healthy.
Surprise: With Shiancoe out, rookie tight end Kyle Rudolph stepped up as the Vikings' primary tight end. Rudolph's preseason stats (six receptions, 44 yards, one touchdown) aren't overwhelming, but he consistently drew raves from camp observers, and Musgrave in particular. A second-round pick, Rudolph will complement Percy Harvin in the short to intermediate passing game.
Outlook: While the Vikings have some pieces in place, they are one major McNabb, Peterson or Harvin injury away from disaster on offense, and it's hard to have any faith in the line. The defense may keep Minnesota competitive, but it's an 8-8 roster with too much turnover in a tough division.
Training camp solution: The Saints entered August trying to establish roles at key positions, including tailback, receiver, tight end, and in the defensive front seven. They emerged with most dilemmas answered. Pierre Thomas may start, but Mark Ingram will get most of the backfield touches. Marques Colston's knee remains a concern, so Lance Moore will play more snaps to compensate. Jimmy Graham is the real deal at tight end. The linebacker unit is still in flux, but defensive end has shaken out with Alex Brown cut and newly signed Turk McBride now a starter.
Hanging problems: Injuries have been somewhat of a concern, and it's not just Colston. Nose tackle Aubrayo Franklin missed a chunk of camp with a sprained MCL, and cornerback Tracy Porter has been eased in after offseason knee surgery. Moore missed a week with a groin pull.
Surprise: Drew Brees' struggles. The Saints' five-time Pro Bowl quarterback labored through the preseason, completing a pedestrian 23-of-41 passes (56.1 percent) for 304 yards, no scores, and no interceptions. Preseason statistics can be misleading, but they're worth noting because Brees' top receiver is hobbled and the offense is in some flux. Ultimately, Brees should be fine by September 8.
Outlook: The Saints have a roster superior to Atlanta's and a coaching staff proven to be among the NFL's best. This should pan out as an 11-win team at worst and legit Super Bowl contender.
Training camp solution: Explosive plays and mismatches were the buzz words in Falcons camp, and early returns were promising. With 29 1/2-year-old tailback Michael Turner in decline, the team has renewed emphasis on the pass game. In a sign of things to come, Matt Ryan attempted an otherworldly 42 first-half passes in the third preseason game. This will be a high-flying offense in the Georgia Dome, with Julio Jones and Harry Douglas exhibiting rare after-catch explosion.
Hanging problems: Atlanta's roster has no glaring weaknesses, especially after signing defensive end Ray Edwards to a relatively affordable $30 million contract. The biggest concern has been the secondary as evidenced by the Falcons' playoff loss to Green Bay. G.M. Thomas Dimitroff didn't ignore it, though, signing ex-Super Bowl star Kelvin Hayden as a third cornerback and versatile safety James Sanders to play a reserve role. The Falcons are also coming off a healthy camp.
Surprise: Julio Jones was the star of camp, coming on quicker than even his biggest supporters could've imagined. The draft's sixth overall pick, Jones played in a deliberate-moving offense at Alabama, where he was relegated to possession receiver duties. He showed much better "play speed" in practice and preseason on the Georgia Dome turf, consistently outrunning defenders.
Outlook: The Falcons are equipped to compete with the league's elite, and they'll give the Saints a serious run in the NFC South. New Orleans also made major talent upgrades to its roster, though. Assuming both of their quarterbacks stay healthy, each team has a postseason berth in its future.
Training camp solution: The Bucs caught a break when the league decided against suspending cornerback Aqib Talib after a felony weapon arrest during the lockout. And the rest of the news has been mostly good, too. Rookie defensive ends Adrian Clayborn and Da'Quan Bowers both look like immediate impact players, while the interior defensive line and linebacker corps both project as strengths. Quarterback Josh Freeman continues to develop into a franchise passer.
Hanging problems: So far, Tampa Bay's transition from a zone-blocking to power-running system has been rocky. Running back LeGarrette Blount struggled to the tune of 2.1 yards per carry in the preseason, and the Bucs lack a quality alternative. Such is the case throughout the Buccaneers' offense; they just don't have much depth. This is a good, young team built through the draft and forward-thinking waiver moves, but it's not ready to take the next step.
Surprise: With Arrelious Benn rehabbing a late-season ACL tear, Dezmon Briscoe stepped up to lead the Bucs with seven receptions for 80 preseason yards. A physical receiver with deceptive speed, Briscoe excels over the middle and has at least earned a role in three-receiver sets for when Benn gets back to 100 percent. There has been even speculation that Briscoe will start.
Outlook: The Bucs preyed on one of the NFL's weakest schedules to rack up 10 wins last year. Every team in the NFC South improved this offseason, and the sledding will get much tougher. Expect a decline in the win column, but continued on-field development for Tampa's young core.
Training camp solution: A Cam-centric camp. The Panthers are rushing No. 1 overall pick Cam Newton onto the field, and confirmed their intentions by starting him in three of the four preseason games. What Carolina can offer Newton is one of the league's most talented offensive lines and a star-studded backfield. Ideally, Newton will open the season throwing just 20 or so times a game. He struggled as a passer in exhibition games, looking more comfortable running the ball.
Hanging problems: While Newton's future may be bright, his inaccurate passing and quarterback learning curve are problems the Panthers must overcome to be competitive. Newton finished the preseason with a completion rate of 42.1 percent on 57 throws. There's no reason to think the light will go on in real games, so Carolina will have to run the football as a means of "protecting" Newton.
Surprise: The Panthers suffered year-ending injuries to starting receiver David Gettis (knee) and swing offensive lineman Geoff Schwartz in camp, hurting depth at each position. The surprise -- and disappointment -- is that Chargers castoff Legedu Naanee beat out 2010 third-round pick Brandon LaFell to replace Gettis. Carolina needs big contributions from tight end Greg Olsen to make up for its weakness at No. 2 wideout. Naanee would be a fifth receiver on a good team.
Outlook: The Panthers could push for 8-8 if they didn't have such a project at quarterback. As is, 6-10 would probably be an accomplishment. They'll still be more competitive than most think.
Training camp solution: The Rams are moving from ex-coordinator Pat Shurmur's West Coast offense to a more aggressive scheme under former Broncos coach Josh McDaniels. Like his mentor Charlie Weis, McDaniels has proven an offensive mastermind but struggled when stretched into an overseer's role. The early signs are promising, particularly for quarterback Sam Bradford. He averaged nearly seven yards per throw in August, with five touchdowns and two interceptions.
Hanging problems: Will the rush defense be any better? St. Louis is annually among the league's worst teams in run defense, and in the preseason the Rams were gashed by Titans third-string running back Jamie Harper and Jaguars No. 3 Deji Karim, among others. The Rams are breaking in two new starting outside linebackers, a new starting defensive tackle, and a new strong safety.
Surprise: Rookie tight ends rarely make consistent impacts, but Lance Kendricks may be the exception. A second-round pick out of Wisconsin, Kendricks starred in camp before leading the Rams in preseason receiving with 11 catches for 155 yards and a whopping three touchdowns. Kendricks will be a dangerous weapon if he blocks well enough to earn a high volume of snaps.
Outlook: The Rams have the best offense in the NFC West, and could also push for the best defense if they improve against the run. A difficult first-half schedule may be tough to overcome, but this still has the look of a 9-7 team that could improve to double-digit wins with a strong start.
Training camp solution: The offseason was devoted to acquisition of a quarterback, and Arizona got its man with Kevin Kolb. It cost a second-round pick and underachieving cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie. The Cards gave Kolb a crash course on their offense, and he quickly showed in the preseason that showering Larry Fitzgerald with targets will be his primary mindset. Kolb isn't an elite passer, but he's far better than Derek Anderson and Max Hall.
Hanging problems: The offensive line, in a major way. The Cardinals tried to address it by overpaying guard Daryn Colledge, but the tackle play threatens to be among the worst in football with former top-five bust Levi Brown on Kolb's blind side and backup-caliber right tackle Brandon Keith returning to the lineup. Finger crossing will be needed to keep Kolb upright.
Surprise: Running back Beanie Wells showed up to camp in tip-top shape and reinvigorated. The Cardinals lost second-round pick Ryan Williams to a ruptured patellar tendon in the preseason, but Wells injected life into the running game by averaging nearly 5.0 yards per carry. Wells must stay healthy and effective for the Cardinals to pose any kind of threat on the ground.
Outlook: Arizona has quality talent at skill positions, and will undoubtedly be better on offense. The defense is a work in progress, particularly in the back seven. This may not be a .500 team.
Training camp solution: The 49ers have installed new systems on defense and offense, pinning their hopes on quarterback Alex Smith for a sense of continuity. It's a long shot. Braylon Edwards was signed for receiver help with Michael Crabtree missing all of training camp after foot surgery. Frank Gore was handed a lucrative, $21 million extension, with $13.5 million guaranteed.
Hanging problems: There's little hope for the passing game. Smith finished the preseason with a 55 percent completion rate, 5.5 yards-per-attempt average, no TDs, and two picks. Coach Jim Harbaugh may have to conjure up his 2009 offense at Stanford, when quarterback Andrew Luck was a freshman and the Cardinal leaned heavily on the run with a ground-and-pound approach. The 49ers could make that work with rookie Kendall Hunter showing all kinds of promise behind Gore.
Surprise: Hunter. Confirming his big-play ability, the fourth-round pick exploded for 231 yards on 35 preseason carries (6.6 average), including a 53-yard scoring burst. Hunter is still learning to pass protect, but he's ready to make NFL defenders miss. The 49ers must find ways to incorporate him.
Outlook: The 49ers can stay in games with a dominant running attack and competitive defense, but the quarterback situation will continue to hold the franchise hostage. Harbaugh's team will battle Seattle for last place in the NFC West, with the "winner" having a shot at Luck in the 2012 draft.
Training camp solution: The Seahawks parted ways with Matt Hasselbeck, hanging their hat on coaching staff favorite Tarvaris Jackson. "T-Jack" was promptly outplayed by Charlie Whitehurst, on whom the organization had already all but given up. Seattle's offensive design was to surround Jackson with playmaking pass catchers (Sidney Rice, Zach Miller) and a talented line (first-round pick James Carpenter, third-rounder John Moffitt, free agent pickup Robert Gallery). So far, the idea hasn't worked. In fact, it may be backfiring considering the money and draft picks invested.
Hanging problems: Like San Francisco, Seattle has no prayer of formidable quarterback play. In August, Jackson went 27-of-48 for 181 yards, averaging 3.77 yards per pass attempt and taking seven sacks. The first-team offensive line was a complete sieve, and a plodding running game doesn't help matters. It's hard to imagine the Seahawks fielding a competitive offense this year.
Surprise: Positive developments in Seahawks camp were few. Golden Tate, a 2010 second-round pick, face-planted with an opportunity at a slot receiver job. Running back Marshawn Lynch ceded third-down duties to some combo of Leon Washington and Justin Forsett, then missed the last week of preseason with an ankle injury. The defense projects as above average at best.
Outlook: It's early, of course, but the Seahawks are our preseason favorites for the No. 1 overall pick in the 2012 draft. There won't be five worse offenses, and the defense can't save the season.