By RICK SOLEM
The biggest game of the year – aside from the Super Bowl – kicks off the NFL season tonight.
Everyone, minus the Green Bay faithful, is picking Seattle to win and, most likely, to repeat as NFL champions.
I don’t think either happens, and, in the case of tonight’s game, Seattle isn’t winning unless the referees are suddenly replaced. I’m going Packers for once – even in impossible-to-win Seattle.
But repeating as champs isn’t something that happens in today’s NFL and the Seahawks have enough holes to be vulnerable – not to mention the referees will be calling 75,000 pass interference calls this season.
Before predicting it all, however, here’s how the NFC is going to shakeout this season.
Carolina was that surprise team last year when the preseason rumor was its coach was going to get fired a few games in if the team faltered. Instead, the Panthers went 12-4 and won the division.
That doesn’t happen this year. Cam Newton comes in with a rib injury and offseason ankle surgery. He’s not going to run as much this season and has nobody to throw to. It could get ugly in Carolina.
A lot of people like Tampa Bay to surprise this year with the return of running back Doug Martin. I don’t see it. Martin wasn’t good last season before his shoulder injury and the Bucs line has gotten worse.
They’ve added Josh McCown, the best Bears quarterback last year, and he’s an improvement, but I tend to believe if your offensive line is bad, your bad, and that’s Tampa. The line was so bad, the Bucs traded their starting tight end to New England for 32-year-old Logan Mankins – a good player, but a desperate move so late in training camp.
New Orleans takes the South running away, while Atlanta and Carolina go around .500.
This is the division everyone thinks the Eagles win by default, because nobody has significantly improved. Sounds about right.
Dallas’ defense was horrible last season – and historically, the third-worst in NFL history – then lost its best linebacker (Sean Lee) and best defensive end (DeMarcus Ware) and best d-tackle (Jason Hatcher). Even Dallas says the defense will be horrible.
Teams may catch up with Philadelphia’s offense a bit this season, but the Giants are installing a new one in New York with a 32-year-old quarterback who’s strengths are not mirrored by the West-coast style they’re putting in. Washington has added offense – Desean Jackson and a healthy TE Jordan Reed – but still stands behind Robert Griffin at quarterback, when it’s clear Kirk Cousins should have the job.
Here’s the division where just about everyone picks the Seahawks and says done with it. Everyone but me. Not many like San Francisco with its off-the-field troubles, including an annoying coach the team actually tried to trade away.
But the offense is going to be better. Colin Kaepernick is another year in and … healthy. Last year he played with a chipped bone in his foot that hindered the team from calling plays to get him on the run.
This year, that’s not the case and with the 49ers under the radar to a degree, I see them taking the division – a division that’s supposed to be one of the best in the NFL, but I don’t see that either.
St. Louis is going to be horrible with Shaun Hill at quarterback, while Arizona regresses as Carson Palmer continues his best Jay Cutler impersonation by throwing to the other team – or is Cutler doing Palmer imitations?
San Francisco. Seattle wild card.
Everyone likes every team but the Vikings in the North and everyone seems to making an argument for the Packers and Bears and a sleeper candidate out of the Lions.
Nobody is talking Vikings, and that’s exactly what I’m thinking happens.
Some team always comes out of nowhere in the NFL, and it’s going to be the Matt Cassel-led Vikes … or, more realistic, the Adrian Peterson-led Vikes.
The defense is going to surprise, Cassel will manage an offense with a healthy Kyle Rudolph and a second-year stud-in-the-waiting in Cordarrelle Patterson.
Remember, the Vikings started Christian Ponder half last season, Josh Freeman came in and threw 20-for-53 in a game, and Cassel took over and went 3-3 down the stretch.
Now, new coach, new offensive coordinator, new systems and a summer to figure it all out. The division looks tough and the Packers have only gotten better, but this is my surprise team to win the division with the Packers taking the wild card.
Minnesota. Green Bay wild card.