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Biggest threats to Bucs’ Super Bowl path? Breaking down the NFC

Will the Packers get revenge this year, blocking the Bucs from a second straight Super Bowl appearance?
Bucs linebacker Shaquil Barrett sacks Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers during the NFC Championship Game last season. Will these teams meet again with a Super Bowl berth at stake?
Bucs linebacker Shaquil Barrett sacks Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers during the NFC Championship Game last season. Will these teams meet again with a Super Bowl berth at stake? [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published Sep. 5, 2021

The Bucs may finally have a leg up in their division, but who could ultimately stand in their way of reaching a second straight Super Bowl? We size up the NFC.

NFC South

Bucs

Linebacker Joe Tryon-Shoyinka appears NFL ready ahead of his first season in the league.
Linebacker Joe Tryon-Shoyinka appears NFL ready ahead of his first season in the league. [ ARIELLE BADER | Times ]

Coach: Bruce Arians (third season with Bucs, 18-14; ninth season overall, 76-47-1)

2020 record: 11-5 (second in NFC South, won Super Bowl 55)

Notable departure: None

Key acquisition: RB Giovani Bernard (Signed as free agent from Bengals)

Key re-signing: OLB Shaquil Barrett

Impact rookie: OLB Joe Tryon-Shoyinka (Washington). Appears more than ready for edge-rush rotation, keeping Barrett and Jason Pierre-Paul fresh in fourth quarter

Three questions

1. Can 44-year-old Tom Brady remain healthy?

2. How will a defensive line rotation with three guys 30 or older hold up?

3. Can the team again navigate a full season with limited coronavirus issues?

Prediction: 12-5

Falcons

The Falcons may lean more on rookie tight end Kyle Pitts (8) now that Julio Jones isn't with the team.
The Falcons may lean more on rookie tight end Kyle Pitts (8) now that Julio Jones isn't with the team. [ LYNNE SLADKY | Associated Press ]

Coach: Arthur Smith (first season)

2020 record: 4-12 (4th in NFC South)

Notable departure: WR Julio Jones (traded to Titans)

Key acquisition: RB Mike Davis (signed as free agent from Panthers)

Key re-signing: DE Steven Means

Impact rookie: TE Kyle Pitts (Florida). Arguably best athlete in 2020 draft, the former Gator will partially offset loss of Jones (now in Tennessee)

Three questions

1. Can Pitts help offset the departure of a seven-time Pro Bowler (Jones)?

2. Will a run game that ranked 31st in the NFL in yards per attempt (3.7) improve?

3. How much does 36-year-old QB Matt Ryan have remaining in the figurative tank?

Prediction: 6-11

Panthers

Rookie Panthers wide receiver Terrace Marshall Jr. reunites with his former offensive coordinator.
Rookie Panthers wide receiver Terrace Marshall Jr. reunites with his former offensive coordinator. [ ZACH BOLINGER | Associated Press ]

Coach: Matt Rhule (second season, 5-11)

2020 record: 5-11 (third in NFC South)

Notable departure: QB Teddy Bridgewater (traded to Broncos)

Key acquisition: QB Sam Darnold (acquired via trade with Jets)

Key re-signing: OT Taylor Moton

Impact rookie: WR Terrace Marshall Jr. (LSU). Former Tiger, who totaled 1,402 receiving yards the last two years, appears in line to win No. 3 receiver spot

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Three questions

1. Can Rhule, who oversaw stunning Year Two turnarounds at Temple and Baylor, pull it off at the pro level?

2. Will Darnold find prosperity outside the New York fishbowl?

3. Can Marshall flourish as a rookie under the same coordinator (Joe Brady) he had at LSU?

Prediction: 7-10

Saints

Former Buccaneer Jameis Winston will start under center for the Saints this season.
Former Buccaneer Jameis Winston will start under center for the Saints this season. [ DERICK HINGLE | Associated Press ]

Coach: Sean Payton (15th season, 143-81)

2020 record: 12-4 (first in NFC South, reached NFC division playoffs)

Notable departure: QB Drew Brees (retired)

Key acquisition: TE Nick Vannett (signed as free agent from Broncos)

Key re-signing: OT Ryan Ramczyk

Impact rookie: CB Paulson Adebo (Stanford). This 2020 opt-out’s lofty football IQ has impressed Saints, who might have immediate plans for him.

Three questions

1. Will Jameis Winston embrace the concept of ball security in his second crack as an NFL starter?

2. Can the team survive an offseason roster purge necessitated by an awful salary cap situation?

3. Can versatile force of nature Alvin Kamara still flourish with fewer weapons around him?

Prediction: 10-7

NFC East

Cowboys

Texans quarterback Tyrod Taylor (5) throws a pass in the first half of a preseason game under pressure from Cowboys linebacker Micah Parsons.
Texans quarterback Tyrod Taylor (5) throws a pass in the first half of a preseason game under pressure from Cowboys linebacker Micah Parsons. [ ROGER STEINMAN | Associated Press ]

Coach: Mike McCarthy (second season with Cowboys, 6-10; 15th season overall, 131-87-2)

2020 record: 6-10 (third in NFC East)

Notable departure: CB Chidobe Awuzie (signed as free agent with Bengals)

Key acquisitions: S Keanu Neal (signed as free agent from Falcons)

Key re-signing: CB Jourdan Lewis

Impact rookie: LB Micah Parsons (Penn State). A 2020 opt-out, this first-rounder was a consensus All-American in 2019 (five sacks, 26 quarterback hurries)

Three questions

1. Will QB Dak Prescott’s strained shoulder hold up for a 17-game regular season?

2. Can new coordinator Dan Quinn resuscitate a defense that allowed nearly 6 yards a play in 2020?

3. Can running back Ezekiel Elliott rebound from a mediocre 2020 season (979 rushing yards, five fumbles)?

Prediction: 10-7

Eagles

Eagles quarterback Jalen Hurts in action during a preseason game against the Patriots.
Eagles quarterback Jalen Hurts in action during a preseason game against the Patriots. [ CHRIS SZAGOLA | Associated Press ]

Coach: Nick Sirianni (first season)

2020 record: 4-11-1 (fourth in NFC East)

Notable departure: OT Jason Peters (signed as free agent with Bears)

Key acquisitions: CB Steven Nelson (signed as free agent from Steelers)

Key re-signing: WR Greg Ward

Impact rookie: WR DeVonta Smith (first round). Reigning Heisman Trophy winner reunited with one-time college quarterback Jalen Hurts

Three questions

1. Is Hurts the long-term answer at quarterback?

2. Will Hurts get better protection than Carson Wentz did in 2020, when he was sacked 50 times?

3. Will disgruntled tight end Zach Ertz remain an Eagle the entire season?

Prediction: 5-12

Giants

Giants running back Saquon Barkley (26) steps on the field at the start of a joint NFL practice with the Patriots.
Giants running back Saquon Barkley (26) steps on the field at the start of a joint NFL practice with the Patriots. [ STEVEN SENNE | Associated Press ]

Coach: Joe Judge (second season, 6-10)

2020 record: 6-10 (second in NFC East)

Notable departure: OG Kevin Zeitler (signed as free agent with Ravens)

Key acquisition: WR Kenny Golladay (signed as free agent from Lions)

Key re-signing: DE Leonard Williams

Impact rookie: LB Azeez Ojulari (Georgia). Pro Football Focus predicts this second-rounder will be the only rookie edge defender with a 70.0-plus pass rush grade

Three questions

1. When will tailback Saquon Barkley (torn ACL in 2020) return to action, and can he remain healthy?

2. Can third-year quarterback Daniel Jones and his mediocre offensive line improve concurrently?

3. Can offensive coordinator Jason Garrett maximize an upgraded corps of offensive skill guys?

Prediction: 8-9

Washington

Montez Sweat is part of a promising defense for Washington, which made the wild-card round a year ago.
Montez Sweat is part of a promising defense for Washington, which made the wild-card round a year ago. [ PATRICK MCDERMOTT | Tribune News Service ]

Coach: Ron Rivera (second season with Washington, 7-9; 11th season overall, 83-72-1)

2020 record: 7-9 (first in NFC East; reached wild-card game)

Notable departure: CB Ronald Darby (signed as free agent with Broncos)

Key acquisition: CB William Jackson III (signed as free agent from Bengals)

Impact rookie: LB Jamin Davis (Kentucky). Rivera’s counting on this first-rounder to build on his one breakout season (102 tackles, three INTs) at Kentucky

Three questions

1. Does 38-year-old quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick have any “Fitzmagic” dust left to sprinkle?

2. Can a young, promising defense continue trending upward?

3. How will a 7-9 playoff team cope with a first-place schedule?

Prediction: 7-10

NFC North

Bears

Bears quarterback Justin Fields throws in the third quarter of a preseason game against the Dolphins.
Bears quarterback Justin Fields throws in the third quarter of a preseason game against the Dolphins. [ Tribune News Service ]

Coach: Matt Nagy (fourth season, 28-20)

2020 record: 8-8 (second in NFC North)

Notable departure: CB Kyle Fuller (signed with Broncos after being released)

Key acquisition: QB Andy Dalton (signed as free agent from Cowboys)

Key re-signing: WR Allen Robinson

Impact rookie: QB Justin Fields (Ohio State). Toughness he displayed in college postseason fits in ideally with this franchise’s blue-collar mentality

Three questions.

1. Will a fan base rabid for the Fields era to begin put its support behind Dalton (the Game One starter)?

2. How will new defensive coordinator Sean Desai, a first-time play-caller, fare?

3. With the release of veteran cornerback Desmond Trufant, will the secondary find stability?

Prediction: 8-9

Lions

Lions quarterback Jared Goff celebrates a first down against the Bills during a preseason game.
Lions quarterback Jared Goff celebrates a first down against the Bills during a preseason game. [ Tribune News Service ]

Coach: Dan Campbell (first season)

2020 record: 5-11 (fourth in NFC North)

Notable departure: QB Matthew Stafford (traded to Rams)

Key acquisition: QB Jared Goff (acquired via trade with Rams)

Key re-signing: OG Frank Ragnow

Impact rookie: OT Penei Sewell (Oregon). A likely opening-day starter, the No. 7 overall pick won the 2019 Outland Trophy before opting out last fall

Three questions

1. Is Goff, a two-time Pro Bowler, a long-term answer or stop-gap solution at quarterback?

2. Who emerges as reliable targets from a rebuilt receiver depth chart?

3. Can new defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn improve a unit that gave up 6.3 yards per play in 2020?

Prediction: 5-12

Packers

Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers (12) shares a laugh with wide receivers Davante Adams (17) and Randall Cobb (18) during training camp.
Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers (12) shares a laugh with wide receivers Davante Adams (17) and Randall Cobb (18) during training camp. [ MATT LUDTKE | Associated Press ]

Coach: Matt LaFleur (third season, 26-6)

2020 record: 13-3 (first in NFC North, reached NFC title game)

Notable departure: RB Jamaal Williams (signed as free agent with Lions)

Key acquisition: WR Randall Cobb (acquired via trade with Texans)

Key re-signing: RB Aaron Jones

Impact rookie: WR Amari Rodgers (Clemson). This 5-foot-9 speedster, coming off a 1,000-yard senior year, provides another sleek target for Aaron Rodgers

Three questions

1. Will the reunion of Aaron Rodgers and Cobb provide Packers fans with a football version of The Last Dance?”

2. Will the salary demands of receiver Davante Adams (115 catches in 2020) become a distraction?

2. Does too much drama exist in Green Bay for the season to be a success?

Prediction: 13-4

Vikings

Vikings running back Dalvin Cook runs in drills during a joint training camp with the Broncos.
Vikings running back Dalvin Cook runs in drills during a joint training camp with the Broncos. [ BRUCE KLUCKHOHN | Associated Press ]

Coach: Mike Zimmer (eighth season, 64-47-1)

2020 record: 7-9 (third in NFC North)

Notable departure: TE Kyle Rudolph (signed as free agent with Giants)

Key acquisition: DT Dalvin Tomlinson (signed as free agent from Giants)

Key re-signing: WR Chad Beebe

Impact rookie: LT Christian Darrisaw (Virginia Tech). Vikings’ first-rounder was projected to start on opening day until a recent groin injury

Three questions

1. After taking the second-most handoffs in the NFL (312) in 2020, can 1,500-yard rusher Dalvin Cook deliver a sequel?

2. How will quarterback Kirk Cousins fare with his fourth coordinator (Klint Kubiak) in as many seasons?

3. Can Zimmer find stability at place-kicker?

Prediction: 10-7

NFC West

49ers

Defensive end Nick Bosa runs a drill during training camp.
Defensive end Nick Bosa runs a drill during training camp. [ JEFF CHIU | Associated Press ]

Coach: Kyle Shanahan (fifth season, 29-35)

2020 record: 6-10 (fourth in NFC West)

Notable departure: WR Kendrick Bourne (signed as free agent with Patriots)

Key acquisitions: C Alex Mack (signed as free agent from Falcons)

Key re-signing: LT Trent Williams

Impact rookie: G Aaron Banks (Notre Dame). Second-rounder, who allowed two sacks in last three college seasons, has been sidelined by shoulder injury.

Three questions

1. Though it drafted QB Trey Lance No. 3 overall, does Jimmy Garoppolo still give the 49ers the best chance of winning?

2. Can defensive lineman Nick Bosa make a successful return from a torn ACL?

3. Who emerges as the No. 3 receiver behind Brandon Aiyuk and Deebo Samuel?

Prediction: 8-9

Cardinals

Cardinals defensive end J.J. Watt watches from the sidelines during the first half of a preseason game against the Cowboys.
Cardinals defensive end J.J. Watt watches from the sidelines during the first half of a preseason game against the Cowboys. [ ROSS D. FRANKLIN | Associated Press ]

Coach: Kliff Kingsbury (third season, 13-18-1)

2020 record: 8-8 (third in NFC West)

Notable departures: CB Patrick Peterson (signed as free agent with Vikings)

Key acquisition: DE J.J. Watt (signed as free agent from Texans)

Key re-signing: C Rodney Hudson

Impact rookie: WR Rondale Moore (Purdue). Second-round pick won Paul Hornung Award in 2018 as most versatile player in college football

Three questions

1. Is this a playoffs-or-pink slip year for Kingsbury?

2. Can Watt’s presence propel this franchise to a postseason level?

3. Can QB Kyler Murray make the jump from electric to elite?

Prediction: 8-9

Rams

Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford looks for a receiver while Cowboys defensive tackle Osa Odighizuwa rushes during a joint practice.
Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford looks for a receiver while Cowboys defensive tackle Osa Odighizuwa rushes during a joint practice. [ JOHM MCCOY | Associated Press ]

Coach: Sean McVay (fifth season, 43-21)

2020 record: 10-6 (second in NFC West; reached NFC division playoffs)

Notable departure: QB Jared Goff (traded to Lions)

Key acquisition: QB Matthew Stafford (acquired via trade with Lions)

Key re-signing: OLB Leonard Floyd

Impact rookie: WR Tutu Atwell (Louisville). In final full college season (2019), this speedster from Miami led ACC with 1,276 receiving yards

Three questions

1. Can new arrival Sony Michel (from Patriots) salvage an injury-depleted Rams rushing attack?

2. Can Stafford’s moxie and mesmerizing arm propel the Rams into February?

3. At 30, can three-time NFL defensive player of the year Aaron Donald remain a force of nature?

Prediction: 11-6

Seahawks

Seahawks safety Jamal Adams on the field before a preseason football game against the Broncos.
Seahawks safety Jamal Adams on the field before a preseason football game against the Broncos. [ STEPHEN BRASHEAR | Associated Press ]

Coach: Pete Carroll (12th season with Seahawks, 112-63-1; 16th season overall, 145-94-1)

2020 record: 12-4 (first in NFC West; lost in wild card game)

Notable departure: CB Shaquill Griffin (signed as free agent with Jaguars)

Key acquisitions: TE Gerald Everett (signed as free agent from Rams)

Key re-signing: DE Carlos Dunlap

Impact rookie: WR D’Wayne Eskridge (Western Michigan). Reigning MAC Special Teams Player of the Year could make noise in kick-return game

Three questions

1. What kind of wrinkles will new offensive coordinator Shane Waldron, the former Rams pass-game coordinator, install?

2. Can veteran guard Gabe Jackson, acquired from the Raiders, help fortify Russell Wilson’s protection?

3. His holdout over, can safety Jamal Adams live up to his four-year, $70 million contract extension?

Prediction: 11-6

• • •

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