Parity. In the age of the salary cap, dynasties are hard to come by in the NFL. While there are teams that have little chance of fighting on in January at the start of the year, a competitive team that can squeeze out a playoff berth is only a rookie's arm or a veteran's comeback away. At the end of the year, 20 teams will be left wanting, and the 12 best will have proven their mettle.
This week, I take a look at the six teams that will advance to the NFC playoffs.
NFC East: New York Giants
The east will be one of the most competitive divisions in the NFL next season. Eli Manning is still a Top-6 quarterback, and while the defense lost Osi Umenyiora, the additions of Mike Patterson and Dan Connor will shore it up quickly. Washington will be as competitive as Robert Griffin's knee allows, and risk of re-injury may remove some of the fiery fearlessness he played with last season. Former Oregon coach Chip Kelly will have a rough first year with Philadelphia, but the Eagles may surprise a few teams.
NFC North: Green Bay Packers
While the Packers have dominated the north for several seasons now, the cracks in the armor are starting to show. They did not improve via free agency, and lost defensive standouts Charles Woodson and Desmond Bishop. The running game is also suspect. That said, Aaron Rodgers is the best quarterback in the NFC, and as long as he is firing the ball, the Packers will be hard to top. The Chicago Bears and Detroit Lions will compete for second place.
NFC South: New Orleans Saints
With the effects of BountyGate fully gone (short of punishment for Gregg Williams), Sean Payton returns to coach a talented offense, and a defense with a chip on its collective shoulders. Drew Brees is still an elite quarterback, and between Jimmy Graham and Marques Colston, still has dangerous tools at his disposal. Atlanta will be right behind them, and the division title may come down to the Thursday night game between the two teams on November 21. Carolina tried to find receivers to go along with Steve Smith through free agency, but Ted Ginn and Dominick Hixon are not exactly upgrades for Cam Newton.
NFC West: San Francisco 49ers
A run to the Super Bowl brought the people of San Francisco memories of Steve Young and Joe Montana, but Colin Kaepernick will have to work for an encore. The Niners schedule is harder this season, and the loss of Michael Crabtree for the year will put a lot of pressure on Vernon Davis and newly acquired Anquan Boldin to perform, as well as Frank Gore. The defense only got better with Nnamdi Asomugha trying to revive his career replacing Dashon Goldson in the secondary. The Seattle Seahawks still have a potent 1-2 punch in Russell Wilson and Marshawn Lynch, but Wilson needs better targets to throw to. Doug Baldwin, Sidney Rice, and Golden Tate will have to hold down the fort till Percy Harvin returns from injury. The two rival teams will fight for the crown all season long.
NFC Wild Cards: Chicago Bears and Seattle Seahawks
The Bears defense may have lost a future Hall-of-Famer at middle linebacker, but it is still a defense that forced 44 turnovers in 16 games. Add a revamped offensive line for Jay Cutler and Brandon Marshall, and the Bears will win the dirty games. The Seahawks will hang close with the 49ers all season, and their defense remains one of the best in the NFC. Twelve wins may be needed to take a wild-card this year, and the Atlanta Falcons will find themselves just short.