NFL Preview: NFC Central and West

Josh Flickinger

With the NFL opening this weekend, our final installment of the NFL preview is a double feature including the NFC Central and West.

Minnesota Vikings

There is little to say about the Vikings that hasn’t already been said. With Randall Cunningham at quarterback, Robert Smith at running back and Randy Moss and Cris Carter at wide reciever, the Vikes clearly have the best offense in the NFL.

The defense should be solid as well, with dominating lineman John Randle returning for another year.

However, it should be said that last year was a dream for Minnesota,with absolutely everything going right. Yet they still couldn’t get to the Super Bowl. A key injury could bring this team right back to the Pack, which brings us to…

Green Bay Packers

The Packers won this division from 1995-1997 and are looking for a healthy season from running back Dorsey Levens, something it did not get last year. As a result, the running game suffered, and even more pressure was put on three-time MVP Brett Favre.

Antonio Freeman is one of the best wide receivers in the game, and tight end Mark Chmura is an All-Pro. The offensive line is the big question, but this unit should be able to score.

The key to the Packers’ success in 1999 will come down to two things: the ability to put pressure on the quarterback (read: replace Reggie White) and also the ability to have one of the youngest secondaries in the league be able to stop people on a regular basis.

If those two things happen, the Pack very well could be back.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

The Buccaneers were very disappointing a year ago after having a very solid 1997 campaign which saw the team reach the playoffs for the first time since 1981.

Trent Dilfer, the Bucs’ much-maligned quarterback, is back for another year at the helm, and even with Warrick Dunn and Mike Alstott to hand off to, Dilfer will finally have to step up for Tampa Bay to make the next step.

The defense should be good with stud lineman Warren Sapp leading the way, but the fate of the Buccaneers lies in the hands of Dilfer, truly a frightening thought for most Tampa Bay fans.

Chicago Bears

The Monsters of the Midway, and I use that term loosely, will have a decidedly different look than the team that finished 4-12 two years in a row.

Dick Jauron is the new coach, and Shane Matthews and rookie Cade McNown will split the quarterbacking duties to start the season.

The skill positions for Chicago are nothing special, but where they really struggle is in the lines. The offensive line for the Bears struggled both run-blocking for Curtis Enis, and pass-blocking.

The defensive line could not sustain a pass rush at all a year ago and is starting a rookie at defensive end to try to stop that trend.

The Bears will not contend this year, but if young players like McNown and Enis come through, the future look bright.

Detroit Lions

Barry Sanders is gone and without him, any chance the Lions have of making the playoff is particularly difficult in this division.

Rookie quarterback Charlie Batch showed flashes of brilliance but overall was uneven in his first campaign. Herman Moore and Johnny Morton are a very good tandem at wideout, but the question mark at running game is going to be a problem.


Atlanta Falcons

Coming off a Super Bowl season of a year ago, the Falcons are facing the highest expectations they’ve ever encountered.

On the surface, they appear to be ready to handle the pressure, as key players Chris Chandler, Jamal Anderson and Chuck Smith. Upon further exploration, however, one wonders if the brittle Chandler can hold up another year and how they will replace wideout Tony Martin.

Anderson is a very good back, but don’t expect him to repeat last year’s performance. And the defensive secondary appears a bit vulnerable as well. The Falcons, like the Vikings, had everything go right a year ago. For them to reach the big game again, the stars will have to be aligned right.

San Francisco 49ers

The aging dynasty could be coming to an end very soon. Steve Young, who has quarterbacked the 49ers to a Super Bowl win and several playoff wins, is now 37 and not his old self.

Without a reliable backup, the team could struggle. Lawrence Phillips was signed in the offseason but has not been impressive in the preseason.

Garrison Hearst, out for much of this year with an injury, was a key component to the 49ers’ success last year, and they will need to find someone to fill his shoes.

Jerry Rice, Terrell Owens and J.J. Stokes will be a provide a solid corps, but whether Rice can take a reduced role without wining is yet to be seen.

Bryant Young is back and will need to show he’s 100 percent after a broken leg last year.

New Orleans Saints

After trading its entire draft to get Heisman Trophy winner Ricky Williams’ services, the Saints and coach Mike Ditka expect big things out of the rookie.

Even with a big season from him, the dueling Billy Joe’s of Tolliver and Hobert aren’t a complete quarterback between them, which precludes New Orleans from being a top contender.

St. Louis Rams

The Rams were looking very promising this fall until newly acquired quarterback Trent Green went down with a season-ending injury. Now the Rams are unsure at the game’s most important position.

That’s a shame, because the Rams aerial attack could have been very good with incumbent Issac Bruce and first-round pick Torry Holt now in the fold at wide reciever.

Also new to the Rams is running back Marshall Faulk, who comes to St. Louis from Indianapolis.

The defense was very strong last season against the pass, as was the solid defensive line, featuring Kevin Carter and D’Marco Farr.

Carolina Panthers

George Seifert came back for this? The Panthers, 4-12 a year ago, don’t figure to be all that much improved this season.

Steve Beurlein will be the starting quarterback after being a backup for most of his 12-year career.

Tim Biakabatuka will try to avoid the injury bug at running back, something he hasn’t been able to do yet.

The defense was 26th in the NFL last year, and not much has been done to shore up that.

It will be a long year for Seifert and the Panthers.