The NFC has morphed into arguably the most intriguing conferences in the entire nation, following a year in which the Carolina ran roughshod over the usual elites like Seattle and Arizona en route to national prominence. The Panthers will look to defend their NFC crown and contend for a national title for the second straight year in 2016, but they will face some tough competition from a host of dangerous teams gunning for the top honors in the conference. Here is a look at the most noteworthy candidates in the 2016 NFL lines to win the NFC Championship.
Reviewing the NFL Odds to Win the NFC ConferenceDespite being the defending NFC Champs, the Panthers are placed as third-favorites in most sportsbooks to repeat as Champions, coming behind Seattle and Green Bay. On paper, the return of star WR Kelvin Benjamin will help Carolina’s aerial game while the experience and motivation from the team’s 15-1 regular-season record and two blowout wins over Seattle and Arizona in the NFC Playoffs will surely keep Carolina in the conversation. Even so, the Panthers will need a lot to go in their favor if they are to impress like they did in 2015, and that won’t be easy, considering the improvements expected in the NFC South (from Tampa Bay and New Orleans) plus a strong competition from the rest of the conference. For Seattle, the leadership of Russell Wilson at QB and the Legion of Boom defense are facets that guarantee solid competition. But like Carolina, Seattle—the 2013 and 2014 NFC Champs– will be dealing with a tough in-division competition from Arizona and Los Angeles, along with a daunting fifth-toughest strength of schedule (SOS) in 2016, so bagging homefield advantage throughout the playoffs or even making it all the way to the NFC Championship game won’t be as simple as suggested by their conference-winning odds. So, if I was to actually pick between Seattle and Carolina, I’d go with the Panthers as the better pick, given that they have a relatively easier path to the conference title game, and they already proved capable of handling the likes of Seattle and Arizona with professional ease in 2015.
Smart NFL Picks to Win NFC ConferenceIf you noticed, I skipped talking about Green Bay in the favorites section. My reasons are that I consider Green Bay not just as a good favorite pick, but as the smartest pick to win the NFC Conference, as explained below. Firstly, Green Bay has the easiest SOS in the entire NFL, including home games against Seattle, Dallas, Indianapolis and NY Giants—which are considered as its toughest games (on paper) in 2016. With a flawless 8-0 record at the Lambeau in 2014 and a 5-3 home record in 2015 (despite being hobbled with injuries); it goes without saying that the schedule sits will for Green Bay to record the best regular-season mark in the NFC, provided its players stay healthy. Add that to the indisputable skills of Aaron Rodgers as a top-3 QB in the NFC and Green Bay’s 17-5 All-time record in the playoffs, you get a team that warrants your full attention as the smartest pick in the 2016 NFC Conference Futures. Outside Green Bay, the other teams I’d consider in the category of smart 2016 NFC Championship picks include Dallas, New York Giants, Minnesota and Arizona. With a healthy Tony Romo and one of the best offensive lines in the conference, the Cowboys have a chance to make lots of noise. Meanwhile, Eli Manning is a former Super Bowl winner and the Giants are stacked up with depth and talent all over the roster; something that could lead to a big season if things come together for New York, especially in the defense. In the same vein, Minnesota’s defense is for real, the offense has made some key additions and the motivation is abundantly present. And last but not least, Arizona made it to the NFC Championship game last year after a stellar season, and with the majority of the team’s pieces intact, there shouldn’t be a reason for the team not to repeat as a conference finalist. But then again, Dallas has a lot of discipline (and health) issues to deal with; the Giants can’t be trusted defensively until they prove their worth; Minnesota’s offense (passing offense to be exact) is iffy, while the Cardinals’ lack of experience in the playoffs (as was showcased in their humiliating defeat to Carolina) is a big concern. With all that, these teams can only be considered as smart picks only when they’ve proven the potential to answer their respective ‘big’ questions.
Longshot NFL Picks to Win NFC ConferenceMaybe we are expecting too much from Jameis Winston and the Buccaneers, or maybe the stage is set for them to pull the sort of surprise season we saw from their fellow divisional rivals, the Panthers, last season. Tampa Bay’s defense is improved and Winston is loaded with better weapons than he had last season, offering the Bucs a chance to end their postseason drought and make a mark in the playoffs. Jay Cutler and the Bears are the other notable longshot, considering the talent in the team and the presence of an excellent coach in John Fox. Even so, with scarce experience in Tampa Bay and a funky playoff record for Cutler (1 postseason appearance in 10 seasons); these two teams–plus their counterparts in Washington, Atlanta and Detroit–can only be considered as longshots and nothing more.
Predictions and My Final PicksWith all that has been said above, here are my suggested NFC Conference Championship picks:
- Best Favorite Pick: Carolina
- Best Smart Pick: Green Bay
- Best Longshot Pick: Chicago