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NFC previews

(Listed by record for last season)

NFC EAST

PHILADELPHIA (13-3, 2-1 playoffs)

OPTIMISTIC: Eagles remain class of NFC East and can win fifth straight division title. Return most starters and have improved offense with additions of rookie RB Ryan Moats and rookie WR Reggie Brown, and return of G Shawn Andrews. Jim Johnson-coached defense is always a strength. Determined and hungry to win championship.

PESSIMISTIC: Must avoid post-Super Bowl letdown. Five of last six teams that lost Super Bowl didn't make playoffs in following season. Have to overcome distraction and disruption caused by disgruntled WR Terrell Owens. Loss of WR Todd Pinkston is magnified if Owens doesn't last the season. DT Corey Simon was allowed to become free agent.

ON THE RISE: RB Brian Westbrook, WR Greg Lewis, TE L.J. Smith, CB Sheldon Brown, SS Michael Lewis.

ON THE DECLINE: LT Tra Thomas, RT Jon Runyan.

EXPECT: NFC East championship with strong shot at reaching Super Bowl if Owens stays and plays whole season.

NEW YORK GIANTS (6-10)

OPTIMISTIC: Improved offensive line could give QB Eli Manning better protection and help RB Tiki Barber approach stellar 2004 numbers. Return of healthy DE Michael Strahan and acquisition of LB Antonio Pierce from Washington can improve run defense. TE Jeremy Shockey's return to form he displayed as a rookie and Manning showing more poise and maturity in his second season.

PESSIMISTIC: A team that has gotten used to losing last two seasons and must figure out how to win close games. Defensive backs have to prove they can hold onto ball. Players on both sides of ball have had a year to adjust to schemes of coach Tom Coughlin and defensive coordinator Tim Lewis — now it's time to put up or shut up.

ON THE RISE: Rookie RB Brandon Jacobs, DB Curtis DeLoatch, LB Pierce, WR Plaxico Burress.

ON THE DECLINE: LB Barrett Green, QB Jesse Palmer, DT Fred Robbins.

EXPECT: If numbers fall right, a backdoor entrance into playoffs. If they don't, an improvement over last year's record and a foundation to build upon.

DALLAS (6-10)

OPTIMISTIC: Defense has been drastically upgraded, with proven veterans replacing raw rookies at CB and big, speedy, high draft picks joining free agent NT Jason Ferguson on revamped front seven that will use more of coach Bill Parcells' beloved 3-4 scheme. Offense should be better with second-year RB Julius Jones healthy, WR Terry Glenn at full speed, new RG Marco Rivera shoring up line and QB Drew Bledsoe replacing mistake-prone Vinny Testaverde.

PESSIMISTIC: RT and FS remained open halfway through preseason. About a dozen players in their 30s hold key roles and owner Jerry Jones admits he's worried about them breaking down. Watch out especially at WR: deep-threat Glenn rarely plays 16 games and Keyshawn Johnson is coming off two surgeries and has been limping lately. There could be trouble if Bledsoe goes down; Tony Romo, who has never taken a snap, appears to have beaten out Drew Henson as backup. Ferguson has been hurt in preseason.

ON THE RISE: RB Jones, TE Jason Witten, CB Terence Newman, SS Roy Williams, rookie DE/LB DeMarcus Ware, rookie DL Chris Canty, a first-round talent taken in fourth because of knee and eye injuries feared to keep him on IR all season, but won't.

ON THE DECLINE: DT La'Roi Glover because he's undersized for 3-4, landing him on bench at times.

EXPECT: Wild-card contenders if 30-somethings stay healthy.

WASHINGTON (6-10)

OPTIMISTIC: Joe Gibbs isn't too stubborn to learn from his mistakes. His game plans were too tepid when he emerged from retirement a year ago, so he's added wrinkles designed to produce more downfield plays. New WRs Santana Moss and David Patten are small but fast. New C Casey Rabach and RT Jon Jansen, back from injury, should strengthen offensive line.

PESSIMISTIC: Offensive talent doesn't scare many defenses. Patrick Ramsey, given a last-gasp chance at the starter's job, needs to polish his game to become a top-level QB. Moss and Patten aren't as formidable as Laveranues Coles and Rod Gardner, who both asked to be traded because they didn't like offense. Defense lost two leaders, LB Antonio Pierce and CB Fred Smoot, who left via free agency in peculiar show of frugality from big-spending owner Dan Snyder.

ON THE RISE: H-back Chris Cooley, S Sean Taylor (unless he ends up in jail as a result of offseason arrest), LB Lemar Marshall.

ON THE DECLINE: LB LaVar Arrington, a poor fit for defense who can't seem to get healthy.

EXPECT: Another season trying to get back to .500.

NFC NORTH

GREEN BAY (10-6, 0-1 playoffs)

OPTIMISTIC: Brett Favre worked tirelessly in offseason to get more mobile and add arm strength. He has deepest pool of WRs ever in Javon Walker, Donald Driver, Robert Ferguson and Antonio Chatman, plus RBs Ahman Green, Najeh Davenport and Tony Fisher. Green will be 29-year-old free agent next year and is primed for money season.

PESSIMISTIC: One of NFL's elite OLs has been broken up. Gs Marco Rivera (Dallas) and Mike Wahle (Carolina) were two reasons Favre stayed upright last few years. Financial mistakes by coach Mike Sherman in former capacity as GM (Joe Johnson, Jamal Reynolds, Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila, Cletidus Hunt) means problems for new coordinator Jim Bates, who doesn't have S Darren Sharper (Vikings) around.

ON THE RISE: WRs Walker, Driver, Ferguson and Chatman; RB Davenport; rookie S Nick Collins; LB Nick Barnett; P B.J. Sander; K Ryan Longwell gets better and better in unpredictable conditions at Lambeau Field.

ON THE DECLINE: Favre? He'll be 36 in October, but does he have more 4,000-yard, 30-TD seasons left in his aching body? C Mike Flanagan is coming off knee surgery that cut short his 2004 season; NTs Hunt and Grady Jackson.

EXPECT: Favre has led the Packers to playoffs 10 times in salary cap era, tops in NFL. He always gives them a shot, but after three straight division crowns, it will be hard.

MINNESOTA (8-8, 1-1 playoffs)

OPTIMISTIC: QB Daunte Culpepper, coming off career season, has plenty of reliable receivers, backs and tight ends to throw to even with favorite target Randy Moss gone. Five starters were added to defense via free agency or trades, and coordinator Ted Cottrell shouldn't have to worry as much about young players learning his system. Locker room harmony improves with trade of Moss.

PESSIMISTIC: Strong starts have given way to frustrating finishes in last two seasons, when seven losses in final 10 games cost them division title each time. Coach Mike Tice, entering his fourth year, hasn't yet proven he can help team sustain success. Moss can't really be replaced, and rookie WR Troy Williamson is raw. Despite obvious talent upgrade, defense has ranked in league's bottom 10 each season since Tice took over. Still need to settle on a kicker, Aaron Elling or Paul Edinger.

ON THE RISE: DT Kevin Williams, WR Nate Burleson. Williams was All-Pro last year and should benefit from deep DL bolstered by addition of veteran NT Pat Williams. Burleson, coming off 1,000-yard sophomore season, shows potential to be a No. 1 receiver.

ON THE DECLINE: P Darren Bennett, S Corey Chavous. Coming off so-so year, Bennett has struggled during preseason. Chavous, who had eight INTs and went to Pro Bowl in 2003, was one of many inconsistent defensive players last year.

EXPECT: NFC North championship, with chance to make a long playoff run if defense comes together.

DETROIT (6-10)

OPTIMISTIC: In Matt Millen's fifth year in charge and Steve Mariucci's third as coach, Lions are due for winning season after averaging four victories the past four seasons. It has been difficult to evaluate Joey Harrington because QB hasn't had much help, but he does now with WRs Charles Rogers, Roy Williams, Kevin Johnson, Mike Williams, TE Marcus Pollard and RB Kevin Jones. DT Shaun Rogers, LB Boss Bailey and CB Dre' Bly are playmakers on defense.

PESSIMISTIC: With one playoff victory since 1957 title, the franchise has beaten down a collection of players who were winners in college. As linebacker, Millen won four Super Bowl rings and as a TV analyst, he was one of the best. As an executive, he has struggled. Detroit is counting on two players — Charles Rogers and Bailey — who haven't proven they can stay healthy.

ON THE RISE: OT Kelly Butler starts in place of Stockar McDougle (signed with Miami) after sixth-round pick didn't play in one game last year as rookie. DE James Hall is one of best players few talk about, making 11 1/2 sacks last year with a broken hand.

ON THE DECLINE: DT Dan "Big Daddy" Wilkinson, No. 1 pick overall in 1994, can't do much other than occupy linemen. FB Cory Schlesinger's body is breaking down after years of vicious blocking.

EXPECT: A step toward respectability with 8-8 record.

CHICAGO (5-11)

OPTIMISTIC: Defense will be much improved with healthy Brian Urlacher and Adewale Ogunleye, even though backs Jerry Azumah and Bobby Gray have been injured in preseason. DL, also featuring Alex Brown and Tommie Harris, might be strength of team. Lance Briggs is one of league's most unheralded linebackers.

PESSIMISTIC: QB Rex Grossman is out at least three months after breaking ankle, his third injury in as many seasons. Rookie Kyle Orton gets the nod after Chad Hutchinson flopped. Hutchinson is not a proven winner at quarterback with 3-11 record for Cowboys and Bears (five games last year) and has trouble avoiding sacks.

ON THE RISE: DE Brown, DT Harris, LB Lance Briggs; WR Muhsin Muhammad (at age 32 he's coming off 93-catch season at Carolina), WR Mark Bradley, who's had strong preseason.

ON THE DECLINE: K Doug Brien, like predecessor Paul Edinger, whose kickoffs are way too short. OL Qasim Mitchell.

EXPECT: Defense will keep them in most games, but quarterbacking will make playoffs out of reach.

NFC SOUTH

ATLANTA (11-5, 1-1 in playoffs)

OPTIMISTIC: Second-year coach Jim Mora sets fiery tone and insists he won't let team become complacent after 2004 success. QB Michael Vick is special player and was rewarded with NFL's richest contract. League's top running game powers offense, led by Vick and RBs Warrick Dunn and T.J. Duckett. TE Alge Crumpler is Vick's favorite receiver. Defensive coordinator Ed Donatell continues to upgrade speed. MLB Ed Hartwell could be one of best free-agent signees, escaping Ray Lewis' shadow in Baltimore.

PESSIMISTIC: WR Peerless Price was major disappointment and was released in favor for second-year player Michael Jenkins. Lack of big-time receiver puts major pressure on running game. DL depth could be problem. S also thin. Must find punter who can also handle kickoffs. New K Todd Peterson is accurate on field goals, but doesn't have a strong leg.

ON THE RISE: TE Crumpler, CB Hall, LB Hartwell, DT Rod Coleman, WR Jenkins.

ON THE DECLINE: WR Price.

EXPECT: Another playoff appearance and end of stigma of never having back-to-back winning seasons — as long as Vick stays healthy.

NEW ORLEANS (8-8)

OPTIMISTIC: Looking to continue momentum from four-game winning streak to close last season, which may have saved coach Jim Haslett's job. While defense was last in yards allowed, lineup that played final four games yielded 100 yards below average. Most of that lineup returns, plus free agent safety Dwight Smith. Offense returns marquee players Aaron Brooks, Deuce McAllister and Joe Horn and has deeper line.

PESSIMISTIC: Switching to run-oriented, ball-control offense is risky for team plagued by slow starts that forced it to play from behind much of last season. If line does not play as well as expected or McAllister has injury problems, it could mean rethinking offensive approach in midseason. Must hope young LBs continue to improve and stay healthy.

ON THE RISE: WR Donte' Stallworth, LB Courtney Watson, CB Mike McKenzie. McKenzie was acquired in trade last season.

ON THE DECLINE: CB Fred Thomas.

EXPECT: Good shot at playoffs for first time since 2000, likely as wild card.

CAROLINA (7-9)

OPTIMISTIC: After losing more than a dozen players to season-ending injuries, the Panthers have everyone back healthy except safety Colin Branch. Additions to offensive line (Mike Wahle) and secondary (Ken Lucas) have given Carolina hope it can return to level it was at two seasons ago when Panthers went to Super Bowl.

PESSIMISTIC: It's not clear how effective running back Stephen Davis will be after microfracture surgery on knee. If he is healthy, he'll be fighting for carries in crowded backfield with DeShaun Foster and rookie Eric Shelton. Carolina is also thin at quarterback after backup Rodney Peete's retirement.

ON THE RISE: WRs Steve Smith and Keary Colbert, DE Julie Peppers. Smith has shown he hasn't missed a step since breaking his leg in last year's opener and Colbert might be suitable replacement for Muhsin Muhammad. Many believe Peppers is on verge of competing for NFL's MVP award.

ON THE DECLINE: DT Brentson Buckner, who has been slowed the past few seasons by nagging injuries.

EXPECT: If healthy, they should get shot at NFC championship.

TAMPA BAY (5-11)

OPTIMISTIC: With addition of rookie Carnell "Cadillac" Williams, coach Jon Gruden hopes to finally have an offense with balance Bucs lacked even when they won Super Bowl three seasons ago. Absence of consistent running attack has placed too heavy a burden on one of NFL's top defenses the past two years.

PESSIMISTIC: Injuries in training camp depleted an already porous offensive line that had difficulty protecting QB Brian Griese and opening holes for one of league's least productive ground games in 2004.

ON THE RISE: RB Williams, second-year WR Michael Clayton, rookie LB Barrett Ruud, SS Jermaine Phillips. Clayton was league's top rookie receiver a year ago and emerged as leader in locker room.

ON THE DECLINE: OT Todd Steussie, cut in salary cap move after being one of reasons offensive line struggled last year, only to be re-signed because of injuries in camp. FB Mike Alstott is six-time Pro Bowl selection whose production has declined.

EXPECT: Bucs have lost 20 of 32 games since winning Super Bowl. A .500 record would be step forward.

NFC WEST

SEATTLE (9-7, 0-1 playoffs)

OPTIMISTIC: The firing of ex-president Bob Whitsitt after last season was owner Paul Allen's vote of confidence for coach Mike Holmgren. Offense remained intact, with QB Matt Hasselbeck and T Walter Jones getting long-term deals. RB Shaun Alexander is coming off franchise-record 1,696 yards rushing and 20 TDs. Defense, prone to breakdowns last year, starts fresh with DE Bryce Fisher, DT Chuck Darby, LB Jamie Sharper and CB Andre Dyson as offseason pickups.

PESSIMISTIC: Still winless in playoffs since 1984. Despite last year's division title, lost three times to Rams. Seahawks are 0-3 in postseason under Holmgren. Time for WRs Darrell Jackson and Bobby Engram (replacing the troubled Koren Robinson) to catch the ball. Young defenders must prove they have matured.

ON THE RISE: DT Marcus Tubbs, Seattle's first-round pick in 2004, is ready to shine. SS Michael Boulware had fine rookie season: three of his five interceptions saved wins. FB Mack Strong, turning 34 in September, could be NFL's most underrated player.

ON THE DECLINE: G Chris Gray, DT Cedric Woodard.

EXPECT: Photo finish with Arizona and St. Louis in the NFC West. Seahawks believe they can win division, then hope for their first playoff victory in two decades.

ST. LOUIS (8-8, 1-1 playoffs)

OPTIMISTIC: Addressed deficiency at LB by signing free agents Chris Claiborne and Dexter Coakley. One-two punch at running back with Steven Jackson and Marshall Faulk, beginning new phase of career as backup. OL bolstered by free agent Rex Tucker and first-round pick Alex Barron should provide better protection for Marc Bulger. Barron likely won't make immediate impact due to two-week holdout.

PESSIMISTIC: Defense was weak link most of last season, capped by horrid performance in a 47-17 second-round playoff loss to Falcons, and must show that coordinator Larry Marmie's system can work. FS Adam Archuleta adjusting to switch from SS after herniated disc in back hampered him all last year. OL issues: position juggling with Tucker moved to RT, late signing of T Matt Willig, rookie Claude Terrell starting at LG.

ON THE RISE: Jackson is starter ahead of Faulk; WR Kevin Curtis is coming on. DT Jimmy Kennedy, first-round pick in 2003, has been inside force in camp. DE Anthony Hargrove could add balance to pass rush opposite Leonard Little. LB Pisa Tinoisamoa could thrive alongside Claiborne and Coakley.

ON THE DECLINE: Faulk, slowed by succession of knee injuries, enters first year as a backup. G Adam Timmerman, entering 12th season, finished last year with injuries to both shoulders and foot that limited him throughout camp.

EXPECT: Rams should be in three-way fight with Cardinals, Seahawks in NFC West.

ARIZONA (6-10)

OPTIMISTIC: Another strong draft and some key free agent acquisitions have Cardinals a trendy pick to win weak NFC West. Coach Dennis Green, in second season, brought in QB Kurt Warner to run revamped offense. Top draft picks — CB Antrel Rolle and RB J.J. Arrington — are expected to start. Warner has two of league's best young receivers in Anquan Boldin and Larry Fitzgerald. In a sign owner Bill Bidwill really is changing financial ways, Boldin got new contract this year.

PESSIMISTIC: First of all, this is Arizona, a team that has had one winning season since moving from St. Louis in 1988. Offensive line remains suspect, especially on right side, where OT Oliver Ross came in as free agent. Warner, who struggled last season behind shaky line for Giants, is using three-step drop to help combat that problem. Warner must return to old form for offense to work. Cardinals need to win on road.

ON THE RISE: DT Darnell Dockett, tough and aggressive, is growing in ability alongside Pro Bowl DE Bertrand Berry. LB Karlos Dansby, fast and hard hitter, is starter in second season. WR Bryant Johnson, often overlooked in favor of Boldin and Fitzgerald, is fastest of the trio.

ON THE DECLINE: QB Kurt Warner.

EXPECT: There is no doubt young, aggressive Cardinals are improving, but questions on offense temper their prospects. Still, in NFC West, they might be good enough to make run.

SAN FRANCISCO (2-14)

OPTIMISTIC: Can go .500 with new sense of direction for floundering franchise. Defense should be revitalized under coach Mike Nolan's new 3-4 scheme that takes advantage of talented linebackers, including returning Pro Bowler Julian Peterson. Offense can't be much worse than last season. Nolan hopes for progress from No. 1 draft pick Alex Smith, who will earn his $24 million in guaranteed money as back-up to Tim Rattay for now.

PESSIMISTIC: Niners didn't get much better on paper, and first-team offense and defense looked terrible in both early preseason games. So did Smith, who might not be ready for speed of NFL game. Star-crossed team also shaken by death of young OL Thomas Herrion.

ON THE RISE: RB Barlow, RG Justin Smiley, WRs Arnaz Battle and Brandon Lloyd, NT Isaac Sopoaga, CB Shawntae Spencer.

ON THE DECLINE: C Newberry, who hasn't caught a break in two years — just like his team.

EXPECT: Slight improvement on last season's 2-14. Even Nolan acknowledges this rebuilding project will take years.