TAMPA — There are few soft touches in the NFC, which towers over its AFC counterpart when it comes to stacking the league’s best teams. In the AFC, the Broncos, Patriots and Texans boast star quality, while the defending Super Bowl champion Ravens figure to take a step back this fall. You can’t easily replace the leadership that future Hall of Famers Ray Lewis and Ed Reed provide, but Baltimore won’t be down for long because general manager Ozzie Newsome has few peers in evaluating young talent. But the real power resides in the NFC, and that’s a major factor in assessing the playoff chances of the Bucs after a five-year absence. Former NFL executive Bill Polian, now an ESPN analyst, was talking up the Lions on a national conference call when he noted the quality depth in the NFC North, led by the Packers.
“I think (the Lions are) clearly on the rise, and it looks like if they can stay healthy, they’ll have a playoff shot in a very, very difficult division,” Polian said. “Everybody talks about the NFC West being a tough division, and it is. It has two exceptionally good teams (49ers, Seahawks) and two teams that are building (Rams, Cardinals). But I think the North is as tough.” While Green Bay and Minnesota earned playoff berths last year out of the NFC North, third-place Chicago finished 10-6 and failed to qualify for the postseason. What about the NFC South, where teams traditionally don’t stay on top or at the bottom for very long? “(The Bucs) are in a very tough division,” Polian said. “There’s no question New Orleans has improved simply because (coach) Sean Payton is back and because of how much he means to that franchise. Atlanta is what they are — they’re a bona fide Super Bowl contender. And Carolina has the capacity to be a pretty good team.” The NFC East is also very competitive, with Washington, Dallas and the New York Giants combining for a 27-21 mark in 2012. The wildly erratic Eagles, with new coach Chip Kelly, should be exciting, at the least. The Saints, Panthers and Bucs are all chasing the Falcons, who added running back Steven Jackson to the mix in a dynamic offense surrounding quarterback Matt Ryan. “You have Atlanta, and then you have three teams, all of which have yet to prove that they have the capacity to be complete teams,” Polian said. “New Orleans has to improve dramatically on defense. Carolina and Tampa Bay have to play consistently.” For Polian, Tampa Bay’s postseason aspirations are linked to quarterback Josh Freeman and a young defense still learning how to compete in crunch time. “I think Carolina and Tampa Bay hinge directly on how well their quarterbacks play,” Polian said. “The avoidance of turnovers, good decision making, the ability to bring your team from behind and then the ability to finish games on defense. “We’ll see as the season progresses whether both Carolina and Tampa Bay will do that, and I think that therein lies the story of their season. If the quarterbacks perform and the defense performs at critically efficient times, then they’re going to have a real chance to be playoff teams. If they don’t, then they won’t. It’s really that simple.” firstname.lastname@example.org (813) 259-7833 Twitter; @IKaufmanTBO