The NFC has remained relatively the same at the top for each of the past few seasons, with the Carolina Panthers being surprise newcomers in 2015. The reason for the consistency atop the conference is simple: quarterback play. The NFC is loaded with Pro Bowl quarterbacks, led by Russell Wilson, Aaron Rodgers and Cam Newton.
Though the start of the regular season is still nearly four months away, it's never too early to look at the teams that are most likely to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl, and possibly win it. Here are the seven teams to watch this season.
The Seahawks started 2015 slow out of the gate, going 4-4 in their first eight games. Doubters began to question whether the team was in decline, but Russell Wilson and his teammates proved them wrong. Seattle finished the regular season at 10-6 and reached the divisional round before losing to the eventual NFC champion Carolina Panthers. In doing so, the Seahawks proved they'll be just fine without retired running back Marshawn Lynch. He'll be replaced by Thomas Rawls and a group of rookies, with Rawls being the top guy.
Wilson, of course, is the most important player on the team and the reason the Seahawks are once again favorites to reach the Super Bowl, and possibly win it. The defense is still elite thanks to Earl Thomas, Kam Chancellor, Richard Sherman and Bobby Wagner, among others. Sure, Seattle could use another stud cornerback, but the pass rush and stellar safety play will mask that. It's hard to pick against the Seahawks' punishing defense and ground-and-pound rushing attack combined with Wilson's magic. Their odds to win Super Bowl LI currently sit at 9-to-1 according to Vegas Insider, second in the NFL.
Aaron Rodgers was not himself last season. Despite being one of the best quarterbacks in the league, he went through a funk when his receivers were injured and posted the worst completion rate (60.7 percent) of his career since becoming a starter. Part of that is because of the lack of talent Green Bay had at wide receiver and the lackluster running game led by an overweight Eddie Lacy. This season will be different with Jordy Nelson returning from injury and Lacy shedding serious pounds in the offseason.
Furthermore, the defense is better than it gets credit for. A young core of defensive backs featuring Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Damarious Randall and Quinten Rollins is exciting to watch and, more important, can cover serious ground. The pass rush is solid, too, ranking seventh in the NFL in sacks last season. Other than the up-and-coming Vikings he division shouldn't pose much of a threat to Green Bay. Avoiding injuries is key for this team, particularly on offense. The world saw what the Packers looked like without Nelson, and it wasn't pretty. Green Bay currently has the second-best Super Bowl odds in the NFC at 11-to-1.
When you have the reigning MVP on your roster, you're automatically considered a Super Bowl contender. Cam Newton is coming off of a stellar season in which he threw 35 touchdown passes, rushed for 10 TDs and had just 10 interceptions. More important, he led an under-talented offense to the Super Bowl despite not having a true No. 1 wide receiver. Fortunately, he'll have one in 2016 with the return of Kelvin Benjamin from a knee injury. The third-year wideout immediately makes the Panthers' offense better with his ability to win jump balls and make big plays downfield. He'll pair nicely with the rejuvenated Ted Ginn Jr. on the outside, giving Newton two weapons in addition to tight end Greg Olsen.
The loss of cornerback Josh Norman obviously hurts the defense, but a strong pass rush and outstanding linebackers will make up for it. Had Norman returned as he was expected to, the Panthers would be higher on this list -- likely No. 1. As it stands right now, Bene' Benwikere, Robert McClain and rookies James Bradberry and Daryl Worley will duke it out for the starting jobs at cornerback. Don't be surprised to see Carolina make it back to the big game, especially given the fact that they're almost guaranteed to make the playoffs in the weak NFC South. Their odds right now are 13-to-1 to win it all.
Despite winning the NFC West last season and finishing 13-3, the Cardinals have flown somewhat under the radar thanks to the Seahawks and the disastrous situation in San Francisco. That's not to say they aren't a great team, though. Led by aging quarterback Carson Palmer, the Cardinals have a high-powered offense that features emerging running back David Johnson. Larry Fitzgerald, the ageless one, is back for yet another season at wide receiver, along with John Brown and Michael Floyd.
On defense, the Cardinals got substantially better this offseason. Not only is Tyrann Mathieu returning after tearing his ACL late in 2015, but they added pass rusher Chandler Jones in a trade with the Patriots. And so long as rookie defensive lineman Robert Nkemdiche can get his mind straight on and off the field, Arizona will boast one of the best D-lines in all of football. The Cardinals will be the second NFC West team in the playoffs this season, and if Palmer can stay healthy, they'll make a deep run. They're a bit underrated at 18-to-1.
You might ask, "How is a 4-12 team a Super Bowl contender?" Well, because this is a team that's "added" a Pro Bowl quarterback and wide receiver and a No. 1 cornerback. Those players are Tony Romo, Dez Bryant and Orlando Scandrick, who combined to miss 35 games last season. Had all three been healthy, the Cowboys likely would have won the NFC East, and though it's difficult to say they would have been in the Super Bowl hunt, they would have been a substantially better team. Now, they also have a stud running back who can handle 20-plus carries per game in rookie Ezekiel Elliott. There's little doubt he'll eclipse 1,000 rushing yards behind Dallas' road-grading offensive line -- it's just a matter of how high he'll go.
Yes, there are still questions at wide receiver, defensive end and cornerback, but the defense is going to be better than expected. Once defensive ends DeMarcus Lawrence and Randy Gregory return from their four-game suspensions -- the former of which is being appealed -- Dallas will have ample depth along the defensive line, which defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli loves. It wouldn't be surprising in the least to see Dallas go from 4-12 to 12-4 if Romo, Bryant and the offensive line stay healthy for (most of) the team's 16 games. The Cowboys have the same championship odds as the Cardinals at 18-to-1.
The first (and only) team on this list without an "elite" quarterback is Minnesota. Teddy Bridgewater has shown the ability to be a serviceable signal caller, but he lacks top-notch arm strength and the "it" factor. Thankfully for him, he has a guy named Adrian Peterson to hand the ball to 25 times a game. Peterson alone makes the Vikings contenders in the NFC North, but it'll take more than just him to win Minnesota a Super Bowl. The defense has to play lights out, and Bridgewater must prove he can win big games and make all of the NFL throws. The front office gave him a big possession receiver in first-round pick Laquon Treadwell, who is going to be a favorite target in the red zone.
The defense is loaded with talent, led by safety Harrison Smith and linebacker Anthony Barr. Xavier Rhodes has established himself as a solid cornerback, and he'll be joined by rookie Mackensie Alexander, who was viewed as a second-round steal. If cornerback Trae Waynes, the 15th overall pick in 2015, can play to the level he played at in college, the Vikings' secondary will be tough to throw against.
Since winning the Super Bowl in the 2011 season, the Giants have yet to return to the playoffs. They've had one winning season in the last four years and have finished 6-10 in each of the past two seasons. There is reason to believe the Giants are on the rise, though. With Ben McAdoo at the helm, the Giants have a new head coach to follow, which should be a beneficial change for the entire team. On the field, no one signed more impact players than New York. Cornerback Janoris Jenkins, defensive tackle Damon Harrison and defensive end Olivier Vernon are all going to start right away, as will at least two rookies. Eli Apple gives the Giants much-needed depth at cornerback, while Sterling Shepard is yet another dynamic receiver to go along with Odell Beckham Jr.
Eli Manning was better than he was given credit for last season due to the team's poor record, tossing a career-high 35 touchdowns and just 14 interceptions. If the Giants hope to return to the promised land, it'll come on the shoulders of Manning, who has done it twice before. He'll need to mask the not-so-stellar offensive line and rushing attack with stellar play and clutch passes down the stretch. At 32-to-1 odds, Vegas isn't giving New York its due, but the Giants are a threat to reach the Super Bowl because of Manning.