NFL 2017: Wide-open look in NFC, no clear favorite

If the AFC has the look of a slam dunk for the Patriots, the NFC is as wide open as Odell Beckham Jr . can get on a deep pass.

Sure, there are favorites, led by the Falcons, whose late collapse in the Super Bowl should serve as motivation to get things right for a full 60 minutes. Seattle looks like the top dog in the West, and the Giants - if Beckham can stay healthy - appear dangerous back East.

No one wants to visit the tundra in winter, but the NFC North race looks like it will go through Green Bay.

Most intriguing is what might occur in Atlanta, where the Falcons have a sensational new home - complete with reasonable food prices, if you can imagine - and some sour memories to use as impetus in the South.

''I am demanding of them and of the staff and of myself, too,'' coach Dan Quinn says. ''I definitely share the disappointment when that happens or share in how much fun it is when we have a red-zone period ... where it's competing and battling for it. Those are the moments I try to really stay in and not look too far down the line.''

Or too close back.

But handing the Falcons the division title, let alone the conference crown, is something of a stretch.

NFC SOUTH

This might be the most competitive sector in the NFC. All four teams have high expectations, and major weak areas.

For Atlanta, aside from its psyche, the question is how much the defense has improved around sackmaster Vic Beasley Jr. Adding tackle Dontari Poe and rookie end Takkarist McKinley should help the pass rush, but the secondary, in particular, needs upgrading.

That said, 2016 MVP Matt Ryan and a strong corps of receivers and running backs are capable of 40 points any day.

Carolina's post-Super Bowl malaise was apparent from the outset last year, and Ron Rivera is too good a coach to let anything approaching half-heartedness rear its head again. Look for Cam Newton, if his arm is OK, to have a strong turnaround campaign, and the running game to be spiced by rookie Christian McCaffrey. The defense has Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis as its foundation.

Tampa Bay must find such a foundation on D to go with an offense that will scare every opponent. Watch TE O.J. Howard, an Offensive Rookie of the Year favorite.

New Orleans is in an ugly trend of 7-9 finishes. A fourth straight, especially with Drew Brees still a sensational passer, could doom coach Sean Payton, who needs the defense to show up.

NFC WEST

The only remote challenge to the Seahawks - except, perhaps, for turmoil within - is Arizona. The Cardinals, though, come off an underachieving season in which they couldn't close the deal too often.

If Carson Palmer rebounds, David Johnson continues as the most versatile RB around, and Larry Fitzgerald remains, well, Larry Fitz, Arizona could push Seattle. The Cardinals were badly damaged by injuries in 2016 and their depth still is questionable.

Seattle also had injury issues, yet got into the playoffs in something of a down year. Its running game has been juiced up with the return of Thomas Rawls and the signing of Eddie Lacy (if he is in shape), and that defense can be scary, especially down the stretch.

Forget any thoughts of the Rams or 49ers contending for anything but high draft choices.

NFC EAST

During a year when Jerry Jones went into the Hall of Fame, how about them Cowboys winning it all?

Whoa! Dallas might not be the top team in this division.

While the Cowboys could take a step back, perhaps several if sizzling RB Ezekiel Elliott has to sit out all six games of his suspension, New York is primed to leap forward. That changes if Beckham keeps taking hits like he did against Cleveland last Monday, but with Brandon Marshall and impressive rookie TE Evan Engram, Eli Manning has more targets. The big if is New York's ground game, but no one - not even Dallas - figures to run well against Steve Spagnuolo's defense.

Of course, if top offensive rookie Dak Prescott is as effective in his sophomore season, working behind an outstanding O-line, Dallas is dangerous. The biggest issue is an undependable defense, though Sean Lee is an All-Pro linebacker.

Philadelphia's 2018 could be a special year. For now, development and a .500 or better record should be the goal.

Washington is paying QB Kirk Cousins as if he was a combination of Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers. The Redskins needs that kind of production from him to stay out of the cellar.

NFC NORTH

Detroit and Minnesota have designs on challenging the Packers. We don't see it.

Not if Rodgers is healthy and develops a symbiotic relationship with TE Martellus Bennett, among the best offseason signings by any team. Not if the secondary that was so damaged by injuries can stay healthier. Certainly not if the Packers find their form early after a 4-6 record last season forced them to get hot just to get into the postseason.

If Minnesota finds a balanced offense to go with a very strong defensive line, it could get it into the playoffs. The Vikings should be powerful on the ground with Latavius Murray and rookie Dalvin Cook , but the air game needs more consistency and downfield threats. Minnesota could lead the league in sacks.

The Lions were comeback kings in 2016 and will need to avoid falling in so many holes this time. Improvements up front could bolster the running game, and Matthew Stafford has proven he is worth franchise-QB money. It's hard to get excited about the D in Motor City, though.

The Bears won't resemble recent versions of the Cubs or Blackhawks.

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For more NFL coverage: http://www.pro32.ap.org and http://www.twitter.com/AP-NFL

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