NFL Preview: Defending champions Eagles have a difficult path to repeat

A look at the NFC's four divisions

Former NC State quarterback Russell Wilson will look to return the Seahawks to prominance in the NFC, while the Vikings are considered among the conference favorites. (Bruce Kluckhohn / AP Photo)

The NFL season kicks off Thursday, and here’s everything you need to prepare for the NFL season: an AFC preview; checking in around the league at some of the players from North Carolina schools; and what you can expect from the Panthers in Week 1 and beyond.

In the NFC, the Eagles are hoping the return of injured players — including quarterback Carson Wentz — will bolster their chances of again coming out on top in the NFC and repeating as Super Bowl champions.

NFC East: Eagles start Super Bowl defense

Before they try to become the ninth team to repeat as Super Bowl champions, the Philadelphia Eagles will try to accomplish another tough task.

Winning consecutive NFC East titles is so difficult it hasn’t happened since the Eagles did it four straight seasons from 2001-04. It’s also been 13 years since the New England Patriots were the most recent team to win back-to-back championships.

On paper, the Eagles are deeper and stronger than the squad that beat Bill Belichick, Tom Brady and the Patriots 41-33 in February. Franchise quarterback Carson Wentz, nine-time Pro Bowl left tackle Jason Peters, playmaking linebacker Jordan Hicks and versatile running back Darren Sproles are returning from injuries that forced them to miss the playoffs.

The Philadelphia Eagles added defensive end Michael Bennett in an effort to become the first team since the Patriots in 2004-05 to win back-to-back Super Bowls. (Charles Krupa / AP Photo)

They also have several new additions, including veteran defensive linemen Michael Bennett and Haloti Ngata, and rookie tight end Dallas Goedert.

But the favorites don’t always come out on top and the road won’t be easy for the Eagles in a competitive division.

Standing in Philadelphia’s way will be two-time Super Bowl champion Eli Manning and the revamped New York Giants, who added running back Saquon Barkley with the No. 2 overall pick in the draft. The Dallas Cowboys expect to have Ezekiel Elliott for a full season and are looking for Dak Prescott to return to his rookie form after a so-so second season. The Washington Redskins acquired a winning quarterback, Alex Smith, to lead the way.

NFC South: Saints look to repeat in stacked division

Recent history would indicate that the NFC South is among the NFL’s strongest divisions.

Three of its four teams — New Orleans, Atlanta and Carolina — made the playoffs last season. The Falcons are only two seasons removed from an overtime loss in the Super Bowl.

Yet, in today’s NFL, fortunes have been known to vacillate widely from one year to the next.

Saints coach Sean Payton has urged his players to take the approach that they are “starting from square one and it’s an entirely different year.”

But it’s tough to entirely drown out the expectations surrounding a club that won 11 of its last 14 regular-season games and beat the Panthers in the playoffs before nearly advancing to the NFC title game. Only an unlikely 61-yard touchdown pass play by the Vikings as time expired prevented the Saints from going to Philadelphia.

Much of New Orleans’ success stemmed from young players — namely running back Alvin Kamara and cornerback Marshon Lattimore, the 2017 offensive and defensive rookie award winners. Many other key players— Pro Bowl receiver Michael Thomas, right guard Ryan Ramczyk, safeties Vonn Bell and Marcus Williams, defensive tackles Sheldon Rankins and David Onyemata, cornerback Ken Crawley, and linebacker Alex Anzalone — have been in the NFL two or fewer years.

That gave the Saints the luxury of approaching the past offseason with the mission of refining rather than overhauling.

“Overall, we’ve got a young team … and I’m anxious to see how those guys develop and get better — and I think we feel good about that,” general manager Mickey Loomis said.

NFC North: Vikings, Packers rivalry strong as ever

Will the Minnesota Vikings pick up where they left off, following their surge to the NFC championship game last season? Or will the Green Bay Packers rebound forcefully enough to take back the division they’ve mostly dominated for two decades?

The annual report on the NFC North has almost always focused on the Packers, the Vikings or both of these fierce rivals since the NFL’s most recent realignment produced the current eight-division format in 2002.

The Vikings overcame early season knee injuries to quarterback Sam Bradford and running back Dalvin Cook to finish 13-3 and reach the NFC title game, where the league’s best defense was dissected and humbled by eventual Super Bowl champion Philadelphia.

Bradford and Keenum departed with Teddy Bridgewater as free agents, but the Vikings signed the best available replacement on the market in Kirk Cousins.

The Packers, meanwhile, are past the pain of losing two-time league MVP award winner Aaron Rodgers, whose broken collarbone in the sixth game of the season effectively ended the dream scenario of hoisting the Super Bowl trophy on Minnesota’s home turf. He gets a new weapon in five-time Pro Bowl tight end Jimmy Graham. Who’s the favorite here? Well, the answer will start to form quickly, when the Vikings visit the Packers in the second game on Sept. 16.

Nfc west: Rams the favorites

The Los Angeles Rams have gone from one of the NFL’s biggest surprises to one of the top Super Bowl favorites in just one year.

The Rams didn’t rest after an impressive turnaround campaign in coach Sean McVay’s first season, bringing in an impressive offseason haul led by three former All-Pros on defense in defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh and cornerbacks Marcus Peters and Aqib Talib, along with big-play receiver Brandin Cooks.

It’s perhaps the most talent added in one offseason since the San Francisco 49ers brought in Deion Sanders, Ken Norton Jr., Rickey Jackson and Richard Dent 24 years ago and ended up as Super Bowl champs.

The newcomers join a roster that features a promising young quarterback in Jared Goff, an elite running back in former Tarboro High School star Todd Gurley, a stout offensive line led by left tackle Andrew Whitworth — and perhaps Defensive Player of the Year Aaron Donald, who held out for a second straight training camp but could be back for the start of the season.

The Rams figure to be challenged most in the NFC West by a rejuvenated San Francisco team that won the final five games last year after Jimmy Garoppolo took over as quarterback.

Seattle still has former NC State quarterback Russell Wilson but few other key pieces from the 2013 Super Bowl team, and Arizona has three of the division’s top players in receiver Larry Fitzgerald, cornerback Patrick Peterson and running back David Johnson, who is coming back from a wrist injury.