The 2016 NFL season starts Thursday, but we’re ready for football right now. Here’s all you need to know about the NFC heading into the 2016 season.

Key NFC Questions

Sam Bradford Dak Prescott

Can Sam Bradford & Dak Prescott Fill in for Teddy Bridgewater & Tony Romo?
Think the preseason doesn’t matter? Ask the Minnesota Vikings and Dallas Cowboys. Both NFC playoff contenders lost their starting quarterbacks before the first regular season-snap.

Minnesota’s Teddy Bridgewater suffered a severe knee injury on a non-contact play in practice last Tuesday. The season-ending injury forced the Vikings to trade two high future draft picks to the Philadelphia Eagles for Sam Bradford on Saturday. For Minnesota to be a playoff-level team, Bradford must fulfill his promise — something he didn’t do in St. Louis or Philadelphia.

Dallas lost veteran quarterback Tony Romo for 6-10 weeks when he suffered a broken bone in his back three plays into the Cowboys’ third preseason game. Enter rookie Dak Prescott, Dallas’ fourth-round pick, who earned a shot at the starting job with a terrific preseason. Now, he just has to do it against first-string defenses.

Can the Panthers Dominate Again?
Propelled by Cam Newton’s MVP play and an opportunistic defense, the Carolina Panthers (15-1) reeled off one of the best seasons in post-merger NFL history. However, a crushing loss to Denver in the Super Bowl coupled with the free agent departure of all-world cornerback Josh Norman to Washington leaves the Panthers with more questions than one would expect of a team coming off such a dominant season. Carolina opens the season on Thursday against the Broncos in a Super Bowl rematch, so we’ll know right away if the Big Loss is still in their heads.

Will L.A. Fans Keep Loving the Rams?
The Rams are back… in Los Angeles, anyway. The NFL’s most migratory football franchise has returned to Southern California for the first time since 1995 and will be based in the City of Angels for the first time since 1979 (they played in Anaheim 1980-95). Fans returned for the team’s two preseason games, packing the L.A. Coliseum as though it was a USC football game. Head coach Jeff Fisher has plenty of talent to build a winner in L.A., but it might take a few years. Will the fickle fanbase still pay attention in 2017 if the team suffers through a 10-plus loss season? They could always move (again).

Can Colin Kaepernick Make an Impact on the Field?
For a guy with 47 NFL starts, quarterback Colin Kaepernick has had a very memorable career in San Francisco. Prior to this preseason, Kaepernick likely would have best been remembered for taking over for Alex Smith in 2012 and guiding the 49ers to Super Bowl XLVII, and then back to the NFC title game the following year. Now a back-up to Blaine Gabbert in Chip Kelly’s high-powered offense, Kaepernick has become fodder for societal debate because of his decision not to stand during the national anthem before games. Has his stance made him a pariah? We’ll see. In a league that values great quarterback play, it’s hard to imagine that there are 32 (or 64) signal-callers better than Kaepernick — including Gabbert.

Teams Most Likely to Win the NFC

Super Bowl 50 - Carolina Panthers v Denver Broncos
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Carolina Panthers: The defending NFC champions have questions at cornerback minus Josh Norman, and the leaky offensive line was exposed by Denver in the Super Bowl. Still, the Panthers have a talent-laden roster, with receiver Kelvin Benjamin returning from injury to join Devin Funchess, Ted Ginn and Greg Olsen among Cam Newton’s targets. Linebacker Luke Kuechly anchors an aggressive defense that can hold a team down while the offense piles up points.

Green Bay Packers: The Packers were a few plays away from the NFC title game last season, and they should make it there — or further — this season. Quarterback Aaron Rodgers will find receiver Jordy Nelson back from injury, as well as a shaped-up Eddie Lacy in his backfield. Those improvements alone should be enough to move the Pack forward, however rookies Blake Martinez and Kenny Clark have supercharged the defense, too.

NFC Contenders Who Will Fall Short

NFC Championship - Arizona Cardinals v Carolina Panthers
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Arizona Cardinals: The Cardinals seemed to be the one team with as much talent as the Panthers last season, until Carolina steamrolled them in the NFC Championship. The team may shake off the humiliating defeat, but it can’t make 37-year-old quarterback Carson Palmer younger. Arizona should have enough talent to win the tough West, but it’s hard to imagine them making a deeper playoff run than the Panthers or Packers, even with new sack threats Chandler Jones and rookie Robert Nkemdiche.

Minnesota Vikings: Before Teddy Bridgewater’s injury, the Vikings would have been a potential NFC title game pick. Now, it’s hard to imagine them winning the NFC North, much less the whole conference. Running back Adrian Peterson has to drop off at some point, right? Newly acquired quarterback Sam Bradford will have to pick up his new system quickly… something he struggled with in Philly. The Minnesota defense is solid, but it will have to make plays to get the Vikes deep into the playoffs.

Seattle Seahawks: Quarterback Russell Wilson returns as does the great defensive front, but Marshawn Lynch is gone. Without a run threat, Wilson will have to improvise behind one of the league’s worst offensive lines, and that may give his defensive little rest and fewer leads. Pete Carroll must coach his team up to make the playoffs.

NFC Rookies to Watch

Dallas Cowboys v Seattle Seahawks
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Ezekiel Elliott, RB, Dallas Cowboys
The No. 4-overall pick in the NFL Draft gets to run behind one of the league’s best offensive lines in what should be a run-oriented scheme. If ‘Zeke doesn’t win NFL Rookie of the Year, it’s almost a shock.

Carson Wentz, QB, Philadelphia Eagles
When the Eagles traded starting quarterback Sam Bradford for a 2017 first-round pick and a 2018 fourth-round pick, they started the clock on the Carson Wentz era. If the No. 2-overall pick can rebound from a hairline rib fracture he suffered during the team's first preseason game, he’ll be given every chance to win over the franchise’s famously hard-to-please fanbase — at least one start, anyway.

Michael Thomas, WR, New Orleans Saints
Fast young wide receivers and Drew Brees are a great combination. Second-round pick Michael Thomas has impressed in the preseason and should continue to do so against NFC defenses this fall.

Roberto Aguayo, K, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Bad enough that the Buccaneers drafted kicker Roberto Aguayo in the second round, but his shaky preseason has made the move look even worse. Tampa has a legitimate chance to develop into a playoff contender, and they may need a clutch kicking game to get there. Uh oh.

NFC Player on the Hot Seat: Kirk Cousins, QB, Washington Redskins

Wild Card Round - Green Bay Packers v Washington Redskins
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Kirk Cousins improbable 2015 season helped save his career and lead the Redskins to the playoffs. While Washington still has wide receiver DeSean Jackson and tight end Jordan Reed, the running game that helped take pressure off Cousins is diminished with the loss of running back Alfred Morris to free agency. If Cousins can’t duplicate his impressive year, his regression could drag the whole team down, even in the mediocre NFC East.

NFC Coach on the Hot Seat: Sean Payton, New Orleans Saints

Baltimore Ravens v New Orleans Saints
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Two consecutive years of 7-9 records were blamed on Saints’ defensive coordinator Rob Ryan’s scheme, but now that he’s gone, head coach Sean Payton is just about out of excuses. The Super Bowl-winning coach will start to feel the heat right away if New Orleans can’t play their way into contention.

Playoff Picks

Division Champs:
NFC East: Washington
NFC North: Green Bay
NFC South: Carolina
NFC West: Arizona

NFC Wild Cards: Tampa Bay and Minnesota

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