Beyond the fights, sloppy play and shortage of ambiguity on Sunday, there was one thing that adamantly stood alone: Beware of the NFC.
There are six teams with at least six wins in the NFC after Week 9, compared to the AFC’s three six-win teams (New England, Pittsburgh, Kansas City), which happen to be the conference’s only true contenders.
Consider these early afternoon scores from three NFC contenders:
With the addition of Jay Ajayi to contribute with other offseason toys for Carson Wentz (Alshon Jeffrey, Torrey Smith, LeGarrette Blount), the Eagles now have a running back committee that includes two talented power backs and two effective quicker runners in Wendell Smallwood and undrafted rookie Chris Clement, who scored three touchdowns against the vaunted (used to be) Broncos defense. 51-23 Eagles thanks to four touchdown passes from Wentz. The Eagles could have beaten the Broncos by 50 points if they wanted to.
In New York, Jared Goff (four touchdown passes) and Todd Gurley (two rushing touchdowns) scored 51 points of their own in a drubbing of the Giants. Add in the two former Bills receivers, Sammy Watkins (two touchdown catches) and Robert Woods (one touchdown catch), and you have a formidable offense under Goff, like the one Philadelphia has done for Wentz.
The two top draft picks from last year may be forever matched up against one another. Especially with how little time it’s taken them to find success.
In New Orleans, the Saints (6-2) won their sixth straight game and efficiently ended the Buccaneers (2-6) season. The Seahawks (5-3) suffered a gut-punching home loss to Washington (4-4), which leaves the Seahawks one game behind the Rams in the NFC West.
These two NFC teams are in a different category than the two previously mentioned NFC teams. Both are led by experienced passers. Both Drew Brees and Russell Wilson have each won a Super Bowl. The Saints have improved on defense, something they’ve struggled with for almost the entirety of Brees’ career.
Seattle’s achilles heel remains their offensive line, even with the addition of Duane Brown last week. Of course, it wasn’t that way in Seattle’s back-to-back Super Bowl appearances in 2013 and 2014, which now feels like eons ago.
Russell Okung, Max Unger and others are gone, leaving Wilson scrambling for his life. But Wilson makes due with an offense that lacks star power. He does have a defense, the league’s best crew over the last five seasons to be exact.
The Seahawks and Saints are unlike the upstart Eagles and Rams. They have more issues, but also more experience.
Then there are the wild cards. Both the Panthers (6-3) and Cowboys (5-3) would literally be the NFC wild cards had the season ended today. A fitting description.
Both teams are talented. Dallas has had off-the-field drama with the on-and-off suspension for Ezekiel Elliot, who has had a great season. The defense has also improved from it’s early season struggles, as evident in their 28-17 win over the Chiefs.
Besides the miraculous Tyreek Hill score, the Cowboys allowed just 10 points against one of the most explosive offenses in the league. Karen Hunt was held to just 61 total yards, which is an impressive feat for a defense that let up 42 points to Trevor Siemian in Week 2.
Like the Cowboys defense, the Panthers offense is a talented bunch that needs consistency from Cam Newton, who’s play has been as shaky as his press conferences.
Where Dallas has Elliot and Dak Prescott to win games for them, Carolina has Luke Kuechly to lead the way on defense. But it’s Newton, without Greg Olsen and now Kelvin Benjamin (who was shipped to Buffalo last week) that has yet to fully mesh with rookies Christian McCaffrey and Curtis Samuel. The Panthers offense has had their moments in big road wins over the Patriots and Lions, but have been near-dreadful besides that. It’s a miracle that they’re in the position they’re in.
But the Panthers have a favorable schedule down the stretch, and may see Olsen return from injury. The Cowboys begin in Atlanta next week, they’ll play Seattle later on and are still yet to face Philadelphia who they’ll of course see twice.
If Elliot can stay on the field, the Cowboys are a team no one will want to play come January. Ditto to the Panthers if Newton and the offense gets hot.
But the NFC is crowded.
Russell Wilson–who threw a go-ahead touchdown to Doug Baldwin with under two minutes remaining versus Washington–now sees his Seahawks out of the playoff race if the season ended today.
With the Eagles likely in and the Vikings likely winning the NFC North be default with Aaron Rodgers out, it seems that five teams will be fighting deep into the season for the four remaining spots. The Cowboys, Saints, Panthers, Rams and Seahawks will fight that battle.
That’s without even mentioning Washington (4-4), who’s shown flashes of brilliance, or the defending champion Falcons (4-4), who still have time for a run. Depending on how Brett Hundley adapts to being the starter, the Packers (4-3) may not be done either as a wild card hopeful.
So in decoding the NFC, there is now the favorite (Eagles), the upstart (Rams), the quarterback-heals-all teams (Saints, Seahawks) and the potential coming-in-hot clubs (Panthers, Cowboys) as just a handful of what has become quite a scene in pro football’s premier conference.
NFL MVP Race
1. Carson Wentz, Philadelphia Eagles. With a league-leading 23 touchdown passes, the second-year quarterback made both Denver and Washington’s defense look silly in recent weeks. He stands alone at the top for now.
2. Tom Brady, New England Patriots. The 40-year-old quarterback remains at or near the top of every noteworthy passing statistic. But perhaps the greatest sign of his greatness was the Patriots show of faith in him by trading Jimmy Garoppolo out west to San Francisco.
3. Russell Wilson, Seattle Seahawks. Wilson continues to run for his life thanks to a power offensive line and no running game. If it weren’t for an unusual late faltering by the Seahawks defense, Wilson would have had yet another fourth quarter comeback versus Washington.
4. Alex Smith, Kansas City Chiefs. Even with Kareem Hunt, Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce, it’s Smith that makes this offense go. They’re 1-3 in their past four games, but a good second half run to the AFC’s No. 1 seed could sway voters toward Smith.
5. Ezekiel Elliott, Dallas Cowboys. After yet another big-game performance, Elliot passes Hunt, who has been quiet in losses to the Steelers and Cowboys in the national spotlight.
Honorable Mention: Kareem Hunt, Todd Gurley, Drew Brees, Antonio Brown, Calais Campbell