Coming into the season, we thought it could have 10 playoff-caliber teams, maybe 11 if the San Francisco 49ers could sneak into the fray. The Niners have done more than that, jumping out to a 4-0 record Monday night’s blowout of the Cleveland Browns, while the Detroit Lions have replaced the struggling Atlanta Falcons on the list.
Which NFC teams are the best through five weeks? We ranked the conference’s 11 winning teams based on which are strongest at this point in the year.
1. New Orleans Saints: After quarterback Drew Brees injured his right thumb in the second game of the season, a reasonable hope was that the Saints could go 3-3 with backup Teddy Bridgewater and still find a way to make the playoffs after Brees returned.
Bridgewater is now 3-0 as a starter and getting better each week. Brees is starting to throw the football and is nearing a return. Without question, the Saints are the best team in the NFC through Week 5. In the two weeks following Brees’s thumb injury, the Saints beat the Seattle Seahawks on the road and won a Sunday night game against the Dallas Cowboys, before Sunday’s win over Tampa Bay.
Alvin Kamara is unstoppable at running back. Michael Thomas remains one of the best wide receivers in the league. The offensive line ranks in the top three. The Saints’ defense may rank in the bottom quarter of the league for yards allowed, but it makes key stops to win games. With games coming up against Jacksonville, Chicago and Arizona, Brees will take over a team that could be 6-2 or better with hopes of earning a No. 1 seed.
2. San Francisco 49ers: I had been willing to give the Niners the benefit of the doubt after they built their 3-0 start on wins over Tampa Bay, Cincinnati and Pittsburgh, but they definitely impressed with Monday’s 31-3 win over the Browns, in which the running game was excellent and the defensive front completely shut down Cleveland’s offense. The 49ers’ defensive line is the most improved in football, led by the additions of Nick Bosa and Dee Ford. Quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo is playing well, too. The real test comes Sunday with a visit to the Rams.
3. Seattle Seahawks: Russell Wilson and Patrick Mahomes are in a two-man battle for MVP. Wilson has never played this well. He is completing 73.1 percent of his passes and has 12 touchdowns and no interceptions. With his running ability, Wilson has helped make the Seahawks one of the best red-zone teams in football.
On defense, their biggest expected weakness has been a strength, with Jadeveon Clowney one of the best edge rushers in the league and Ziggy Ansah also contributing. Defensive tackle Jarran Reed, who had 10½ sacks last year, will soon return from his 10-game suspension.
4. Green Bay Packers: The Packers went to great lengths to improve their pass rush this offseason, and it worked. Free agent pickups Preston Smith and Za’Darius Smith have combined for 9½ sacks, and first-round pick Rashan Gary has flashed despite not playing that much.
Aaron Rodgers might not be completely on the same page as Coach Matt LaFleur regarding what they are doing on offense, but it doesn’t matter. He is Aaron Rodgers, and he showed how great he remains in Sunday’s win over the Dallas Cowboys.
5. Los Angeles Rams: The Rams are on a two-game losing streak, and it’s clear that they’re having issues on offense. Coach Sean McVay is having to adapt to teams using six-man fronts against them, which first took place last December against the Detroit Lions and was adopted by the Patriots in their Super Bowl victory.
Running back Todd Gurley also clearly isn’t the same because of his arthritic knee, forcing Jared Goff to throw more and not be able to take as much advantage of L.A.’s effective play-action game. All of that said, the Rams can put up points on offense and make big plays on defense, so nobody should count them out.
6. Dallas Cowboys: They rode an easy schedule to a 3-0 start, but things have unraveled with consecutive losses to the Saints and Packers. Those teams were able to slow Ezekiel Elliott, which threw off Dak Prescott and the passing game, but the Cowboys remain one of the most talented teams in the conference on both sides of the ball, which will keep them in the mix.
7. Philadelphia Eagles: Injuries have been a problem on both sides of the ball, but thanks to Coach Doug Pederson’s play-calling and Carson Wentz’s efficient play, they are averaging 28 points per game — and the defense should get better as the season progresses.
8. Carolina Panthers: Coach Ron Rivera was on the hot seat after an 0-2 start, but backup quarterback Kyle Allen has led a three-game winning streak in place of the injured Cam Newton (foot). Christian McCaffrey is arguably the best running back in football this year, and the defense has been good despite losing defensive tackle Kawann Short.
9. Minnesota Vikings: Kirk Cousins finally threw the ball downfield in Sunday’s 28-10 victory over the New York Giants. That was a must-win game after wide receivers Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen voiced their frustration with the team’s run-heavy direction on offense.
10. Chicago Bears: Mitchell Trubisky’s shoulder injury took its toll in Sunday’s loss to the Oakland Raiders in London, where the Bears fell behind 17-0 and generated just 236 yards of offense behind quarterback Chase Daniel. The bigger surprise was the defense, which allowed 169 rushing yards.
11. Detroit Lions: They had a bye last week but are still a factor at 2-1-1. The big story is how much better quarterback Matthew Stafford looks with Darrell Bevell as his offensive coordinator. Stafford is one of the most aggressive passers in the league this year, according to Next Gen Stats, and the Lions are a factor in the stacked NFC North.
Around the NFL
— The Miami Dolphins are terrible this year, having been outscored 133-16 in four games. But they have some teams that could challenge them for the league’s worst record. The Cincinnati Bengals and Washington Redskins have both started 0-5, while the 0-4 New York Jets might be even worse than those two. The Luke Falk-led offense scored a touchdown in Sunday’s 31-7 loss to the Eagles, ending a string of 39 possessions without one.
— The Arizona Cardinals were able to get a win for their late owner Bill Bidwill, who passed away Friday. It was the first win for Coach Kliff Kingsbury, who is adjusting his offense a bit. In the first three weeks, the Cardinals ran 130 of their 209 offensive plays in five-receiver sets. In the past two weeks, they’ve been using three- and four-receiver sets. It worked in scoring 26 points Sunday versus the Bengals.
— The most satisfied coach in the NFL Sunday was the Oakland Raiders’ Jon Gruden. After being criticized for more than a year for trading Khalil Mack, Gruden beat the Bears, 24-21, and Mack didn’t record a sack.
More than anything, Gruden is finding out what works for the offense. Gruden wants a physical running attack and he doesn’t want quarterback Derek Carr to make risky throws downfield. According to Next Gen Stats, Carr only had two throws longer than 10 yards. For the season, he only has 19, the lowest number in football. The Raiders are 3-2.
— Deshaun Watson could join Patrick Mahomes and Russell Wilson in the MVP race. He had a five-touchdown game in a 53-32 win over the Atlanta Falcons, with 426 yards and a perfect 158.3 quarterback rating.
— The Steelers are in trouble. They are 1-4 and have lost quarterback Ben Roethlisberger for the season, while Mason Rudolph’s status is uncertain after suffering a scary concussion in Sunday’s loss to the Ravens. They are down to undrafted rookie Delvin Hodges as the only remaining quarterback.
The NFL Players Association wasn’t happy seeing Rudolph have to be helped to the locker room after his concussion, on which he appeared to be knocked out cold by a hit from Ravens safety Earl Thomas. A cart came out to get him, but the cart’s operator couldn’t get it moving.