The NFC has several good teams, but is there a great one? Let’s take a look at the biggest questions facing this season’s Super Bowl contenders.
Do the 49ers have enough on offense?
San Francisco’s sloppy, 9-0 victory over a hapless Washington Redskins team in a driving rainstorm somewhat captured where the 49ers are during their 6-0 start. On defense, they are great. Adding Nick Bosa and Dee Ford at edge rusher and Kwon Alexander at linebacker has made them one of the best defenses in the league.
But where are they on offense? They lack a No. 1 wide receiver, even though George Kittle is dynamic at tight end. Kyle Shanahan has put together one of the best running schemes in the league, but it’s hard for them to keep their top backs, Matt Breida and Tevin Coleman, healthy. You also have to worry about injuries along the offensive line; tackles Joe Staley and Mike McGlinchey have been hurt.
Will they be able to score enough to navigate a five-game stretch in November and December in which they play the Seahawks, Cardinals and Packers at home followed by the Ravens and Saints on the road?
We could be asking the same offense question about the NFL’s other undefeated team, New England, which also has injury issues on the line and limited pass-catching options.
Will a healthy Drew Brees be able to keep the Saints going?
The big story in New Orleans is how good it has been on defense. After years of surviving with a defense that gave up 27-plus points per game, Coach Sean Payton has a top-10 unit.
Quarterback Teddy Bridgewater did an amazing job going 5-0 filling in for Brees while his broken thumb healed, and Brees appears poised to return this week against the Cardinals. His return should give the Saints the best chance to be the NFC’s No. 1 seed.
However, Brees didn’t wow anyone down the stretch last season. He gains the benefit of the doubt because he’s a future Hall of Famer, but he has to show he is back to his usual level for this team to be considered the best in the NFC.
Will the Packers’ run defense betray them?
Everything is breaking right for the Green Bay Packers. They won free agency by adding pass rushers Za’Darius Smith and Preston Smith. Aaron Rodgers is back in the MVP race, particularly after his five-touchdown performance (plus a rushing TD) in Sunday’s 42-24 win over Oakland. They are 4-1 at home and have back-to-back road games coming up against the Chiefs (without Mahomes) and a disappointing Los Angeles Chargers team (when the crowd may be 80 percent Packers fans).
Stopping the run, though, remains a problem. That could cost them in the playoffs if they play New Orleans, Dallas or San Francisco (or in late-season road games against the 49ers and Vikings).
Can Lamar Jackson hold up if he keeps running this much?
Heading into Baltimore’s 30-16 victory in Seattle, I thought Lamar Jackson should be considered Russell Wilson 2.0 After watching him in person, he’s more like Michael Vick 2.0. He’s fantastic. He could end the season with more than 1,000 rushing yards and 4,000 passing yards.
But his rushing workload has to be a concern. He has 83 carries over seven games, not far behind team leader Mark Ingram, who has 99. He’s everything for the Ravens, and they need him healthy in the playoffs.
Are the Bills this year’s Bears?
Clearly, the 5-1 Buffalo Bills have benefited from the league’s easiest schedule, with wins over the Jets, Giants, Bengals, Titans and winless Dolphins. At 5-1, they are in great position to earn a wild-card berth. Their next game against a team that currently has a winning record is Nov. 28 at Dallas.
The Bills have a perfect formula for winning with an easy schedule. Their defense gives up only 15.2 points per game. In their only game against a winning team, they held the Patriots to 16 points. They are similar to last year’s Chicago Bears, who won 12 games but had only five games against teams that were .500 or better.
That might be enough to get Buffalo into the playoffs, but the Bills’ play against the Cowboys, Ravens and Patriots over their final five games might give us a better idea of whether they can win in the postseason.
Can the Cowboys overcome their recent three-game losing streak?
Dallas was impressive Sunday night in its 37-10 win over the Philadelphia Eagles, and it’s now atop the NFC East with a 4-3 record. Ezekiel Elliott ran for 111 yards. Dak Prescott completed 21 of 29 passes for 239 yards. The defense made big plays.
But the Cowboys’ recent three-game losing streak means they have to be nearly perfect in the season’s second half to earn a first-round bye. More likely than not, they aren’t catching one or more of the NFC’s six-win teams (San Francisco, Green Bay and New Orleans). Upcoming games against Minnesota, New England and the Los Angeles Rams will make climbing out of that hole even more difficult.
Can Jacoby Brissett put the Colts in AFC title contention?
Indianapolis is in first place in the AFC South after Sunday’s 30-23 win over Houston. Jacoby Brissett threw four touchdown passes, and the defense held Deshaun Watson and the rest of the Texans’ offense under 300 yards.
Brissett has more than proved himself as a capable starter since taking over following Andrew Luck’s surprise retirement. But can he match up against Tom Brady, Mahomes and others in the playoffs? That remains a question, but an upcoming stretch against Denver, Pittsburgh, Miami and Jacksonville — with three of those games at home — means the Colts are likely to remain near the top of the AFC standings.
Around the NFL
— Jackson’s best throw in Baltimore’s win didn’t count in the stat sheet. Late in the third quarter, Jackson had a 13-yard run to the Seahawks’ 8-yard line that set up a fourth and two. On the play, his wristband that has the team’s plays came off his right arm. After Coach John Harbaugh sent the field goal unit onto the field, Jackson stormed to the sideline in anger and threw the wristband toward the stands.
Seeing Jackson’s anger, Harbaugh ran down the sidelines and called a timeout. A security guard brought the wristband to the bench. The offense went back on the field and Jackson ran in the game-winning touchdown.
— You have to wonder if Falcons Coach Dan Quinn can keep his job much longer. Things keep getting worse for Atlanta, which is 1-6. Quarterback Matt Ryan suffered an ankle injury and left the stadium in a walking boot. The Falcons are giving up around 32 points a game and face the Seahawks at home before the bye. Owner Arthur Blank said after the game he still stands by Quinn.
— So much for the criticism of Kirk Cousins not throwing deep. In the Minnesota Vikings’ 42-30 win over Detroit, Cousins completed 24 of 34 passes for 337 yards. Over the past three games, he has completed 68 of 90 passes for 976 yards. He’s the only quarterback with three straight 300-yard games and a quarterback rating of 130 or better.
— Don’t be surprised if the Denver Broncos make a trade or two. With their season in the dumpster at 2-5, the Broncos could consider trading wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders and maybe cornerback Chris Harris. The one player who won’t be traded is star outside linebacker Von Miller.
— Quarterback Mitchell Trubisky wasn’t great in the Bears’ 36-25 loss to the Saints, but their problem might be on defense. They gave up 151 yards rushing and 36 points with Brees and running back Alvin Kamara both sidelined for New Orleans. Before the bye, they couldn’t stop Raiders running back Josh Jacobs. They are now 3-3 and in trouble in the NFC North.