Let’s take a look at what we’ve learned about the NFC during its strong start:
There might be a great team after all.
Early in the season, it seemed the NFC had plenty of depth but perhaps not a great team — at least not after Saints quarterback Drew Brees went down with a thumb injury and the Rams stumbled following their 3-0 start.
Eight weeks in, everything looks different. Not only was New Orleans perfect in Brees’s absence and impressive in his return Sunday during a win over the Cardinals, but there are two other teams in the mix to be the conference’s top team.
The 49ers proved they are legitimate contenders with Sunday’s 51-13 win over the Panthers. They rushed for 232 yards, and their dominant defense was the first to stop Carolina backup quarterback Kyle Allen, who entered the game on a four-game winning streak. The 49ers intercepted Allen three times and sacked him seven times. They’ve only had two games against teams at .500 or better, and the difficulty will rise over the back half of their schedule. But they have the look of a 12- or 13-win team.
The Packers improved to 7-1 with their win over the Chiefs. Aaron Rodgers is playing at an MVP level and is clearly on the same page with new coach Matt LaFleur. They have a strong rushing attack, and their pass rush is excellent. Don’t sleep on Green Bay as a candidate to earn the NFC’s No. 1 seed.
Brees completed 34 of 43 passes for 373 yards in Sunday’s win, even though he didn’t have running back Alvin Kamara or tight end Jared Cook. The Saints, with a great offense and a top-level defense, are the most complete team in the conference. If they add a wide receiver before Tuesday’s trade deadline, they will further bolster their chances to earn the NFC’s top seed.
The wild-card favorites are dangerous.
Minnesota quarterback Kirk Cousins responded to criticism of his downfield passing by going on a tear, and at 6-2, the Vikings are still in the mix for the NFC North title. What could hold them back is their 1-2 divisional record, making a Dec. 23 home game against Green Bay critical. But they have the passing attack to pair with dynamic running back Dalvin Cook and one of the best defenses in the league.
Thanks to Russell Wilson’s MVP-caliber start to the season, the Seahawks are 6-2 even though they’ve outscored opponents by only 12 points. Like many of the top teams in the NFC, Seattle has six games coming up against opponents who are .500 or better, and its biggest game is the Nov. 11 Monday night game at San Francisco. The biggest question mark is the pass rush: Seattle has struggled to generate pressure without blitzing.
After back-to-back wins, the Rams are still in the mix as well. They have a chance to catch up to their NFC West rivals, the 49ers and Seahawks, thanks to an easier second-half schedule, but Coach Sean McVay is still figuring out the team’s problems on offense. Quarterback Jared Goff threw for 372 yards against the winless Bengals, but the running game remains absent, with Todd Gurley rushing just 10 times for 44 yards.
Don’t count out the Eagles.
Philadelphia scored a critical win Sunday over the Bills, moving within a half-game of the NFC East-leading Cowboys, who at 4-3 enjoyed their bye over the weekend. The Eagles responded to criticism of their locker room by former player Orlando Scandrick with the 31-13 victory, saying the comments brought the team closer together.
Even after Dallas’s blowout win over Philadelphia in Week 7, the NFC East title is up for grabs. The division champ runs the risk of earning no better than the NFC’s fourth seed, and the team that loses out will have a hard time earning a wild-card bid in such a competitive conference.
Around the NFL
— The Falcons showed life in the second half of their 27-20 loss to Seattle. But owner Arthur Blank has a tough decision to make. He said after the game that he will take the bye week and next week to evaluate whether to fire Coach Dan Quinn.
It was clear during the game just how torn Blank is. He knows the players love Quinn, but he also kept looking into the stands from his place on the sideline and seeing many empty seats. Secondary ticket prices were as low as $33 before the game, and there were plenty of Seahawks fans in attendance.
— Joe Flacco’s comment that the Broncos were afraid to lose with their offensive play-calling probably didn’t go over well in the front office. The Broncos lost to the Colts, 15-13, and generated only 279 yards.
Flacco is averaging seven yards per pass attempt, which, believe it or not, is his highest average since 2014, but he has only six touchdown passes in his first eight games with the Broncos. On Monday afternoon, Coach Vic Fangio announced Flacco will miss time with a back injury. At 2-6, this season is a disaster, and the Broncos are expected to trade another player before Tuesday’s trade deadline.
— Matt Nagy followed through with his promise to run the ball, but it wasn’t good enough. The Bears coach called 38 running plays after the team ran just seven the week before, and they yielded 162 yards. But quarterback Mitchell Trubisky didn’t do enough in Sunday’s 17-16 home loss to the Los Angeles Chargers, which featured a return of the team’s kicking woes.
The Bears ran 77 plays to the Chargers’ 42, but they generated only one touchdown drive.
— Home-field advantage made a comeback after road teams went 59-46-1 through seven weeks. This week, home teams were 10-4, which could grow to 11-4 if the Steelers beat the winless Dolphins on Monday night.
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