NFL: NFC Division Leaders, Contenders or Pretenders?
The NFC thus far has yielded many surprises as far as results go. The Chicago Bears look to be ascending behind a strong defense, while the Minnesota Vikings’ vaunted defense seems to be letting them down. The year is still young though, so here’s a look at the division leaders at the moment and whether they’re real contenders or lucky pretenders.
NFC East – Washington Redskins: Contenders
This is tough to call since the Redskins had a bye last week. One loss in week 5 could change things drastically. However, there’s no denying just how good the Redskins have looked so far. The defense is much improved, moving from 15th in NY/A allowed and 29th to YPC allowed to 3rd and 23rd, respectively. Alex Smith seems to be an improvement over Kirk Cousins, even if it’s a slight one. Adrian Peterson’s return to form is one of the best stories in the NFL right now. The future Hall-of-Famer has delivered with 78.7 yards per game after the Redskins’ second-round running back, Derrius Guice, got hurt.
Meanwhile, the rest of the NFC East looks too lost to really challenge the Redskins. The Dallas Cowboys are hot and cold. If Dak Prescott plays well, they’re dangerous. If he doesn’t, they’re one-dimensional in the worst way. Ultimately, his performance is too inconsistent to rely on. The Philadelphia Eagles have a great roster, but they’ve slipped at key moments all season. Even Carson Wentz’s return hasn’t fixed some of their issues. Until they look like the defending champions they are, siding with the current leaders makes sense. Finally, the New York Giants seem to be in purgatory. No aspect of their team looks particularly noteworthy besides the excellent play of rookie guard Will Hernandez.
NFC West – Los Angeles Rams: Contenders
This is the easiest selection of the article. The Rams look amazing in almost every way, and the rest of the NFC West simply does not. The San Francisco 49ers lost their franchise QB, so them competing is almost impossible. The Seattle Seahawks have a franchise QB in Russell Wilson…and not really anything else. Then there are the Arizona Cardinals. Oh boy, the Cardinals. They look like one of the worst teams in football right now. Josh Rosen looks promising, but that’s about all there is to celebrate in the Phoenix desert.
For starters, Jared Goff has ascended to potential-MVP status under sensational head coach Sean McVay. Joining him in the backfield is another potential MVP, Todd Gurley. Brandin Cooks has been one of the best receivers in the NFL this year, and the offensive line is excellent. As far as offenses go, this is as close to flawless as you’ll find. Their defense is as stingy as their offense is explosive, minus one poor game against the Vikings. With a talented secondary and a ludicrous defensive line, even a weak linebacking core can’t stop them from being great. Their point differential stands at a staggering 73 after only 4 weeks. That’s an average margin of victory of 18.25 points per game. Just…wow. Calling them contenders is an understatement: right now they’re Super Bowl favorites.
NFC South – New Orleans Saints: Pretenders
Right after the easiest selection comes the toughest. The Saints have, in many ways, looked very good. Drew Brees is somehow playing even better than his usual golden standard. Right now, his completion% sits at an eye-popping 75.8%. When your completion% is a decent free throw percentage in the NBA, you’re doing something right. Meanwhile, Alvin Kamara is averaging a ridiculous 152.75 yards from scrimmage per game and Michael Thomas is setting records for receptions. This offense is easily humming on all cylinders, and yet…the defense. They rank dead last in NY/A allowed as a defense. In a passing league, even their 1st-ranked rush defense isn’t enough to overcome that.
When compared to the Carolina Panthers in their division, the Saints simply have a much less complete team. Therefore, I have to pick the Panthers to win the division until I see some good defense from the New Orleans band. This will be extremely close, however. Don’t expect more than 1 game of separation between the two teams.
NFC North – Chicago Bears: Contenders
This is one of the most surprising stories of the season; the Bears were expected to improve, sure, but not this much. The addition of DPOY front-runner Khalil Mack has kicked the rebuild into overdrive, directly skipping to the “contending” phase.
The Bears have one of the best defenses in the NFL this year. Khalil Mack’s influence is huge, but the rest of the players shouldn’t be dismissed as byproducts of Mack. The secondary features some excellent young safeties in Eddie Jackson and Adrian Amos, along with veteran cornerback Prince Amukamara and Kendall Fuller, both solid additions. The linebacking core features rookie Roquan Smith plus coverage standout, Danny Trevathan. Their ability allows Mack to rush the passer regardless of where he lines up, and the results are clear. Their offense isn’t spectacular, but it’s enough when the rest of the division is struggling.
Speaking of, the Vikings look stuck in 2nd gear. Especially on the defensive side of the ball, they aren’t performing anywhere close to expectations. The Green Bay Packers are one injury away from being bad, and injuries have become more frequent for Aaron Rodgers recently. Even with him in the lineup, they’re far from perfect. Finally, the Detroit Lions have struggled to 1 win on the year so far and look exactly like a 1-3 team.
There’s no way to know anything for certain in the NFL. The league shifts wildly year to year and game to game, and that unpredictability is part of what makes it fun to watch. After taking a close look at the first quarter of the season, however, I think we can get a decent read on teams. Expect the standings to look a bit different come season’s end.
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