As this NFL season enters its seventh week, preseason predictions continue to be debunked, and answers are still few and far between.
In the NFC especially, the presumed juggernauts have fallen flat. Of the six teams from the Conference that made the playoffs last year, only two would qualify this year, and zero currently lead their division.
We begin in the NFC East. This year, the early outcomes have been especially surprising. The Dallas Cowboys and New York Giants — who both reached the playoffs last year — have been mediocre and abysmal, respectively.
The Cowboys should not be counted out just yet, as their offense has begun to show the explosiveness that led them to the best record in the NFC last year. However, a tough remaining schedule and Ezekiel Elliott’s looming potential six-game suspension will make it difficult for Dallas to return to the playoffs this season. At 3-3, the Cowboys are still very much in contention.
On the other hand, the 1-6 Giants should be looking forward to next season. A popular preseason pick to reach the Super Bowl, New York has completely imploded, in large part due to the series of injuries that has ravaged the team.
While the Cowboys and Giants have regressed, the Philadelphia Eagles have taken the League by storm. The Eagles are currently riding a five-game win streak and now boast an NFL-best 6-1 record.
Carson Wentz is emerging as a frontrunner for MVP and has the offense clicking on all cylinders. Despite only being in his second year, Wentz has already become a very efficient passer and has held his mistakes to a minimum.
Zach Ertz has also emerged as an elite tight end and Wentz’s favorite target. If Philadelphia’s defense continues to do enough to keep the score close, the offense is explosive enough to carry the Eagles to victory on a consistent basis.
While the Eagles are certainly the division’s most legitimate contender, the Washington Redskins are also in position to make the playoffs. While their 3-3 record is not particularly impressive, the Redskins have several impressive wins on their resume and have only lost to worthy opponents — the Eagles twice and the Kansas City Chiefs once.
Now onto the NFC North, whose landscape has drastically changed in recent weeks: Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers appeared to be destined to reach the playoffs for a ninth consecutive season.
However, Rodgers’ broken collarbone has the sent Packers into a state of despair. Due to Green Bay’s bleak prognosis, barring a breakout campaign from backup quarterback Brett Hundley, the Minnesota Vikings have emerged as clear frontrunners to win the division.
Minnesota quietly put together a solid start to the season. Now with Rodgers out until at least December, the Vikings have a chance to separate themselves from the rest of the division. While the Vikings are likely to win the division, it will be difficult for them to advance far in the playoffs without a dependable option at quarterback. I do not see Case Keenum, Sam Bradford or Teddy Bridgewater leading Minnesota to victory in a high stakes game in January.
Elsewhere in the division, the Detroit Lions also have a chance at making the playoffs. Matthew Stafford is off to a strong start this season, after signing a $135 million extension in August. Do not be surprised if Detroit sneaks into the playoffs as a wild card for the third time in four years.
The NFC South has provided the Conference’s Super Bowl team in each of the past two seasons. While all four of the division’s teams remain in the playoff hunt, do not expect the aforementioned streak to continue this season.
The New Orleans Saints currently lead the division at 4-2, but I am still hesitant to believe that they are a team that can win come playoff time. The Saints have a high-flying offense, but their defense remains a major concern. As good as Drew Brees and company are, New Orleans cannot rely on winning shootouts when they are going up against the League’s best defenses.
The Carolina Panthers currently sit in second place at 4-3. They certainly look better than they did in 2016, when they suffered a yearlong Super Bowl hangover. However, the Panthers — especially Cam Newton — have been very inconsistent.
Sunday’s loss to the Chicago Bears was especially disconcerting. Carolina certainly has Super Bowl potential, but I do not see them stringing together enough wins against quality teams to play for the Lombardi Trophy.
Next up are the reigning NFC champions: the Atlanta Falcons. Reaching consecutive Super Bowls rarely occurs, and the Falcons’ hopes of doing so are beginning to look less and less likely. At the start of the season, Atlanta was playing with vengeance and looked primed for another successful year.
However, they followed up the three-game winning streak with a three-game losing streak and now have serious question marks on both sides of the ball. After blowing a 17-point lead against the Miami Dolphins in Week Six, it appears that closing out games remains a major concern for the Falcons.
Whether it is fatigue or mental vulnerability, Atlanta needs to solve this problem before they let any more games get away from them.
As for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, they are not entirely out of the playoff picture but have yet to record an impressive win. They have showed great promise but still seem to be a year away from legitimate contention.
In the NFC West, the Los Angeles Rams and Seattle Seahawks are both teams with the potential to make a deep playoff run.
Let’s look at the Rams first. After an underwhelming rookie season, Jared Goff has shown dramatic improvement in first-year coach Sean McVay’s system. Additionally, Todd Gurley has run the ball exceptionally well.
With its solid young core, Los Angeles has the potential to be among the League’s best teams for years to come. Expect the Rams to end their 12-year playoff drought and be a force to be reckoned with come January.
While the Rams are on the verge of becoming perennial contenders, the Seattle Seahawks are well on their way to clinching a sixth consecutive playoff berth. Seattle’s greatest asset may be its experience, as its highly successful roster has undergone few major changes over the past several years.
Russell Wilson is having another Pro Bowl-caliber season as the leader of the offense, while the defense has done its part stifling opposing offenses. The Seahawks know how to win big games, and all of the pieces are in place for them to make another deep playoff run this season.
Much like the AFC, the NFC is filled with uncertainty. The forthcoming weeks will likely provide some clarity, but the NFC still has numerous candidates that could potentially represent the Conference on Feb. 4.