Open Season in the NFC

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The Rodgers injury makes things interesting

The NFL may be going through a bit of a whirlwind season right now what with surprising team successes and failures, the ever-present political heat hovering over all the players and owners heads, and the cornucopia of injuries to the league’s biggest stars that seem to keep piling up. But in Week 6, one of those injuries seems to stand the tallest and holds the biggest implications for everything in the NFC: the injury to Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers.

The NFC has long been the number one source of the NFL’s parity. The AFC has long been ruled by a constant rotation of the Patriots, Steelers, and whatever team Peyton Manning happens to be playing for; there has not been much fluctuation of the conference champion. The NFC, on the other hand, has seen its divisions switch and rotate division champions what seems like every season with one exception: The unprecedented success of the Green Bay Packers.

For over 20 years, a Packers playoff berth almost seemed like a given barring some extreme circumstances. Since Brett Favre took over as the Packers starter in 1992, Green Bay has only missed the playoffs four times. FOUR TIMES. IN 23 YEARS. Under Aaron Rodgers, the Packers have only missed the playoffs once in his nine years as the team’s starter. But now with Rodgers out, possibly for the rest of the season at the time of this writing, it blows the door wide open for the NFC teams looking to make a playoff push. Furthermore, the NFC is seeing a lot of winning going on in the first five weeks. Currently, 11 out of 16 teams are currently sitting at or above a .500 record. If ever there was a time to start sprinting for the playoff window, it’s now.

So, who has the best shot of being one of the six teams to jump through that opening? Let’s discuss a few strong contenders.

Philadelphia Eagles (5–1)

Sitting on top of the NFC are the Philadelphia Eagles and that doesn’t feel like a sentence I would have had to write seven weeks ago. Philadelphia has done a great job at closing up some of the holes that plagued them last season. The biggest factors? Improved play from Carson Wentz in his second year and a reliable wide receiver corps. Consider that the Eagles, a team who finished in 16th in total offense last season, are currently resting with the number two offense only behind the explosive Chiefs. The Eagles do leave a bit to be desired in their pass defense, but they have been nearly suffocating against the run which bodes well in a conference with some rushing powerhouses. It’s amazing to say, but barring a catastrophic meltdown, the Eagles are currently the favorite to end up taking the NFC. But they will have some stiff competition.

Minnesota Vikings (4–2)

With Rodgers injured, the Lions as inconsistent as ever, and the Bears still seeing some growing pains in their young offense and sloppy defense, Minnesota has positioned themselves as the drivers for the NFC North. Minnesota has shown that they are a flexible team that has depth in their offense and a crushing defense. Sam Bradford out with a knee injury? No problem, Case Keenum has an offense that can make him look as good as anyone. Dalvin Cook out for the season? No problem. Jerrick McKinnon steps up for a 99-yard game against the Packers. Stefon Diggs out for an injury? Adam Thielen and Laquon Treadwell can handle the deep balls. Green Bay defense keeping you out of the end zone? You’ve got a reliable kicker now who can drill three field goals and keep your lead secure. Minnesota isn’t just winning, they’re winning comfortably with their backups. Other teams have suffered injuries and faltered but Minnesota has stayed the course and is seeing wins. Imagine what they’ll be like when they get healthy.

Los Angeles Rams (4–2)

The Rams are teetering between being a good team and being…well, the Rams. But LA has been very impressive in five out of their six games. Most recently, Los Angeles took the lead against a Jacksonville defense that has been vanquishing Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks and never looked back. Jared Goff has turned a very sharp corner in his passing game and having former Buffalo Bill Sammy Watkins in his offense has been a big bonus for this team. The Rams defense finally has an offense that can maintain success while on the field. From the complete annihilation of the Colts, you knew something was going to be special about these Rams. Now, the Rams are no strangers to seeing early season success before collapsing during the big stretch, but their upcoming games don’t seem like major threats. Their next five games pit them up against the Cardinals, Giants, Texans, Vikings, and Saints. A very winnable stretch of games. Who knows, in five weeks we could be talking about a 6–3 or even an 8–2 Rams squad.

Seattle Seahawks (3–2)

We’d be remiss if we didn’t talk about the NFC’s other constant presence. Since Russell Wilson took over as the quarterback, the Seahawks have yet to miss the playoffs but have sustained a rougher go of things with each subsequent season. Seattle’s offense has seemed pretty stagnant now that it’s had to rely more and more on Wilson without a stable run game. With the exception of the second half of the Colts game, Seattle has really struggled offensively at putting points on the board. The silver lining of this is the Seahawk defense has been their usual self and resting nicely as the pass defending squadron that they are. There is a very real problem against the run, however. So why include Seattle in the conversation if the holes seem to be getting larger? Because unlike the Rams, the Seahawks tend to start slow and then explode. The offense may not be firing on all cylinders, but Wilson and Jimmy Graham have started to get a real connection with each other. Never assume Seattle is down because they can come roaring back.

Carolina Panthers (4–2)

Carolina is currently on top of the NFC South. They have a top-ten offense, have found ways to gut down and win games, and Cam has been standing out yet again. Yet something feels amiss with this Panthers squad. Their run game hasn’t taken off quite how they expected and their defense leaves a lot to be desired. Opposing offenses can open fire in their passing game and likely land a deep ball given Carolina’s messy secondary. But we can’t ignore that they are still outpacing the reigning NFC champions in wins. Carolina has a window, but if their defense can’t start piecing together wins, they could fall to the basement of their division.

Atlanta Falcons (3–2)

Atlanta is looking fine. Matt Ryan is still firing bullets to Julio Jones and their run game is as stalwart as ever but they have two very ugly losses staring them in the face and both of those losses reek of Super Bowl hangover. Their loss to the Bills and the Dolphins both came after holding the lead at halftime. The Falcons were riding a three-game winning streak up until facing these two teams who quite frankly aren’t exactly pinnacles of NFL achievement as of late. Atlanta still has all the makings for a deep playoff run as much of their original Super Bowl team is intact, but it goes without saying that they can’t keep blowing halftime leads.

Green Bay Packers (4–2)

We can’t totally count out Green Bay since the last time Rodgers was injured they managed to ride Matt Flynn and stay above water until his return. Let’s assume Rodgers isn’t coming back. We don’t know a whole ton about Brett Hundley yet but we do know he’s been waiting in the wings for three years biding his time until this chance came. He’s the safest option to go with and the Packers won’t be looking to make a splash quarterback signing in the immediate future. The Packers have been plagued with injuries but there are some silver linings. For one, their receiving corps is still intact. Nelson, Cobb, Adams, and Bennett all still managed to make plays with the clearly shaken Hundley under center. In addition, Green Bay’s defense has improved. The secondary is making interceptions and second-year defenders Clark and Martinez have been terrors. Rodgers may be down, but the Pack isn’t totally out yet.

On The Fence: Detroit Lions (3–3), Arizona Cardinals (3–3), New Orleans Saints (3–2)

Detroit is either on fire or getting their fire put out. They just suffered a massive loss to the Saints and are still searching for answers in their run game so they can give Stafford some semblance of relief. The Cardinals looked totally lost to start the season, but the addition of Adrian Peterson seems to have finally been the replacement for David Johnson the Redbirds were looking for. Arizona is heading in a positive direction, but they allowed Ryan Fitzpatrick to nearly knock them off in the 4th quarter in a game that should have been a blowout. For the Saints, it’s business as usual. Great offense, rotten defense. Though the future looks a bit brighter because the Saints defense just humiliated the also high powered force of Detroit. All three of these team have a blatant weakness that will either get fixed or end up ruining them down the line.

The NFC is primed for a no-holds-barred showdown for supremacy. It’s a conference with no clear elite squad who is a shoe-in for home-field advantage and it remains hazy who will be representing this deep conference in the Super Bowl. With Rodgers out of the picture, the haze has only grown thicker. Richard Sherman may say that the league is better when Rodgers is playing, which is true, but now a truly exciting period of football can begin.

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