2013 NFL: The state of the NFC

By: Frenchy
By: Frenchy

In the month leading up to the 2013 NFL season, I had many conversations about the state of the NFC. With the playoff spots in the AFC all but wrapped up in my mind, besides the final wild card spot, the NFC seemed to be the much more interesting conference. I thought a playoff case could be made for 14 out of the 16 teams. (The Rams and Vikings were the only two teams I believed didn’t have a chance to play postseason football.)

Five weeks into the season I stand by my statement that the NFC is more intriguing than the AFC, but it’s definitely not for the reasons I believed it would be. While it’s too early to discuss the six teams that would make the playoffs if the season ended today – an uneven amount of bye weeks prevent that from happening – let’s rank the 14 teams into different groups!

Serious contenders

These are the teams that have the best chance to play at Metlife stadium come February.

New Orleans Saints

There might not be a better coaching match than Sean Payton and Rob Ryan. It’s clear that Drew Brees needed Payton’s play calling, but Ryan was the wild card heading into the season. There wasn’t a lot of attention paid to the defense – let’s face it, no one cares about covering defensive moves anymore – but as always hindsight is 20/20.

Ryan has invigorated the Saints defense into a disruptive group that can actually influence the outcome of a game, instead of being a pushover unit that forced Brees to constantly play in a shootout like situation.

In the first five games of this season, Ryan’s unit has surrendered over 100 yards less per game than Steve Spagnuolo’s group (440.1 to 330.4) and Ryan’s defense has cut the oppositions scoring in half (28 to 14).

On offense the Saints are once again back to being a well-oiled machine. Brees is currently on pace to break the record for the most passing yards in a season, which is currently held by… Drew Brees! (His current pace:  5,510 yards 38 touchdowns 13 interceptions.) The combination of Payton’s play calling, the evolution of Jimmy Graham into a true TE/WR hybrid and the dynamic mix of weapons has given Brees all he needs and then some.

With the NFC South in disarray, the Saints are going to be the first team to lock up a divisional crown, but it’s imperative that they lock up home field advantage throughout the playoffs, because I can’ imagine any team wants to travel to Seattle for a playoff game.

Seattle Seahawks

The loss to the Colts this past Sunday spoke volumes about how versatile the Colts offense can be, but it also further explained why the Seahawks desperately need to win home field advantage in the playoffs.

I hate using just yardage given up by a defense as the only reference for discussing team defense, but in this case, it applies. You can throw Week 1 against the Panthers out of the equation because Seattle had over a month to prepare for opening up on the road. In Weeks 2 and 3, the defense allowed a combined 472 yards and 20 points to the Niners and those pesky Jaguars. The next week in Houston the defense allowed 476 yards and 20 points to the Texans. Then last week, the Colts hung up the most points on Seattle’s defense since Week 8 of the 2011 season (the Bengals put up 34 as well).

Having said all of that, the Seahawks have easily been the most impressive team in what was supposed to be the toughest division in all of football. The Niners just don’t quite look right, we’ll get to the Cardinals and the Rams are a confused team. Once the offense gets Percy Harvin back and a healthier offensive line, we’ll have a much better idea of this team’s ceiling.

We need to know more from these teams

Green Bay Packers

“I think he’s a special player. As long as he can stay healthy, I think he’s going to be a big-time star for us.”

-Aaron Rodgers on Randall Cobb

After a stagnant first half of offense for the Packers (seems like an oxymoron), Cobb provided the spark the Packers needed to finally put the Lions defense on their toes. Credit to Mike McCarthy for attempting to give the offense a different identity with Eddie Lacy grounding and pounding in the first half, but Cobb’s 67 yard run showed just how important a versatile player can be for an offense in this age of football.

The Packers certainly have all of the talent required to make it to the Super Bowl, but can they avoid the right teams on their playoff journey? Even though it’s really difficult to beat a team three times in a row, a matchup against the Niners would likely spell doom for the cheeseheads. Seattle has also given Aaron Rodgers fits and at this rate the Falcons won’t be there ripe for the pickings.

San Francisco 49ers

See the section below entitled: Factoid that Peter King missed this week.

Chicago Bears

The loss to the Saints dropped the Bears down from a wow Marc Trestman has really turned this team around, to ugh the Bears aren’t quite as good as we thought. It is only one loss in a parody filled league, but the Bears needed to beat the Saints at home to prove that they are an early contender to come out of the NFC. Jay Cutler looked more like the old Cutler in the beginning of the first half, before coming on with a nice drive that resulted in an Alshon Jeffery touchdown.

Speaking of Mr. Jeffery, what we saw in Week 5 was not just a randomly good game by the “other” receiver on the Bears. Jeffery is emerging as a true complement to Brandon Marshall that will only help open things up for Cutler’s favorite target. If you’ve been paying close attention to the Bears, or if you own Brandon Marshall on your fantasy team, you know that he hasn’t been 100% all year, so the rise of Alshon is exactly what Marshall needs to be a productive player.

 

Detroit Lions

When this team is mostly healthy, they’re incredibly dangerous. Reggie Bush has given the offense a different dimension that is desperately needed, but he can’t be the focal point of the offense. With Calvin Johnson out against the Packers in Week 5, Bush looked more like the New Orleans version of himself as opposed to the guy who shredded the Vikings and Bears this year.

My friend asked me who the non-QB MVP had been after the first quarter of the season and without hesitation I said Bush. His impact on the Lions offense has been nothing short of otherworldly, when he is healthy of course.

With Matthew Stafford looking more and more wild with some of his throws every week, it’s easy to point at this team and say they’re a boom or bust type of team, but just how high is the boom? We know about the offense, but the defense is still giving up a ton of yards and points. Sure the D-line is intimidating, but the rest of the defense is nothing more than a question mark.

The NFC North is currently led by said Lions, but it’s hard to imagine Detroit holding off both Green Bay and Chicago. This is most likely a wild card team posing as an early threat to take the division.

Somehow the Arizona Cardinals are 3-2

That’s all I can muster, I don’t understand it.

The NFC Least

Let’s roll through these quickly

Dallas Cowboys

Was their amazing effort against Denver a perfect aligning of the stars, or a representation of what this team’s ceiling is? I’m going with a perfect alignment of the stars. Even though Terrence Williams is a legit good fit for the offense. Miles Austin’s days are numbered.

Philadelphia Eagles

I actually believe Nick Foles will shock most people with his ability to run Chip Kelly’s offense. It might actually be the best thing that could have happened for Kelly. Greg Schiano only has a small bit of film from the preseason on the plays Kelly ran with Foles under center. Don’t be surprised if this becomes a legitimate quarterback controversy after this week.

Washington Redskins

Quick and easy: Kyle Shanahan was right when he said defenses aren’t fooled by the read option this year. Defenses won’t be fooled by the read option when your quarterback can’t run. Also, the defense just can’t be saved at this point. If you’re a Rams fan, what is currently happening to the Redskins is your dream scenario.

New York Giants

With the third pick of the 2014 NFL Draft, the New York Giants select Jadeveon Clowney.

Teams hoping to make a second half turnaround

Atlanta Falcons

If there is one team that can join the six since 1990 that have started 1-4 and made the playoffs, the Falcons have at least a decent shot of achieving the feat.

As I was typing that sentence I saw the news that Julio Jones is most likely done for the year due to a foot injury. It’s a shame as he was second in the league in receiving yards and first in receptions. Hopefully he completely recovers and returns to the Falcons as the same player next year.

Even with Jones in the lineup, the offense was putrid in the red zone. Atlanta currently ranks 25th in red zone touchdowns. They’re down ten percent in that area since last season (57.9 in 2012, 47.8 in 2013). No doubt the loss of Steven Jackson has really affected these numbers, but Mike Smith’s predictable play calling has stagnated many promising drives during the first five weeks. The loss of Jones will only make this task more difficult.

Carolina Panthers

With the Bucs and Falcons in disarray, this is a perfect opportunity for the Panthers to pounce and make a run at a wild card spot. However Ron Rivera is determined to get himself fired. Just kidding. The blame for the Panthers 1-3 start has been felt by Rivera, but Scam Newton is sure to feel some of that wrath soon. This is the year when the fanbase either gravitates towards him and really believes he can be the leader, or shuns him away.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Greg Schiano’s first stint as an NFL head coach was fun, wasn’t it?

Minnesota Vikings

At least Adrian Peterson is going to be on the cover for the next-gen version of Madden.

St.Louis Rams

Tavon Austin has been neutered into a slot receiver. Brian Schottenheimer needs to watch some film of Randall Cobb.

 

Factoid that Peter King missed this week

Hey remember when Ozzie Newsome was questioned for shipping off Anquan Boldin for a sixth round pick? After Boldin’s 13 catch, 208 yard (one touchdown) debut against Green Bay, tt was easy to blast the Ravens GM for sending off Joe Flacco’s favorite target in the best stretch of football in his life for a late round pick.

Since that outburst in Week 1, the scales have drastically evened out:

Week 1 13 receptions 17 targets 208 yards 1 touchdown
Weeks 2-5 13 receptions 25 targets 185 yards 1 touchdown

Boldin’s performance in Week 1 was going to be an anomaly, but what wasn’t anticipated was Colin Kaepernick’s performance since his eruption in against the Packers. Kaepernick was the most impressive player in the entire NFL in the first week of the season, but it certainly appears a dreaded slump has sunk its claws into Jim Harbaugh’s prodigy.

Kaepernick hasn’t thrown for more than 167 yards in a game since Week 1. He threw for three touchdowns in Week 1. He’s thrown for three combined in the four games since. He’s had more interceptions in those four weeks than touchdowns (4-3). His completion percentage in Weeks 2-5 is a Freemanesque 49.9%, but luckily for Kaep, the Niners had the fortunes of taking on an offensively confused Rams team and then Matt Schuab. A dose of Schaub apparently does wonderful things for the opposing team’s defense.

You would think that a rejuvenated Frank Gore would help the Niners passing game, but it seems like the only solution is currently working his way back to the football field. According to Jim Harbaugh, Kaepernick’s favorite target, Michael Crabtree, might be ready to come back in time to take on the Saints in Week 11. It’s HIGHILY unlikely that Crabtree will be in 100% football shape when he makes his return, but at this point the Niners offense needs the scarecrow of Crabtree to at least draw some defensive attention.

Follow me on Twitter @ScottDargis

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