NFC race will be hotly contested

Ryan Arena

The NFC playoff picture is as packed with strong teams as I’ve ever seen in a conference.

Detroit, Seattle and Dallas are each 8-6 and NONE OF THEM would make the field, were it to begin today. While unlikely, you could conceivably see all three teams win out and none would make it at 10-6, which would be unprecedented.

While the field is still to be determined, it inspired me to try to handicap that will eventually emerge as the NFC squad taking the field in Minneapolis this year for the Super Bowl. And with that, away we go …

The Wildcards: Carolina, Atlanta. The two NFC South teams look like favorites to reach the playoffs, but it remains to be seen if there’s a Super Bowl contender hiding in either squad. Carolina’s defense is very good and it’s found some offensive footing, but a lack of receiving weapons has made the Panthers vulnerable against some of the league’s better teams. The Falcons have a chance to upend the Saints’ NFC South title hopes this weekend, but they’re an offensive team that’s been spotty on that side of the ball.

Likely hosts: Philadelphia and Minnesota. The current top two seeds in the NFC also might be more vulnerable to an early upset than we’re accustomed to from 1 or 2 seeded squads.

The Vikings may have the best defensive team in this field and are getting a magical season from journeyman quarterback Case Keenum. This is a tough, gutty team that’s survived major injuries to its top two passers and a dynamite rookie runner in Dalvin Cook. I just don’t see Minnesota winning the two or three games it’ll take to reach the Super Bowl, simply because it has lost that firepower and the NFC field is exceptionally stout.

Philly, meanwhile, is a simple call here: Carson Wentz went down to a knee injury in Week 14, and he was the engine of this team. Backup quarterback Nick Foles is keeping hope alive in the City of Brotherly Love after tossing four touchdown passes in a win over the Giants. The Eagles have a ferocious front seven on defense and an elite offensive line, but it’s hard for me to back a team that’s been pass-first this season on offense and has suddenly downgraded at quarterback. Wentz is special.

A strong contender: New Orleans. The Saints have looked a bit shakier over the past month than they did a few weeks ago when everyone seemingly wanted to pick them as the NFC representative in the Super Bowl. Losses to the Rams and Falcons and closer than maybe expected wins over Washington and particularly the New York Jets have made New Orleans somewhat yesterday’s news for many.

But to keep perspective: in the games against L.A. and Washington, the Saints were missing Marshon Lattimore, a huge loss defensively considering how he’s been able to lock down opposing receivers without safety help. Ken Crawley missed the Rams game, too. This team has a lot of strengths but depth at cornerback isn’t one of them. And the Atlanta loss was … well, let’s just say I’m not sure how much control they really had over their own fate in that one.

The Saints have arguably the best running game in the league, a great veteran passer in Drew Brees and a defense that has played at an elite level for much of the season. This is a complete team and it wouldn’t surprise me at all if this team reached its second Super Bowl in the Sean Payton era.

But they’re not my pick.

The favorite: Los Angeles Rams. It’s not an incredibly out there pick right now, granted. Poll the country and I’d bet the Rams would take most of the votes right now given their recent play — the aforementioned win over the Saints is fresh in everyone’s minds, but not nearly as much as L.A.’s 42-7 obliteration of Seattle, less of a “pass the torch” game as a “we’re ripping it from your cold, dead hands” affair.

But it is no fluke. This team is LOADED.

Defensively is where the Rams have long been one of the league’s respected teams. Aaron Donald, a perennial Defensive Player of the Year contender, is one of five former first-round picks this team features in its front seven. The secondary has held its own as well. And defensive coordinator Wade Phillips has furthered his reputation as a retooling guru, as he’s presided over another big leap in the play of a defense in his first year with the team.

But this was one of the worst offensive teams in league history last season. And that is where this story becomes truly interesting, because a year later, this Rams offense is downright lethal.

Sean McVay helped mold Kirk Cousins into one of the NFL’s most prolific passers in Washington prior to replacing Jeff Fisher as head coach in Los Angeles. He’s aggressive, forward-thinking and exactly the breath of fresh air this team needed.

And make no mistake: just as it is on defense, the offensive cupboard is overflowing with talent. Don’t let the fact Jared Goff was left for dead after a poor rookie season mask the fact that he was the top overall pick in the entire 2016 NFL Draft. Todd Gurley is closing in on a 2,000 total yard season — he himself was the No. 10 pick in his draft class, as a RUNNING BACK WITH A TORN ACL. It wasn’t thought of as a wild reach, either. Sammy Watkins went fourth overall in 2014, the first receiver selected in one of the most productive receiver classes in league history (Beckham/Landry/Evans/Cooks and more). Robert Woods was a top 40 pick and enjoying a breakout year. Cooper Kupp is a strong third round rookie and Tavon Austin — another top 10 overall draft pick!—is a luxury item the team slides in there to force mismatches and impact the return game.

It’s hard to find a weakness.

The Saints don’t win many positional matchups between these teams in terms of talent.

But New Orleans does have one advantage, and it very well could decide the game: Goff is a pup, while Drew Brees is a Hall of Famer in waiting. Goff is having an excellent season, but I’d be hard pressed to take Goff over Brees as my quarterback in a must-win game. The experience gap is far too large for that.

And for that matter, you’d be hard pressed to take any quarterback in the NFC field over Drew Brees with Wentz and Aaron Rodgers out of the picture. Cam Newton and Matt Ryan are good, but Brees is Brees.

The Rams are my pick, indeed. But in the one season of the Brees era that almost seems to be about everyone but Drew Brees, it may yet be Brees who proves the difference-maker yet again.


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