Go ahead, pick a team to represent the NFC in Super Bowl LI.
Here’s my educated guess: Whoever you picked is significantly flawed.
The NFC is wide open, and somehow the most stable contender has a rookie quarterback and a rookie running back. The Dallas Cowboys are as good of a pick as anyone.
It’s not like Dallas is a balanced power on both sides of the ball. The defense ranks in the middle of the league or worse at almost every statistical category (though they do a fairly good job of limiting long pass plays). The win on Sunday night shouldn’t blow anyone away. They needed a big comeback in the fourth quarter to pull out an overtime win over the Philadelphia Eagles at home.
But here’s what they do well: They run the ball. They lead the NFL in time of possession, limiting the time the defense is on the field. Rookie quarterback Dak Prescott is protected well by a great offensive line and he has been remarkably efficient. This is exactly how the Cowboys played in 2014, and they were a Super Bowl contender then (Dez caught it). Just replace DeMarco Murray and Tony Romo with Ezekiel Elliott and Prescott. It’s the same formula.
Yet, if you’re all in on the Cowboys, you’re banking on a mediocre defense, an offense built around a rookie back on pace for 398 touches and a rookie quarterback who started to show a few signs of slowing down with a sluggish performance on Sunday night (14 of 34 for 231 yards in regulation before a huge overtime). And then there’s the whole potential Romo distraction when he gets healthy.
I figure many of you picked the Cowboys to that first question at the top of this post. It’s hard to take Seahawks (which hasn’t looked right), Packers (massive injury issues and no running game), Falcons (bad defense), Vikings (bad offense) or anyone else in the NFC. At least the Cowboys have a shiny record and a two-game lead in their division.
If you have to pick someone to win the NFC, maybe the best option is to take a team that does at least a few things really well. The Cowboys apply.
Here are the power rankings after Week 8 of the NFL season:
32. San Francisco 49ers (1-6, Last week: 32)
I’m not sure why a Torrey Smith trade hasn’t happened. Are the one-win 49ers holding out to get more for a receiver they don’t really use? Isn’t that what happened this past offseason with Colin Kaepernick?
31. Cleveland Browns (0-8, LW: 31)
The Jamie Collins trade makes a lot of sense for them. They need playmakers. They can afford to front-load a big contract for him. If someone else signs Collins next offseason, they’ll get a compensatory pick that’ll make up for the one they gave up. It’s hard to find a downside.
30. Jacksonville Jaguars (2-5, LW: 29)
Blake Bortles is reportedly bringing in his own quarterbacks coach to work on his fundamentals. Something needs to change. It’s hard to watch him play lately. I’ve seen baseball pitchers with a more compact windup.
29. Chicago Bears (2-6, LW: 30)
Just when the Bears thought they were out on Jay Cutler, he pulls them back in.
28. New York Jets (3-5, LW: 27)
Ryan Fitzpatrick first half vs. Cleveland: 3 of 14, 30 yards. Ryan Fitzpatrick second half: 13 of 20, 198 yards. Because that makes sense.
27. Miami Dolphins (3-4, LW: 26)
The next time the Dolphins play a team with a winning record? Jan. 1 against the Patriots, in Week 17. The Dolphins aren’t very good, but the schedule is easy.
26. Los Angeles Rams (3-4, LW: 25)
Now that Jared Goff is getting a few first-team reps in practice, when’s the most likely date for him to actually see the field? At home against the Dolphins on Nov. 20? At the Saints the following week? When Jeff Fisher signs a contract extension?
25. Indianapolis Colts (3-5, LW: 22)
That had to be a disheartening loss. At home, the Colts had very little running game, couldn’t stop Chiefs backup Nick Foles (after Alex Smith was knocked out of the game) and were never really in the game. And next up is a trip to Lambeau Field.
24. Baltimore Ravens (3-4, LW: 21)
Rookie running back Kenneth Dixon was reportedly getting some more practice reps before the Ravens bye. Now that he has had a chance to rest and get healthier over the bye, it’ll be interesting to see when the Ravens turn their running game over to him.
23. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (3-4, LW: 20)
The Buccaneers’ top priority has to be getting a No. 2 receiver. It’s Mike Evans and not enough else for Jameis Winston. Getting more options for him to throw to is crucial for his development.
22. Carolina Panthers (2-5, LW: 28)
Thanks for showing up to the season, Panthers. That’s the team we expected to see. Now the question is whether they can make a playoff run. They’re two-and-a-half games behind the first-place Falcons. it seems there will be a lot of competition for wild-card spots. If you assume 9-7 doesn’t make it, the Panthers still need to win eight of nine to get to 10-6.
21. New Orleans Saints (3-4, LW: 23)
Mark Ingram was benched after an early fumble, and Tim Hightower rushed for a hard 102 yards against a tough Seahawks defense. Ingram hasn’t been very good this season and there’s not much reason to give him Hightower’s carries next week.
20. Tennessee Titans (4-4, LW: 24)
Last season DeMarco Murray had 702 yards in 15 games with the Eagles. He has 756 yards in eight games with the Titans.
19. Detroit Lions (4-4, LW: 14)
Ezekiel Ansah has played five games. He has six tackles and no sacks. Last season Ansah had 14.5 sacks. If the Lions are going to make a playoff push, Ansah has to play like he did in 2015. Injuries have kept him from that so far.
18. San Diego Chargers (3-5, LW: 18)
Melvin Gordon had his best game as a pro on Sunday. He had 111 yards, the first 100-yard rusher a great Broncos defense had allowed since Jamaal Charles on Sept. 17, 2015. That’s something to build on.
17. Cincinnati Bengals (3-4-1, LW: 17)
Tyler Eifert is back. He had 102 yards and a touchdown on nine catches Sunday. He’ll take some pressure off A.J. Green.
16. Houston Texans (5-3, LW: 19)
It’s a really weird 5-3 team because so little of the news around the Texans seems positive. And I don’t think anyone is really buying them as a good team even though they’re one of only eight NFL teams with at least five wins and a couple (Chiefs, Lions) are solid wins.
15. Buffalo Bills (4-4, LW: 13)
Mike Gillislee looked pretty good in an extended role, with 85 yards on 12 carries. If LeSean McCoy has to miss more time, the Bills don’t have to worry about the running game.
14. Arizona Cardinals (3-4-1, LW: 11)
Do-everything safety Tyrann Mathieu is out a reported 3-6 weeks with a shoulder injury. Left tackle Jared Veldheer went on injured reserve with a triceps injury. Combine that with how bad they looked Sunday against the Panthers, and it looks like a talented team is having a lost season.
13. New York Giants (4-3, LW: 16)
The next two weeks: home games against the Eagles and Bengals. If the Giants want to go somewhere this season, those are the types of games they better win.
12. Washington Redskins (4-3-1, LW: 15)
I can’t rip Jay Gruden too much for being conservative in overtime. Your kicker has to make a 34-yard field goal, period.
11. Philadelphia Eagles (4-3, LW: 12)
Carson Wentz’s strange game – per Pro Football Reference, it was the first time in NFL history a quarterback attempted 40 or more passes, hit on 70 percent or higher and averaged fewer than 5 yards per attempt (h/t @cianaf) – makes you wonder if the coaching staff isn’t letting him do enough, the receivers aren’t good enough or if Wentz is too hesitant to throw downfield. It isn’t just Sunday night; all season Wentz hasn’t been too keen on pushing the ball downfield.
10. Green Bay Packers (4-3, LW: 8)
I know injuries are ravaging them, but I don’t know how far they can get with a running game that’s centered around fullback Aaron Ripkowski. I suppose they figure James Starks gets healthy and provides something, because they cut Knile Davis on Monday, two weeks after trading for him. But what they’re doing now isn’t a long-term answer.
9. Pittsburgh Steelers (4-3, LW: 10)
Ben Roethlisberger was participating a bit at practice on Monday. You knew he’d be back ahead of the timetable he had from a knee injury.
8. Oakland Raiders (6-2, LW: 9)
The Raiders are in a great spot, but also a strange spot. They’re 6-2 but tied in the loss column with two other AFC West teams. Even at 6-2 it doesn’t seem like they have much room for error. Next Sunday night’s home game against the Broncos is enormous for them.
7. Minnesota Vikings (5-2, LW: 4)
I remember two weeks ago, when Vikings fans were screaming at me that not having their team No. 1 ahead of the Patriots was a travesty of justice. Ah, memories.
6. Atlanta Falcons (5-3, LW: 7)
I’m not really sure what more Matt Ryan has to do to be viewed as the MVP frontrunner. Unless you want to give it to Tom Brady after four games (which isn’t unfair).
5. Kansas City Chiefs (5-2, LW: 6)
Dee Ford had 3.5 sacks on Sunday. If Justin Houston returns and looks like himself, the Chiefs are going to have a really nice pass-rushing duo. The Chiefs could make huge strides in the second half, and they’re pretty good already.
4. Seattle Seahawks (4-2-1, LW: 2)
I’ll go down with the ship on this: This is the team with the highest upside in the NFC and if they ever get it clicking, they’ll go back to a Super Bowl. But it keeps getting harder to maintain patience for them to start looking like the Seahawks again.
3. Denver Broncos (6-2, LW: 5)
They’ll need to find a No. 2 back, with C.J. Anderson out. Kapri Bibbs was the No. 2 tailback on Sunday and he had 4 yards on two carries. Devontae Booker will be fine as a starter. But over the long term they need more than one tailback in that offense.
2. Dallas Cowboys (6-1, LW: 3)
The one thing that could derail them is if Ezekiel Elliott gets hurt or just starts to slow down. He has at least 22 carries in six of seven games, and he isn’t afraid to take on defenders. It’s hard for anyone to maintain that pace, especially a rookie.
1. New England Patriots (7-1, LW: 1)
I don’t understand the Jamie Collins trade for them. They could have gotten a compensatory pick for him had he left as a free agent. If they were somehow upset at his play, then just bench him. I can’t figure how they’re closer to a Super Bowl this season without him.
– – – – – – –