BY NICK LEWIS
Featured photo: NFC logo. NFL.com photo
The National Football League is experiencing a unique phenomenon this season. Entering the ninth week, there were 20 teams with between three and five wins. There are six teams above five wins, and six teams below three wins. Most teams were near the middle of the pack, with few being excellent and few playing very poorly.
In the NFC, there are two teams fighting for the top seed in the playoffs. Aside from that, the majority of teams are fighting for their ticket to play in December. Ten of the 16 teams in the NFC fall between three and five wins.
However, only six teams make it to the bright lights. These are the teams with the strongest chance to do so.
No. 1 Seed: Los Angeles Rams (8-1, 3-0 DIV)
No one should be surprised to see this. The Rams have easily been the most dominant team in the NFL this year. They currently have a 99-plus point differential, the second-best in the league by far. What is the top team? That would be the Kansas City Chiefs, at 101-plus.
The Rams’ offense has completely dominated their opponents this season. Running back Todd Gurley is currently on pace for 1,600 yards and 22 touchdowns in the running game alone. He is clearly their top offensive weapon. No team can just load the box and try to stop him. Jared Goff has developed into a very good quarterback, and head coach Sean McVay is an offensive mastermind.
On defense, it always helps to have arguably the best player in the league on your defensive line. Aaron Donald has been an absolute force this season, tallying 30 tackles, 10 sacks and a forced fumble through eight games.
This may be one of the reasons that the Rams boast the top-rushing defense, allowing just 76.4 rushing yards per game. He is the anchor of the Rams’ strong defense and allows a lot more creativity for defensive coordinator Wade Phillips with the coverages he chooses to run.
Following a tough loss to the New Orleans Saints, the Rams will look to return to dominance against the Seattle Seahawks this week. The Rams also host Kansas City the following week on Monday Night Football. If they come out of that game victorious, it is hard to see them losing any more games this season.
No. 2 Seed: New Orleans Saints (7-1, 1-1 DIV)
The Saints have found their niche with their team this season. The offense is one of the three most dynamic in the league, and the defense has sneakily been very good. This is largely in part to their strong veterans and the development of very good draft picks by the organization.
Head coach Sean Payton consistently provides this team with a dangerous offense. Michael Thomas, Cameron Meredith, Benjamin Watson and Alvin Kamara are just a few of the plethora of weapons the Saints have at their disposal.
Kamara, who won Offensive Rookie of the Year last season, is a different breed of running back. He has 490 yards rushing and 427 yards receiving, averaging 101.8 yards from scrimmage per game. Oh, and let us not forget about quarterback Drew Brees, who many are considering a contender for MVP this season.
On defense, the Saints are beginning to see some of their young players develop very well. Marshon Lattimore, former Defensive Rookie of the Year, has continued to play well as the No. 1 corner.
Safety Marcus Williams has bounced back well from the “Minneapolis Miracle,” tallying 29 tackles and an interception. Cameron Jordan and Sheldon Rankins lead this defensive line, resulting in the Saints boasting the top rushing defense in the NFL this year.
The Saints made a statement and put the rest of the league on notice in Week 9, toppling the undefeated Rams. The combination of a prolific offense along with a stout rushing defense will push Sean Payton’s team into the postseason again this year.
No. 3 Seed: Washington Redskins (5-3, 2-0 DIV)
The Redskins and head coach Jay Gruden appear to have finally taken the next step in their evolution as a team. With statement wins against the Packers, Cowboys and Panthers, the Redskins have let the league know that they are here to stay.
On offense, it is clear who the main weapon is. Running back Adrian Peterson has revived his career, averaging just shy of five yards per rush and giving the Redskins a strong rushing attack. They are 10th in the league with 121.9 rushing yards per game.
At quarterback, you can rely on quarterback Alex Smith to run a West Coast offense and limit turnovers. The Redskins may not have the most dynamic offense, but it gets the job done.
The Redskins’ defense has surpassed many fans’ expectations in all areas, but the Redskins are particularly dominant in run defense. They rank fifth in the league in this category, allowing a stingy 89.4 rushing yards per game. They played possibly their best game when holding Dallas running back Ezekiel Elliott to just 33 yards on 15 carries.
Washington also has a strong pass defense. This comes in part due to star safety DJ Swearinger. Swearinger has shown time and time again that he is the best player on that defense. The addition of Ha Ha Clinton-Dix at the trade deadline will give Washington one of the best, if not the best, safety duos in the NFL.
With Philadelphia and Dallas struggling to find their identity, Gruden and the Redskins have a fantastic chance to wrap up the NFC East and make some noise in the postseason.
No. 4 Seed: Minnesota Vikings (5-3-1, 1-0-1 DIV)
The Vikings decided to aggressively pursue quarterback Kirk Cousins this offseason, handing him a three-year contract for $84 million, fully guaranteed. Cousins has played well, but the Vikings have not been finding the success they expected to have this season.
The team’s problem has not been the quarterback. Cousins currently ranks second in the league in passing yards, just five yards behind breakout star Patrick Mahomes. He is completing 71.4 percent of his passes, with 17 touchdowns and just five interceptions.
Wide receiver Adam Thielen has also been a bonafide star receiver, as he tied Calvin Johnson’s record with eight straight 100-yard receiving games. Even with Dalvin Cook injured, running back Latavius Murray has played well in his absence, averaging 4.5 yards per carry.
No, the Vikings’ problem has largely been the defense. While it has the fourth best rushing defense in the league, Minnesota has struggled against the pass this season. It ranks 11th in the league and has struggled with the passing attacks of the Saints, Packers and Rams.
Minnesota still has to weather the storm of its second-half schedule, which consists of five division games and matchups against the Patriots, Seahawks and Dolphins. If they can continue their offensive production and get back to the defensive juggernaut they were last season, the Vikings should be able to claim the NFC North this season.
Wild Card No. 1: Carolina Panthers (6-2, 1-1 DIV)
The Panthers are hampered only by the fact that they share the NFC South with the New Orleans Saints. The Panthers have established that they have the talent and ability to put up a fight against any team in the NFL.
On offense, the Panthers have a very effective zone read scheme with Cam Newton and Christian McCaffrey. It is no secret that Newton is the best mobile quarterback in the NFL, but he has further developed his game as a thrower of the football in 2018.
Not only has he thrown for 1,893 yards and 15 touchdowns, he also has pounded out 342 yards on the ground with four touchdowns. Wide receiver Devin Funchess has taken a step forward this season as a No. 1 receiver, and rookie D.J. Moore has shown flashes of potential out of the slot.
The defense of the Panthers is one that no offensive coordinator wants to face on Sunday. The Panthers currently have the eighth-best defense against the rush led by perennial All-Pro inside linebacker Luke Kuechly. They also have a stout defensive line featuring Dontari Poe, Kawann Short, Mario Addison and Julius Peppers.
The Panthers defense will be put to the test this week as they travel to Heinz Field to face the high-powered offense of the Pittsburgh Steelers. Despite a few areas that could use improvement, this team has shown that they are one of the best teams in the NFL and certainly will find a way to lock up the first NFC Wild Card spot.
Wild Card No. 2: Chicago Bears (5-3, 0-1 DIV)
The Bears shocked the football world when they traded 2019 and 2020 first-round picks, as well as a third-round pick in 2020 and a sixth-round pick in 2019, to acquire linebacker Khalil Mack. The tone was set for Matt Nagy and his team to deliver this season, and they look poised to do so.
Quarterback Mitchell Trubisky has been somewhat up and down this season. However, completing 64.2 percent of his passes and delivering 16 passing touchdowns, his upside has been much higher than his downside (see six-touchdown game against Tampa Bay).
With Jordan Howard struggling, Tarik Cohen has seen an increased workload as a runner in addition to his established role as the leading receiver on the team. Taylor Gabriel has been a difference-maker out of the slot as well.
On defense, the addition of Mack provides an increase in the overall pressure on opposing quarterbacks as well as the sack totals for the team. Linebackers Danny Trevathan and Roquan Smith provide a strong, consistent presence in the linebacking corps. While Chicago has struggled in the secondary at times, the safety duo of Adrian Amos and Eddie Jackson has helped aid the back end of the defense.
Chicago must find consistency on offense and continue to play well on defense if it hopes to make the postseason this year. Similar to the Vikings, it still has five tough division games, along with a Week No. 14 matchup against the LA Rams. However, the NFC North is going to be incredibly competitive, and the Bears have a great opportunity to show the world that they are deserving of a spot in the playoffs.