Welcome to the latest edition of The Sunday Recap, a weekly column dedicated to thoughts on the previous day’s NFL action!
Separating the Contenders from the Pretenders in a Stacked NFC
If it wasn’t clear before, it is clear now after this past Sunday. The NFC is absolutely loaded. Ten teams currently have a winning record, and as many as six of them will enter Week 11 at least three games over .500 (Carolina is 6-3 entering its game against Miami tonight). But without a doubt, the two teams that stood out the most yesterday were New Orleans and Minnesota.
So much for my theory that the Saints’ offense isn’t as potent in the elements. Drew Brees and company stormed into chilly Buffalo and put up 47 points on a Bills scoring-defense ranked 6th in the NFL entering this past week. Ironically, Brees himself didn’t even throw a touchdown. Although the future Hall of Famer did run for one, New Orleans’ dynamic duo of Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara each totaled over 100 yards on the ground and ran for four touchdowns combined.
Meanwhile, Minnesota put together an equally impressive offensive showing in its 38-30 win at Washington. The underrated Case Keenum picked a nice time to have arguably his strongest performance of the season. With former starter Teddy Bridgewater suited up behind him for the first time since his devastating knee injury, the former undrafted free agent threw a career-high four touchdowns, two of which went to the uncoverable Adam Thielen, another undrafted free agent who now ranks 3rd in the NFL in receiving yards after a 166-yard day against the Redskins’ secondary.
Neither of these teams have lost since October 1st, which makes you wonder whether both of these 7-2 squads may be Super Bowl bound. I’ll start with my thoughts on the Saints, whose prospects look a tad brighter. What is New Orleans’ weakness, exactly? They have absolutely no concerns on the offensive end, provided everyone stays healthy. Drew Brees has been his usual self, as he is on pace to finish with a quarterback rating north of 100 for the seventh time in his illustrious career. Yet as we saw on Sunday, the Saints’ biggest strength may be its running game, which is anchored upfront by likely All-Pro center Max Unger and stud rookie tackle Ryan Ramczyk. And how about their defense? That unit has easily been one of the biggest surprises in football, as the New Orleans D, which ranked 31st in efficiency last year, now measures as one of the ten best in the league. Nine games is enough of a sample to confirm that this is no fluke, either.
I can easily envision New Orleans representing the NFC in Minneapolis this year for Super Bowl LII. Can the same be said about the team looking to lift the Lombardi trophy on their home field? For starters, Minnesota is certainly one of the more well-rounded teams in the NFL. Its offense has been surprisingly effective this year even though it lost both its starting quarterback (Sam Bradford) and running back (Dalvin Cook). And the Vikings’ defense is unequivocally one of the stingiest in the league. With Pro Bowlers Harrison Smith and Xavier Rhodes patrolling the secondary, Minnesota is allowing just 18.3 points per game.
The problem for the Vikings, though, lies at the quarterback position. There are rumblings that Teddy Bridgewater may eventually reclaim his starting job, although that would be foolish for head coach Mike Zimmer to allow for two reasons. First, it’s likely that Bridgewater would be rusty after such an extended absence. And second, Keenum has played really well this season. Thanks largely to his ability to minimize turnovers and avoid taking sacks, he now has the 3rd best Total Quarterback Rating in the NFL after his outstanding performance against Washington.
Yet even though I think Zimmer should stay the course with his current quarterback, can anyone really picture Case Keenum–whose career record as a starter was 9-16 entering this season–quarterbacking in a Super Bowl? I can’t. But that’s probably a biased judgement on my part. After all, plenty of “lousy” quarterbacks have played in the Super Bowl. A few off the top of my head: Trent Dilfer, Brad Johnson, Rex Grossman, and the 2015-version of Peyton Manning. Of course, three of those four aforementioned quarterbacks ultimately led their teams to titles, as well.
If you concealed the names of every starting quarterback and looked solely at their stats, it would make perfect sense to see a quarterback who ranks 3rd in Total QBR take a team to the Super Bowl. Keenum is an integral part of an above-average Minnesota offense that has continued to impress despite playing the NFL’s 5th-toughest slate of opposing defenses, according to Football Outsiders. Combined with their elite defense, the Vikings have a legitimate chance to play on their home field in Super Bowl LII, although I would put my money on Brees and the Saints, as well as Carson Wentz’s Philadelphia Eagles, before placing a bet on Keenum and company.
So New Orleans and Minnesota are Legit — Who Else in the NFC Can Compete for a Super Bowl?
For starters, there is no doubt that the 8-1 Eagles sit atop the NFC hierarchy at this point. No need for an in-depth discussion: they are well-coached, well-quarterbacked, and formidable in the trenches. Philadelphia remains the favorite to win the conference.
But the other team I want to lump in the same category as the Saints and Vikings is Los Angeles. Yet again, the Rams notched another commanding win, albeit over a Texans team in freefall after losing Deshaun Watson. Regardless, LA now has four wins by at least 21 points after beating Houston 33-7. Jared Goff threw three touchdowns without an interception in the victory — he now has a terrific 16/4 touchdown-to-interception ratio on the season. Defensive tackle Aaron Donald also recorded another sack. The two-time All-Pro figures to remain in the thick of the Defensive Player of the Year race until season’s end.
The Rams entered the week ranked number one in Football Outsiders’ DVOA metric, which measures team efficiency adjusted for opponent strength. They’re a contender, although I have my doubts about Jared Goff in January in the event LA finds themselves on the road at, say, Philadelphia, where it could be freezing.
There’s a drop-off after the four aforementioned teams. So I suppose you could call this the “pretender” category. First there is Seattle. The Seahawks were looking good a couple weeks ago, but after losing Richard Sherman to a season-ending achilles injury, the Legion of Boom no longer strikes the same fear in opposing offenses. Plus, as evidenced by their loss to Washington, I think the Seahawks have lost some of their home-field mystique. Combined with an offensive line that continuously puts Russell Wilson into uncomfortable positions, Seattle is no longer a threat to win the NFC.
Next there is Carolina. The Panthers may be 6-3 and possess one of the better defenses in the NFL, but they’ve had to grind out many of their victories. With an offense that ranks in the bottom half in many offensive categories, I don’t expect them to make much noise in the playoffs. On a similar note, I don’t see big things in store for Matthew Stafford and the 5-4 Lions either. Detroit doesn’t do anything particularly well offensively (17th in passing; 32nd in rushing) and its defense is good, but certainly not great (it ranks 11th in opponent yards per play). The Lions are simply overshadowed by a group of superior teams in the NFC.
Then there are two intriguing teams currently on the outside looking in: Atlanta and Dallas. The Falcons prevailed against the Cowboys yesterday in big fashion, with Matt Ryan responding to an early 7-0 deficit by leading the defending NFC champs to 27 unanswered points. I said in my Week 10 predictions article that Atlanta was likely due for a breakout offensively seeing that it led the NFL in yards per play entering the week, yet ranked only 17th in points per game. Well, it appears the turnaround may be in motion, as the Falcons posted their highest point total since Week 3. This makes Atlanta dangerous because if its offense can regain its form, it will potentially make all of the higher seeds nervous in the first two rounds of the playoffs.
The real story from this game, however, was how the Cowboys offense was dominated by the Atlanta defense. Adrian Clayborn, where did he come from? The rotational edge rusher had six sacks and was easily the biggest reason why Dallas was held to its lowest point total of the season. So should the Cowboys be worried? Yes, they should. Dallas ran for a respectable 93 yards on the ground, but considering it was up against a 29th-ranked Falcons run defense, that isn’t all that impressive. The Cowboys clearly missed Ezekiel Elliott, and with a schedule that ranks as the 6th-toughest the rest of the way, I bet Dallas will ultimately be the odd team out in the NFC playoff picture despite being a team that none of the contenders would want to play should the Cowboys make the postseason.
Monday Night Prediction
Miami Dolphins vs Carolina Panthers
Spread: CAR -9 Over/Under: 38
DVOA: MIA (31) < CAR (14)
Neither offense inspires much confidence: Carolina ranks 24th in scoring; Miami 32nd. But I trust the Panthers’ stout defense to shut down Jay Cutler and company, although I think the nine-point spread is a little high.