The NFC is up for grabs
Call the NFC the little conference that could. Sixteen teams chug, chug, chugging along, hoping to become the sacrificial offering for New England in Glendale, Ariz., on Feb. 3.
As the halfway mark approaches, make Dallas a solid favorite to win the conference, with the Packers and Giants right behind them.
Green Bay may be a little tarnished, but New York (five straight wins) is moving up quickly. Even Chicago has a shot to get back to where it was last season as Brian Griese morphs into the anti-Rex Grossman.
At the very least, the NFC is wide-open enough to make the rest of its season a lot more interesting than the AFC, where the order of merit seems to have been decided. In other words, everyone except Bill Belichick seems to have conceded the Vince Lombardi Trophy to the Patriots, unless they stumble over Indianapolis.
No one questions whether the AFC is better at the top, but the NFC East, with a combined record of 17-9, is one of the two best divisions in the NFL. The AFC South (16-7) is the only other division with single-digit losses.
New England’s dominance also is made easier by the ineptitude of the other three teams in the AFC East, which is a combined 10-17. Until Buffalo’s win Sunday over Baltimore, no AFC East team other than the 7-0 Patriots had won a game against a non-division opponent.
On the other hand, the NFC East could produce three of the six conference playoff teams: Cowboys, Giants and maybe the Redskins. Assuming New York beats 0-7 Miami in London next week, the Cowboys’ Nov. 11 visit to the Meadowlands becomes the NFC’s biggest game this season.
No, it’s not as big as New England at Indianapolis the week before, but certainly more meaningful than the New England-Dallas “Game of the Century,” which had little impact on the standings in either conference.
Here’s a look at the NFC “contenders.”
1. Dallas (6-1): Clearly the favorite. Dallas is the only team to lead New England in the second half of any game this season. The secondary is vulnerable: S Roy Williams remains weak in coverage and they miss CB Anthony Henry, who has the dreaded high ankle sprain, which can keep him out a long time. As long as Terrell Owens hangs on to the ball, the offense is the most explosive in the conference, and Marion Barber is an underrated running back. DT Tank Johnson will be on board for the Giants game, beefing up the run defense, although Tank and T.O. together may be a problem in waiting for coach Wade Phillips.
2. New York Giants (5-2): The Giants allowed 80 points in losses to the Cowboys and Packers the first two weeks. They have allowed four offensive touchdowns in the last 18 quarters. The pass-rushing quartet of Osi Umenyiora (8 sacks), Justin Tuck (7), Matthias Kiwanuka (42), and Michael Strahan (4) is as good as any in the last decade. Strahan said after getting 22 on Sunday: “I tend to get better as the season goes along.”
Eli Manning, who has become an excellent game manager, has combined with Plaxico Burress for eight TDs, and the trio of Brandon Jacobs, Derrick Ward and Reuben Droughns is averaging 4.8 yards a carry behind an unsung line. Hey, even the retired Tiki Barber, a certified Giants-basher, said Sunday he likes his old team.
3. Green Bay (5-1): The lack of a dependable running game—an NFL-last 65.7 yards per game—will continue to put pressure on Brett Favre, who in his last two starts has begun forcing things again. The defense seems to make plays at the right time, such as Charles Woodson’s return of Santana Moss’ fumble that beat Washington. The Pack may have to hold off Chicago to win the North.
4. Chicago (3-4): Just a guess, but Sunday’s win in Philadelphia may have turned around the season. The 97-yard drive Griese orchestrated for the winning touchdown with no timeouts in the final 2 minutes is something Grossman could not have done. If the defense isn’t up to last year’s standards, Devin Hester is starting to become a threat at wide receiver as well as a return man (three catches for 41 yards on Sunday). They still need a running game. If they can’t catch the Packers, they can compete for a wild-card spot.
5. Washington (4-2). Probably should have lost to Arizona on Sunday. How many teams win when they are outgained 364-160? On the other hand, the Redskins lost in Green Bay in a game they dominated. They have a solid defense and decent offense at times, and Jason Campbell will become a good NFL quarterback. They have to go to Foxborough on Sunday.
6. Carolina (4-2), Tampa Bay (4-3), New Orleans (2-4), Detroit (4-2). And the entire NFC West.
In some ways, the Cardinals look like the West’s best team. Even with Kurt Warner playing with one arm, they almost won in Washington, and Ken Whisenhunt has them playing like no Arizona (or St. Louis or Chicago Cardinals) team in memory. Yes, they are 3-4 and trail inconsistent Seattle by a game, but they seem more solid. Still, Warner has to stay healthy and protect the ball. Recent history says he won’t do either.
If David Carr can stay healthy and play close to what was once his potential (No. 1 overall pick in 2002), the Panthers can probably beat out the Bucs. Tampa’s aging defense might wear down as the season moves on. The Saints have won two straight and could win a bunch more and get back in the picture if Reggie Bush plays as he did Sunday, when he was more than just an open-field threat.
The Lions give up yards and sometimes points in bunches, but are on track for their best run in the seven-season Matt Millen era. They trail the Packers by a game in the North, but, maybe because they’re the Lions, they just don’t seem to be a serious contender for either the division or a wild-card spot. Case in point: Detroit allowed eight touchdowns to the Eagles, who have scored just three other TDs all season.