During a season in which the NFC has been downright shocking and almost impossible to gauge, this weekend offered an ideal chance to find some clarity. Save for the Vikings, the lone remaining unbeaten team in both the conference and the entire league, the NFC’s top teams all played on Sunday. Conveniently, many of them faced off head-to-head.
With the Cowboys traveling to take on the Packers, and the Falcons’ top-rated offense (by Football Outsiders’ DVOA) squaring off against the Seahawks’ top-rated defense, Sunday provided a useful measuring stick for the teams that make up the surprising NFC playoff picture one-third of the way into what’s been a bizarre season. Here, in reverse order, are the conference’s top six contenders after Week 6.
6. Washington Redskins (4–2)
Through two games this fall (home losses to the Steelers and Cowboys), Washington looked like a lost cause. But following a month of additional games to paint a clearer picture of the league, it looks like the slow start for head coach Jay Gruden’s team was the result of opening against two of the better teams in the NFL.
Kirk Cousins has done all he can to cost Washington fans their sanity — his pick-six to Malcolm Jenkins late in the second quarter of a 27–20 win over the Eagles takes home the title for worst throw of the week, and midway through the third quarter he tried to throw another interception to Jenkins in the end zone — but he’s played well enough to pilot this team to four consecutive victories. With all the talent the offense has in its receiving corps and up front, this unit can scare opposing defenses.
The encouraging sign for Washington is that along with wide receiver DeSean Jackson breathing life into the downfield passing game, the running game — which finished dead last in DVOA last year — was potent against what had been one of the league’s stronger defenses through five weeks. Both Matt Jones and Robert Kelley averaged more than 8.0 yards per carry against Philadelphia, and even without tight end Jordan Reed (who missed Sunday’s game with a concussion), that sort of rushing attack, combined with Washington’s dynamic passing game, is enough to make this team a threat in the NFC.
5. Green Bay Packers (3–2)
The Packers have earned a certain level of respect based on their track record of recent success, but at this point they might be the least-imposing team hovering near the top of the NFC. For the first time in years, an Aaron Rodgers–led offense at full strength just isn’t putting the fear of god into opponents.
Green Bay scored six points through the first three quarters of a 30–16 loss on Sunday. No one is going to confuse the Cowboys’ 2016 defense (which has been a pleasant surprise in stretches) with last season’s Broncos’ group. Still, Dallas had more than enough to slow down Rodgers, who did little even when given ample time to throw.
Even the Packers’ strengths through five weeks couldn’t hold against Cowboys. Green Bay’s run defense had been excellent — up until it was tasked with stopping Ezekiel Elliott and a steamrolling offensive line.
Six weeks into this season, a team featuring Rodgers and what had been the most destructive offense in football for much of the past decade has looked depressingly mortal. Outside of a dominant first half in a 34–27 win over the Lions in Week 3, the Packers have struggled to generate points. The only other team they’ve scored more than 23 against is the Jaguars. That’s a problem, and one that doesn’t seem close to being resolved anytime soon.
4. Atlanta Falcons (4–2)
Putting the Falcons at no. 4 on this list feels like a slight, considering the showing they put together in a 26–24 loss in Seattle. But that ranking says more about the top three teams in the NFC than it does about Atlanta.
Early on against the Seahawks, the Falcons offense appeared as if it was finally overmatched. Staring down a 17–3 halftime deficit, though, Matt Ryan’s group strung together a third quarter for the ages. Atlanta’s three touchdowns in that frame were more than any offense in football could have hoped for, especially given that Seattle looked like the NFL’s most terrifying defense for much of the day.
What’s been most impressive about the Falcons offense to this point (it ranked no. 1 in DVOA before Week 6 and shouldn’t fall off much following the loss) is the number of different ways that it can move the ball. A week after its backs (Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman) roasted Denver both through the air and on the ground, Atlanta turned to receiver Julio Jones to challenge Seattle, which isn’t the worst contingency plan. He finished with 139 yards on seven catches and seemed ready to make a play any time the Falcons needed one; he almost drew a pass interference call on Atlanta’s final offensive play that could have set up a last-second field goal attempt.
If the NFL has moral victories, the Falcons going toe-to-toe with the Seahawks on the road is certainly one of them.
3. Seattle Seahawks (4–1)
During the first few weeks of this season, the Seahawks’ lack of talent along their offensive line seemed like it might be enough to doom that unit and the team’s hopes of being the class of the NFC West. We should really know better by now.
Seattle’s defense is still a suffocating, nightmare-inducing collection of talent, and it made Matt Ryan’s life a living hell during the first half on Sunday. The quarterback was hit 13 times in the game (including five times by Michael Bennett, who exited with a knee injury with 6:10 left in the third quarter after a cut block by Falcons left tackle Jake Matthews), as the Seahawks blitzed more often than usual to get the better of an Atlanta offensive line that has otherwise shined all fall.
When Seattle was on offense, Russell Wilson was at his vintage best. The Seahawks’ fourth-quarter drives featured heavy doses of Wilson magic, namely when he pulled a disappearing act to escape the grasp of both Dwight Freeney and Deion Jones on a third-and-2 before hitting tailback Alex Collins for a 9-yard gain. That led to Steven Hauschka’s game-winning 44-yard field goal.
No team in the league boasts a defense-quarterback combination quite like the one in Seattle. As long as that pairing remains intact, the Seahawks will continue to be one of the best teams in football.
2. Dallas Cowboys (5–1)
The Packers’ run defense entered Week 6 surrendering 1.99 yards per carry, the best mark of the modern era four games into a season. Zeke Elliott and the Dallas offense found that to be adorable.
For the fourth straight game, Elliott racked up at least 130 rushing yards (157 this time, on 28 carries) as the Cowboys rolled to a 30–16 victory. Dallas marched down the field on its opening drive before eventually capping it with a 1-yard Dak Prescott–to–Cole Beasley touchdown.
At this point, that drive — and the team’s 424 yards of total offense — are a sign of where the Cowboys sit in the NFL hierarchy. With the league’s premier running game and the dazzling play of Prescott, Dallas has become virtually unstoppable. Prescott’s final series of the first half, which started at his own 3-yard line with one minute remaining, might have been the best in the NFL this season. A 26-yard handoff and a beautiful completion to Terrance Williams down the right sideline were all this unit needed to get within striking distance of the end zone. Prescott finished the job with a picturesque throw to Brice Butler for a 20-yard touchdown.
Prescott’s stats (18-of-27 for 247 yards with three scores) were ridiculous, and even as he threw his first interception — a poor decision on a third-down pass aimed at Jason Witten deep in Dallas territory — the rookie quarterback had what might have been his most impressive outing to date. Six weeks into the season, the Dallas offense, which should be no. 1 in DVOA after this win, has emerged as one of the league’s best units on either side of the ball.
The Cowboys have been steadfast in saying that Tony Romo’s job is waiting for him when he returns from a back injury. Given how Prescott is playing, though, that decision is starting to border on irresponsible. Loyalty doesn’t feel like enough of a reason to risk losing this version of the Dallas offense.
1. Minnesota Vikings (5–0)
I’m going by college football rules here: If the no. 1 team is idle, it retains the top spot in the rankings. Minnesota remains the only undefeated team in the NFL, and with Sam Bradford playing at a high caliber, the Vikings have enough on offense to complement a defense that has more talent than any unit in the league. By the way, the Cowboys will be in Minneapolis on December 1, which happens to be a Thursday. Think about Zeke and the Cowboys’ line against the Vikings defense. I just got chills.
The Starting 11
A look at 11 big story lines, key developments, and interesting tidbits from this week in the NFL.
1. The universe does not want us to have the best version of the Steelers offense. As if another clunker on the road against a bad team wasn’t bad enough, Pittsburgh got more awful news on Sunday night. Ben Roethlisberger, who went to the locker room after hurting his knee in the second quarter of a 30–15 loss to the Dolphins, was diagnosed with a torn meniscus. As of now, his outlook is unclear.
Roethlisberger is set to have surgery this week, at which point the Steelers should get a more definitive timetable for his return. Pittsburgh fortunately has a bye after Week 7’s matchup against New England, so there’s a chance that Roethlisberger could miss only a single game if he has a partial tear. If the damage is more serious, though, the Steelers would face life with Landry Jones for an extended period.
Both the Bengals and Ravens are bumbling, so a month without Roethlisberger wouldn’t be the death sentence for the Steelers’ playoff chances that it might have been in years past. Still, losing the early-season MVP is a major blow. Even with all of Pittsburgh’s talent on offense, this is among the most costly injuries imaginable. With the Patriots looming next Sunday, there won’t be much time to adjust.
2. Rob Gronkowski embraced his inner heel in Week 6, and it was glorious. Gronk laid waste to the Cincinnati defense in a 35–17 win on Sunday (seven catches for 162 yards and a touchdown), and while that shouldn’t be particularly surprising, the style in which he did it was new.
At the end of a 29-yard Gronk reception midway through the fourth quarter, Bengals cornerback Adam Jones dove at the tight end’s knees. Considering that type of hit once resulted in a season-ending injury for Gronk, he took offense to the play. As he chirped at Jones, who was sitting on the field, linebacker Vontaze Burfict stepped in. Things (shockingly) escalated.
Somehow no flags were thrown, and on the very next play Gronk hauled in a 12-yard catch and proceeded to let the Bengals know about it on his way back to the huddle. Cincy’s defense went berserk, and Gronk continued to scream and stomp his way to a 15-yard taunting penalty a full 30 seconds after the play had ended. It was as if the reaction he incited from all 11 Bengals allowed him to fully realize the extent of his shit-giving powers. Bill Belichick was less than pleased, but as far as I’m concerned, we should always get this version of Gronk.
3. The Bengals’ red-zone offense should be set to “Yakety Sax.” Cincinnati came into Sunday’s game ranked 29th in the NFL in touchdowns per red-zone drive, and its struggles to punch the ball into the end zone continued against the Pats. Midway through the first half, the Bengals marched from their own 10-yard line all the way to New England’s 1-yard line. And that’s where they stopped.
After bringing in nose tackle Domata Peko as a fullback on second-and-1, Cincinnati rushed for no gain, threw a terrible incomplete pass to A.J. Green on a fade route, and then slammed Gio Bernard into the line on fourth-and-goal. Not having tight end Tyler Eifert, who is still out with an injury, was always going to be a problem for the Bengals. I just never figured his absence would be enough to turn Cincy into one of the league’s worst offenses near the goal line.
4. Twists and stunts on the interior of the line have worked wonders for NFL defenses this season. It seems that units across the league have been testing the discipline and patience of offensive lines even more than usual by sending players darting into different gaps to cause mass confusion.
This sack by the Patriots — a play designed to take advantage of backup center T.J. Johnson — is a perfect example. Defensive end Jabaal Sheard bolts from A-gap to A-gap as linebacker Dont’a Hightower sits back and waits for his lane to emerge. For teams without a dominant edge presence, these types of tricks are the best way to manufacture pressure. New England’s linebackers are the perfect group to make them work.
5. Yeah, that’s why Odell Beckham Jr.’s antics are worth it. Beckham can bask beneath the kicking net all he wants to if he’s going to play like he did in a 27–23 win over the Ravens. With 222 yards on eight catches — including the game-winning 66-yard score — Beckham was the Giants offense on Sunday. His fourth-quarter touchdown was the type of play that’s made Beckham one of the league’s most valuable weapons since his rookie campaign in 2014.
Beckham’s one-handed wizardry looks great, but his best asset is his ability to take a 5-yard slant to the house at any given moment. New York’s offense isn’t nearly as dangerous as I thought it’d be coming into the season, but when Beckham is at his best it doesn’t even matter.
6. The Lions defense has officially become the league’s worst. Detroit’s 31-point outburst against the Rams was enough to take home a win in Week 6, but there’s no greater indictment of a defense than Case Keenum — Case Keenum! — going 27-of-32 passing for 321 yards with three touchdowns.
The Rams offense came into Sunday’s game ranked 31st in offensive DVOA. It was able to move the ball seemingly at will against Detroit. The Lions certainly miss linebacker DeAndre Levy, who is out with quad and knee injuries, but their defensive woes go far beyond a single player. This unit is broken, and right now there’s no easy fix.
7. The nadir of the once-great Panthers defense has arrived. Some late-game heroics from Cam Newton and the Carolina offense almost saved the day — and possibly the Panthers’ season — during a 41–38 loss in New Orleans. But they weren’t enough on an afternoon that saw Drew Brees throw for 465 yards with four touchdowns. The Saints are always a threat to explode on offense at home, but Sunday’s outburst was about more than just a great outing from Brees and Co. Without a natural pass rush, the Panthers are scrambling on defense, and having to rely on unproven cornerbacks — a group that includes rookie Zack Sanchez and Jaguars castoff Teddy Williams — while blitzing has spelled disaster.
8. Sunday was a banner day for Titans receivers past and present. No team in the league has cycled through highly drafted pass catchers quite like Tennessee has, and for one beautiful week seemingly every receiver who has worn a Titans uniform in recent years had a moment.
Kenny Britt roasted the Lions for 136 yards on seven catches while enjoying his best game as a member of the Rams. Kendall Wright made the grab of the day, an absurd, leaping reception that resulted in a 48-yard touchdown. And even the much-maligned Justin Hunter hauled in a 30-yard score in Buffalo’s win over the 49ers. Watching it all happen in such short order felt like some sort of cosmic event.
9. Wright was excellent in the Titans’ 28–26 win over the Browns, but he wasn’t even the best receiver on the field. Terrelle Pryor developing into a legitimate weapon for Cleveland has been one of the NFL’s best stories this season. He caught nine passes on Sunday, for 75 yards with two touchdowns, but that stat line doesn’t do justice to the impact he had on the Browns offense.
Pryor’s first score came on a leaping catch in double coverage from 7 yards out, one play after he stuck out his left hand and corralled a third-down throw that gave Cleveland a first down from the 11-yard line. By now, Pryor is much more than a fascinating case of a talented player switching positions. He’s among the most dangerous pass catchers in the league. Even typing that sentence is bizarre.
10. It turns out that an offensive line featuring Branden Albert and Laremy Tunsil is better than one with Billy Turner and Dallas Thomas. A week after Tunsil’s shower mishap and subsequent ankle injury forced him to miss the Dolphins’ loss to Tennessee, Miami finally got a full-strength version of its offensive line against the Steelers. With the left side intact, the Dolphins ran all over Pittsburgh. A late 62-yard score inflated tailback Jay Ajayi’s rushing numbers, but he managed 142 yards on his 24 carries before that. More importantly, the line kept Ryan Tannehill clean (two hits, no sacks) one week after the Titans sacked him six times.
11. Tyrod Taylor has had a curious — and excellent — couple of weeks. In last week’s 30–19 win over the Rams, Taylor threw for two touchdowns with no picks. At one point, he got so excited that he forgot who snaps the ball.
Well, in this week’s 45–16 rout of San Francisco, Taylor was at it again. In the fourth quarter, he had a trainer bring him a cup full of mouthwash. I get it. We’ve all had that grimy feeling. Now I just need to know how many teams keep dental products on hand.
An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Buffalo quarterback Tyrod Taylor lined up under the wrong lineman this Sunday against San Francisco; his mistake occurred last week in the Bills’ win over the Rams.