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Where Have All the NFC’s Elite Teams Gone?

With the Cowboys, Packers, and Rams all losing this weekend, three of the NFC’s last four unbeaten teams have fallen by the wayside. Their struggles raise questions about each contender—and change the complexion of the conference hierarchy.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Before the 2019 NFL season began, most considered the NFC the league’s more powerful conference, top to bottom. Both the Rams and Saints returned the bulk of the rosters that brought them to last season’s NFC championship game. The Eagles entered the season with arguably the deepest team in the NFL. The Packers, Bears, and Vikings gave the NFC North three possible playoff contenders. No matter how it all eventually shook out, the path through the conference figured to be a treacherous one filled with quality opponents. But after Week 4, those elite teams are nowhere to be found.

The NFC entered this week’s slate of games with four undefeated teams. It left with one—and that’s partially because the 49ers were lucky enough to be on bye. The Cowboys, Rams, and Packers all fell from the ranks of the unbeaten, and they all showed serious flaws in the process. Through the first three weeks of the season, Dallas looked like the class of the NFC. The Cowboys comfortably led the league in offensive DVOA, and Dak Prescott seemed poised to have the best season of his career within first-year play-caller Kellen Moore’s wide-open, play-action-heavy scheme. But in Sunday night’s 12-10 loss to New Orleans, all those open receivers and massive running lanes disappeared. Prescott threw for 223 yards on 33 attempts while running back Ezekiel Elliott averaged just 1.9 yards per carry. For Moore, Prescott, and the red-hot Dallas offense, the loss was a reminder of just how difficult it can be to walk into a hostile road environment in prime time and face a veteran defense filled with high-end talent. Saints Pro Bowl cornerback Marshon Lattimore has had a trying year so far, but he turned in his best performance of the season while checking Amari Cooper. And even without Drew Brees under center, the Saints showed that a trip to the Superdome can still be a headache.

Dropping this game is hardly a sign that Dallas is doomed, though. Even with All Pro left tackle Tyron Smith likely out for a while with a high-ankle sprain he suffered on Sunday, the Cowboys offense will correct course in the long run. The Rams’ and Packers’ struggles, though, are harder to explain away.

After making it all the way to the Super Bowl last season, Sean McVay’s team came into the season harboring legitimate championship hopes yet again. But through Week 4, many of the issues that plagued the Rams during the second half of last season—when the offense started to falter and quality defensive coaches like Vic Fangio and Bill Belichick provided a blueprint for slowing down McVay’s play-action passing game—continue to haunt them. Quarterback Jared Goff threw for 517 yards in Sunday’s 55-40 loss to the Buccaneers, but it took him 68 attempts to do it. Goff tossed three interceptions against Tampa Bay, and two of those picks came on quick throws where the fourth-year QB failed to see an underneath defender dropping into coverage. Late last season, defenses seemed to figure out that the best strategy for containing the Rams offense was preventing play-action chunk plays and forcing Goff to dissect defenses as a dropback passer. A month into the season, the Rams QB—fresh off a four-year, $134 million contract extension that will carry a league-high $36 million cap hit in 2020—hasn’t made enough progress in that area. A year ago, in the Rams’ 38-31 Week 4 win over the Vikings, McVay’s offense ran like a high-octane machine and Goff looked like a budding star as he slung five touchdown passes against Minnesota’s vaunted defense. Now it seems both the Rams and their quarterback have regressed—and McVay is left searching for answers.

If Sunday’s performance had been a one-game aberration for Los Angeles, it’d be easier to preach patience for a talented team still sitting at 3-1. But the cracks in the foundation go beyond this week. In 2018, Goff was pressured on just 32 percent of his dropbacks, which ranked 18th among qualified QBs, according to Pro Football Focus. Through three games, that number had risen to 41.7 percent—the fourth-highest rate in the NFL. Goff was hit nine times against the Bucs on Sunday, and one of those hits caused a tipped ball and his first interception. The Bucs defense, led by breakout star Shaq Barrett, has transformed under first-year coordinator Todd Bowles, but even against a quality pass-rushing unit, the Rams offensive line no longer looks like a strength of this team. The same goes for the defensive backfield, which surrendered 385 yards and four touchdowns to Jameis Winston and got roasted by Chris Godwin all afternoon. Goff’s stagnated development lies at the center of the Rams’ problems, but he’s far from the only culprit. McVay’s team has the talent and track record to earn the benefit of the doubt, but this no longer looks like the complete squad that ran roughshod over the NFC in 2018.

Fueled by a seemingly dominant defense, the Packers looked poised to challenge the Rams as the conference’s top team, but Green Bay’s 34-27 loss to the Eagles on Thursday night featured yet another worrying performance from its run-stopping unit. Two weeks earlier, the Packers had surrendered 154 yards to Vikings running back Dalvin Cook on just 20 carries. A significant portion of that total came on Cook’s 75-yard touchdown run early in the second quarter, but even without that play the Packers still gave up 4.5 yards per carry to Cook and backup Alexander Mattison. As Rodgers and the offense worked to find their footing in Matt LaFleur’s new scheme, the defense had carried Green Bay for its first three games. But after struggling against Philadelphia, it looks like that formula for success may not be as reliable as it seemed earlier in the season.

Philly’s performance on the ground showed just how many ways the team can dominate when things are clicking. The Eagles offensive line crushed Green Bay’s front seven as Jordan Howard and Miles Sanders averaged at least 5.8 yards per carry en route to 159 combined rushing yards. Philadelphia entered Week 1 with a roster that was arguably deeper and more talented than the one that won the Super Bowl following the 2017 season. But a rash of injuries and a pair of close losses saw the Eagles sitting at 1-2 entering Week 4 and trailing the Cowboys by two games in the NFC East. The Eagles’ deficiencies in the secondary were still glaring as Aaron Rodgers threw for 422 yards and a pair of touchdowns Thursday, but with Carson Wentz, a top-five offensive line, and a loaded skill position group that will likely welcome DeSean Jackson back next week, Philly still has more than enough to keep pace with the other flawed teams vying for the NFC crown.

With the conference’s elite teams all looking mortal in Week 4, the question now is: If the Rams, Packers, and Cowboys aren’t the teams to beat in the NFC, then who is? And there’s no easy answer. The 49ers and their surprising defense are the conference’s only remaining unbeaten team, but two of their victories came against the winless Bengals and Steelers. Seattle is currently 3-1 after its blowout win over the Cardinals on Sunday, and Russell Wilson is playing like the best quarterback in the NFC. But the team’s young secondary and shaky offensive line remain potentially fatal flaws. The best performance by any team in the conference this weekend might have belonged to the Lions—who lost.

Detroit’s 34-30 nail-biter against the Chiefs was as impressive as a team can look in defeat and showed that the Lions have taken major steps forward in their second season under Matt Patricia. Coming into the season, though, the NFC’s best teams weren’t supposed to be celebrating moral victories against the AFC’s elite. Kansas City and New England were both positioned to be Super Bowl contenders, but outside of those two powerhouses, the NFC boasted virtually every other championship-caliber roster in the NFL. A month into the season, as the Chiefs and Patriots have moved to 4-0 and survived uncharacteristically sloppy showings in the process, the NFC has been left scrambling. With teams like Philadelphia and Dallas still lingering near the top of the conference, a worthy challenger will likely emerge by season’s end. But for now, the battle for NFC supremacy is far more muddled than some might have thought.