Go ahead, pick a team to represent the NFC in Super Bowl LI.
Here’s my educated guess: Whoever you picked is significantly flawed.
The NFC is wide open, and somehow the most stable contender has a rookie quarterback and a rookie running back. The Dallas Cowboys are as good of a pick as anyone.
It’s not like Dallas is a balanced power on both sides of the ball. The defense ranks in the middle of the league or worse at almost every statistical category (though they do a fairly good job of limiting long pass plays). The win on Sunday night shouldn’t blow anyone away. They needed a big comeback in the fourth quarter to pull out an overtime win over the Philadelphia Eagles at home.
But here’s what they do well: They run the ball. They lead the NFL in time of possession, limiting the time the defense is on the field. Rookie quarterback Dak Prescott is protected well by a great offensive line and he has been remarkably efficient. This is exactly how the Cowboys played in 2014, and they were a Super Bowl contender then (Dez caught it). Just replace DeMarco Murray and Tony Romo with Ezekiel Elliott and Prescott. It’s the same formula.
Yet, if you’re all in on the Cowboys, you’re banking on a mediocre defense, an offense built around a rookie back on pace for 398 touches and a rookie quarterback who started to show a few signs of slowing down with a sluggish performance on Sunday night (14 of 34 for 231 yards in regulation before a huge overtime). And then there’s the whole potential Romo distraction when he gets healthy.
I figure many of you picked the Cowboys to that first question at the top of this post. It’s hard to take Seahawks (which hasn’t looked right), Packers (massive injury issues and no running game), Falcons (bad defense), Vikings (bad offense) or anyone else in the NFC. At least the Cowboys have a shiny record and a two-game lead in their division.
If you have to pick someone to win the NFC, maybe the best option is to take a team that does at least a few things really well. The Cowboys apply.
32. San Francisco 49ers (1-6, Last week: 32)
I’m not sure why a Torrey Smith trade hasn’t happened. Are the one-win 49ers holding out to get more for a receiver they don’t really use? Isn’t that what happened this past offseason with Colin Kaepernick?
31. Cleveland Browns (0-8, LW: 31)
The Jamie Collins trade makes a lot of sense for them. They need playmakers. They can afford to front-load a big contract for him. If someone else signs Collins next offseason, they’ll get a compensatory pick that’ll make up for the one they gave up. It’s hard to find a downside.
30. Jacksonville Jaguars (2-5, LW: 29)
Blake Bortles is reportedly bringing in his own quarterbacks coach to work on his fundamentals. Something needs to change. It’s hard to watch him play lately. I’ve seen baseball pitchers with a more compact windup.
29. Chicago Bears (2-6, LW: 30)
Just when the Bears thought they were out on Jay Cutler, he pulls them back in.
21. New Orleans Saints (3-4, LW: 23)
Mark Ingram was benched after an early fumble, and Tim Hightower rushed for a hard 102 yards against a tough Seahawks defense. Ingram hasn’t been very good this season and there’s not much reason to give him Hightower’s carries next week.
20. Tennessee Titans (4-4, LW: 24)
Last season DeMarco Murray had 702 yards in 15 games with the Eagles. He has 756 yards in eight games with the Titans.
19. Detroit Lions (4-4, LW: 14)
Ezekiel Ansah has played five games. He has six tackles and no sacks. Last season Ansah had 14.5 sacks. If the Lions are going to make a playoff push, Ansah has to play like he did in 2015. Injuries have kept him from that so far.
18. San Diego Chargers (3-5, LW: 18)
Melvin Gordon had his best game as a pro on Sunday. He had 111 yards, the first 100-yard rusher a great Broncos defense had allowed since Jamaal Charles on Sept. 17, 2015. That’s something to build on.
17. Cincinnati Bengals (3-4-1, LW: 17)
Tyler Eifert is back. He had 102 yards and a touchdown on nine catches Sunday. He’ll take some pressure off A.J. Green.
16. Houston Texans (5-3, LW: 19)
It’s a really weird 5-3 team because so little of the news around the Texans seems positive. And I don’t think anyone is really buying them as a good team even though they’re one of only eight NFL teams with at least five wins and a couple (Chiefs, Lions) are solid wins.
15. Buffalo Bills (4-4, LW: 13)
Mike Gillislee looked pretty good in an extended role, with 85 yards on 12 carries. If LeSean McCoy has to miss more time, the Bills don’t have to worry about the running game.
14. Arizona Cardinals (3-4-1, LW: 11)
Do-everything safety Tyrann Mathieu is out a reported 3-6 weeks with a shoulder injury. Left tackle Jared Veldheer went on injured reserve with a triceps injury. Combine that with how bad they looked Sunday against the Panthers, and it looks like a talented team is having a lost season.
13. New York Giants (4-3, LW: 16)
The next two weeks: home games against the Eagles and Bengals. If the Giants want to go somewhere this season, those are the types of games they better win.
12. Washington Redskins (4-3-1, LW: 15)
I can’t rip Jay Gruden too much for being conservative in overtime. Your kicker has to make a 34-yard field goal, period.
5. Kansas City Chiefs (5-2, LW: 6)
Dee Ford had 3.5 sacks on Sunday. If Justin Houston returns and looks like himself, the Chiefs are going to have a really nice pass-rushing duo. The Chiefs could make huge strides in the second half, and they’re pretty good already.
4. Seattle Seahawks (4-2-1, LW: 2)
I’ll go down with the ship on this: This is the team with the highest upside in the NFC and if they ever get it clicking, they’ll go back to a Super Bowl. But it keeps getting harder to maintain patience for them to start looking like the Seahawks again.
3. Denver Broncos (6-2, LW: 5)
They’ll need to find a No. 2 back, with C.J. Anderson out. Kapri Bibbs was the No. 2 tailback on Sunday and he had 4 yards on two carries. Devontae Booker will be fine as a starter. But over the long term they need more than one tailback in that offense.
2. Dallas Cowboys (6-1, LW: 3)
The one thing that could derail them is if Ezekiel Elliott gets hurt or just starts to slow down. He has at least 22 carries in six of seven games, and he isn’t afraid to take on defenders. It’s hard for anyone to maintain that pace, especially a rookie.
1. New England Patriots (7-1, LW: 1)
I don’t understand the Jamie Collins trade for them. They could have gotten a compensatory pick for him had he left as a free agent. If they were somehow upset at his play, then just bench him. I can’t figure how they’re closer to a Super Bowl this season without him.