While the AFC features a deeper contender pool, the NFC brings more clarity near the top. Five teams enter Week 10 with one or two losses, bringing about a high-level second-half race for the conference’s lone bye.
The 2020 CBA reducing conference byes from two to one made the No. 1 seed more valuable. Only one team — the 2020 Buccaneers, in a season with limited attendance — has qualified for a Super Bowl without the benefit of a bye week over the past eight seasons. Week 9 certainly benefited the Cardinals, with the Rams, Packers and Cowboys joining the Buccaneers as two-loss teams. But eight weeks remain.
The Rams also made two major efforts to tilt the scales over the past week and change, trading for Von Miller and signing Odell Beckham Jr. Will that be enough to give them their first No. 1 seed since 2001? Los Angeles (7-2) is coming off a one-sided loss to Tennessee. The team has not lost one of its impact players the way the rest of the NFC’s top tier has, though Miller and Beckham are coming off injuries sustained with their previous teams. The Rams rank in the top 10 offensively and defensively and have made a major upgrade at quarterback, with Matthew Stafford sitting first in QBR after nine games. Road games against the Cardinals, Packers and Ravens remain, however.
Responsible for handing the Rams their first defeat, the Cardinals (8-1) are the NFL’s lone one-loss team and the only NFC squad to rank in the top five on offense and defense. The Cardinals, who have not earned a No. 1 seed since home-field advantage was introduced in the mid-1970s, have seen their defense make more strides under DC Vance Joseph. Arizona ranks second in defensive DVOA, though the team is now down J.J. Watt for potentially the rest of the season. The Cards, who have seen offseason additions A.J. Green and Rodney Hudson also play key roles in their early 30s, still face the Rams and Cowboys and have two Seahawks matchups — presumably each with Russell Wilson at the controls — in their final seven games.
Last earning the NFC’s top seed five years ago, the Cowboys (6-2) are coming off a strange loss to the Broncos — one in which they trailed 30-0 — and have seen Tyron Smith run into more injury trouble. The Cowboys are also down both DeMarcus Lawrence and Randy Gregory, the latter being placed on IR this week. Dallas’ defense gave up a franchise-most points last season, but the arrivals of Dan Quinn and Micah Parsons have helped the NFC East leaders move toward the middle of the pack on that side of the ball. No other NFC East team has more than three wins, but the Cowboys still have games against the Chiefs, Raiders, Saints and Cardinals.
While the Packers have gone through significant midseason turmoil, they are expected to have Aaron Rodgers back in Week 10. Jaire Alexander and Za’Darius Smith remain on IR, however. The NFC North leaders (7-2) signed Whitney Mercilus and have seen Rashan Gary fare well in replacing Smith. Despite Smith and Alexander’s absences, the Packers rank sixth defensively. Summer signing De’Vondre Campbell (83 tackles, which lead the Packers by nearly 30) has bolstered new DC Joe Barry‘s unit as well. Green Bay also stands to receive a boost once David Bakhtiari returns following his ACL rehab. The All-Pro left tackle spent nine weeks on Green Bay’s PUP list and is not expected to play in Week 10. The Packers still have games against the Rams, Ravens and Browns.
Tampa Bay’s second Super Bowl run came from the No. 5 slot; the franchise has never secured the NFC’s top seed. But this Bucs edition’s bye path includes an inviting second-half schedule. The defending champions play just one team — the Bills — with a winning record over their final eight. The Bucs (6-2) brought back their full nucleus from last season but have seen some of their veterans run into injury trouble. They will again be without Antonio Brown and Rob Gronkowski in Week 10, and Gronk may be facing another extended absence. Cornerback unavailability has also helped define Tampa Bay’s season, but the team is getting healthier on that front.
Which of these five teams will prevail en route to the NFC’s bye? Is there another squad that could make a stealth bid? Vote in PFR’s latest poll and weigh in with your NFC thoughts in the comments section.
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