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The fatal flaw holding back each team in the NFC from contention

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The NFC is a bit of a mess. Except for the Niners, right?

Dallas Cowboys v New Orleans Saints Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images

Through four weeks, only one team in the NFC remains undefeated. Just as we all expected, it’s the 49ers.

Kyle Shanahan’s team is off to a 3-0 start after defeating the Buccaneers, Bengals, and Steelers to start the year. Although that’s no murderer’s row of opponents, it’s been enough to give San Francisco a way-too-early lead in the race for homefield advantage in the playoffs. The Cowboys, Rams, Saints, Packers, Bears, and Seahawks are all staring up at Jimmy Garoppolo through one quarter of the season.

So what are the odds the Niners can keep this up — and if they can’t, who will replace them?

The NFC was an unpredictable beast through the month of September. Philadelphia looked primed for a letdown season before upending a then-unbeaten Packers team in Green Bay. The Lions rebounded from a disappointing come-from-ahead tie against the Cardinals in Week 1 to upset the Chargers and Eagles the following two weeks. The Saints lost Drew Brees in a Week 2 loss to the Rams, then rallied behind Teddy Bridgewater to defeat the Seahawks and Cowboys. The Rams started their conference title defense with a 3-0 record, then gave up 55 (fifty-five!) points to the Buccaneers.

So while the AFC appears to be the property of either the Patriots or Chiefs, the NFC is still wide open for seemingly anyone other than Washington or Arizona. Who has the strongest claim to the throne? Let’s dig in:

Winless, and therefore unworthy of a writeup

Washington (0-4), Arizona Cardinals (0-3-1)

Right. Their fatal flaw is that they aren’t good enough yet to win games.

Heh, nope.

Atlanta Falcons (1-3)

The Falcons beat the Eagles in Week 2. In their other three games, they’ve trailed by 21, 17, and 17 at the half. Atlanta’s cache of wasted talent has been matched only by its enormous capacity for stupid mistakes through one quarter of the season.

Fatal flaw: Coaching. Dan Quinn’s team has found a way to bridge whatever skill gap he holds over opponents with a lack of preparedness.

Likely pretenders to the crown

New York Giants (2-2)

Daniel Jones breathed new life into the Giants, but he’s only beaten Washington and Tampa Bay while captaining a roster that was in rebuild mode this past offseason. New York’s offensive line has overachieved in its two-game winning streak:

However, a look at the depth chart suggests that won’t last — which is bad news for Saquon Barkley fill-in Wayne Gallman.

Fatal flaw: Overall talent. The Giants may have put their rebuild ahead of schedule, but this is still a rebuild.

Carolina Panthers (2-2)

The Panthers got their two wins by beating the Cardinals and watching the Texans throw up all over themselves. Kyle Allen is undefeated as a starter, but he cooled off significantly and looked like a backup quarterback in Houston. Cam Newton could push this team up a tier if he returns to full strength — and he says he’ll wait until he’s 100 percent, though no one’s quite sure when that will be . Still, the playing-hurt version of Cam that showed up in Weeks 1 and 2 won’t be enough to make Carolina a contender, even if this turns out to be the best Panthers defense since 2015’s 15-1 campaign.

Fatal flaw: Quarterback stability. Newton’s hurt and Allen shrank in the face of the Texans’ pass rush.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers (2-2)

The Buccaneers smothered the Panthers with their defense and lit up the Rams. They have also given up 30+ points in three of their four games so far. They’ve done that even in the midst of Shaquil Barrett’s breakout season, and he probably can’t maintain a 36-sack pace.

Tampa may have to rely on Jameis Winston to win shootouts on a weekly basis, which ... isn’t ideal. Fortunately for him, the team’s running game has made a major step forward this fall — Ronald Jones has put last year’s 1.9 yard-per-carry average deep in his rear view — and Winston has a tremendous downfield cheat code in Mike Evans, who should never be single-covered, ever.

Fatal flaw: Winston. Bruce Arians has pushed him to his strongest statistical season so far, but the QB’s biggest concern is the lack of consistency that has haunted him over four-plus seasons. If Arians can turn Winston into an every-week above-average presence behind center, he’ll earn his share of Coach of the Year votes.

They’ve still got plenty to prove

Minnesota Vikings (2-2)

The Vikings would be in the “pretender” tier if it weren’t for a still-promising defense. Kirk Cousins has fumbled six times in four games and currently holds his lowest QB rating since becoming a full-time starter in 2015. Minnesota is allowing just 4.8 yards per play, which should hold some opponents down long enough for even a diminished Cousins to walk over them. But there’s also a chance his inability to sustain an offense sinks the Vikes to the bottom of the NFC North.

Fatal flaw: Cousins. The Bears shut down Minnesota’s running game in Week 4 and the Vikings crumbled to dust when their quarterback was asked to carry his team’s offense against a great D.

Detroit Lions (2-1-1)

The Lions couldn’t take advantage of the Chiefs’ mistakes in a last-second Week 4 defeat, which is why they’re a good team and not a great one. Their Week 2 win over the Chargers looks good on paper, but in reality was a comedy of errors for an LA team that outplayed Detroit all afternoon.

On the plus side, Matthew Stafford seems to have recovered from an awful 2018. The Lions may need everything they can get from him; they’ve given up at least 373 yards in each of their four games this season.

Fatal flaw: Playing down to the level of their opponents. Matt Patricia’s early track record as a head coach indicates he’s able to get his team up for big games (vs. the Chiefs or in last year’s win against the Patriots), then struggles when he’s tasked with non-contenders — like when his team botched an 18-point fourth quarter lead in a tie against the Cardinals.

Philadelphia Eagles (2-2)

The Eagles still haven’t been able to push Carson Wentz back to his 2017 pre-injury MVP form, as the fourth-year quarterback has been solid but unspectacular (it doesn’t help that one of his most targeted receivers has an utterly memeable penchant for drops). Philadelphia needs him to be better if its pass defense can’t improve. The Eagles have allowed 7.4 net yards per pass attempt through four games, 25th-best in the NFL. They’ve given up 300+ passing yards in three of those games.

Fatal flaw: The pass rush. While Philly’s cornerbacks have been brutal to watch, they’ve gotten little help from their front seven. The Eagles rank dead last in the league in sack rate (1.7 percent).

Los Angeles Rams (3-1)

First things first: this team gave up 55 points to Tampa Bay. That was enough to drop LA from the top tier down to the “prove it” group. The Rams’ defense has been uneven to start the year, sandwiching two strong performances between Winston’s shredding and a season opener that saw a hurt Cam Newton put up 27 points. Los Angeles has struggled to get off the field on third down and is suspect in the red zone, turning a talented lineup on paper into a middling unit in practice.

Fatal flaw: Jared Goff’s sudden regression. The fourth-year quarterback has been sacked less than ever before (his 4.4 percent sack rate is the lowest of his career), but he’s getting worse protection than he did a year prior. He’s throwing deep less often (his average throw depth has fallen from 8.2 yards in 2018 to 7.4 this year) and is getting picked off more — his six interceptions lead the league.

Even though there have been some extenuating circumstances that led to this explosion of turnovers, it’s clear that right now, Goff isn’t the MVP candidate he was in 2018. The biggest culprit has been a suddenly-awful offensive line in front of him; if that group can return to its ‘18 form (or even something close), LA should be fine.

That’s a big if, though.

I want to trust you, but I’ve been hurt before

San Francisco 49ers (3-0)

The 49ers are 3-0 — and their best win came over a disheveled Buccaneers team in Week 1. They’ve since beaten the Steelers and Bengals, who may have been winless in September if not for the fact they had to play each other. San Francisco has overcome plenty of adversity in its first three weeks, winning without injured players like Tevin Coleman, Jimmie Ward, Nick Bosa, and Dee Ford in the lineup for stretches. It’ll be much harder to carry on without them as the Browns (Week 5) and Rams (Week 6) loom on the schedule.

Fatal flaw: An offense that may not be able to keep this up. Garoppolo has been carving defenses up with a ton of play-action passes — 38 percent of his dropbacks, per ESPN. Those plays have broken open for more than 10.5 yards per attempt, but the Niners’ dwindling stock of tailbacks and the growing tape library on San Francisco’s 2019 suggest defenses will catch on to this strategy sooner rather than later. If that threat is taken away, can the 49ers’ line continue to provide one of the league’s lowest sack rates for its oft-injured QB?

Seattle Seahawks (3-1)

Much like the Niners, Seattle’s impressive early record has come at the expense of the AFC North’s dregs. The Seahawks’ three wins have been against teams with one win between them, and that was the Steelers’ unwatchable victory over the Bengals.

Still, there’s plenty to like here. Russell Wilson remains a low-key MVP who has help from Chris Carson, Tyler Lockett, and the emergence of DK Metcalf and Will Dissly. No team has been more efficient in the red zone, where Seattle has turned 10 of its 13 trips into touchdowns.

Fatal flaw: Passing defense. The Legion of Boom salad days are over, giving way to a secondary that ranks 16th in opponent passer rating despite opening the season against Andy Dalton, Teddy Bridgewater, Kyler Murray, and three quarters of Mason Rudolph. This offense needs to be tested, sure — but the defense might run into even bigger problems once it has to face the high-powered offenses of the NFC West.

The seemingly safe(r) bets

Dallas Cowboys (3-1)

Dak Prescott didn’t put up big numbers in offensive coordinator Kellen Moore’s conservative gameplan against New Orleans, but he’d been outstanding his first three weeks. Prescott has emerged as an MVP candidate, leading the league in QBR (91.4) and averaging career highs in touchdown rate (7.1) and yards per pass (9.0). The Dallas defense has been nearly as impressive; the Cowboys have held opponents to fewer than 300 yards in each of their last three games and are allowing just a 26.5 percent conversion rate on third down.

Fatal flaw: Big-game playcalling. The Cowboys failed their first real test against a fellow contender when the Saints limited them to just 10 points in Week 4. New Orleans smothered the Dallas offense, shutting down Ezekiel Elliott and leaving Prescott lost in the wilderness and throwing into quadruple coverage late in the game.

The Cowboys, like the Niners and Seahawks, have done their best work against bad teams. There’s a chance they belong in the “I want to believe” tier, too.

Green Bay Packers (3-1)

Aaron Rodgers isn’t all the way back, and he may not have to be. Green Bay’s revamped defense has been better than advertised this season — though Week 4’s missteps against the Eagles’ running game may be cause for alarm. The Packers are 2-0 in games where they’ve scored 21 points or fewer so far. In 2018, Rodgers’ team was 0-6 in similar situations.

Fatal flaw: Matt LaFleur’s overthinking. The Packers’ offense excels early in games, but LaFleur struggles to create a dynamic gameplan once he has to deviate from his first quarter script. This was readily apparent in Week 4’s loss to Eagles, when he dialed up four straight passing plays in a first-and-goal situation from the Philadelphia 1. The Packers all failed in a seven-point loss.

New Orleans Saints (3-1)

New Orleans fell apart briefly after losing Drew Brees to a thumb injury in an 18-point loss to the Rams, then quickly picked up the pieces to dispatch the Seahawks and Cowboys in the following weeks. I’d previously written about how this version of the Saints was built to handle six to eight weeks of Teddy Bridgewater duty, but hot damn has this team risen to the occasion to escape the toughest part of its 2019 schedule at 3-1. New Orleans won a shootout in Seattle after giving up 514 yards in Week 3. The next week, it cut that number exactly in half against Dallas and stand alone atop the NFC South. While consistency may not be the Saints’ biggest asset, they have the conference’s strongest resume through four weeks.

Fatal flaw: Everything red zone, so far. New Orleans has only turned four of 11 red zone opportunities into touchdowns, but has allowed opponents to convert 10 of their 15 chances into six points. That’s a concern when all three of the Saints’ wins have come in one-possession games. The team has a -8 point differential through one quarter of the season, which is in no way sustainable for a playoff team.

Chicago Bears (3-1)

This is absolutely a championship-caliber defense. No team has scored more than 15 points against the Bears this season. Khalil Mack is unstoppable once again and has four forced fumbles and 4.5 sacks in four games. He’s just the biggest name on a depth chart loaded with playmakers. Chicago is so intimidating it can derail blockers with a sideways glance.

But what about the offense? A multifaceted running game has averaged only 3.6 yards per carry this fall. And the passing game, well ...

Fatal flaw: Mitchell Trubisky. The third-year passer looked entirely overwhelmed when called on for big moments in his season opener against the Packers — his last seven dropbacks in that primetime game ended in one completion, one interception, and a game-ending sack on fourth down. While he recovered to carve up the Broncos in a clutch two-minute drill one week later, several questions remain about how he’ll stack up under the bright lights when his offense needs him most.

That said, the club proved it can win without him after defeating the Vikings with Chase Daniel behind center. If Trubisky can just be solid when he returns from a dislocated non-throwing shoulder, he’ll give the Bears enough juice to make a deep playoff run — especially now that the team seems to have a reliable kicker.