Love all, trust a few, harm no one.
When Shakespeare used this phrase at the beginning of “All’s Well That Ends Well,” it was simple, sound life advice for a character who is embarking on an unknown world beyond his own after his life has become turbulent.
Those words also carry some weight when we apply them to the 2022 NFC playoff race. It’s been an exciting season on this side of the conference roster so far, but recent events have forced us to reassess our trust in several rival clubs.
In Week 10, the Eagles lost their first game of the season to the Commanders at home, followed by a narrow road win over the Colts. In Week 11, the Vikings, fresh from a shocking road win over the Buffalo Buffalo that lifted their record to 8-1, were crushed at home by the Cowboys.
Eagles and Vikings suddenly bad? Commanders and Cowboys are better than we think?
We have a lot to sort out. We did this exercise for the AFC last week and it was a little hazy there too. But there was still a well-defined No. 1 option at the top, followed by fairly reliable but less formidable clubs.
NFC has a similar picture now. Even with the top teams showing some signs of weakness lately, we’re just not sure there are as many potential contenders to rise to the top as a rival conference.
Of course, we love them all and will never harm any team. But trust is less, the further you go down the list of applicants.
There are currently eight NFC teams with winning records and we’re ranking them in order of who has the best chance of earning first place and goodbye to the first round that comes with this prize.
For any team, an 8-0 loss to a (presumably smaller) opponent in the division after the start of the season will be painful. Nearly losing next week to a team that seemed to be in disarray not so long ago, it will twist the knife a little more.
This, however, happened in Philadelphia. You can imagine the reaction.
But we’re here to appease the masses. The Eagles are the clear favorites for first place. No, we are not happy with the recent boring performance of the team. However, there is one important factor: mathematics.
They have nine wins. That’s one more than the Vikings, two more than the other two NFC contenders (Cowboys and Giants) and at least three more than the rest of the field.
That’s a big first benefit.
Then there’s the Eagles of Week 2 victory over the Vikings. This will take care of the first big tie-break. If the Vikings back down, the Eagles have already won against Dallas, and the Giants, who will play twice in the remaining seven weeks, are also falling.
Jalen Hurts and company have not shown their best football lately, and they will certainly need to raise it. But by dominating early on, they were able to put more distance between themselves and the conference field.
Wait wait. The Cowboys have seven wins to eight for the Minnesota. Dallas also has a tighter remaining schedule. So what gives?
Well, Sunday’s head-to-head win in Minnesota is a tiebreaker if they get the same number of wins. It’s a hurdle the Cowboys still have to overcome, and you can’t get the No. 1 seed without winning your division, meaning Dallas has to get past both the Vikings and Eagles.
The Cowboys’ home game against the Eagles on Christmas Eve promises to be a must-have win unless they plan on leading the other remaining games. This is obviously a big request. All of a sudden, the last two games – in Tennessee and Washington – look pretty intimidating.
However, the Cowboys have enough power on offense and (especially) on defense to break through, if not all the way to the top, then certainly very close. Dallas wasn’t the most reliable team and the Green Bay crash made us think. But this command can be very dangerous at best.
No, Sunday’s 40-3 home loss did not end the Vikings’ season. We’ve seen playoff teams end up losing regular season games by more margins than you might imagine.
Just last season we had two playoff teams (Packers and Raiders) losing games by 35 points or more. Green Bay was also the NFC’s #1 seed in 2021. A year earlier, the eventual champions of the Bucs lost 38-3 to the Saints at home in Week 9. With good teams, serious losses can happen.
But depending on how we define good teams, the Vikings provide an interesting example given their points difference. Incredibly, right now Minnesota is -2, the lowest for any team to start the season 8-2 or better in 10 games in NFL history, according to NFL research. The previous low was +6 for the 1987 Chargers, who missed the playoffs that year. The Vikings are the only team with a negative point margin with fewer than five losses in 2022.
Now this statistic alone is not enough to fire them. They have talents for big offense and a defense that, at least until Sunday, was able to play big when needed.
However, it’s hard to completely fall behind a team when its two losses come against its two biggest contenders for the top spot in the NFC. A 54-point loss to the Eagles and Cowboys sends a signal. And if you combine that with how the Vikings have won some games – narrow wins, including a few over teams that played quarterbacks – it does raise some questions.
At 8-2, they have a chance. But it’s a smaller shot than it was a few days ago.
Sunday’s loss to the Lions should have been a big upset for Giants fans, as Detroit had been in control since about the middle of the second quarter, never looking back. All the reasons why the Giants had an unexpectedly successful season this year were nowhere to be found at MetLife Stadium.
The Giants’ seven victories totaled 35 points, and none were decided by more than eight points. Their three losses totaled 34 points and two of them were at home. They will currently lose in a tiebreak to two potential NFC playoff teams, the Cowboys and Seahawks, though the Giants can at least wipe out the Cowboys lead with a Thanksgiving win in Arlington.
Here’s the other sobering part: The Giants will face a tough schedule, with a .678 win percentage, the highest in the NFL. The 4-6-1 Colts, who have been much more competitive lately, are the only under-.500 team left in their remaining seven games.
But there is also a downside to this. Five of those games are against NFC East teams. Win the most competitive division in the NFC and you have your way to the #1 spot. We should know soon enough if the Giants stand a chance or not. Their next four games are against divisional opponents.
In their convincing victory over the Cardinals on Monday night, the 49ers certainly looked like the team that could be the NFC favorite to reach the Super Bowl. The offense featured several playmakers in major roles, showing just how dangerous this team can be after acquiring Christian McCaffrey.
They have some things going in their favor, like a 4-0 record in the division and a 5-2 record against conference rivals, including a head-to-head victory over Seattle. But getting all the way to No. 1 is still tricky. At 6-4, the 49ers will have to go through scorched earth against their last seven opponents and hope the teams above them falter in the standings (and in the case of the 9-1 Eagles, falter a lot).
I chose the Niners to play in the Super Bowl back in August, and although a lot has changed in their team since then, I am not inclined to change anything. The problem is, I just can’t imagine them doing this with home field advantage for the entire NFC playoffs. Those early season losses to the likes of the Bears, Broncos, and Falcons are coming back to bite them now.