Wide-open NFC offers division races that should remain tight

Dave Martin / Associated Press
After missing the playoffs last season, Matt Ryan and Mike Smith have the Falcons off to a 4-1 start.

What's been said about the NFC West for the past few years -- that it's wide open because there is no dominant team -- can now be said about the entire NFC. Go three deep in any division and you'll find a team that could end up representing the conference in the Super Bowl (well, maybe not in the West).

Yeah, it's only Week 6 so can't this be said any given year? Nope.

Usually by now, we start to get some idea about what teams look like contenders and what teams don't. Is there any NFC team that looks like the Saints did at this time last season? The Saints sure don't. Other than the Panthers, are there other teams that look out of the playoff chase? The winless 49ers are still in play, because they're in the NFC West.

NFC North

The Packers (3-2) sure don't look like the world beaters some of us thought they'd be, and after three straight weeks of losing players to injuries, they might not have enough healthy bodies to stay in the hunt. While I think they'll make due and be okay, they've yet to come close to looking like a serious threat. Their schedule over the next four weeks is daunting on paper: Dolphins, Vikings, Jets and Cowboys.

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All those teams could be problematic. However, the Jets are the only one that seems to be able to get out of its own way.

Then again, the leader of the division, Chicago (4-1), seems vulnerable as well. The Bears have proven to be very capable on defense, but the offensive line is not one to make you think it would be able to hold its own against a monstrous AFC front like Pittsburgh or Baltimore.

Getting quarterback Jay Cutler (concussion) back as soon as this week vs. Seattle puts Chicago on much better footing. Matt Forte is producing nicely under offensive coordinator Mike Martz.

Though it got off to a slow start, I'm not counting Minnesota out of the mix. Running back Adrian Peterson might be playing better than he ever has and the addition of Randy Moss could -- could -- enhance the entire offense. Quarterback Brett Favre hasn't looked anything like he did last season and now he's dealing with an NFL investigation that he allegedly sent racy messages and lewd photos to former Jets employee Jenn Sterger.

That, coupled with protection issues, a balky ankle and tendinitis in his throwing elbow that could be problematic only heighten the chances Favre continues a less-than-stellar season. It could also spur him. Favre, who turned 41 Sunday, has played some of his best football under adverse circumstances. But for the first time, his character and legacy are being seriously questioned, so he could be broaching uncharted territory.

The last-place Lions might not thrust themselves into the playoff picture yet, but they could make things difficult for other teams. Detroit, which blew out St. Louis to get its first win, is on the come up and it will win some division games. Quarterback Matthew Stafford should be back in a few weeks, but Shaun Hill has played better than a lot of other quarterbacks and he could get the Lions a few more wins, if needed.

Packers coach Mike McCarthy told me that the Lions' defensive front is something to be reckoned with. Based on the caliber of offensive line play among the other teams in the division, Detroit could have some say.

NFC East

This is always one of, if not the most competitive, divisions in the NFL. However, it's hard to say that this season. With three teams at 3-2, things are jumbled up, but not because they are all playing well, which is typically the case.

The Redskins are a rugged team that is making a habit of adding some warm bodies to opponents' injury reports -- Michael Vick, Aaron Rodgers, Jermichael Finley -- but do they have the wherewithal with so few offensive playmakers?

The Redskins have made it through a recent string of tough games and have the Colts up next. Their physicality and meshing character are going to make them a tough out.

The Giants have shown a lot of pride and Perry Fewell's defense is starting to look scary. The Giants, at least the past two weeks, seem to be finding their identity -- but they can lose it just as quickly. Although they've posted nice back-to-back victories over Chicago and Houston, are those really barometers? Wide receiver Hakeem Nicks is coming into his own and the defensive line has been lights out.

I like the Eagles and how players have handled the quarterback changes. Even though coach Andy Reid says it's Vick's job upon his return from injury -- Vick is going to try like crazy to get back this week vs. Atlanta -- this Vick-Kevin Kolb issue has the feel of an ongoing saga that could eventually become bothersome. Philly is about to hit a tough stretch, starting with the Falcons and followed by the Titans and Colts. This could be considered a stiff test but I don't think any team in the division is going to distance itself much.

Then there's Dallas. I covered the Cowboys' loss to Tennessee that dropped them to 1-3. Dallas amassed more than 500 yards of total offense, but penalties, an inability to score touchdowns, special teams breakdowns and late turnovers did them in, again.

Penalties cost them the game against the Redskins and mistakes hurt them at home against the Bears. They defeated then-unbeaten Houston, but the way the Giants easily dispatched the Texans, that victory by the Cowboys over their in-state rival looks far less impressive.

Quarterback Tony Romo, who couldn't rally the Cowboys against the Titans, said afterwards that the team probably will have to battle through its inconsistency all season long -- a mixed-bag message of confidence in the team's talent and its lack of mental toughness. I don't see Dallas completely coming unglued but it needs to stop playing as a group of individuals and start playing as a group. The Cowboys also need to raise the level of their football IQ.

NFC South

Atlanta, at 4-1, shares the best record in the NFC with Chicago. The Falcons also look like the best team in the conference. They are balanced, don't make mistakes, create turnovers and close out games. The Falcons haven't been the offensive juggernaut their talent would suggest, but that will come. The defense has been very good, allowing 14 points per game and snagging a league-best 10 interceptions.

The Falcons also might be the most-well-coached team from top to bottom. Victories over Philly and Cincinnati the next two weeks could allow Atlanta to begin separating from the pack.

The surprise team -- other than the winless 49ers -- is the 3-1 Buccaneers. Second-year Coach Raheem Morris has his young team playing spirited and poised football. The win at Cincinnati took some toughness and the Buccaneers emerged with their third victory in four games.

They don't look ready for prime time yet -- their loss to Pittsburgh and quarterback Charlie Batch at home two weeks ago showed they still have some growing to do. However, they don't look like an automatic victory for opponents anymore. In fact, they play host to the Saints in Week 6 and they seem capable of beating the defending Super Bowl champs.

Those champs, the Saints (3-2), haven't looked anything like they did last season, when the breaks rolled their way and the offense rang up points with ease. The loss Sunday at Arizona was bad. Drew Brees didn't play well, and if he struggles, so does everyone else. They aren't forcing turnovers like last season, posting just eight takeaways so far.

It's no time to panic. Tampa Bay, Cleveland and Carolina are three of the next four opponents. Pittsburgh is in that group too. New Orleans can gain traction here but it needs to find ways to rediscover its big-play offense and increase its takeaways.

Carolina (0-5) is overmatched and will serve as the homecoming opponent for the rest of its schedule. The goal will be helping rookie quarterback Jimmy Clausen improve and trying to placate receiver Steve Smith. They should seriously do him a favor and consider dealing him with the Oct. 19 trade deadline looming.

NFC West

We are back to where we started. Arizona leads the division at 3-2 and credit has to be given for playing through constant quarterback chaos. Rookie Max Hall looks to be the starter the rest of the way and the schedule doesn't look formidable. The Cardinals are far from a really good team and with a rookie at quarterback, there are going to be some rough days ahead. They were exposed by Atlanta and San Diego, but they did beat the Saints.

They figure to be hot and cold the rest of the way but 8-8 could seriously be all they need to get to postseason.

Seattle (2-2) is the wild card. The Seahawks play hard and have the only quarterback in the division with a pedigree and that will keep them in play. They also have a few playmakers. The addition of running back Marshawn Lynch will help. They travel to Chicago next and they've been unsuccessful on the road. It looks like a two-horse race between Seattle and Arizona.

Rams coach Steve Spagnuolo told me last week that he hoped that just because St. Louis doubled its 2009 victory total that players weren't satisfied with just winning twice. Then the Rams got drilled 44-6 at Detroit. The defense had played well until then. St. Louis (2-3) is emerging and could actually challenge in this weak division. However, the loss of wide receiver Mark Clayton for the season (knee) hurts badly.

At 0-5, the 49ers are the most disappointing team in the NFL. There is talent on the roster but quarterback Alex Smith hasn't come through. The issues are hardly all his fault. Coach Mike Singletary and his staff are culpable for a lot of what has happened and unless he turns things around, he could be out of a job. San Francisco has Oakland and Carolina the next two weeks. Those seem like winnable games, but those teams are probably saying the same thing.



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