It's hard to recall a time when the NFC was as crowded with serious contenders as it is now. There are at least 11 teams with a legitimate shot at qualifying for the postseason, and there are three divisions with a solid chance to have two wild-card teams (the NFC North, NFC South and NFC West). Hell, it's fair to say that seven of the top 10 teams in football reside in this conference.
So, what does all this mean? Basically, it's a lot tougher answering questions related to this side of the NFL than it was with the AFC. That said, here are five queries worth digging into as we move closer to the regular season:
1) Are the Rams going to have a Super Bowl hangover?
The Rams have too much going for them to self-destruct after falling to New England in Super Bowl LIII. They didn't lose a Pro Bowl contributor, as the Carolina Panthers did when they went 6-10 following their defeat in Super Bowl 50 (cornerback Josh Norman signed with the Redskins). They didn't lose their offensive coordinator, as the Atlanta Falcons did when they squeaked into the playoffs as the third-place finishers in the NFC South after falling to New England in Super Bowl LI (Kyle Shanahan left to coach the San Francisco 49ers). In fact, most of the essential pieces are still in place for the Rams to be viable contenders in Sean McVay's third season as head coach. The team has been open about its desire to ease the workload on Pro Bowl running back Todd Gurley, who was dogged by knee issues late last season and in the playoffs. Meanwhile, quarterback Jared Goff will be excited about the return of wide receiver Cooper Kupp, who, among Rams receivers with 40-plus targets, was leading in touchdown catches (five) and catch percentage (73.2%) when he sustained a torn ACL midway through 2018.
Yes, there have been a couple changes on the interior of the offensive line, with the team moving on from guard Rodger Saffold and center John Sullivan. On defense, defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh and linebacker Mark Barron are out of the picture, and the unit as a whole is relying on aging players like cornerback Aqib Talib (33 years old), safety Eric Weddle (34) and linebacker Clay Matthews (33). But the Rams also mixed and matched a lot of new faces on defense last season, and those players now have more experience in defensive coordinator Wade Phillips' system. Now, are the Rams going to roll to 13 wins once again in an ultra-competitive NFC? Probably not. However, they are primed to win the NFC West again and make another run at the Super Bowl.
2) Will all this offseason drama ruin the Cowboys?
The Cowboys just can't help themselves. This should be the time of year when we're talking about all the talent on this roster, along with the many great things that could stem from it. Instead, the entire offseason was filled with chatter about how owner Jerry Jones is going to manage the costs of contract extensions for quarterback Dak Prescott (under contract through 2019), running back Ezekiel Elliott (under contract through 2020) and wide receiver Amari Cooper (under contract through 2019), with Elliott staying away from the team this preseason. It would be one thing if the Cowboys were a veteran-dominated team impervious to being sidetracked by issues off the field. But most of this team's best players have less than five years in the NFL, which means leadership could be a real problem for this bunch. And that's not even getting into the ramifications of Elliott's holdout potentially continuing into the regular season.
The NFC is so stacked that one or two losses out of the gate could have significant consequences on the playoff race come December. As good as the Cowboys are, the Eagles are better. If the Cowboys have to compete for a wild-card spot, they could end up going against as many as seven other squads vying for the same two bids. This isn't to say Dallas can't rally after a slow start; after all, that is exactly what the Cowboys did last year, winning the NFC East after starting 3-5. It's just that it's beginning to look like they'll kick off the regular season with some key players facing uncertainty over their future with the team, which could keep them from maintaining the proper overall mindset. That might very well be their undoing in the end.
3) What should we expect from Aaron Rodgers?
Few quarterbacks in the NFL could rival Rodgers in terms of the drama he's dealt with over the past calendar year. People bashed Rodgers when the Green Bay Packers fired Mike McCarthy, his head coach since 2006, amid reports of clashesbetween the two. Former teammates publicly lashed out at him for the way he interacted with them years ago. Now that new head coach Matt LaFleur is running the team, Rodgers has been in the news for everything from how he feels about his ability to audible in LaFleur's offense to his disdain for joint practices with other teams in training camp.
What's been lost amid all this controversy is that Rodgers remains one of the best players in the NFL. What's discussed even less outside of Green Bay is the fact that he's been playing hurt for most of the last two years. A broken collarbone limited him to seven games in 2017, while a nagging knee injury plagued him throughout last season. All Rodgers did over those two seasons was throw 41 touchdown passes and eight interceptions. Given all the headlines that have followed him lately, it's safe to assume he's eager to light up more than a few opposing defenses this fall.
4) Which under-the-radar team is going to be a surprise?
The Carolina Panthers wouldn't be the answer to this question if they had finished 2018 in the same fashion they started it. They began the season with a 6-2 record. They ended up 7-9, aided by a seven-game losing streak. A good amount of the blame for those struggles has been pinned on a shoulder injury to quarterback Cam Newton, one that required offseason surgery. The reality is that Carolina lost five games by seven points or less during the second half of the year, which means the Panthers had plenty of chances to make the postseason.
The upside here is that they realize they're better than last year's record indicated. If Newton can stay healthy -- he sustained a foot sprain in a preseason game against New England -- he's shown a willingness to throw quickly and rely on his supporting cast more (he completed a career-high 67.9 percent of his passes in 2018). He also has at his disposal a stellar multi-dimensional running back (Christian McCaffrey) and an assortment of shifty receivers to create mismatches. As for the defense, that unit has beefed up a disappointing pass rush (Carolina ranked 27th in the NFL with 35 sacks last season) by adding free agent Gerald McCoy and first-round pick Brian Burns. The Panthers certainly won't have an easy road, especially since the Saints and the Falcons make the NFC South one of the toughest divisions in football. But it also wouldn't be shocking to see them back in the playoffs when January arrives.
5) Who is going to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl?
It's impossible to think the New Orleans Saints could endure postseason heartbreak for a third straight year. Two years ago, they lost to the Minnesota Vikings in the Divisional Round after a defensive blunder helped pave the way to a miraculous game-winning touchdown pass. Last season, the Rams beat the Saints in New Orleans in the NFC title game, largely because a blown call by officials killed them late in that contest. The Saints basically are living proof of the belief that you need a little luck to win a championship. Thankfully for them, they also have a boatload of talent, which should put them back in position for redemption. The NFC is loaded. I haven't even mentioned the Chicago Bears, returning most of their team after finishing 12-4 and winning the NFC North last season. And then there are the Philadelphia Eagles, who beat New England in Super Bowl LII. Yet, the Saints have that bitter taste of last year's pain to drive them. That will be the biggest difference between them and everyone else this season.