NFC teams leave a lot to be desired at this point

The prime-time divisional rivalries that close out Week 7 are as good an illustration as any of a power shortage in the NFC.

On Sunday night, the 2-3 Minnesota Vikings visit the 3-3 Green Bay Packers. Before the season, they were considered not only the teams to beat in the NFC North, but also strong Super Bowl contenders. Now, they trail the Chicago Bears, who are 4-2 but hardly applying a vise-like grip to first place in the division.

On Monday night, the 4-2 New York Giants travel to the 1-4 Dallas Cowboys. The Giants rebounded from a 1-2 start to grab a share of the lead in the NFC East with the Philadelphia Eagles, whose fluid quarterback situation raises questions about whether Kevin Kolb or Michael Vick will ever solidify himself as the starter. Star wide receiver DeSean Jackson will miss at least one game with a concussion he suffered in Week 6, and Sunday's opponent is the 4-2 Tennessee Titans, who have won 11 in a row against NFC teams.

The Cowboys were widely favored to win the division and were seen as having a solid chance to play in Super Bowl XLV in their own stadium. Despite an abundance of talent, they have continually self-destructed with too many penalties and a general lack of discipline.

And perhaps the inherent problem with the NFC as a whole is that an argument could be made that Week 7's four prime-time opponents are legitimately in the conversation for conference superiority, which isn't saying very much. No matter where you look in the NFC, it's hard to find a team that stacks up with the elite of the AFC: The Pittsburgh Steelers (4-1), New York Jets (5-1), New England Patriots (4-1), and Baltimore Ravens (4-2).

The New Orleans Saints? They are 4-2, but it wasn't until last Sunday's demolition of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers -- who are proving to be more of a pretender than a contender -- that they showed the dominant form they displayed on the way to winning Super Bowl XLIV.

The Atlanta Falcons? They, too, are 4-2, but were looking a whole lot stronger before their Week 6 loss to the Eagles.

Let's not even bother with the NFC West.

"I'll give you one team that's better than any team in football from a talent perspective," said former NFL linebacker Carl Banks, an analyst on the Giants' radio network. "Position by position, it's the Dallas Cowboys. You name me one AFC team that's got better talent than the Dallas Cowboys. There may be some that are equal to them, but I don't think there's a team in football right now with better talent than the Dallas Cowboys."

Banks, who has been studying tape of the Cowboys in preparation for Monday night's game, has a point.

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Certainly, the Cowboys are loaded on offense, where they rank third in the NFL. They have a top quarterback in Tony Romo. Miles Austin, Roy Williams, Dez Bryant, and tight end Jason Witten form a dangerous group of receivers on the fourth-leading passing attack in the league. The Cowboys also have the NFL's fourth-ranked defense, which is No. 4 against the pass and 10th against the run.

Those rankings are better than or comparable to those of the more successful clubs in the AFC and the NFC. Adding to the Cowboys' frustration is that all of their losses have been by seven or fewer points.

"They're a hard team to figure out," said former NFL quarterback Babe Laufenberg, an analyst on the Cowboys' radio network. "They make just enough mistakes that they're getting beat."

So why are the Cowboys 1-4? Because they're third in the league with 49 penalties and first with 30 offensive infractions. Still, with five divisional games remaining, the Cowboys could conceivably climb right back into postseason contention.

"I do think this team is capable of going on a five-game winning streak, beginning Monday," Laufenberg said. "I'm not saying they will, but if they can just play even in the turnover differential, they're easily talented enough to rip off five in a row."

Meanwhile, the Giants are on a three-game winning streak, largely because they have managed to clean up a good deal of the undisciplined play they showed earlier in the season.

Nevertheless, identifying NFC teams that are on an even footing with the best the AFC has to offer isn't easy.

"The NFC has yet to kind of sort itself out," Banks said. "The bad teams will eventually (confirm themselves) as bad, but the good teams, once they start to put things together, (will perform accordingly). And you're starting to see some teams trend in that direction. The Giants are cutting back on self-inflicted wounds and making it difficult for teams to beat them. New Orleans is starting to button up things, and so is Minnesota. And Dallas could very well do the same thing.

"So when they all get things going, pound for pound, it will be pretty hard for me to stack up a Ravens or a Steelers or a Jets or a Patriots against any of those guys in the NFC. I think they will stand toe-to-toe when they have all their ducks in a row."

Until that time, however, the NFC will have reason to feel it is the inferior conference.

» Follow Vic Carucci on Twitter @viccarucci

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