Sorting out NFC after September chaos: Bears up, Falcons down

There's very little separating most NFL teams. That's how the Saints can beat the Seahawksand the CowboyswithoutDrew Brees. That's how Panthers second-year quarterback Kyle Allen can pilot a road win over Deshaun Watson's Texans. It's one reason why the Buccaneers are 0-2 at home, yet 2-0 on the road after winning a defensive struggle in Carolina and a wild shootout in Los Angeles.

The same Browns team that gave up a forty-burger at home to the Titans in Week 1 can score a forty-burger in Baltimore in Week 4. The winless Broncos are two heartbreakingkicks away from being 2-2, while it's easy for fans of the 2-2 Eagles to imagine being two plays away from either 0-4 or 4-0, depending on whether they take a delusional or despondent approach to life. Both outlooks are equally valid.

Road teams won 11 of 14 games in Week 4 heading into Monday's matchup between the Bengals and Steelersin Pittsburgh, and underdogs won more games than favorites. We shouldn't need a week like this to be reminded of how balanced this league is, even if that reality makes fans and talking heads uncomfortable. If randomness and a few plays each week are the difference between legends and afterthoughts, between a coach getting fired or getting a contract extension, how much value is there in any hot take?

There are plainly notable exceptions to this notion of equality -- hello, Dolphins and Redskins! -- but even the two 4-0 teams that played Sunday showed how small the margin between success and failure in the NFL remains. The Chiefs needed a conversion on fourth-and-8 to ensure victory in Detroit, in a game where the total yardage favored the home-team Lions, 447-438. The difference in New England's 16-10 win over the Bills was a blocked punt-return touchdown. Buffalo quarterbacks Josh Allen and Matt Barkley combined for four interceptions and two fumbles (none lost) -- Allen played as poorly as any QB Sunday -- yet, the Bills still gained 23 first downs to New England's 11. The Patriots' final 10 drives of the game (not counting the three kneeldowns on the last possession) included six three-and-outs, one luridTom Brady interception and three points. Even the best two teams through September aren't that much more talented or well-coached than their opponents, at least early in the season.

Perhaps the current key indicator for success is not just having a great offense or a great head coach, but the ability to win different styles of games. The Patriotshave wonthreeblowouts and one defensive struggle. The Saints have won home games by scores of 30-28 and 12-10. The Panthers revived their season by scoring 38 in a road win, then 16 in another road win. Even after the Rams' and Packers' defenses came crashing down to Earth in theirgames this week, some solace should be taken in their respective offenses' ability to hang in shootouts. Both teams will need that duality when the games matter more.

Another uncomfortable fact for overheated analysts: Very little about what happened in September is going to carry over into December, except the wins, the losses and the injuries. The extended preseason is over.

In this edition of The Debrief, I'll take a look at how those first-quarter wins and losses reshape the NFC's divisional races moving forward.

NFC North

The margin for error is perilously thin in the league's best defensive division. If being able to win any style of game is a prerequisite to success in today's NFL, it's fair to doubt whether the Bears or Vikings have that gear. What's clear after Chicago's 16-6 victory over Minnesota on Sunday is that there's still no defense like the Bears' defense. Vikings coach Mike Zimmer and general manager Rick Spielman have carefully built their defense over the years with homegrown products, contract extensions and incredible continuity. But they still don't play with the cohesion, explosion or ferocity of the Bears' group, even when facing a backup quarterback like Chicago's Chase Daniel. The Vikings are already 0-2 in the division, a significant hole to climb from.

It probably doesn't speak well for quarterback Mitchell Trubisky that his expected absence against the Raidersin London in Week 5 doesn't feel like a killer for the Bears, especially because there are no current plans for surgery. If the Bears can win another defensive game at Tottenham, they'll hit the Week 6 bye at 4-1. Before the season started, this looked like a division that would produce two playoff teams, and that remains true after four weeks. The surprise here is that the 2-1-1 Lions should also be in that mix. They've already faced the tougher part of their non-conference schedule (Kansas City and the Los Angeles Chargers), with Sunday's 34-30 loss to the Chiefs serving as proof that they can compete with anyone.

NFC South

No team had a worse Week 4 than the Falcons. Scoring 10 points at home against the Titans despite Atlanta QB Matt Ryan racking up 397 yards is sadly emblematic of this dwindling era of Falcons football. With Austin Hooper, Mohamed Sanu and Devonta Freeman all getting numbers, the Falcons are a better fantasy football team than they are in reality. Falling to 1-3 would have been depressing enough on its own in coach Dan Quinn's now-or-never fifth season, but the improved play of the Falcons' division rivals makes it much worse.

When the Saintslost Drew Brees, the few optimistic Falcons fans left thought they could create some distance in the NFC South race. Instead, the Saints have picked up two games in two weeks on the Falcons without topping 300 yards of offense in either contest. Two years ago, it appeared the Falcons had the deeper, more varied roster of the two teams. Instead, it's the Saints and the rest of this division who have proven more resourceful.

Panthers coach Ron Rivera, meanwhile, is the NFC South's Lazarus. I first wrote about his job security questions in October of 2012, after then-GM Marty Hurney was fired. Rivera ended that season not knowing if he'd return as coach. He went on to thrive well enough to still be with the organization when Hurney returned to his old job in Carolina in July of 2017. This season, it looked like the clock was ticking on both men again after losing quarterback Cam Newton and defensive lineman Kawann Short to injuries during an 0-2 start. Instead, Rivera's done his best work once more when the storm clouds looked the darkest.

The identity of Rivera's new 3-4 defense has taken hold the last two weeks. Linebacker Shaq Thompson never leaves the field, having become a worthy successor to the legacy of Thomas Davis (with the Chargers after 13 seasons with the Panthers). Gerald McCoy and Dontari Poe provide beef up front, while rookie Brian Burns and veteran Mario Addison create havoc on the edge. Cornerback James Bradberry did an excellent job checking Texans receiver DeAndre Hopkins on Sunday, while Rivera's patented zone defense gave a young, mobile quarterback fits for the second straight week (Houston's Deshaun Watson in Week 4, Arizona's Kyler Murray in Week 3).

Christian McCaffrey is even tougher to tackle this season, leading the NFL in yards from scrimmage (629) because he's added strength to his impressive arsenal. Rivera should ease off on McCaffrey's workload (he's on pace for 444 touches this season), but the way he can take over an offense, like he did in Houston, generating 179 of the team's 297 yards, is something to marvel at. Second-year quarterback Kyle Allen continues to pass the eye test as someone who can keep the Panthers in the playoff mix until Newton (Lisfranc injury) returns.

The division is more crowded with quality than expected because of the Bucs. The narrative has already morphed from The Bucs' defense is better! to The Bucs' offense is better!, and this will probably circle back in loops until January. Putting up 55 points against the previously excellent Rams defense is a statement performance. Todd Bowles' defense, meanwhile, did its part by making Rams quarterback Jared Goff look like Jameis Winston, in ways both good and bad. The next two weeks will help shape how much staying power the Bucs have. They travel to New Orleans before "hosting" the Panthers in London, a sneaky big game at Tottenham that I'll attend with the rest of my podcast bozos. Splitting those two games will keep the Bucs in the mix. Winning them both would make them one of the season's biggest early stories. With so many feel-good developments in this division, the Falcons risk becoming an afterthought.

NFC East

The Cowboys had a chance to separate. Entering a week in which the Eagles were road underdogs in Green Bay and the Cowboys were favorites in New Orleans, it was easy to imagine Dallas building a potentially insurmountable three-game lead in the division before October. The Cowboys could have also buried a potential rival for NFC seeding in the Saints. Instead, the 3-1 Cowboys are just a game up on an Eagles organization that has tended to play its best late in the year during recent seasons. One poor performance in New Orleans doesn't erase the apparent offensive gains Dallas quarterback Dak Prescott and offensive coordinator Kellen Moore displayed in the season's first quarter, but I am eager to see how they perform against another quality defense this week, with the Packerscoming to town. The high ankle sprain to left tackle Tyron Smith is going to make it much harder for the Cowboys to run away and hide.

NFC West

The most compelling division in football is undoubtedly the NFC West, despite Kliff Kingsbury's first month in Arizona being sleepier than his press conferences.

The undefeated 49ers have the most improved defense in football. The Rams and Packersprovidedgood reminders in Week 4 that even improved defenses will get filleted occasionally in this offense-first league, but the 49ers have the tools to put up big offensive totals as well. No team makes an inside 8-yard run look easier.

It's impressive that the 49ers have won two games in which they were so sloppy offensively, but it was their blowout of the Bengalsin Week 2 that meant the most. Playoff teams are often characterized by their ability to blow out the league's lesser lights. The 49ers are headed for the spotlight now, with threeprime-timegames and a game at the Rams coming over the next six weeks, starting with next Monday night's game against Cleveland. The defensive front of DeForest Buckner, Nick Bosa and Dee Ford provides a strong base to build from. This team may prove erratic on offense, but few play-callers can get hotter than Kyle Shanahan when he's in a groove.

That should concern fans of the Seahawks and Rams, who have enjoyed this being a two-team division the last two years. The Rams are out of first place for the first time in the Sean McVay era, which isn't as big a concern as their offense's slow starts. Their only first-half touchdown drive in the first three games was 10 yards long. They fell behind 21-0 on Sunday against Tampa before waking up. This Thursday night's game in Seattle provides a quick way for the Rams to either fall further in this hole or return the division to its 2017-18 status.

The Seahawks have remained frisky, with two close wins and a superlative quarterback. Russell Wilson is making quicker decisions, still hitting big plays (he's averaging 8.6 yards per attempt) and taking fewer unnecessary hits; he's also nearly eliminated negative plays, recording zero picks and just one lost fumble. Wilson remains the division's best quarterback by a wide margin, a significant ace in the hole, given that the division's other competitive gaps are slimming. In a deep NFC, there may only be room for one or two of these teams to make the playoffs. The Rams will have to work a lot harder this year to host a playoff game again.

UNSTOPPABLE PERFORMANCE: The Saints' defensive line

Saints defensive end Cameron Jordan has been holding it down for so long at such a high level that he often gets taken for granted. He looks especially good this year, because he's getting so much help from run-stuffer David Onyemata and second-year pass rusher Marcus Davenport. The return from an Achilles injury of interior lineman Sheldon Rankins on Sunday night completes a group that held Ezekiel Elliott under 2 yards-per-carry and harassed Dak Prescott in an amazing home win.

HONORABLE MENTIONS: This week, the honorable mentions include Christian McCaffrey, for the complete performance mentioned above, and Patriots linebacker Kyle Van Noy, who has amazingly turned into the best player on one of the deepest linebacker groups in recent memory.

Unstoppable Performance is presented by Courtyard by Marriott, the Official Hotel of the NFL.

Follow Gregg Rosenthal on Twitter @greggrosenthal.

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