If I am being honest, this season has felt incredibly hard to predict or even really to understand. A team that one weekend looks dominant, will lose to a team they should absolutely beat.
Teams like the Vikings come to mind, they lost to the Bengals because of a fumble in OT, then lost to the Cardinals on an odd missed fieldgoal. More recently, they upset the Packers at home and finally got back to a .500 record, and then got beat by the 49ers.
Another team that feels hard to figure out are the Arizona Cardinals, a team that has quietly gone 9-2 and still boasts the best record in not only the NFC but the NFL.
Their odd storyline is that Kyler Murray has not played a snap of football since the teams’ loss to the Packers. Instead, Colt McCoy has kept the team afloat going 2-1 beating the 49ers and Seahawks.
The LA Rams acquired QB Matthew Stafford and were dubbed by many (including myself) as favorites to win the Superbowl. They started the season going 7-1, but have since then lost three in a row and are firmly in the race for the first wildcard spot.
The point is, in a chaotic NFL season, the NFC is about as easy to understand as the AFC, which I wrote about last week. And like I did last week, I am going to pick my division winners as well as three wildcard teams.
The NFC East felt pretty clear to me in the offseason, the Dallas Cowboys were a shoo-in to win the division. That is, they were a shoo-in to win, IF Dak Prescott came back from his season-ending injury healthy.
If he did not, well, then the division would likely go to the Washington Football Team, with Fitzpatrick improving a poor offense backed by a great defense.
In the basement would be the Giants, and then the Eagles.
However, the ZLO model was in a bit of a disagreement with me. The Cowboys would win the division, but it would be a little closer than I had initially thought. Instead, Washington would have a record that was about the same as the Philadelphia Eagles.
And so while this division feels like an absolute lock for the Cowboys despite their recent struggles, I still expect the Big D to lock up the East.
The more important question to me is will the Eagles sneak into the Wildcard conversation? ZLO thinks they have a good shot.
NFC East Champion: Dallas Cowboys
I am going to be totally honest, this division felt like the most predictable to me, and where my prediction has held up the best.
Reigning MVP Aaron Rodgers would lead the Packers to the top of the division, as well as the conference, and Rodgers would even have a shot to repeat as the MVP.
That prediction was a little bit off, honestly. The Packers have absolutely been dominant, but I am worried about the offense, it has looked a bit off at times.
In its place, the defense has improved from where they were last season, and the only times the Packers have struggled were when their special teams’ units made costly errors.
Luckily for the Packers, the Lions have been downright horrible at times. The Bears are struggling to really get anything going on offense and the Vikings, well I talked about them already.
As of right now, my model has the Packers wrapping up the season as a 13-4 team, and that honestly feels right. Much like with the NFC East, my question is can the Vikings rally from a loss to the 49ers and make it as a wildcard team?
NFC North Champion: Green Bay Packers
Given that there is not another team in the division that is above .500, I think it is likely safe to say that the Buccaneers should run away with the South.
I honestly thought that they were the most likely team to take first in the South anyway, the tricky part was figuring out the division order.
I really liked the Saints to finish in second in the division, I was particularly high on Jameis Winston to play much better than he did in Tampa Bay.
I thought the Panthers would ride an above-average defense while Darnold improved to say, maybe an average QB.
The Falcons would likely need to blow it up, and I felt like with a bad enough record they would hit the reset button on the current roster. Those predictions, sort of held up. Emphasis on the sort of part.
I thought Winston played really well all things considered, and the fact that he got injured is really the only reason the Saints have fallen off. With Winston, I think the Saints at worst go 2-2 in the stretch they have gone 0-4 in and are much more playoff-relevant.
As for the Falcons, they certainly have had moments where they have looked awful. They have lost two games back to back by a combined score of 68-3, and then looked good against the Saints and Dolphins.
I still think that this is a team fighting the inevitable process of a rebuild, but maybe they can sneak into the playoffs. A lot has to go their way though.
And luckily for them, the decline of the Panthers certainly is making their lives easier. With CMC out for the season, and Cam Newton seeming to regress to the mean, I think the Panthers’ playoff hopes are finished.
NFC South Champion: Tampa Bay Buccaneers
This is the division I missed the most by far.
To be fair, I feel like having the Arizona Cardinals as the hottest team in the NFL was a pick made by very few people. The Cardinals have been without question one of the best teams in the NFL, with the air-raid offense being a force when Kyler Murray has been healthy.
With the Cardinals finishing their bye-week, I expect Kyler Murray to return and finish out the season. I also think that the Cardinals are going to finish out the season as the best team in the NFC West; ZLO likes them to finish with a 13-4 record.
That would put the Cardinals at least two games ahead of the LA Rams, and three ahead of the 49ers. The Seattle Seahawks would be the only team to finish with a below .500 record.
I really like that order And to be honest, the Cardinals feel like the most complete team in the NFC West.
The LA Rams have their moments on offense, but seem to go back and forth between booming and busting; oftentimes in the same game. Their defense also seems to have taken a step back from where they were last season, and that was largely why I picked them to win the Super Bowl.
The 49ers were my pick to finish second in the division, and after a really slow and poor start, they finally look like the team I thought they would.
I had honestly thought that Trey Lance would be the starter now, and the defense would have been playing better, but I think they are finally rounding into form.
The Seahawks get a pass in my opinion. Russell Wilson being gone so early in the season really set them behind and their current deficit is going to prevent them from making the playoffs.
NFC West Champion: Arizona Cardinals
With the Cowboys, Packers, Buccaneers, and Cardinals as division champions, ZLO has six teams that it thinks are competitive wildcard squads: the Philadelphia Eagles, Minnesota Vikings, New Orleans Saints, Atlanta Falcons, LA Rams, and the San Fransico 49ers.
The case for the Eagles got a little weaker after their loss to the New York Giants. Not because the Giants are a threat to steal a wildcard spot, but rather, the Eagles need every game.
They sit at 5-7 but have a game against the Jets, the Giants, the Cowboys, and two games against the Football Team. Very winnable games (as the Cowboys are likely to rest their squad) but they need every single one.
The Vikings are a maddeningly frustrating team. They should have a record something akin to the Packers, but they dropped two winnable games against the Bengals and Cardinals. As a result, the Vikings have a chance at making the playoffs, but I think at best the seventh seed.
The Saints were a logical choice for the wildcard because they were forced to play in the same division as the Buccaneers. However, because the Saints lost Winston and have never really recovered, I think they are likely to miss the playoffs.
The Falcons really are in here only because the Panthers and Saints have faded so fast. I do think that they could finish in second in the division, but not really because of their own merit. That is sort of the case for their playoff hopes too, honestly. They could make it, but because pretty much everyone could make it into a wildcard spot.
The 49ers have improved drastically from the start of the season. I feel like Jimmy G is playing more like he did during the 49ers run to Superbowl 54. The running game is improving (and is now top-10 in the NFL). And the 49ers quietly have a sturdy defense that is capable of hanging with the other NFC West offenses.
The Rams feel like they are the best of the wildcard teams, and despite their offensive struggles, they should make it as the five seed. However, in order to do that, they need to recover from the loss of Robert Woods. Since losing Woods, the Rams have been, well terrible. I think OBJ is a nice addition, but he will not be enough to make up the difference. Maybe the Rams should have held onto DeSean Jackson…
ZLO currently has the LA Rams finishing at 11-6, the 49ers 10-7, and the Vikings somewhere between 10-7 and 9-8 (the 49ers Vikings game last weekend was incredibly important!).
I could honestly see the 49ers swapping with the Rams, as the two will play to end the regular season and the 49ers already have won the first matchup.
The Eagles are projected to finish at 9-8, but their loss to the Giants is a great indicator that that finish is far from a lock.
The Saints are projected to also finish at 9-8, but their latest loss to the Bills says to me that the squad is likely going to finish with a losing record.
Also to finish with a losing record are the Falcons. The offense is very boom or bust (trending towards bust) and the defense is not all that great. ZLO has them finishing at 7-10.
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