Chicago Bears enter bye week as contenders, but NFC field still deep

October 5, 2018

Raise your hand if you picked the Chicago Bears and Washington as division leaders roughly a quarter of the way through the 2018 NFL season. Did you have the Vikings (outscored by 20 points so far) at 1-2-1? Or the Eagles at 2-2? The Falcons at 1-3?

We’re guessing that group is fairly small. And yet the 4-0 Los Angeles Rams and 3-1 New Orleans Saints, contenders last season and apparently contenders once more, are solid reminders that not everything is haywire so far.

It’s too early to make grand proclamations, but we at least can start to shape things out a bit in the NFC to see where the 3-1 Bears — fresh off their blowout of the Buccaneers — fit into the conference picture and whether they’re legitimate contenders or not.

Here’s a look at a loose pecking order in the conference, starting with the top contenders:

Los Angeles Rams (4-0)

You could argue they’ve been the best team in football a quarter of the way through the season. Of course, that same unofficial honor also belonged to the Kansas City Chiefs a year ago, and they ended up dropping five of six games at one point and eventually losing in the wild-card round.

But so far, the Rams have been impressive top to bottom. Jared Goff might not be receiving Patrick Mahomes-level praise, but he’s averaging 351.5 passing yards per game and has a 11-2 TD-INT ratio after dissecting the Vikings last Thursday. Goff has three big-play receivers he trusts and a workhorse back in Todd Gurley, with ace coach Sean McVay dialing up impressive gameplans.

It’s fun to watch. And it’s great team football.

“Whatever play is called, whoever’s number is called, the other 10 guys are all in on making sure that they get the best effort possible from the rest of the guys on the field,” wide receiver Cooper Kupp told PFW last week. “It’s part of what’s making us so efficient, I think, right now as an offense.”

At 4-0, you’d think the playoffs were a sure thing. But as we’ve seen with the Broncos and Vikings in 2016 and the Falcons in 2015, starting out 4-0 doesn’t guarantee a playoff spot — all three of those teams missed out. Sixty-five of the 80 teams (81.3 percent) since 1990 to start 4-0 did make the postseason, however, and 11 of them won a Super Bowl.

The Rams are in good shape but have work to do. It isn’t too soon to look ahead to the Week 14 game — Rams at Bears — as a possible playoff tuneup for one or both. That offense against the Bears’ defense? It should be terrific.

Philadelphia Eagles (2-2)

Forgive us, Washington fans, for putting them ahead on this list. It’s as much a recent history thing as it is an Eagles-are-getting healthy thing. Carson Wentz is back now, having played pretty well in his two starts. Alshon Jeffery also returned Sunday, catching a touchdown in his first game back since the Super Bowl.

But can Wentz remain upright? He was pummeled against the Titans, absorbing 11 hits and four sacks in the overtime loss. That certainly couldn’t have made head coach Doug Pederson feel too warm and fuzzy, even with having the rare luxury of Super Bowl MVP Nick Foles ready on the bench.

The Eagles also will get healthier in the backfield, with RBs Corey Clement (quad) and Darren Sproles (hamstring) returning at some point and Jay Ajayi (back fracture) returning against the Titans. So there is reason for hope on that side of the ball.

On defense, there has been something missing since the Week 1 win over Atlanta. Last week the secondary struggled without S Rodney McLeod, ceding too many big plays to Marcus Mariota and allowing three fourth-down conversions in overtime. The Eagles led that game by 14 points before losing; last season, they didn’t surrender a single double-digit loss en route to a title.

Is it too early to suggest that the Week 5 game against the Vikings is a massive one for both teams?

Minnesota Vikings (1-2-1)

Strange record. Strange start to the season.

If we told you that Kirk Cousins would be leading the league in completions, third in passing yards and held a 10-2 TD-INT ratio after four games, you’d have assumed the Vikings would be in better shape, correct?

Although Cousins’ two early fumbles haunted the team in a stunning home loss to the Bills, he really hasn’t been the reason the team is off to such a confounding start. The team’s pass defense — considered an almost undeniable strength entering the season — has been shockingly bad by their expectations.

Head coach Mike Zimmer now has a little extra time to prepare for the Eagles in what could be a make-or-break game to figure out what’s wrong with his pass defense.

“I still have faith in this football team,” Zimmer said. “We can come back and get to where we need to. We’ve only got two losses, so I’m not worried about that. I’m worried about how we [have] played.”

Oh, and don’t ask us how often 1-2-1 teams make the postseason. Although there are three such teams this season, that record hadn’t happened in a year since the strike-shortened 1987 season, when the Packers finished up 5-9-1. But here’s a sobering thought: Teams starting 1-3 since 1990 make the playoffs about 14 percent of the time, and 2-2 teams have made it 36 percent, so you might put the Vikings’ chances right now at about a one-in-four shot historically.

The Bears see them twice down the stretch — in Weeks 11 (home) and 17 (away).

New Orleans Saints (3-1)

They’ve won three straight after the opening-game loss, and yet there’s still hesitation. The Saints have scored 137 points (second in the NFC behind the Rams’ 140) but have allowed 121, which is only fewer than the Falcons (122) and Buccaneers (139) in the conference.

Drew Brees is coming off a poor game by his standards and yet still is completing 75.8 percent of his passes and has yet to turn the ball over. Alvin Kamara and Michael Thomas have been terrific, and Mark Ingram returns from suspension.

They can outgun almost anyone on any day. But can the defense get key stops? They were much better against the Giants in Week 4, but that doesn’t make up for how poorly the Saints played in the first three games. They’re contenders for sure, but the schedule looks tough with six of their next nine games after the bye coming on the road.

Green Bay Packers (2-1-1)

Carolina Panthers (2-1)

Washington (2-1)

All above .500, so they have a chance. The Packers and Panthers have MVP-caliber quarterbacks, so you might graduate them to contender status faster than Washington, which has two impressive wins (one over the Packers, in fact).

Alex Smith is no chump, and that offense has been quite competent so far. But Washington’s defense has been the story so far, outside of a semi-leaky rushing average and a hot and cold pass rush.

The Panthers’ three games have all been against apparently quality teams. The Cam Newton-Norv Turner pairing has been a hit so far, and Carolina by and large has withstood injuries and suspensions pretty well. Ron Rivera’s team cannot go overlooked.

Nor can the Packers and Aaron Rodgers, but he still isn’t himself following the knee injury he suffered against the Bears Week 1. Will he return to form? We’d be shocked not to see it. The defense turning in more performances like it did in Week 4 would give them a huge boost.

Dallas Cowboys 2-2

Tampa Bay Buccaneers 2-2

Seattle Seahawks 2-2

Atlanta Falcons 1-3

Without dismissing teams below this mark (those not mentioned above), it’s going to be tough to come back and become playoff contenders in such a deep conference field.

The Bucs appear to have the toughest schedule ahead, and defensive meltdowns in three of their four games (including the Bears’ 48-10 thrashing) suggest they have the most to overcome.

The Seahawks just lost Earl Thomas to a season-ending injury and have not been good on offense but are 2-1 in the NFC. Russell Wilson gives them a chance, but it’s more faint than in recent years.

The Cowboys are back on track now after a narrow home victory, but Jason Garrett might not be off the hot seat yet.

Atlanta’s Week 5 game against the 1-2-1 Steelers in Pittsburgh could be a season-ender for either of those teams.

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