By Geoff SchwartzFox Sports NFL Analyst
Is there anyone clearly good in the NFC outside of the Philadelphia Eagles? Seven weeks into the season, the undefeated Eagles clearly sit alone at the top of the NFC pecking order.
But who comes next? Let’s examine the teams that were in action in Week 7 to see if they should be considered contenders or pretenders. (The 5-1 Minnesota Vikings and 3-3 Los Angeles Rams joined the Eagles on a bye week.)
Why they’re a contender: This is a talented roster with above-average players at key positions. Dak Prescott returned to the lineup on Sunday, and while he didn’t shine against the Detroit Lions, we did see some glimpses of what Dak can be when he gets back into the flow of things. The Cowboys have a top-five offensive line and arguably the best pass rush in the NFL with Micah Parsons and Demarcus Lawrence. The Cowboys’ pass defense is good, not elite, but Trevon Diggs can be a tight corner at times. Having those above-average pieces (QB, OL, pass rush and defense) will always give the team a chance to win every weekend.
Why they might be a suitor: The Cowboys appear to be a system team, like most in the league. That system is successful, I don’t question it. But so far they have had a specific way of winning. Defense, rushing the ball and limiting his quarterback’s chances to “screw up.” Now, with Prescott back in the lineup, they shouldn’t have to worry about the “system” as often. If the defense collapses, they can score enough points to win those games.
Why they’re contenders: Coaching. That’s the only way to explain the Giants’ continued success this season. Their offense is designed around a quarterback in Daniel Jones who they want to avoid putting in bad situations and who is throwing to a bunch of wide receivers who probably shouldn’t be starting along with an interior offensive line that isn’t very good. Their defense entered the weekend ranked 30th in DVOA, but the unit doesn’t allow a ton of points. Yet every week I watch the scoring error or TV at the end of the fourth quarter and the Giants are within striking distance or have a short lead. The only explanation is that they are a well-trained, disciplined soccer team that doesn’t make mistakes or inflict self-inflicted injuries. They fight throughout the game and make their own luck. Kudos to the staff. Three more wins in the last 10 weeks and they’re a wild card team.
Why they might be a suitor: In the best possible way, what do they do well? Where in their game do you say “The Giants are above average on this…”? Maybe the running game, using Jones’ ability to move quickly as part of the offense. They’re not strong on the offensive line, especially inside, and now at right tackle with Evan Neal injured. They don’t stop the run, stop the pass or rush the passer that well. They limit the points, which feels like a house of cards. Again entering this weekend, Pro Football Focus rated New York’s pass rushing 26th, their coverage 27th, and their rushing defense 26th. Most other teams near the level of The Giants’ ratings or efficiency are the last denizens of the NFL. Once again, Math adds up for a playoff spot, but they are an odd team.
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Why they’re contenders: The offense is entertaining and scores a lot of points. Seattle entered this weekend as the fourth most efficient offense in the league, then went to Los Angeles and blew out the Chargers with 37 points. Quarterback Geno Smith is making a comeback in his career, and the Seahawks’ running game is excellent. Rookie Kenneth Walker, who is now the lead rusher, rushed for 168 yards against the Chargers on Sunday. He has 44 carries for 265 yards in the last two games. The Seahawks offense seems to be real and is here to stay
Why they might be a suitor: They’ve played on a soft schedule, and in the only game against a quality opponent (the 49ers), they went up in smoke. You can only play against the teams in front of you, and the Chargers may be considered a quality opponent, but Seattle has played against bad teams: Broncos, Falcons, Lions, Saints and Cardinals. Even with this schedule, their defense has struggled, although they have played better the last two weekends. Their soft schedule might not matter much, as they are close to a playoff spot with just a .500 season finish. However, they have the 49ers again, twice the Rams, the Chiefs, the Jets and the Buccaneers. If the offense slows down a bit, the defense will probably allow a ton of points. We will see.
Seahawks’ Kenneth Walker III runs all over the Chargers’ defense in blowout victory
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Why they’re contenders: In theory, the Packers’ offense can stop being held hostage by the quarterback and return to being a functional unit. They don’t run the ball enough and Aaron Rodgers just isn’t making the necessary adjustments to his game to match his receiving core. The lack of weapons excuse rings hollow when elite unarmed teams and/or playing backup quarterbacks can move the ball. And guess what, Aaron Jones is your elite weapon and the Packers don’t use him enough. Just eight career attempts for Jones and 17 total touches for the game in Sunday’s loss to the Commanders.
Why they might be a suitor: It’s probably a bad deal to write off the Packers and Rodgers, but the offense is struggling for points this season. It feels entirely possible that the offense will end the year not being very good compared to what they expected in Green Bay. Rodgers has no connection to any receiver outside of Allen Lazard. The Packers don’t try to push the ball downfield often because of this. It’s getting harder and harder for them to generate explosive passing plays, which is sorely needed when your offense is working for them. There seem to be some fights behind the scenes with Rodgers and head coach/playcaller Matt LaFleur. Lastly, the offensive line continues to be plagued by injuries, which doesn’t help Rodgers feel comfortable in the pocket.
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Why they’re contenders: They have Tom Brady. This one is simple. Yeah, the Bucs aren’t playing well on offense. But how many times have we seen Brady eliminated before he leads his team to victory? It’s happened throughout his career, and it helps that the Bucs play in a terrible division. They could win the division with seven wins, and all of a sudden, they’re hosting a playoff game. Nevertheless…
Why they might be a suitor: Brady doesn’t have Bill Belichick to help pull this team out of a slump. They are a squad that right now seems lifeless. Dropped passes. Bad protection. Zero offense on the ground. Terrible and often unimaginative plays. Brady seems less involved in the preparation process, taking a day off during practice week. Now in a vacuum that’s fine. Older players often have days off. But Brady has built his life around his intense schedule that optimizes his performance on the field. This season is doing something different. I’m not surprised the offense isn’t doing as well this season.
Why they’re a contender: Health. The Niners are banged up and slowly recovering. When they all come back, the Niners have the top defense in the NFL with a ferocious pass rush that will scare off any opposing quarterback and pass protection unit. When the secondary is healthy, they will work in conjunction with the pass rush to stop opposing offenses. With Trent Williams returning from injury at left tackle, the Niners’ offensive line has improved a lot. This list is great when healthy.
Why they might be a suitor: Jimmy Garoppolo. He is not that good. On his best day, he’s average. You have problems when your first read is not open. He doesn’t seem to mind having answers to pressure. The 49ers traded for running back Christian McCaffrey this week to help their running game. A solid running game takes pressure off the quarterback. It allows the Niners game action pass game to open up, making it easier for Jimmy G.
Geoff Schwartz played eight seasons in the NFL for five different teams. He started at right tackle for the University of Oregon for three seasons and was a second-team All-Pac-12 selection his senior year. He is an NFL analyst for FOX Sports. Follow him on Twitter @GeoffSchwartz.
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