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Grades for NFC Division Leaders... What Do We Think? What Do We Know? What Can We Prove?

Updated: May 2

John Kaufman – NFL Analyst


(This is part two of an article covering the eight NFL teams currently in first place in their division. Today's article is about the four first-place NFC teams. Part one was posted yesterday and can be found here.)


Since we are exactly 25% of the way into this NFL season and we now have a decent sample size of data, let’s take a look at each of the eight teams currently leading their divisions. We’re going to put them under the microscope and, based upon how they’ve performed thus far, try to accomplish two things here:


1. We’re going to give them each a grade that explains what we’ve seen from them so far this year.


2. We’re going to decide whether we should swipe right or left on their chances to remain the division leader come season’s end.


So, when it comes to the four current NFC division leaders…


What Do We Think? What Do We Know? What Can We Prove?

(Report Card & Tinder style, this time.)


Picture from sportslogos.net

NFC EAST:


Dallas Cowboys – 3-1 overall, 2-0 division record, 2-1 conference record


The Dallas Cowboys began the 2019 with one of the easiest schedules in the league:


-week one at home vs NYG -week two at WAS -week three vs MIA


It’s no surprise to anyone that the Cowboys won all of those games.


But then in week four they traveled to New Orleans to take on the Saints sans Drew Brees and suddenly the Cowboys didn’t look so astounding. They lost the game 12-10, rushing for 45 yards on 20 attempts against a fairly average Saints rush defense (NO is 20th overall in rushing yards given up). They turned the ball over two more times than the Saints did, and they lost the time of possession battle by just a tick over twelve minutes. Absolutely nothing about Dallas’ performance in that game was even remotely good.


So, what do we really know about these Cowboys?


It’s difficult to say for certain, but the obvious answer is that they are capable of beating up on bad teams while also looking lost on the road against good teams. As far as a grade is concerned, that sounds like a middle-of-the-road team to me.


GRADE: C


This is an easy grade to give out, but for a deceptive reason. I don’t think we really know much about the Dallas Cowboys. Those first three games are the equivalent of lowering the hoop in the driveway to seven feet, dunking on your nine-year-old brother, and then getting all up in his face as you brag about it. You’re embarrassing yourself, man, so just knock it off.

On the other hand, there is absolutely no shame in dropping a game in New Orleans – with or without Drew Brees playing. Sean Payton is a hell of a coach and his ability to overcome injuries and roster issues cannot be overstated. If Dallas goes on to win 10 or 11 games this year, we wouldn’t bat an eye about the loss to the Saints. So again, at this point in the season it is tough to really know what the Cowboys are truly made of.


But we’re going to find out pretty quickly, because this Sunday we get to see them take on the 3-1 Green Bay Packers in Jerry World at 4:25 PM Eastern. This game will definitely provide us with some valuable insight about this Dallas team. I am really excited to see that game.


DALLAS’ CHANCES TO WIN THE DIVISION: SWIPE RIGHT VERY TENTATIVELY?


Look, right now we can say with a lot of confidence that either Dallas or Philadelphia is winning this division. I mentioned that we’ve only seen Dallas get tested once so far this year and they failed that exam. We simply need more data before we can swipe right with all the confidence of a shirtless bathroom selfie.


Likewise, Philadelphia has some concerns as well, although most of theirs are health-related. The Eagles’ rushing defense has been phenomenal this year. They have only given up 248 yards in their four games played, which equates to only 62 yards per game. Their pass defense, on the other hand, is dead-last in the NFL. But like I said, they are dealing with a ton of injuries in their secondary, so it’s reasonable to believe that they will improve once they get healthy.


For me, this is the biggest toss-up division in the NFL. I believe it is a true coin flip between Dallas and Philly to win the NFC East. If I had to choose one team over the other right now, I would take Dallas, but only by the thinnest of margins. My confidence in this pick will improve dramatically after we see the Dallas-Green Bay game this weekend.


And speaking of…


Picture from sportslogos.net

NFC NORTH:


Green Bay Packers – 3-1 overall, 2-0 division record, 2-1 conference record


So this is one of the weirdest and least explainable stats I’ve seen about any NFL team in 2019. Here are Green Bay’s points scored by quarter in their first four games:


1st quarter – 28 points

2nd quarter – 37 points

3rd quarter – 14 points

4th quarter – 6 points


(Um, hey there Matt LaFleur. So… I’m pretty sure that’s not what people mean when they say, “halftime adjustments.”)


I have no idea how to even begin explaining that the Packers have scored just 20 points total in the second half of their four games this year. No clue.


But that bizarre weakness definitely contributed to their only loss on the season last Thursday night to Philadelphia. Green Bay was up 10-0 early before Philly outscored them 34-17 the rest of the way, including dropping 21 on the Packers in the 2nd quarter.


Now, Green Bay does have two division wins already this year. And they came against Chicago and Minnesota, both of whom were expected to compete with Green Bay for the division crown. Losing to Philadelphia should not be considered a bad loss at all. A healthy Eagles squad definitely has to be considered among the top eight teams in the NFL.


But the Packers had better figure out how to find the end zone after halftime is over, and they better do it soon because their remaining schedule is not easy. We know they travel to Dallas this Sunday to face the Cowboys. After that they will have this stretch to deal with:


-week 6: vs DET -week 7: vs OAK -week 8: at KC -week 9: at LAC -week 10: vs CAR -week 11: BYE -week 12: at SF


There are some pretty tough games in that stretch, not to mention that they end the season with their final three games being divisional matchups (weeks 15-17 they are vs CHI, at MIN, at DET). So if Green Bay loses to Dallas this weekend, they might be in some serious trouble.


GRADE: C+


Defensively, Green Bay is very solid, giving up the 11th-fewest total yards. But their pass defense, and especially second-year CB Jaire Alexander, is what really shines. The Packers have given up the 4th-fewest passing yards in the league, and Alexander looks like a shut-down corner in the making. He was incredibly impressive as a rookie last year, and this year he looks even better. The Pack seem to have things figured out on the defensive side of the ball.


The C+ grade is because of two concerns: their aforementioned inability to score points in the second half, and Aaron Rodgers’ relationship with his new head coach, Matt LaFleur. There were reports this summer that LaFleur didn’t want Rodgers to ever audible out of one of his play calls. Throughout his career, Rodgers has been maybe the best QB we’ve ever seen when a play breaks down and he must improvise. He and Russell Wilson have been nothing short of magical in those situations. Clearly, Aaron Rodgers can be trusted to adjust on the fly to what he sees happening in front of him. To hold him back in any such situation would be insane. I’m not saying that’s what is happening. But so far in 2019, the Packers’ offense is incredibly average (19th overall in total yards), and they can’t score in the second half of games. Something isn’t right.


GREEN BAY’S CHANCES TO WIN THE DIVISION: SWIPE R-I-G-H-T


Even if things don’t look perfect as of now, I am going to place my trust in Aaron Rodgers because once upon a time he told me to R-E-L-A-X, and I have been cooler than a polar bear’s toenails ever since. (Anyone else miss Outkast a lot? I do.)


Between Rodgers and the Packers’ stellar defense, it’s difficult to imagine them not winning the North and making the playoffs this year. What’s helping me conjure up images of them in the postseason is that I have zero faith in Mitch Trubisky’s ability to lead the Bears to a division title. (In fact, I wrote about that very concern regarding Trubisky.) To make matters worse, Trubisky is dealing with a separated shoulder in his non-throwing arm, so the Bears will have to start backup QB, Chase Daniels, in the interim.


And then there’s Kirk Cousins and the Minnesota Vikings. I feel even less confident about Cousins and his six pass attempts per game (no, that’s just hyperbole – he’s probably throwing the ball at least eight or nine times per game) leading the Vikings to a division crown than I do about Trubisky’s chances with his team. On the other hand, I do think that Detroit will end up being the second-best team in this division when the 2019 season has concluded. They’re better than anyone, including myself, thought they’d be. But they’re not better than the Packers, so I am definitely swiping right on Green Bay.


Picture from sportslogos.net

NFC SOUTH:


New Orleans Saints – 3-1 overall, 0-0 division record, 2-1 conference record


New Orleans has been without future Hall-of-Famer, Drew Brees, for basically the entirety of their last three games. And yet, here we are heading into week five and they are in first place in their division, with their only loss coming on the road to the LA Rams in the game in which Brees hurt his throwing hand. Teddy Bridgewater and his 6.1 yards per pass attempt (31st in the NFL among QBs) has been playing, let’s say rather mediocre-ly, for the injured Brees. But it just doesn’t matter. In the two games the Saints have played without Brees taking a single snap, they are 2-0.


And why is that?


Why else? Sean Payton.


What an incredible job Payton is doing coaching his team without his stud QB. Bridgewater has been the very epitome of a game-manager quarterback. He is completing 67.8% of his passes this year, but as I already pointed out, those completions are occurring ridiculously close to the line of scrimmage which means that Bridgewater isn’t taking a lot of risks. That is not happening by accident, folks. That is Payton designing easy pitch-and-catch plays for his backup quarterback, which is brilliant. It is obvious that a YPA of 6.1 yards over the course of an entire season would be a disaster. In the NFL, you simply must take shots down the field to prevent opposing defenses from creeping closer and closer to the line of scrimmage. Whether or not you are completing those deep shots is irrelevant; their inherent value lies simply in their existence. Offensive playcallers in the NFL must dial up deep shots every now and again regardless of who is under center.


Sean Payton knows that, but he also knows that Bridgewater’s best attribute is not his arm strength. In fact, that was one of the major knocks on him coming out of college. What Bridgewater did do well while at Louisville was throw accurate passes. His career completion percentage was 68.4% in college, which was excellent. And what do we always hear about how accuracy, or lack thereof, in college translates to the NFL:


“You can’t teach accuracy. You either have it or you don’t.”


Well, Teddy Touch Pass has it. (That is absolutely not Bridgewater’s nickname, by the way. I just made that up. But I’m handing that one out for free, so if y’all like it, go nuts.) He is an accurate thrower who simply does not have a big arm. And Sean Payton knows this, so he has adapted his offense ever so slightly in order to maximize his new QBs strengths and minimize his weaknesses. That, right there, is what coaching is all about. That is how you win in the NFL regardless of injuries and free agents and draft picks and everything.


Further, how many times have we witnessed NFL coaches designing schemes and gameplans that are counterproductive to their own players’ attributes and abilities? This happens way more often than we’d like it to, and each time it unfolds in front of our eyes it becomes more and maddening. Think back to Jared Goff’s rookie season in 2016 when Jeff Fisher was his coach. Goff didn’t win a single game he started (0-7), his completed a paltry 54.6% of his passes, threw more interceptions (seven) than touchdowns (five), and his yards gained per completed pass (Y/C) was 9.7. He was written off as one of the biggest busts in the history of the NFL.


The following season the Rams fired Fisher and hired Sean McVay, and here is the same stat line for Goff:


-11-4 record -62.1% complete -28 TDs -7 INTs

-12.9 Y/C which lead the NFL


McVay didn’t teach Goff how to throw the football differently or anything like that. He just realized that Goff needed help in diagnosing what opposing defenses were trying to take away from him. So he helped his player, like a head coach should do. And boom, Goff is one of the better quarterbacks in the NFL today.


Just like McVay was given credit for helping the game slow down for Jared Goff, Sean Payton needs to be lauded for how he is helping Teddy Bridgewater play competent football. And the best way I can think to do that is…


GRADE: A+


For the Saints to be 3-1 without Drew Brees is remarkable. That record includes a road win at Seattle and a defensive beat-down at home against Dallas. Those would be impressive feats if Brees were playing. To do it with Teddy Bridgewater is nothing short of inspiring. Sean Payton and the Saints easily get an A+ for how they’ve handled the first quarter of their season.


NEW ORLEANS’ CHANCES TO WIN THE DIVISION: SWIPE RIGHT WHILE YOU’RE MARCHING IN


The Saints’ upcoming schedule looks like this:


-week 5: vs TB -week 6: at JAX -week 7: at CHI -week 8: vs ARZ -week 9: BYE


Even if New Orleans drops both road games but wins their home contests, they’d be 5-3 heading into their bye week and would most likely get Drew Brees back for their week 10 divisional battle at home against Atlanta. What a bummer for Carolina, Atlanta and Tampa Bay. Brees gets hurt and the Saints seemingly don’t even skip a beat.


Tampa Bay surprised us all with their road win over the Rams last weekend. But they just don’t have the same talent to compete with New Orleans.


Clearly Carolina’s issue is Cam’s health. Now we know that he was playing through the foot sprain that he suffered in week three of the preseason. Kyle Allen has looked respectable in his place, but who knows how long Cam will be out, and I’m just not backing Allen to take over this division.


If you can figure out just what the hell is going on with the Atlanta Falcons, you’re smarter than I am. Either that or you must have like a real decoder ring or an actual magic 8-ball or something. Which is cool but please don’t flaunt it anymore because we’re all kind of jealous to be honest.


The Saints are the class of the NFL South this year. They’re winning this division for sure. Swipe right with your usual level of pizzazz, New Orleans.


Picture from sportslogos.net

NFC WEST:


San Francisco 49ers – 3-0 overall, 0-0 division record, 1-0 conference record


Along with New England and Kansas City, San Francisco is one of the three remaining undefeated NFL teams. While the Patriots and Chiefs are both 4-0, the 49ers are 3-0 due to their week four bye. The 49ers have not yet played a game within their division, but that will change in two weeks when they travel to Los Angeles to face the Rams. All that separates the 49ers from carrying an undefeated record into LA is a home matchup on Monday Night Football against the Cleveland Browns this week. But before we look ahead, let’s check San Francisco’s rear view mirror first.


San Francisco did start out their season with two road wins; at Tampa Bay in week one and then at Cincinnati the following weekend. Interestingly, the 49ers did not travel back to California between those two games, instead opting to stay in the Eastern time zone to cut down on travel and maximize rest in between their first two contests. It’s difficult to say whether or not the easier travel schedule helped them defeat the Bengals in week two, but it’s even harder to surmise that it had no positive impact whatsoever. It was a smart move which, frankly, I am surprised more west coast teams don’t utilize when playing back to back games in the eastern part of the country.


Week three saw the 49ers at home for the first time where they beat Pittsburgh 24-20. This was a come from behind victory that saw quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo throw the game-winning touchdown pass to Dante Pettis with only 1:15 left in the fourth quarter. It was an equally impressive and thrilling victory for head coach Kyle Shanahan and his squad.


Judging the 49ers’ offense and defense against the rest of the NFL becomes somewhat of a challenge now, given that they’ve played one less game than everyone else save the New York Jets who also had a bye this past week. To make things simpler I’m going to use efficiency stats (stats per game) as opposed to counting stats (total yards, etc.) to dissect this team. (But there is one counting stat that must be highlighted because it is beyond impressive.)


On the offensive side of the ball, the 49ers have been well above average. They are averaging 6.3 yards per play which is 5th-best in the NFL. They’ve been very good all around, but their rushing offense is the star of this show. They are currently 7th in the NFL in rushing yards (525 yards) even though they’ve played one less game than 30 other teams. That is truly remarkable.


Garoppolo is averaging 246 passing yards per game. He isn’t exactly setting the league on fire with those numbers, but that pedestrian average is due more to the fact that not only does Shanahan want to run the ball more, but they are exceptional at it as we’ve already discussed. Garoppolo, though, has looked good when needed; in week two at Cincinnati he went 17/25 for 296, with three touchdowns and one interception. He averaged an astounding 11.84 yards per attempt in that game. And as I previously mentioned, he did throw the game-winning touchdown against the Steelers. When the 49ers have needed Jimmy G to do his thing, he has answered that call.


Defensively, the 49ers are very solid as well. They have given up the 6th-fewest rushing yards per game at just 75 yards per contest. They are also giving up the 6th-fewest passing yards per game at 208 yards. Opposing quarterbacks are completing just 57.1% of their passes against the Niners’ defense, which is tied for the 3rd-lowest rate in the league. San Francisco’s pass rush has been ferocious thus far; they are averaging three sacks per game. And perhaps most importantly, the 49ers are giving up the 4th-lowest Adjusted Yards per Attempt at only 5.3. The 49ers have simply been lights out on both sides of the ball in 2019.


GRADE: A-


San Francisco is undefeated, stellar on offense and rock-solid on defense… there’s a lot to be excited about here if you’re a 49er fan. The only reason this grade isn’t an A or an A+ is because their schedule thus far has been slightly easier than other teams have had to deal with. Although opening up the season by winning back-to-back road games in the Eastern time zone should not be glossed over. Any road win in the NFL should be savored extensively because they can be incredibly elusive, even for very good teams. Therefore, the start to the 49ers’ season needs to be viewed a successful one by any metric.


And, if we were concerned about their schedule being soft so far, we will be able to ease those concerns rather quickly. San Francisco will face the Cleveland Browns this week at home on Monday Night Football. If the Browns team that wailed on the Baltimore Ravens last weekend shows up in Santa Clara this Monday night, the 49ers will face their first true test this year.


And then in week six, the 49ers will take on the Los Angeles Rams in LA for their first divisional matchup of the season. These next two games have the potential to be two of the toughest games on the 49ers’ schedule. By the time the Niners travel to Washington for their week seven game, we should have a very clear picture of this team’s composition and whether or not they’ll be contenders at the end of this regular season.


However, we need to make a prediction about their fate right now, even though we don’t have the luxury of knowing how their next two games will turn out. We are only able to base this upon what we’ve seen so far. Armed with that knowledge…


SAN FRANCISCO’S CHANCES TO WIN THE DIVISION: SWIPE RIGHT ON, DUDE

While both the Seahawks and Rams are 3-1 right now, each team has some issues about which I am very concerned. Seattle’s defense is a far cry from what we’re used to seeing. In the past they’ve been a team that has been excellent at taking the ball away from opposing offenses. However, they are not creating turnovers at a high rate anymore. They are 9th-worst in turnover rate in the NFL. We have also grown accustomed to Seattle having perhaps the best home field advantage in the league. But that ship seems to be leaving port as well. In week one, the Seahawks barely defeated Cincinnati, 21-20. That game saw Andy Dalton come to town and throw for 418 yards on Seattle. That sort of “effort” by Seattle’s defense does not exactly instill confidence in anyone. But things got worse in week three when Teddy Bridgewater and the Saints rolled into Seattle and stunned the Seahawks, 33-27. Seattle could be 0-2 at home, a record that would have seemed unimaginable just a short while ago.


The Los Angeles Rams are worrisome on the offensive side of the ball. Despite being 3-1, they are the 11th-worst team in total rushing yards. They’ve only gained 399 yards on 97 attempts, which equates to just 4.1 yards per attempt. That’s almost a full yard per carry less than they averaged last year (4.9). Defensively-speaking, this Rams team is average; they are 21st in total yards given up, 17th in passing and 24th in rushing. I think it’s fair to say that this team is worse than last year’s squad that lost to New England in the Super Bowl.


I’d say that it’s pretty safe to pick the 49ers to hold on to their division lead throughout this season. Let’s not forget that, ever since Kyle Shanahan came to town, the issue for San Francisco has been staying healthy. That’s it. Last season, Jimmy Garoppolo tore his ACL in week three. Shanahan had to call plays with C.J. Beathard and Nick Mullens under center for almost the entire season. The 49ers still finished 12th in the NFL in net yards per passing attempt (NY/A), ahead of other quarterbacks like Russell Wilson, Cam Newton, Aaron Rodgers and Dak Prescott. If San Francisco can manage to keep their most important pieces on the field this year, well, we’ve seen Kyle Shanahan do much more with much less.


So yeah, bro, you can totally hang loose and swipe right on these 49ers with me, because the sky’s the limit for this well-coached team.

John Kaufman

Across the Board Sports

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