NFC in state of confusion
No clear favorite has emerged; don't expect that to change in Week 7
Seven weeks into the season, no true No. 1 team has emerged in the NFC.
How down is the conference overall? Five AFC teams ranked above the top NFC team in this week's Power Rankings. I even put Tennessee at No. 6 because it is 2-0 in against the NFC East. Every NFC team has at least two losses.
Things should only get more confusing this weekend. The Minnesota Vikings visit the Green Bay Packers, and if the Vikings win, the Chicago Bears will leave the week as the only NFC North team with a winning record. The Dallas Cowboys could tighten an already-strange NFC East race if they win their Monday night home game against the New York Giants.
The NFC appears to be on a path in which two teams from the NFC South -- the Saints and Falcons -- could come out with the conference's best records. The NFC might consider altering its name this season to NCF -- No Clear Favorite.
Here are the 10 best highlights and trends of the week:
1. An old Lambeau Leap of faith: When he was in Green Bay in 2007, Brett Favre pushed team management to make a trade for Randy Moss. The Packers made an offer, but the Patriots grabbed Moss in a draft-day trade with the Raiders and went to the Super Bowl. Favre finally got his wish when Moss was traded to the Vikings this season -- and this weekend Favre heads back to Lambeau Field with Moss. Minnesota has a three-game winning streak against the Packers and has won back-to-back NFC North titles. Favre enters with an 8-0 record against Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers in their varied stops around the league. Injuries have made Capers' job impossible in recent weeks. The Packers' defense has dropped to No. 15 in yards allowed per game. Linebacker Clay Matthews should return after missing a game with a hamstring injury, but the defensive line is banged up, as is the secondary. This should make for a classic Sunday night game.
2. What's to celebrate? One of the many disappointments of the Cowboys' season is their inability to finish drives. Despite averaging 400 yards a game on offense, the Cowboys have produced only 11 touchdown drives in 53 offensive possessions. They've also been penalized 15 yards for excessive celebration after two of those TD drives, which is inexcusable. Wade Phillips ordered the Cowboys to adopt the college rule of putting the ball on the ground or giving it to an official. But with their offensive line problems and their indecision over whether to dink and dunk the ball or take shots downfield, you wonder if the Cowboys will get into the end zone at all. Will a Monday night home game against the New York Giants be the cure? It better be. Like the Cowboys, the Giants were left for dead three weeks ago, but have rolled off a three-game winning streak thanks to improved offensive play and a defense that surprisingly ranks second in the league. The Cowboys-Vikings game last week was considered an early elimination game, but a loss to the Giants could get Dallas fans thinking about a top-five draft pick.
3. A turn in the turnover ratio: After weeks of being missing in action, the 2009 Saints showed up in Week 6, winning 31-6 over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. On Sunday, their good luck should continue when they host the Cleveland Browns, who will have rookie Colt McCoy at quarterback. The Saints' Super Bowl run last season was aided by the league's easiest schedule and games against teams with quarterbacks who were either rookies, first-time starters or backups. Gregg Williams' defense capitalized on that inexperience by creating turnovers. For example, in six wins during that 13-0 start last season, the Saints created 19 turnovers, setting up field-position breaks that allowed the Saints' offense to average 38 points in those games. Safety Darren Sharper had eight of his nine interceptions against rookies, first-time starters or backups. This season, the Saints are getting the same breaks, but aren't taking advantage of them as often. They faced rookies Jimmy Clausen and Max Hall and intercepted only one pass in those two games. McCoy played a decent game in a loss to the Steelers last week.
4. Third quarterbacks aren't the charm: The Raiders and Jaguars might play Sunday with third-string quarterbacks, although Oakland's Jason Campbell could get the nod over third-stringer Kyle Boller if Campbell's injured knee holds up during practice. As mentioned, the Browns go against the Saints with third-stringer McCoy because of high-ankle sprains to Jake Delhomme and Seneca Wallace. The most curious team is the Jacksonville Jaguars. David Garrard suffered a concussion in the Monday night game against the Titans and was ruled out Friday, and Trent Edwards injured his thumb and hasn't practiced. The Jaguars signed Todd Bouman and Patrick Ramsey this week and are trying to get both ready to play. Teams that don't have elite quarterbacks must develop backups. The Jags are now just grabbing guys off the streets.
5. Maxing out the challenge: The Arizona Cardinals go into Seattle's Qwest Field with undrafted rookie Hall in a game that will determine the NFC West lead. Qwest is a quarterback's nightmare for noise, and Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt must worry about false starts. Opponents are averaging a league-high 4½ false starts a game at Qwest. Further complicating things will be the potential of rain and wind. The Seahawks have bulked up their running attack with the trade for Marshawn Lynch.
6. Fallout from renewed efforts to enforce helmet-hit fouls: Now that James Harrison returned to the Steelers' offices after contemplating retirement, the veteran linebacker must adjust his hard-hitting tackling style for a key AFC game against the Miami Dolphins. Patriots safety Brandon Meriweather will have to do the same depending on how Bill Belichick wants to play him in New England's game against the San Diego Chargers. Some physical games are on the schedule this week. The Dolphins hit hard on offense and defense. The Steelers' defense hits harder than almost anyone. The league gave Harrison a $75,000 fine for knocking out Josh Cribbs and Mohamed Massaquoi. How will he adjust his style of tackling? We'll see.
7. Feeling unprotected at Soldier Field: Everyone has seen Jay Cutler's dilemma. He's asked to make five- and seven-stop drops behind an offensive line that has given up 2½ sacks a quarter in his past two starts. Combine that with run blocking that rarely generates more than a yard or two on first down and you can see why Cutler hasn't converted a third down since Week 3. Donovan McNabb of the Redskins has his own problems. He's been sacked eight times in his past two games, and rookie left tackle Trent Williams goes against Bears defensive end Julius Peppers. The Redskins-Bears game is the Sunday version of "Last Man Standing.''
8. Reinforcements on the way: Week 7 is the first week for players on the physically unable to perform list to surface. Significant help could be on the way. The Baltimore Ravens could welcome back safety Ed Reed for Sunday's game against the Bills. Packers coach Mike McCarthy isn't sure safety Atari Bigby and cornerback Al Harris will be on the field Sunday against the Vikings, but they are practicing again. The Saints could have Sharper on the field to grab an interception or two against McCoy. The Cardinals could get much-needed linebacker help if Gerald Hayes is healthy enough to join the lineup.
9. Interconference battles: The AFC's 15-11 lead in the interconference rivalry faces a challenge this week. The Tennessee Titans must find a way to contain the rhythm passing of Eagles quarterback Kevin Kolb. Thanks to a pass rush sparked by six sacks from journeyman Jason Babin, the Titans have shaved 28 yards per game off their pass defense from last year, but they are still giving up 231 yards a game through the air. The Falcons face an interesting challenge against the rested Cincinnati Bengals, who have Chad Ochocinco back to boasting and sending T-shirts to Falcons players. The Saints should have an easy time with the Browns.
10. Bottom-feeders: The San Francisco 49ers' trip to Carolina could determine if they are going to climb back into the NFC playoff race or be in contention for a top-five pick. The Panthers, who are 0-5, went back to Matt Moore at quarterback. The 49ers are 1-5. You don't want to be the loser in the Raiders-Broncos game. The Broncos (2-4) have been playing well but falling short. The Raiders don't know who will start at quarterback because of injuries and their run defense has been disappointing. The Bills, at 0-5, come off a bye to face an angry Ravens team. Good luck with that one.
John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
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