Sitting at 2-1, the Los Angeles Rams can look around at the rest of the NFC and think, ‘all right.’
The Rams haven’t exactly set the world on fire in its first three games. The offense has been all Cooper Kupp (the Rams rank 29th in running the ball), the defense has been hit and miss, but the Rams currently lead the NFC West after beating the Arizona Cardinals Sunday.
In the division, the 49ers are on their second-string quarterback, even though he used to be their No. 1 and probably should have still been their top guy. The Seattle Seahawks weren’t supposed to be good – and aren’t – the Cardinals just can’t solve the Rams.
The route to a good playoff spot runs through your division, but after three weeks it’s fun to look around at who else in the NFC the Rams should be keeping an eye on.
Philadelphia Eagles 3-0
Next three games: vs. Jaguars, at Cardinals, vs Cowboys
Contender or Pretender? The Eagles have a few things going for them. Jalen Hurts is mobile – kind of a Lamar Jackson lite – but with a more accurate arm. He’s third in the NFL with 916 passing yards through three weeks. The Eagles’ defense has given up 15 points in the last two games, and the Eagles are kind of like the Rams in that they have the best quarterback in the division and that goes a long way.
Verdict: Contender. Hurts has developed a dangerous connection with wide receivers AJ Brown and DeVonta Smith.
Minnesota Vikings 2-1
Next three games: vs. Saints (in London), vs. Bears, at Dolphins
Contender or Pretender? New Vikings coach Kevin O’Connell has energized the offense with a simple concept: get the ball to the playmakers. Justin Jefferson is a stud wide receiver with 18 catches through the first three games and Dalvin Cook is running hard. Defensively the Vikings have been OK. The big acquisition of Za’Darius Smith from the Packers has been all right. He has two sacks but little else. This team will go as far as quarterback Kirk Cousins will take it. That’s good, right?
Verdict: Probably a pretender who still makes the playoffs.
Green Bay Packers 2-1
Next three games: vs. Patriots, vs. Giants, vs. Jets
Contender or Pretender: Aaron Rodgers doesn’t look happy as he breaks in a new group of wide receivers, but is Rodgers ever happy these days? The Packers rebounded after a bad opening loss to the Vikings and just picked up a gritty win on the road in Tampa. Their schedule is cake for the next four weeks. Mac Jones is out for the Patriots and then the two New York teams and then Washington.
Verdict: I’m bored of Rodgers and the Packers too, but they’re a contender. Green Bay should be 6-1 when they play at Buffalo in Week 8.
Dallas Cowboys 2-1
Next three games: vs. Commanders, at Rams, at Eagles
Contender or Pretender: So Cooper Rush is maybe….good? Rush has filled in at quarterback for Dak Prescott for the last two weeks and has been all right. He hasn’t turned the ball over and while the Cowboys‘ offense is limited (no wide receivers whatsoever after CeeDee Lamb) they have found something in the running game. Defensively they gamble a lot. Micah Parson is a superstar, but after him, there isn’t much.
Verdict: Another pretender who still might make the playoffs. Prescott coming back should help, but I can’t see them beating the Rams or Eagles. Hey, someone has to be second in the NFC East.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers 2-1
Next three games: vs. Chiefs, at Falcons, at Steelers
Contender or Pretender: The Bucs’ defense is legit. They are fifth in the NFL against the run and they are first in the most important category: points allowed. And they have Tom Brady at quarterback. Brady can still be knocked off his rhythm, but the team believes in him and that’s what matters. I’m curious to see how disrupted they get because of Hurricane Ian heading their way. Unfocused football players lose games.
Verdict: The Bucs are a contender because they are clearly the best team in their division, but old players get hurt and injuries will eventually doom the Bucs.
San Francisco 49ers 1-2
Next three games: vs. Rams (Monday), at Panthers, at Falcons
Contender or Pretender: The 49ers lost to the Bears in the slop, clobbered the hapless Seahawks while losing quarterback Trey Lance and then stumbled against the Broncos in a game they really should have won. Monday night’s game is huge for them to see if they can hang with the Rams in the division.
Verdict: When they made the schedule, I thought the Rams toughest regular season game may be this one against the 49ers. While the Rams match up with the Cardinals, the 49ers match up with the Rams. The 49ers will step forward and be a contender.
New York Giants 2-1
Next three games: vs. Bears, at Packers, vs. Ravens
Contender or Pretender: The Giants were hailed as perhaps the worst 2-0 team in NFL history. I don’t think they are horrible. Daniel Jones isn’t that accurate and runs too much at quarterback. Saquon Barkley is good, but the Giants undoing is that the offensive line is bad, plus Monday night the Giants lost their best wide receiver, Sterling Shepard, to a knee injury. The defense is young but still learning.
Verdict: Could the Giants be a bad team with a good record when all is said and done? Maybe. I think they’re a pretender.
Chicago Bears 2-1
Next three games: at Giants, at Vikings, vs. Commanders
Contender or Pretender: Of all the teams on this list is it Ok if I sneakily think the Bears might be pretty good? They beat the 49ers in Week 1. The game with the Packers was closer than the score showed (Bears got stuffed down at the goal line) and the way they beat the Texans on a late interception and field goal is a big confidence boost. Justin Fields hasn’t been great. He’s wildly inaccurate (23 of 45 for the year for just 297 yards), but the running game has been fantastic with Khalil Herbert and defenses have to respect Fields ability to run.
Verdict: Every year there is a surprise team. The Bears check a lot of boxes and the schedule sets up nicely in the next few weeks.