The NFC is wide open. You can make a great Super Bowl argument for any of the five teams that appear to be locks to make the playoffs, and a decent one for the few teams fighting over the sixth spot.
One former MVP quarterback looms as a wild card who could swing the whole conference, and it’s not going to be Aaron Rodgers. Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton has been looking like his 2015 self lately.
Over the Panthers’ last five games, Newton has 11 touchdowns and one interception. He also has 302 rushing yards (so much for not relying on him so much as a runner, Newton is on pace to approach career highs for rushing attempts and rushing yardage). He has thrown one interception since the end of October, and that one bounced off Christian McCaffrey’s hands and right to Vikings safety Andrew Sendejo.
Newton has rarely been properly rated in his career. Early on, he was given almost no credit for being a very good quarterback, as critics found any and all reasons to pick apart his game while ignoring the positives. Newton might have been a bit overrated his MVP season — his 7.1 touchdown percentage was way ahead of his career marks, and that figure was what won him the award — but that just made up for years of him being overlooked. Then Newton had an injury-filled encore in 2016 and barely anyone has noticed his rebound this season.
Newton is a hard player to get a read on because he’s fairly unique. There aren’t many quarterbacks with his dual ability to run and pass, and even fewer have been his size (Daunte Culpepper checked all those boxes for a while, but there aren’t many other comps). And we have to mention Newton’s personality rubs plenty of people the wrong way. Basically, either you love him coming to the line and trash talking Clay Matthews or you hate it. Let’s not fool ourselves, all the controversies might factor into how Newton the player is viewed.
But he can make plays few others can. He had two like that against Minnesota two weeks ago: a ridiculous touchdown pass while fading back after somehow avoiding a pass rush, and a 62-yard run with an open-field move that would be good for a 210-pound running back, much less a 6-foot-5, 245-pound quarterback. Those are the moments when you believe that Newton could carry the Panthers further than they should probably go.
This Panthers team isn’t as good as 2015. They don’t have much for Newton to throw to, although getting tight end Greg Olsen back looking like his normal self helps. But Newton gives the Panthers a chance in most games. He won’t always have the most impressive stat line. He has thrown for fewer than 200 yards seven times this season, and the Panthers are 5-2 in those games. He does have the ability to make those few plays that can turn a game. He’s not a classic pocket quarterback or someone who will flirt with 5,000 passing yards (he’s only thrown for 4,000 once, and that was his rookie season), but he’s a dangerous player on a 10-4 Panthers team.
The Rams, Saints, Vikings and Eagles are all fantastic teams and great stories. They’ve dominated most of the headlines in the NFC. Just don’t forget about the Panthers. They have the type of player who could lift his team to a special run in January.
Here are the power rankings following Week 14 of the NFL season:
32. Cleveland Browns (0-14, Last week: 32)
The Browns lead the league in “games in which it looked like they might have a chance to win, then they lose by 14-plus points.” When the Browns got a fourth-down stop and then scored, it was 7-3 and it really seemed like Cleveland had a shot. They lost by 17. This week against the Bears seems like their last shot at a win. They get the Steelers in Week 17 and it looks like Pittsburgh’s playoff seed won’t be clinched, and the Browns aren’t beating a Steelers team that needs to win.
31. New York Giants (2-12, LW: 31)
What got into their offense? They got 500 yards against a very good Eagles defense totally out of the blue. Sterling Shepard and Evan Engram played well, as did Roger Lewis, Tavarres King and rookie running back Wayne Gallman. Maybe there’s some momentum to be gained late in the season.
30. Indianapolis Colts (3-11, LW: 30)
Frank Gore is fantastic, and all the praise for him is justified. I also don’t get why he’s playing so much this late in the season. Even last Thursday, after Gore had a career-high in carries, he out-snapped rookie Marlon Mack 28-24. Don’t the Colts want to get Mack some experience and see if he can play? Perhaps they don’t think Mack is very good, because nothing else explains giving Gore all these snaps late in the year.
29. Houston Texans (4-10, LW: 29)
DeAndre Hopkins deserves another mention in this space, because he’s having as good of a season as anyone in the NFL. When you consider the terrible quarterback play he has had compared to guys like Antonio Brown, Keenan Allen or Julio Jones, Hopkins’ line of 92-1,313-12 becomes even more incredible. On Sunday he beat Jalen Ramsey, perhaps the best cornerback in the NFL this season, for a touchdown. Hopkins should be a unanimous All-Pro.
28. Cincinnati Bengals (5-9, LW: 26)
Everyone has wanted Marvin Lewis gone for a while now, but we’ll see if that’s a blessing or a curse. Lewis doesn’t get enough credit for what he has done with the Bengals, an organization that was a joke before he arrived. It’s not a team that’s in remarkable shape as Lewis leaves, either. No coaching candidate will pick the Bengals job as the best available. We’ll see what kind of coach they can land.
27. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (4-10, LW: 28)
Another loss, but Jameis Winston looked pretty good on Monday night. He had 299 yards, three touchdowns, no interceptions and generally played well. If the Buccaneers can get him headed on a positive path going into the offseason, that’s great.
26. Chicago Bears (4-10, LW: 25)
Before Saturday, when was the last time you heard the name Lamarr Houston? He was a huge free-agent addition for the Bears who never quite panned out. He had three sacks in 2016 and 2017 combined (he was cut by the Bears in September, cut by the Texans in November and signed back on to the Bears) before his two-sack game on Saturday. Who knows, maybe Houston’s career can start to rebound with a strong finish.
25. New York Jets (4-10, LW: 24)
Nobody would have thought twice had the Jets laid down against the Saints, especially with Bryce Petty at quarterback. Instead, they were in the game most of the time. A late touchdown by Mark Ingram made the final score 31-19, but the game was a lot close throughout. That matters, especially when you realize that the players are still playing very hard for coach Todd Bowles.
24. San Francisco 49ers (4-10, LW: 27)
Marquise Goodwin has been a nice revelation for the 49ers since Jimmy Garoppolo took over at quarterback. Goodwin has 24 catches for 319 yards in Garoppolo’s three starts. Goodwin is an incredible athlete who seemed underused at the University of Texas and by the Buffalo Bills too. The 27-year-old was a nice offseason find for the 49ers.
23. Washington Redskins (6-8, LW: 22)
What a weird win for the Redskins on Sunday. They had just 218 yards and didn’t play well at all at home by the Cardinals, but got stops in the red zone and forced a ton of field goals instead of touchdowns. It’s probably not going to lead their 2017 highlight reel, but a win is a win.
22. Denver Broncos (5-9, LW: 23)
It’s simple: If Paxton Lynch is healthy, he has to play these last two games. Maybe that’s unfair to Brock Osweiler, after a very good performance last week, but nobody said this business was fair. The Broncos need some clarity on Lynch before they enter what is going to be a very interesting offseason.
21. Oakland Raiders (6-8, LW: 21)
Michael Crabtree had 39 yards on 17 targets. That’s the fewest yards for anyone with 17 or more targets since they started tracking targets in 1992 (h/t to our friend Scott Pianowski). Maybe the Raiders should have tried something else.
20. Arizona Cardinals (6-8, LW: 20)
The Cardinals benched Blaine Gabbert, which has no real purpose other than to announce that they know Gabbert can’t be their starter in 2018. If Carson Palmer retires, this could get really ugly. There’s no backup plan and not a ton of cap space to make a big Kirk Cousins play (and it’s not like Palmer returning is some magic elixir, either).
19. Miami Dolphins (6-8, LW: 19)
You kind of knew the Dolphins would let down after beating the Patriots on Monday night. One thing I don’t think has been mentioned enough: This coaching staff refused to give Kenyan Drake a majority of the snaps, even after trading Jay Ajayi. He never got more than two-thirds of the snaps before Damien Williams got hurt. Drake has been marvelous since Williams got hurt and the Dolphins were forced to play him more. Doesn’t it concern you a bit that the coaching staff didn’t recognize how good Drake was when Williams was taking close to half the snaps?
18. Tennessee Titans (8-6, LW: 18)
Sometimes you get a glimpse into the competency of a coaching staff through small decisions. Since Oct. 8, DeMarco Murray has averaged 2.99 yards per carry. He has had one game north of 3.3 yards per carry in that stretch. And still, the Titans gave him 18 carries (for 59 yards) in a close loss to the 49ers. Derrick Henry hasn’t played great, but he’s a big back who could presumably benefit from a larger workload, yet he got seven carries Sunday. The steadfast refusal to cut back Murray’s workload should make anyone skeptical that this staff can make any right decisions.
17. Green Bay Packers (7-7, LW: 15)
The Packers were eliminated from playoff contention with Atlanta’s win on Monday night, and now it’s time to shut Aaron Rodgers down. If he plays and suffers an injury that lasts into the 2018 season, it would be an inexcusable mistake.
16. Buffalo Bills (8-6, LW: 17)
The Bills are very much alive in the playoff race thanks to the Titans’ collapse. There’s still the issue of having one of their two remaining games at New England, but a loss to the Patriots doesn’t ruin their chances. There are roughly a billion scenarios in play, and the Buffalo News did a good job sorting through them.
15. Detroit Lions (8-6, LW: 16)
What has gotten into Eric Ebron? He followed up a 10-catch, 94-yard game two weeks ago by scoring a nice touchdown in a win over the Bears on Saturday. Ebron has been mostly disappointing after he was selected ahead of Odell Beckham — that will always be a part of his football legacy, unfortunately — but he might be giving the Lions second thoughts about whether to hang onto him next season at a reported salary of more than $8 million (his 2018 salary, triggered when the Lions picked up his fifth-year option, is guaranteed only due to injury).
14. Seattle Seahawks (8-6, LW: 10)
We might look back in a few years and point to Sunday’s 42-7 loss as the end of the Seahawks’ era as we know it. Losing to the Rams, even in a blowout, was understandable because of all their injuries. But this is an aging team that will have to make some tough decisions. I trust the brass in place and any team with Russell Wilson should always be competitive, but this offseason will bring about many tough decisions.
13. Dallas Cowboys (8-6, LW: 13)
Well, the Cowboys get Ezekiel Elliott back when they’re still alive in the playoff race. The biggest result for them next week, other than beating the Seahawks at home, might be an Eagles win. If the Eagles win or the Vikings lose, Philadelphia will clinch the No. 1 seed. Dallas plays at Philadelphia in Week 17. We don’t know how the Eagles will handle Week 17 if they’ve clinched everything, but obviously the Cowboys are better off facing an Eagles team with nothing to play for.
12. Baltimore Ravens (8-6, LW: 12)
Tight end Ben Watson has played in all 14 games this season. He has 165 yards in two games against the Browns and 256 yards in the 12 other games. Too bad he won’t see the Browns in the playoffs.
11. Los Angeles Chargers (7-7, LW: 9)
The most troubling thing about Saturday’s loss might be that the defense disappeared. One sack. No interceptions. Unable to slow down Kareem Hunt. The Chargers defense had been among the best in the NFL in the weeks leading up to that showdown against the Chiefs, and it was a no-show in the biggest game of the year.
10. Kansas City Chiefs (8-6, LW: 14)
Maybe Marcus Peters just needed a wake-up call? A week after a team-imposed suspension, he had a marvelous game against the Chargers. We’ve seen a focused Peters be one of the best cornerbacks in football, and if he is past this season’s slump, it would help the Chiefs defense immensely.
9. Atlanta Falcons (9-5, LW: 11)
Devonta Freeman’s last 100-yard game was Sept. 24. He exploded on Monday night, with 126 yards rushing and 68 more receiving. Some of that was an increased workload with Tevin Coleman out, but Freeman is capable of getting very hot for a stretch, and maybe Monday was the start of that.
8. Carolina Panthers (10-4, LW: 8)
Usually the term “distraction” is overused, because NFL players aren’t as easily distracted as some like to believe. I don’t think the issues with owner Jerry Richardson will affect the team on the field this season. Most owners don’t have regular interactions with the players. The inappropriate workplace behavior Richardson is accused of didn’t have anything to do with the players or coaches, it seems. It’s an unusual situation, but it’s a bit much to assume a 10-4 team will suddenly become rattled by it.
7. New Orleans Saints (10-4, LW: 6)
Linebacker Manti Te’o has quietly had a very nice season for the Saints. Remember when everyone thought he was going to be a locker room distraction his entire career over the fake girlfriend story? Well, no. Te’o is never going to be the player he was at Notre Dame, when he almost did the impossible and won a Heisman Trophy at linebacker. But he’s a very good part of a defense that can make a Super Bowl.
6. Jacksonville Jaguars (10-4, LW: 7)
Let’s be very clear: If Blake Bortles plays anywhere near the level he has played at for three weeks (903 yards, seven touchdowns, no interceptions and a passer rating of 128.6), the Jaguars can absolutely win a Super Bowl. There’s no weakness if Bortles plays like this. Now, do I believe Bortles will plays like this in January? No. But it’s impossible to ignore what he has done lately.
5. Minnesota Vikings (11-3, LW: 4)
According to @NFL_Stats on Twitter, cornerback Xavier Rhodes has held Antonio Brown, Julio Jones, Odell Beckham and A.J. Green to nine catches for 94 yards when he’s been in coverage on them, dating back to last season. Coverage stats assume we know when a cornerback is solely responsible for a receiver, and a catch isn’t a result of a mistake by the safety in coverage or whatnot, but even if the numbers are a bit off, it’s unquestionable that Rhodes is one of the NFL’s best corners. It’s going to be very tough to pick just two cornerbacks for the All-Pro team.
4. Pittsburgh Steelers (11-3, LW: 1)
There are two separate arguments: The NFL’s catch rule needs an overhaul, yet, the officials called the Jesse James play by the rulebook. That’s the way the NFL wants that rule enforced. Complain about the rule, not the call. Anyway, Ben Roethlisberger shouldn’t get off the hook for his mistake. Once he saw that his only option on the fake spike play was covered, he needed to throw that ball into the 15th row and live to fight another day.
3. Los Angeles Rams (10-4, LW: 5)
Oh, wow. Sunday’s win over the Seahawks is the best game an NFL team has played this season. That was shocking. And even before that performance, the Rams were playing like one of the best teams we’ve seen in years. The Rams were in the top five in offense, defense and special teams in Football Outsiders’ DVOA metric before Week 15, and only four other teams had pulled that off after 14 weeks, dating back to 1989: the 1991 Redskins, 1992 Eagles, 1996 Packers and 2012 Seahawks. That’s some great company. And then the Rams won 42-7 at Seattle. Maybe we shouldn’t have been so surprised by that result. I’m buying
2. Philadelphia Eagles (12-2, LW: 3)
Let’s give them a pass for that defensive performance at the Giants. I don’t know what happened, but it was out of the norm. Then look at the positive: Nick Foles looked very good. If he’ll play at that level the rest of the way, the Eagles are still in good shape to make a Super Bowl (as we talked about here last week).
1. New England Patriots (11-3, LW: 2)
It’s reasonable to question if they deserve the No. 1 spot. But they have lost one game since Oct. 1, in an obvious look-ahead spot (no matter what Bill Belichick said), and just won on the road against a Steelers team that was 11-2. Doubt the Patriots at your own risk.
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