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This Week in Football – NFC contenders, Foles falters, Dolphins highlights

OUR TOP STORY

It’s almost unbelievable how much parity there is in the NFC this year. Save for the NFC East winner, the other five teams in the playoff picture all of a legitimate claim to being the best team in the conference.

This week in particular showed how strong the top of the NFC is. One week ago, San Francisco looked like not just the NFC’s best team, but the NFL’s best team. The 49ers pummeled the Green Bay Packers in front of God and everyone, with the defense looking as fearsome as ever and offense looking crisp.

Jump ahead to this week, when the Niners lost to the AFC’s best team, the Ravens, then were bumped into a wild card spot due to the Seahawks’ win over the Vikings on Monday night.

By this point in the season there isn’t much drama in terms of who’s going to get in, because both conferences have proven to be top heavy. However, the depth in the NFC playoff picture is rare. Again, five of the six playoff teams are legitimate Super Bowl contenders.

The Saints hold the No. 1 seed currently and have looked like the strongest team consistently this season. Whether it’s been Drew Brees or Teddy Bridgewater leading the offense, New Orleans has looked like a contender from Week 1. That’s also in large part because of the defense, which is among the most efficient against both the run and the pass.

Like everyone else, though the Saints also have flaws. As has been touched on before in This Week in Football, they have three games without a touchdown this season. That’s the exception to the rule, but a noticeable and significant one.

The Seahawks, meanwhile, are incapable of running away with a game. On Monday night Seattle dominated Minnesota in the second half and was clearly the better team. Then, all of a sudden, the Vikings got right back into the game late. Only one of Seattle’s 10 wins this season has been by more than one score. There aren’t many 10-win teams with just a +36 point differential.

You could argue that Green Bay has the most weaknesses of any of the five genuine contenders. The defense has slumped since the opening quarter of the season and the offense, with a lack of established receivers outside of Davante Adams, has gone through its fair share of red-hot and freezing-cold streaks. At the same time, the Packers have the best record against winning teams in the NFL at 4-1 and still have a hall of fame quarterback calling the shots.

The Packers aren’t guaranteed to win their division, either, since the Minnesota Vikings are breathing down their necks with four games to go. Kirk Cousins is in the midst of the best stretch of his career, the defense is excellent and they’ve already shown a propensity for fighting back when facing a deficit. This is just about the time things goes horribly wrong for Minnesota sports teams. After Dalvin Cook got injured on Monday night, albeit not seriously, the need for urgency only became clearer for the Vikings.

And we’re back to the 49ers, who are constantly fighting external doubters despite a 10-2 record. Both of those losses were even by one score and came against other upper-echelon teams. The defense is legit, but there will always be questions about a team that relies on the running game in 2019 and has a quarterback without particularly flashy stats. They’ve shown they can dominate other good teams (like the Packers), but a bad matchup early could bring a tremendous (and unexpected) season to a disappointing end.

This is the most exciting playoff pool we’ve seen in years, and the best part of it all is that no team is flawless. Each of these contending teams has at least one pitfall you can point to as a reason why they might not go all the way.

The story all season has been that the NFC is superior to the AFC. Through 13 weeks, not only has that been proven true, but there’s even more of a disparity than we previously thought.

AROUND THE LEAGUE

*The Miami Dolphins, all of a sudden, are fun. They’ve won three of their last five games, they have a plethora of likable players across the roster and they just pulled off one of the greatest trick plays of all time this weekend.

Specialists doing anything other than kicking is always fun (the world goes wild every time Johnny Hekker throws a pass). You can’t blame the Eagles for how they defended this, because sending everyone after an unprotected and inexperienced ball handler is the logical thing to do. But the design is flawless and the execution is too. When you don’t have any expectations and are playing with house money like Miami is, you can pull out wild plays like this. Two years in a row the Dolphins have pulled off the best play of the year, and three weeks in a row the Eagles have been burned by a trick play.

*Nick Foles is simultaneously an enigma and a sympathetic figure. It took just a week and a half since he returned from injury to be sent back to the bench in favor of Gardner Minshew. That wasn’t a temporary decision in Sunday’s Jaguars loss to the Buccaneers, either, it’s a permanent move. On the one hand, Foles got paid a massive amount of money this offseason (a contract which is now an albatross hung around Jacksonville’s metaphoric neck) and has already reached the mountaintop in his career, so it’s not like he’s never caught a break. Then again, he clearly wants to play but he’s just not doing well enough to earn that and getting benched is demoralizing for anyone. Foles is a good man who has been through intense personal tragedy this year and has struggled with injuries, too. Minshew is one of the best stories of the NFL season and is the best option Jacksonville has to avoid being a bottom-feeding embarrassment in the final four weeks of the year. Still, it’s challenging not to feel bad for Foles as he, once again, is facing a difficult roster situation.

*NFL referees are allergic to consistency. Over the past couple weeks several pass interference reviews have actually been overturned, including ones in both Kansas City and Miami this week (the one in the Raiders-Chiefs game was actually changed during a booth review on an interception). After nearly two-thirds of a season of coaches shamelessly wasting timeouts with blatant disregard for precedent, the officials have suddenly changed their enforcement tendencies during the most dramatic and important stretch of games. Consistency has always been the worst part of NFL officiating. Whether it be years of seemingly random interpretations of the catch rule or selective roughing the passer flags or these reviews, there is far too much variance in that way games are called. The best-case scenario for the league is that a crucial could-be pass interference play doesn’t happen in the postseason, but with the frequency those situations have been challenged this year, it’s bound to come up at some point in January and/or February.

*Nothing in football is more aesthetically pleasing than snow games. We got our second one of the season on Sunday when the Packers visited the Giants. It was the second just for Green Bay, in fact. However, FOX was not prepared for the snow this weekend.

Those lines looked simply awful. Admittedly, not everyone is a diehard football nerd who gets overexcited about games in messy weather, complete with virtue signaling about how it makes football players tougher when they play in cold weather (a midwestern traditional like none other). Some folks were undoubtedly happy to be able to have an idea where the yard lines were. However, there’s something exciting about the mystery of a guessing where a player is on the field in relation to anything. At the very least, if you’re going to put up lines on the screen, don’t have them overlapping the players. Stan Honey would be disappointed with how his technology was used this weekend.

COURTLAND SUTTON DID WHAT THIS WEEK?

Courtland Sutton further established himself as a No. 1 wide receiver this week.

https://twitter.com/NFL/status/1201256683919441921?s=20

Sutton has 908 receiving yards on 54 receptions after this week’s game against the Chargers, which are impressive numbers given how awful the Broncos’ quarterback situation has been all season. Even when Emmanuel Sanders was on the roster Sutton was WR1, and in his second season he’s only gotten better and more reliable. This was the most fantastic catch of his season so far, but he makes impressive grabs week after week. Whoever is Denver’s quarterback of the future, whether it’s Drew Lock or someone else, they’ll be walking into a situation with a true outside receiving threat right away.

STAT OF THE WEEK

We’re spending plenty of time talking about the Dolphins this week, because Miami has become an extremely easy and funny team to root for over the course of the season. The easiest player of all to root for, Ryan Fitzpatrick, is the focus of this week’s stat.

Fitzpatrick is the ultimate journeyman quarterback, and he’s also apparently the ultimate Eagles killer. It’s remarkable that Fitzpatrick has played for enough teams for this to happen at all, especially since he’s only played for two NFC teams in his career. The only team for which he didn’t pass for a touchdown against the Eagles was during his one year with the Titans. This weekend’s Eagles-Dolphins game was a true yin and yang event, with the vibe around one team feeling tense and negative, while the other is loose and just having fun with no expectations. We need to cherish “Fitzmagic” for as long as we can.

FOOTBALL FOLLIES

From the players who brought you the “Bye, Bye, Bye” celebration earlier this year, the Seattle Seahawks wide receivers were back at it again on Monday night.

https://twitter.com/thecheckdown/status/1201705817579196416?s=20

Some people think choreographed celebrations are played out. Those people are wrong. Sports are supposed to be fun, and football is fun, so we should embrace players having a good time. The Seahawks, as a franchise, have embraced that as much as anyone over the years. A well-executed celebration makes a score or big play look even cooler, which means this was a sensational touchdown for Seattle.

WEEKLY TOP 5: PLAYOFF X-FACTORS

There are a couple playoff spots that are still up for grabs, but generally speaking we know who the important postseason teams are by now. With that in mind (and acknowledging whoever wins the NFC East and the six seed in the AFC won’t have an impact on the Super Bowl), these five players are arguably the most important individuals for their respective teams as they contend for a title.

  1. Lamar Jackson – At this juncture, Lamar Jackson is the league’s MVP. He’s been incredible and as exciting as anyone in football this season. There’s no good reason to doubt Jackson as a runner or passer right now. However, one year ago Baltimore was knocked out of the playoffs when he didn’t perform well. He’s a different player and the Ravens are a different team this season, but the onus is on him to make big plays this year. The Ravens are built around him and need him to be at his best at all times.
  2. Jimmy Garoppolo – Garoppolo might be the most enigmatic quarterback in the league right now. His record as a starter is a sterling 18-4 for his career, and of course the Niners are 10-2 this year, but there are still plenty of doubters when it comes to his abilities in key situations. San Francisco can rely on its defense for its playoff run, but Garoppolo needs to be able to make plays this winter for San Francisco to actually be in the running for a Super Bowl.
  3. Aaron Jones – The other Aaron in Green Bay is pretty important in his own right, by Jones has been vital to the Packers’ offensive success this season. It’s not a coincidence that three consecutive tough outings for the Green Bay offense came during his least productive stretch of the season. The Packers need to get Jones involved early and often in every game the rest of the way.
  4. Kirk Cousins – Everyone knows the narrative with Cousins by now. His negative late-game reputation reared its ugly head again on Monday night when he couldn’t complete a crucial pass on Minnesota’s last drive. Granted, the Vikings’ loss was hardly his fault, but until he plays well for 60 minutes on a big stage, the narrative is going to hound him and his team.
  5. Chris Jones – This one seems more out of left field, and obviously Patrick Mahomes’ ability to make big plays in big moments is crucial for the Chiefs, but Jones has proven that Kansas City’s defense is a completely different beast when he’s on the field. That unit as a whole is playing better, but it will need its best player to step up during the playoffs.

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