Two weeks in and already, the NFC is defying conventional wisdom. Contenders are looking sloppy, basement-dwellers are poised for playoff runs and a host of preseason projections have already flown out the window. Such is life when we live football week-to-week.
Here are five things the NFC has shown us through the first two games of the 2018 season.
As expected, Ryan Fitzpatrick is conference MVP
The veteran journeyman has given the Buccaneers’ staff something to think about. While Jameis Winston is supposedly the future, the Tampa offense has never looked as sharp as it has these two weeks with Fitzpatrick at the helm. They are averaging 37.5 points and 482.5 yards per game, both atop the league. DeSean Jackson has reignited that explosion that made him one of the most exciting players in the league five years ago. O.J. Howard is proving to be the dynamic weapon many thought he would be last year.
Now, much of the credit for this turnaround goes to Dirk Koetter and the offensive scheming. But it is impossible to deny Fitzpatrick. Through two games, he is averaging: over 400 yards passing, four touchdowns per game and 13.4 yards per attempt. His rating is over 15. His completion percentage is 78.7. Of course, these numbers are prime for regression. That certainly does not mean, however, that Fitzpatrick is not the runaway MVP of the conference thus far.
NFC South looks impossible to diagnose
Staying in the same division, what do we expect from the NFC South moving forward? The Saints and Falcons seemed to be the favorites heading in, but their performances have been uneven. The Panthers, a playoff team last year, have been even more up and down. The only team to make a firm statement thus far has been Tampa, but even they have some question marks on defense.
Is Tampa’s offensive explosion sustainable? This was the team we were supposed to see last season and that never came to fruition. They are also putting up loads of points without any real semblance of a reliable running game. It just seems tough to imagine Fitzpatrick holding up like this for 14 more games. As for the Saints, Falcons and Panthers, they all have significant questions to answer. Atlanta goes as its offense goes, and they have been all over the place. Carolina’s weapons are wholly unreliable. The Saints’ defense looks listless at best. Bottom line is this: the NFC South may be a week-to-week diagnosis for the remainder of the season.
NFC East is a sea of disappointment
If your life depended on it, who would you say looks like the team to beat in the NFC East? You would probably say the Eagles, but do you have have any confidence in your well-being while choosing them? This division was supposed to be hotly contested, one team recovering from a Super Bowl and three looking to be on the upswing. Yet here we are, three teams at 1-1, one at 0-2, four teams struggling to make things work.
Let’s start with the defending champs. The Super Bowl hangover appears to be hitting and hitting hard. As Carson Wentz returns this week, perhaps things pick up for them offensively, but nothing about their team seems right, save for Fletcher Cox.
Washington is getting the 2010 version of Alex Smith: low excitement, checkdown-heavy football. They put up 24 against a miserable Cardinals team, but then turned around and scored nine against a not-much-better Colts defense.
The Cowboys theoretically were supposed to get back to their old ways with Ezekiel Elliott getting a full season. But here they are, averaging 14 points a game, Dak Prescott has yet to exceed 200 passing yards and Cole Beasley is their leading receiver.
And then there is the Giants. Two big moves to shore up the offensive line have proven to be for naught. Saquon Barkley has no room to run, Eli Manning has no time and the schedule is not getting any easier in the coming weeks.
All this is to say that, for a division of expectations and intrigue, there really has yet to be one exciting performance from any of these teams. Plenty of time to turn it up a notch, and Wentz will make a difference. Still, this is currently the least interesting division in football.
Bears’ defense a better offense than Cardinals’ offense
Speaking of uninteresting, the Cardinal offense led by Sam Bradford. They have six points this year. Six. Points. For reference, the Bears’ defense has accounted for 14 points through two games. Bradford, despite a career of jumping back and forth between mediocre seasons and injured ones, continues to get chances and lots of money for each chance. Methinks this will be the last one for a good while as the Cardinal passing attack looks to be historic levels of inept. Just to put numbers to it, Bradford has 243 yards and two interceptions in two games while averaging four yards per attempt. David Johnson has 3.9 yards per carry, so we have reached a point where handing off every play would lead to virtually the same overall production for Arizona. It should be Josh Rosen time very soon.
Back to the Bears for a second. That defense is beginning to seem eerily reminiscent of the mid-2000s team that made a Super Bowl run. For one, they are turning the ball over at a good rate, and twice have brought those turnovers back for touchdowns. Secondly, they now have a similarly transcendent player who can change games by himself, even when other things are not working. While it may still be a year or two until they are ready to compete for Super Bowls, the Bears defense is a top-five unit right now and may be the best play-making group in the league.
High profile acquisitions paying off for top contenders
Staying on the Bears a second, you would be hard-pressed to find an acquisition that made as strong an immediate impact as Khalil Mack has made through two weeks. Chicago got him from Oakland 18 days ago. That is less than three weeks of practice. And yet, here is Mack’s stat line with the Bears: two sacks, a pass defense, two forced fumbles, one recovered, an interception and a touchdown. He is putting together a Defensive Player of the Year type of campaign and making the Bears look like a potential playoff team.
Similarly, the Rams have gotten a lot of mileage out of their newcomers. Marcus Peters paid dividends in week one with a late pick-six to seal the win over Oakland, and Brandin Cooks already has six receptions of over 20 yards through two games. Ndamakong Suh has been a little quiet, but those two plus Aqib Talib have held up their end in what looks like a home run offseason for the Rams.
Perhaps most importantly, the big quarterback addition, Kirk Cousins, has been better than advertised. After a solid, if unspectacular week one, Cousins outdueled Aaron Rodgers at Lambeau, throwing for over 400 yards and four touchdowns while fitting some Rodgers-esque throws into tight windows. Ultimately, missed kicks cost Cousins the chance to steal a road win, but these first two games have shown the Vikings were right to pay Cousins the money they did.