2015 was a rough year for the NFC East. The division responsible for more Super Bowl titles than any other was not so much a race to see which team would win the most games, but which team would lose the least. That honor went to the Redskins, who won their last four games to finish 9-7, barely giving the division a winning team. A division historical dominant was the subject of ridicule all season, being given the undesirable nickname “NFC Least.”
In 2016, the story is far different. The division remains unpredictable as always, with the Cowboys currently ahead in what would be the 13th consecutive season with a different division champion. However, doubt of a team finishing with a winning record has now been substituted for the uncertainty that any of these teams will finish with a losing record.
The Cowboys have already surpassed their 2015 win total with a 5-1 start marked by the emergence of two brilliant rookies, Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott. The Redskins dropped their first two games before rattling off four straight to prove they’re capable of retaining their division crown. The Eagles had a stunning start behind another dazzling rookie in Carson Wentz, but must survive a brutal schedule in the coming weeks to remain competitive. The Giants currently sit last in the division, but at a very respectable 3-3, and with road games against the Cowboys, Vikings, and Packers already behind them, have plenty of reason to believe they can challenge for their first playoff birth in five years.
Week 6 saw a number of things, including the 49ers and Jets finally trying a switch at quarterback, the Titans winning back-to-back games for the first time since 2013, and the reigning NFC Champion Panthers falling to just 1-5, all but dooming their playoff hopes. Here’s how the power rankings look after a week of many unexpected results.
32: Browns (0-6, LW: 32) The Browns were actually competitive in this game, and Cody Kessler put up an impressive stat line with 336 yards and 2 TDs, both to Terrelle Pryor who’s really turning into a star at the wide receiver position. Give the Browns some credit: they aren’t giving up. They’ll get their first win sometime, so don’t be too surprised when it happens.
31: 49ers (1-5, LW: 30) The 49ers almost fell behind a winless team in the power rankings this week. That’s pretty tough to do, but the Niners managed to look awful in the second half of a 45-16 loss to the Bills, completely falling apart in Colin Kaepernick’s first start. Kaep will get a second chance against the Bucs which he will desperately need to perform better in if he wants redemption in this league.
30: Bears (1-4, LW: 28) The Bears were up 13-0 late in the third quarter and in control of a Jaguars team that looked incapable of scoring. But of course, this is the Bears we’re talking about, so they surrendered 17 fourth-quarter points and lost a painful home game. Par for the course for this year’s Bears, who stalled for field goals three times in the red zone.
29: Jets (1-5, LW: 26) No playing this one down: the Jets were steamrolled in basically every area against the Cardinals on Monday night. Arizona rushed for over five times as many yards, including 111 and three touchdowns from David Johnson. The Jets never held the ball for too long or remotely threatened to make it a game. Coach Todd Bowles eventually switched from Ryan Fitzpatrick to Geno Smith, but Smith couldn’t do anything either. If I were the Jets, I might just try all four of my quarterbacks and see if anything works.
28: Dolphins (2-4, LW: 31) Um, where did that come from, Jay Ajayi? The second-year back out of Boise State became the first running back to hit 200 yards in a game this season against the Steelers in a 30-15 victory that’d be hard to replicate if the Dolphins had 50 cracks at it. Ben Roethlisberger was injured during the game, but it’s still one of those you can’t quite wrap your head around. The Dolphins secondary forced Big Ben to under 200 yards and picked off the former Super Bowl champ twice. I’d call it a good day.
27: Panthers (1-5, LW: 21) Cam Newton returned from his concussion, and faced a must-win situation in New Orleans. While Newton did lead a 21-point comeback, he was a far way from his MVP form, as he has been most of this year. However, the talking point here isn’t the offense, but the practically non-existent secondary missing last year’s top four corners. This time around, they allowed Drew Brees to throw for 465 yards and four touchdowns, lighting them up the whole game including on a game-winning drive that erased Newton’s comeback efforts. I think it’s time to stop talking about the Panthers.
26: Buccaneers (2-3, LW: 25) [Bye] The Bucs get an opportunity to reach .500 handed to them on a silver platter against the 49ers this week. For their sake, they better not blow it.
25: Colts (2-4, LW: 23) The Colts had a 99% chance to beat the Texans with five minutes remaining before conceding two touchdown drives to close the game and then losing to a Nick Novak field goal in overtime. It doesn’t get much worse for a team that should really be winning this division since J.J. Watt’s injury for the Texans. Lamar Miller made the whole defense look inept on his touchdown with under three minutes to play.
24: Saints (2-3, LW: 28) Classic Saints, right? Drew Brees puts up video game numbers and the team barely escapes with a win? Maybe not five or six years ago when the Saints actually had something resembling a defense, but at least in the late stages of Brees’ future Hall of Fame career. Now in back-to-back games the Saints have pulled off a seemingly impossible comeback against the Chargers and nearly blew a 21-point lead. It’s nerve-wracking, all right, but they’ll take the two wins.
23: Titans (3-3, LW: 24) Eh. The Titans played the Browns. Mariota had a pretty good game, but a 28-26 win against the Browns isn’t exactly earth-shattering. Six different Titans recorded sacks in the game, which is great and all, but I’d like to see them turn one of them into a fumble. The Titans are the only team without multiple forced fumbles, and they don’t even have one.
22: Jaguars (2-3, LW: 22) A win is a win no matter how you get it, and the Jaguars pretty much decided to test if you can win a game by only showing up for one quarter. Mission accomplished. In other news, Arrelious Benn is still in the league? Huge 51-yard game-winning touchdown for Benn, playing for the first time since 2012 with the Bucs.
21: Chargers (2-4, LW: 27) Don’t look now, but the Chargers didn’t blow one! To be fair, the Chargers played a pretty abysmal fourth quarter, but fumbles and penalties rid the Broncos of any chance at winning on Thursday night. The Chargers are no worse than an average NFL team, but they have to continue picking up the wins to substantiate that.
20: Rams (3-3, LW: 16) Are you sure that’s Case Keenum out there? The Rams quarterback at one point threw 19 straight completions and had the Rams offense rolling like I didn’t think was possible for a while. Honestly, Keenum isn’t as bad as people might make him out to be, and his performance was definitely deserving of a win against the Lions, but the Rams defense was as equally bad as Keenum was good. After these last two losses, the Rams hype is dying, and one has to be concerned with Todd Gurley’s ineffectiveness this year.
19: Bengals (2-4, LW: 13) It’s always hard to judge a team coming off a loss in Foxboro. The Bengals are 2-4, but their losses have come to the Steelers, Broncos, Cowboys, and Patriots- all great teams. Regardless, this team doesn’t look like Marvin Lewis’ typical Bengals teams that always find a way to lose in the first round of the playoffs. These Bengals don’t have playoffs written on them this year.
18: Ravens (3-3, LW: 14) I know it doesn’t sound as objective as it should, but after a strong start against the Giants, the Ravens really benefitted from some questionable refereeing to give them a chance against the Giants. However, despite forcing him to fumble on the Giants’ first possession, the Ravens couldn’t stop Odell Beckham Jr., who torched Baltimore for 222 yards and two touchdowns, including the game-winner on a 4th and 1 from the Giants’ own 34.
17: Lions (3-3, LW: 20) It was a back-and-forth affair for the whole 60 minutes, but the Lions’ defense finally made a play by picking off Case Keenum on the final drive of the game to secure a 31-28 win. It’ll be one heck of a task for the Lions to catch the Vikings, but if they can go toe-to-toe with the Packers, Detroit might stand a chance (albeit an unlikely one) at a wild card berth.
16: Giants (3-3, LW: 19) With OBJ’s proposal to the Giants’ kicking net following his game-winning touchdown against the Ravens, the NFL’s unlikeliest love story of the year has likely come to a close. Beckham’s huge bounce-back game likely saved the Giants season, keeping them competitive in the most difficult division in football. Unfortunately, in such a good division, nearly every game feels like a must-win, including this week’s matchup against the Rams in London, the Giants’ last game before their bye.
15: Texans (4-2, LW: 15) It may have taken a small miracle, but the Texans are now 4-0 at home on the season and have maintained their lead in the AFC South. Lamar Miller really came alive in the comeback victory, and will hopefully jump start an offense that won’t be able to continue winning ranked 30th in passing and points scored.
14: Raiders (4-2, LW: 10) The high-powered Raiders offense was squashed by the Chiefs on Sunday, creating one of the oddest statistics of the season. The Raiders, while officially still in 1st place in the AFC West, are the division’s only team with a negative point differential. Overrated? I don’t really think so. Can’t fault a team for finding ways to win close games.
13: Eagles (3-2, LW: 9) Alright, finally time for Eagles fans to breathe. Wentz through his first interception at the end of week 5 against the Lions, and went just 11-22 for 179 yards against the Redskins in week 6. The Eagles are using the previously unheard of strategy of splitting carries between four running backs, and while it’s had decent success thus far, the real test comes this week against the Vikings.
12: Cardinals (3-3, LW: 18) Suddenly, with the emergence of the Bills, the Cardinals’ week 3 loss looks much better. It was a rough start, but it appears the Cardinals are still a good football team, and everything really came together against the Jets. Sure, the Jets didn’t put up much resistance, but a huge win like the 28-3 victory is exactly what the Cards needed ahead of a critical home matchup against the Seahawks that could pull Arizona within a half-game of the NFC West lead.
11: Chiefs (3-2, LW: 17) I forgot one of the cardinal rules of pick’em: never pick against Andy Reid coming off a bye-week. Reid improved his already astonishing post-bye record to 16-2 with a dominant showing against a Raiders team who means business this year. The Chiefs now have a plethora of talent at running back with Jamaal Charles coming back in addition to Spencer Ware and Charcandrick West who have shouldered the load well to this point. Who knows how the AFC West will look by the end of the season.
10: Redskins (4-2, LW: 12) The Redskins are the first of two new entries to the top-10 this week riding four-game winning streaks following 0-2 starts. The Skins currently hold the best division record in the NFC East at 2-1, but the loss came to the 1st place Cowboys. Matt Jones ran rampant over the Eagles to move his team into a wild-card spot for the time being. The Redskins play the Lions on the road in week 7, but that hasn’t bothered them so far, as they’ll enter the game 2-0 on the road.
9: Packers (3-2, LW: 8) Who knows what’s going on with Aaron Rodgers? He might tell you to R-E-L-A-X, but the two-time league MVP is off to the worst start to a season since he became the full-time starter in 2008. Couple that with repeated injuries to the running back position and a weak secondary, and the Packers suddenly don’t feel like the Packers anymore. However, we’ve learned over the years to never sleep on Green Bay, so a stretch of poor games shouldn’t send anyone into panic mode, especially at 3-2.
8: Bills (4-2, LW: 11) The Bills erupted in the second half against the 49ers, outscoring their outmatched opponents 28-3 after the break. Impressively, it was the fourth time the Bills have surpassed 30 points in a game this season, and I’m even beginning to hear murmurs of LeSean McCoy in the MVP conversation. It’s been an incredible start for McCoy and the Bills, who (*gasp*) would make the playoffs for the first time since 1999 if the season ended today.
7: Steelers (4-2, LW: 6) The Steelers have officially replaced the Rams and Bills as the most confusing team in the league. Six weeks in, the Steelers have played just one game decided by 14 points or less. They either kill teams or get embarrassed themselves, and their 30-15 loss to the Dolphins is as shocking as any result so far this year. The Steelers once again get the benefit of the doubt due to their overall resume and the lack of many great teams this year, but Big Ben will miss at least the matchup against the Patriots, which needless to say will be very troublesome.
6: Broncos (4-2, LW: 4) Hmm…well that didn’t go as well as planned. I may or may not have written last week that the Chargers wouldn’t have a chance to blow a lead against the Broncos because they would already be blown out by the fourth quarter. Not my best prediction. As I’ve already stated, the Broncos’ mistakes took them out of this game, and that might be a concerning trend should it continue against the Texans. However, I think the Broncos defense will feast upon former Bronco Brock Osweiler.
5: Falcons (4-2, LW: 3) You can’t blame refereeing for losses, but the obviously missed pass interference call against Richard Sherman that ended the Falcons’ hopes of pulling off a huge road win brings up an important debate: should pass interference calls be reviewable? It’s an interesting question and one I’m considering writing about. Regardless, the Falcons put together a strong performance after trailing early and remain in the top five.
4: Cowboys (5-1, LW: 7) If you weren’t a believer in the Cowboys before their matchup in Lambeau, you should be now. Ezekiel Elliott now has a Cowboys record four straight games with over 130 rushing yards, and behind arguably the best O-line in the game, it’s a team reminiscent of the 2014 Cowboys who went 12-4 led by DeMarco Murray. Tony Romo might return for week 8, but if Jerry Jones wants to keep the momentum going, Dak Prescott should continue to start.
3: Seahawks (4-1, LW: 5) The Seahawks held the best offense in football this season to just three points in the first half, but Atlanta exploded for 21 in the third quarter to take a 24-17 lead heading into the fourth quarter. Seattle did an incredible job of slowing Matt Ryan’s offense down and stealing back momentum, eventually managing to take a 26-24 lead in the final two minutes that gave Pete Carroll’s team their biggest win of the season.
2: Patriots (5-1, LW: 2) If you didn’t think Tom Brady could play better than he did against the Browns, think again. Against the Bengals, Tom Terrific completed 83% of passes for 376 yards and three touchdowns. A career-high 162 of those yards and a touchdown went to Rob Gronkowski, who is also back to playing like an animal with back-to-back 100-yard performances. The Patriots are rolling, and there isn’t much scarier than that in this league.
1: Vikings (5-0, LW: 1) What an incredible team the Vikings are. On paper, they simply shouldn’t be this good, but they are, and they’ll likely prove it by stifling another offense when they play the Eagles this week fresh off a week 6 bye.