As the last quarter of the NFL season commences in the last four weeks of the regular season, the American Football Conference basically boils down to two dominant contenders that appear to stand above the rest: the New England Patriots and the Baltimore Ravens.
Even though New England’s offense has struggled lately and they suffered a lopsided loss to the Houston Texans in Week 13, when all is said and done, the Patriots and the Ravens appear to be the two most complete teams in the conference by a significant margin.
On the other hand, in the National Football Conference there is a much larger set of great teams that realistically could make a run at the conference title.
This includes the San Francisco 49ers, New Orleans Saints, Green Bay Packers, Minnesota Vikings and Seattle Seahawks.
There is only one weak division in the NFC, the East, which has the 6-6 Dallas Cowboys at the top of the division. They are 4-0 against divisional opponents and 2-6 in their non-divisional games.
The NFC North and NFC West divisional races are both very close heading into the final quarter of the season, with the first and second place teams within one game or less from each other.
The 49ers travel to Seattle to face the Seahawks in their final game of the regular season that could end up deciding the NFC West champion.
Minnesota and Green Bay play in Minneapolis in Week 16 in a game that could have huge NFC North implications.
San Francisco had a statement win in Week 12, as they beat the Packers in convincing fashion 37-8. Their front seven wreaked havoc on the Packers offensive linemen and they were able to hold Aaron Rodgers to only 104 yards passing in the game.
San Francisco’s Week 13 matchup with the Baltimore Ravens gave them another opportunity to take down one of the NFL’s best teams, but they fell short in a 20-17 loss.
The 49ers’ defense was able to contain Lamar Jackson and the Ravens’ explosive offense at times in this game, but their offense was unable to do enough to win.
However, this was one of the best matchups the NFL has seen all season and these teams could realistically meet again in February in the Super Bowl.
The 49ers face an extremely difficult schedule in the last month of the season as they face two first place teams on the road, New Orleans and Seattle, as well as home games against the Los Angeles Rams and the Atlanta Falcons.
The New Orleans Saints have already clinched the AFC South Division championship and have a 10-2 record that would give them a first round bye in the playoffs if the regular season ended today.
After next week’s matchup with San Francisco, New Orleans has a relatively favorable schedule, with matchups against Indianapolis, Tennessee and Carolina, all very winnable games.
It is fair to say that Drew Brees, at 40 years old, only has a couple seasons left and the Saints will be attempting to make one more playoff run in the Brees/Sean Payton era after experiencing heartbreaking losses in the playoffs two years in a row.
The Green Bay Packers have experienced a resurgence this season to return as one of the best teams in the NFC, as they have seen significant improvements from their defense and running game to complement Aaron Rodgers and their passing attack.
Aaron Jones is the best running back Green Bay has had in a really long time and having him in the backfield gives them potentially the best running game they’ve had in Aaron Rodgers’ 12 seasons as the starting quarterback.
Green Bay faces a close race with the Minnesota Vikings to win the NFC North, a division the Packers have won in five out of the last 10 years, most recently in 2016.
Besides their critical Week 16 game in Minnesota, Green Bay has a very easy schedule for the rest of December, as they will face NFC bottom-feeders Detroit and Washington along with the struggling 6-6 Chicago Bears.
The Minnesota Vikings have won six out of their last seven games and have benefitted from a phenomenal performance from Kirk Cousins in the last two months after an up and down month of September.
The Vikings have dealt with some inconsistency from certain members of the defense, in particular at the cornerback position. They have to face the reality that some of the veterans like Xavier Rhodes and Everson Griffen who have anchored this defense for so many years aren’t the same players they used to be.
However, Minnesota still has many game changers on defense playing extremely well, like Harrison Smith, Danielle Hunter and Eric Kendricks, to name only a few.
Minnesota has the talent on both sides of the ball to be a legitimate contender in the NFC, but big games late in the season have been a problem for this team in the past. Their Dec. 23 matchup against Green Bay will more than likely decide who wins the division.
The Seattle Seahawks have been on fire this season, as they have won seven out of their last eight games and Russell Wilson has played like a Most Valuable Player candidate.
Pete Carroll’s Seattle Seahawks had at least one playoff win in five consecutive seasons from 2012-2016, but many thought this dynasty was over when they missed the playoffs in 2017 and saw many members of their historic “Legion of Boom” defense leave Seattle.
Russell Wilson has proven himself to be the best part of this team and is playing the best football of his career. If they can win a few more big games and continue to keep pace with the 49ers, their Week 17 matchup against San Francisco could be the deciding game in the NFC West.
Janssen can be reached at [email protected]