For the last couple years, the race to the Super Bowl in the AFC has been pretty simple to size up. New England has been there three of the last four years and it took one of the greatest single-season defenses ever to dethrone them in the 2015 AFC Championship Game. Even with the Tom Brady/Bill Belichick era nearing its end, it is hard to realistically envision another AFC team reaching Super Bowl LIII, even in mid-June.
However, the last two NFC Super Bowl representatives have to be considered at least moderate surprises. The Falcons were not supposed to be terrible two years ago. The same can be said of the Eagles last year. At the same time, even the most optimistic fans of those teams could not have seen a trip to the Super Bowl coming.
There really is no dominant team in the NFC. Some might try to position the defending Super Bowl champions that way, but Carson Wentz is coming back from a major knee injury. As good as Nick Foles was at the end of last year, there is ample opportunity for some other team to step up and follow in the footsteps of the last two conference champions. Here is a look at some candidates. These are a bit of a stretch, but that is the idea.
San Francisco 49ers
The 49ers are proof of one of the NFL’s golden rules. If you get elite level quarterback play, you have a chance in every game regardless of the rest of your roster. San Francisco won just a single game last year prior to the insertion of mid-season acquisition Jimmy Garoppolo into the starting lineup.
The team ended the year on a five-game winning streak including wins over three eventual playoff teams from last year. The sample size on Tom Brady’s former understudy is small, but he has never lost a game as an NFL starter. It usually takes a full year of starting before the rest of the league attempts to adjust to young quarterbacks who find immediate success.
The 49ers also get the benefit of having an entire offseason to build around their franchise quarterback. They wisely went offensive line at the top of the draft. Division rivals Seattle and Arizona are in different stages of rebuilds, while the Rams added some volatile personalities this year that could pay off for them, but is just as likely to blow up in their face. It really is not all that difficult to imagine scarlet and gold winning the NFC West. Once the playoffs start, anything can happen.
The Lions have a long-standing and well-deserved reputation as one of the most inept franchises in all of sports. Still, Matthew Stafford has made them competitive in the last handful of years. Stafford has thrown almost 100 more touchdown passes than interceptions in his career. Also, he is only 30 years old.
What has been holding this franchise back recently is a lack of commitment to the run game and bad defense. Stafford holds the NFL record for most pass attempts in a season. Also, the Lions lost three games during last year’s 9-7 campaign where the offense put up 24 or more points.
Former Patriots defensive coordinator and new Detroit head coach Matt Patricia has the right background to fix these issues. He never had the most talented defenses with the Patriots, but they always seemed to make plays when it really mattered. The Malcolm Butler play from a few years ago in the Super Bowl is the most obvious example.
Patricia will get the most out of this defense. That is his trademark. The addition of a bruising running back like LeGarrette Blount should also help take some of the heat off Stafford. Blount also provides a nice contrast to the other running backs on the roster.
The NFC North is tough. The Vikings are now a very complete football team with the addition of Kirk Cousins. Detroit will likely have to battle it out with Green Bay for a wild-card playoff spot. Reaching the Super Bowl as a wild card is nowhere near as jaw-dropping it used to be.
New York Giants
Speaking of that feat, Eli Manning and the Giants pulled it off twice. The Super Bowl is a long way from last year’s 3-13 campaign, but is not as preposterous as it sounds.
If new head coach Pat Shurmer can turn Case Keenum into a hot free agent commodity, he will get the best out of whatever is left in a two-time Super Bowl champion like Manning. Manning actually put up okay numbers last year despite all the losing.
The Giants snagged the best running back prospect to enter the NFL in a very long time with the second overall draft pick and added one of the best offensive linemen on the free agent market. That can make any quarterback look and feel better.
Like the NFC North, the NFC East has a clear favorite, but the Cowboys and Redskins shouldn’t scare anyone. Also, a good chunk of this defense carried this team to the playoffs just two years ago. There is no reason the turnaround should not be quick and dramatic.