darkhorse Super Bowl contenders in the NFC
By: Jake Rajala
The main glory and spotlight in the NFC undoubtedly rest with the Green Bay Packers, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and the Los Angeles Rams. Well, there may be a few more Prometheus-like ball clubs. After all, the NFC conference is reputed for holding “all of the cream of the crop NFL teams” in the National Football League.
Truly, the NFC holds many juggernaut teams and the playoff gauntlet in the National Football Conference will surely be a joy to witness this new year. Nonetheless, there are a few unheralded squads that compose an upset victory and even make some serious noise in each playoff dance. Furthermore, there have and always will be a few sleeper teams that unveil an enormous victory in February and come out with the prized Lombardi trophy. With that being said, I’m going to untwine a few teams that pose a real chance to go through the valley of death and come out with the ark.
- San Francisco 49ers
The San Francisco 49ers currently hold a playoff seed, a fruitful record, and have one of the Top 3 play-callers in all of the NFL in Kyle Shanahan. SF may carry a brutal upcoming schedule, but they have a significantly more healthy roster than New Orleans. The 49ers play at a motivated Russell Wilson-led Seattle team, at Cincinnati, home against an improved Falcons team, and then they play at Tennesee. It would seem very likely that they can at least carry a .500 record coming out of that four stretch.
The All-Pro TE George Kittle has had two touchdowns in the past three weeks, but he hasn’t quite been the prospect that was once “Pro Football Focus’s top overall player”. They will desperately need to get Kittle ignited, especially with Deebo Samuel, Dee Ford, and Fred Warner not on the field in this upcoming week. Kyle Shanahan, aka Shanny, will need to unleash every chess move against a divisional opponent that is 2-7 against him all time.
- New Orleans Saints
The New Orleans Saints were slept on with Jameis Winston and now they have been officially buried by countless analysts and fans. Still, I hold hope for the Saints team that just lost with Taysom Hill to the Dallas Cowboys.
Here is a powerful stat for your Friday morning:
Sean Payton is 13-8 without Drew Brees over the past four seasons and “four of the losses were with Trevor Siemian”. So, the offensive whiz is actually 13-4 excluding Siemian at QB.
Saints really have a modest and talented profile with Taysom Hill at QB (even with the thumb injury). If Payton was more conservative with Hill by using his rushing ability in the opponent’s territory, there would have been a few fewer turnovers. Hill’s experience as QB1 and talent is evident with his 4-2 record as the Saints starting QB. Most importantly, the Saints hold a DEFENSE that carries elite players across the board. It’s a coin toss if Marcus Davenport will be healthy and on the field late in the season. Still, the Saints have arguably the top linebacker in the NFL in Demario Davis and an elite WR1 eraser in Marshon Lattimore. The Saints CB1 from Ohio State was the star for the Saints when they won a playoff dogfight against the Nick Foles-led Eagles in 2019. The revamped, potentially Alvin Kamara-led Saints team could absolutely give any team (especially the Bucs) a tough duel late in this season.
The Saints were missing their starting QB, RB, WR, LT, RT, TE, and they gave a very talented Dallas team a tough fight throughout most of the game. Try to navigate through the memes of Taysom Hill and know Hill, a more sync team, an easier schedule, and likely a healthy Alvin Kamara can be in reach of a .500 record and a playoff seed.
- Atlanta Falcons
The Atlanta Falcons undeniably have the most talented signal-caller among this three-piece of NFC darkhorse Super Bowl contenders. Matt Ryan’s hungry Falcon team standing at 5-6 also carries a slightly favorable upcoming schedule. The once 4-4 team got embarrassed in back-to-back matchups against the Dallas Cowboys and New England Patriots, before showing signs of life with a victory against the Jacksonville Jaguars. Looking ahead, the Falcons have a truly tough test against the Bucs (who will be missing Mike Evans and Antonio Brown), a date with the Panthers, 49ers, Lions, Bills, and the Saints (who they beat once already).
I would expect the Falcons to get a victory against the Panthers (split games on the season), knock off the Lions, upset the 49ers, then take Ls against the Bucs and hot Bills. The Week 17 showdown between the Falcons and the Saints could be a “win and in” game for either NFC hopeful. I expect the “Taysom Hill led” Saints squad to get revenge from their previous loss against Matt Ryan, win the second showdown, and Hill to win his third straight matchup against ATL.
The 49ers just can’t fall off a cliff and let NO, ATL, CAR, or MN creep back in.
Honorable Mention: Philadelphia Eagles
The Eagles may have lost a tough divisional game against Big Blue, but don’t forget about their two blowout victories against the stingy Denver Broncos and sneaky competitive New Orleans Saints. A healthy Miles Sanders can create waves of momentum for Jalen Hurts and rookie DeVonta Smith. I don’t foresee talent or creative minds in their organization that can go the distance in January, but they can certainly get in if Jalen Hurts stays off the roller coaster.
The Washington Football team has been trending in the opposite direction of the likes of the Saints, but I don’t foresee their 18th ranked defense complemented by Kyle Allen squeezing by Arizona, Green Bay, and Los Angeles. They are incredibly well-coached, sound, but I don’t believe they have the same stability as SF or the same ceiling as NO. I trust Matt Ryan in indefinite big moments versus a shaky QB situation in Washington.