I used to write that the NFL was overrated, and people got upset with me for it. This was in 2009, when I started covering the NFL for what was then called AOL FanHouse after covering baseball for newspapers for 14 years. Paying closer attention to the NFL than I had in years led me to wonder a little bit what the fuss was all about.
Sure, it could be great. But there were too many bad games, and even the good ones didn't seem to justify the froth into which fans of that time would work themselves over the NFL product. I concluded that the NFL, circa 2009, was basically a narcotic. People didn't even know why they needed it so much, only that they did. To suggest that there were underlying issues of quality was blasphemy, a position no one would even hear, let alone consider.
Fast-forward to 2017, and "I actually enjoy watching an NFL game" feels almost like a counterculture position (one with which I'm more comfortable, by the way). So much focus is on the off-field issues, the supposed decline in quality, the commissioner's handling of discipline, the officiating ... yeesh, do we pay too much attention to the officiating.
It's going too far to say the NFL has become underrated, but I feel at this point that the league is more appropriately rated than it was a decade ago. Yeah, there are some bad games and plenty of issues confronting the league. Those get lots of well-deserved coverage. But lost in that, sometimes, are some pretty good sports storylines and compelling games and races.
Take, for example, this year's NFC. There are at least seven teams you can imagine winning it, and only six will make the playoffs. As Football Outsiders' Aaron Schatz pointed out on Twitter on Monday, the Philadelphia Eagles beat the Los Angeles Rams on Sunday to complete this wondrous NFC circle: This season, the Rams beat the New Orleans Saints, who beat the Detroit Lions, who beat the Minnesota Vikings, who beat the Atlanta Falcons, who beat the Seattle Seahawks, who beat the Eagles, who, as just mentioned, beat the Rams. Not in that circle are the Carolina Panthers, who have beaten the Falcons and Vikings (and New England Patriots, by the way) but lost to the Saints twice.
That's a jumble, and it's a cool one because all of the teams in it seem to be pretty good. Still on the outside looking in with slim chances are the Dallas Cowboys, who have only one more game before they get Ezekiel Elliott back, and the Green Bay Packers, who get Aaron Rodgers back this week. Picking a favorite to represent the NFC in Super Bowl LII is next to impossible, but here's a look at some stuff we learned (and didn't learn) about a few of the NFC contenders in Week 14:
The Eagles could be the 1999 Rams ... or the 2016 Raiders
Is Nick Foles Kurt Warner or Connor Cook? Is it crazier to imagine the Eagles winning the Super Bowl with their backup quarterback, as those Rams did after Trent Green got hurt in the preseason, or flaming out early in the playoffs, as last year's Raiders did after Derek Carr got hurt at the end of the regular season?
Timing-wise, Carson Wentz's injury is more similar to Carr's than it is to Green's, but Foles has enough experience as an NFL starter and in Doug Pederson's system to offer at least some hope that he can pull a Warner -- or, if not, at least a Jeff Hostetler.
Wentz's injury is the latest gut punch in a season that has seen way too many fun stars suffer season-enders. But Pederson and offensive coordinator Frank Reich have shown enough to make you think they can scheme ways to put Foles in the best possible position to succeed. They have enough pass rush to control games on defense and enough running backs to control it when they have the ball. The question is whether Foles can extend drives with third-down plays the way Wentz did, and the answer is probably no, which lumps the Eagles in with the other favorites instead of making them the clear one.
The Seahawks need to be at home to have a chance
It's a big game this week in Seattle between the Seahawks and the Rams. A Seattle win creates a tie atop the NFC West, and the Seahawks would hold the tiebreaker by virtue of having beaten the Rams twice. They'd still have to finish it off, and they have a potentially tough one in Dallas in Week 16 before finishing at home against Arizona, but a loss would sink Seattle two games behind the Rams with two to play and basically require the Seahawks to play on the road as a wild-card team if they made it to the postseason.
And look, it's not as if the Seahawks can't win on the road. Russell Wilson is playing at MVP level, and I'm on record considering Seattle a vampire. I was listening to the Jaguars' home radio broadcast of the fourth quarter of that game Sunday, and the terror in their voices with Jacksonville's killer defense ahead by multiple scores was hilarious. The Seahawks have earned that respect, and Wilson is playing like a guy who is never out of it.
But while this version of the Seahawks retains much of that aura, injuries have left the team unquestionably thinner and less daunting than it has been in years past. If the Seahawks are to make a run to the Super Bowl, they'll need to play as many home games as possible to maximize their advantage.
The Falcons still intend to be heard
That was a statement victory over the Saints on Thursday night for a Falcons team that keeps reminding us that it finished last season on a 7-2 run. The question is whether it's too little too late. In spite of having won four of its past five, Atlanta still sits in third place in the very tough NFC South. Losing in New Orleans in Week 16 and/or at home to Carolina in Week 17 would probably kill the Falcons' chances of repeating as division champs. But winning in New Orleans in Week 16 -- especially if the Falcons take care of business against the Bucs this week -- would make things extremely interesting.
For the first half of this season, there was some concern that Atlanta's young defense wasn't playing with the same urgency it showed late last season. But that defense appears to be coming up big when it counts, and the offense seems to be putting it together after some stops and starts with the new coordinator. Having beaten the Panthers twice, New Orleans still controls things in this division, and two of the Saints' remaining three games are against the Jets and Buccaneers. But a Saints slip-up in the Superdome in Week 16 could open things up for the Falcons to make a run at defending their conference title.
Still no idea what to make of the Panthers
Five of Carolina's nine wins and three of its four losses have come against teams that have winning records. Its only bad loss was in Chicago. On Sunday, the Panthers beat a Vikings team that hadn't lost since Oct. 1.
It never seems to look pretty for Carolina. Kelvin Benjamin is in Buffalo, Greg Olsen is going in and out of games with a bad foot, and Cam Newton is averaging 209 passing yards per game. But the Panthers find a way to make a play or two in the fourth quarter to get it done, and they've shown a little bit of a knack for overcoming adversity. Remember, they didn't have to show that two years ago, when they went 15-1 and basically nothing went wrong for them until the Super Bowl.
This team has shown a toughness the 2015 team was never asked to show, and that along with its fearsome defensive front seven could make it a tough playoff out. Sunday ensured Carolina's third winning season in seven years with Newton as the quarterback, but the Panthers could soon lock up Newton's fourth playoff berth.
Objects in the Vikings' mirror are closer than they appear
Minnesota is still in great shape, obviously, holding a three-game division lead with three to play. But the loss to Carolina kept alive the hopes of both teams that trail the Vikings. The 7-6 Lions have the Bears and Bengals the next two weeks before finishing with the Packers.
And the 7-6 Packers? Maaaannn ... Brett Hundley brought them back against the Browns and might well be able to hand the keys to no less significant a December pickup than Aaron Rodgers this week. Even with Rodgers back, it's not going to be easy for Green Bay. The Packers are in Carolina this week, then home against the Vikings before finishing up in Detroit. The three teams left on Green Bay's schedule have a combined record of 26-13, and it appears they'll need to win all three to extend their playoff streak to nine seasons.
Again, the Vikings are still in very good shape. But you know they won't be comfortable until that little "x-" is in front of them on the standings page. Rodgers has that effect.