The unbeaten Arizona Cardinals and once-beaten Green Bay Packers meet in one of the most anticipated Thursday night games in recent memory (8:20 p.m. ET, Fox).
But come Friday morning, there still might not be a clear-cut favorite in the NFC.
As the NFL nears the halfway point of its first 17-game season, the NFC features one unbeaten team and four with one loss. The Cardinals, Packers, Rams, Buccaneers and Cowboys have a combined record of 30-4. Meanwhile, everyone in the AFC has at least two losses.
Even if the Cardinals (7-0) beat the Packers (6-1), they could still have several teams within a game of them at week's end. And if the Packers win, the top of the NFC will get even tighter as the calendar turns to November. The challenge facing the Packers became greater this week as wide receivers Davante Adams and Allen Lazard were ruled out because of COVID-19 protocols, and Marquez Valdes-Scantling wasn't activated off the injured list -- he's missed the last four games with a hamstring injury -- so the Packers are without their top three wideouts. Green Bay did activate receiver Malik Taylor, who had been on the COVID list since Oct. 15.
The Cardinals remain unbeaten and matched their best start in franchise history (7-0 in 1974).— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) October 25, 2021
They take on the 6-1 Packers on Thursday. It will be the best combined win percentage for a Thursday game in October or later in the Super Bowl era (since 1966). pic.twitter.com/qhYmgUCna7
It's only the third prime-time matchup in NFL history between two teams riding winning streaks of six or more games in that season. It's also just the third game with a reigning NFL MVP (Aaron Rodgers) against a team that's 7-0 or better. The last such matchup also involved Rodgers and the Packers, who played the 7-0 Carolina Panthers in Week 8 of the 2015 season. Carolina won and ultimately reached the Super Bowl.
Here's a look at the five NFC teams with one loss or fewer and their chances to represent the top-heavy conference in the Super Bowl. The list is in order of how the Football Power Index (FPI) currently ranks them overall.
FPI rank: No. 2
FPI chance of winning the NFC: 34.7% (1st)
Why the Bucs are a legitimate Super Bowl contender: Their +86 point differential is the third-highest in the NFL, despite being without tight end Rob Gronkowski. They're also leading the league in points scored and total offensive yardage. Quarterback Tom Brady is leading the NFL in passing yards (2,275) and passing touchdowns (21), and they boast the NFL's No. 1 ranked rush defense. Plus, we know Brady elevates his level in the postseason. And they have the seventh-easiest strength of schedule the rest of the season, with their remaining opponents having a combined 29-36 record. FPI has the Bucs as favorites in all of their remaining games, so clinching home-field advantage throughout the playoffs is a very real possibility.
Why they might be vulnerable: They've been decimated by injuries, especially in their defensive backfield, but miraculously, they've managed to give up an average of 21 points per game -- which is 10th in the NFL. Their recipe isn't complicated: shut down the run and render teams one-dimensional. But as we saw with quarterback Matthew Stafford and the Rams in Week 3, teams that don't rely on the run or use it to set up their play-action can still get by them, especially if their secondary doesn't bounce back from all these injuries. There is also concern that, unlike last year, when the Bucs faced the Saints, Rams and Kansas City Chiefs during the regular season, they may not have the same ramp-up they had going into the playoffs. Those three losses gave the Bucs a clear idea of the standard they needed to beat. They'll have to rely on their experience from last year to carry them. -- Jenna Laine
FPI rank: No. 3
FPI chance of winning the NFC: 25.9% (2nd)
Why the Cardinals are a legitimate Super Bowl contender: For starters, they have an MVP-caliber quarterback in Kyler Murray, and his development has buoyed the Cardinals' offense this year in ways many didn't see coming. Murray has been checking more at the line of scrimmage and putting the Cardinals in blocking schemes he prefers, essentially taking control of the offense and molding it to his liking. He's also reading defenses better than he did in his first two seasons. Overall, the game has slowed down for him, and when that happens, a dangerous Kyler Murray is the product. But he's not the only reason the Cardinals are a Super Bowl contender. Murray has as good of a supporting cast as there's been in Arizona in ... maybe forever? He's throwing to DeAndre Hopkins, A.J. Green, Christian Kirk, Rondale Moore and, now, Zach Ertz. But the defense, led by Chandler Jones, J.J. Watt, Isaiah Simmons and Budda Baker, is allowing the fewest points in the NFL -- while the offense is the fourth highest-scoring unit in the league, scoring more than 30 in all but one game this season -- and is the best on third down. That combination makes the Cardinals tough to beat.
"Are they going to the Super Bowl? NO!"@keyshawn is STILL not a believer in the Cardinals, even after being chastised by @Gambo987.— Keyshawn, JWill & Max (@KeyJayandMax) October 25, 2021
Why they might be vulnerable: Arizona's Super Bowl stake hinges on one thing: Murray's health. How he goes, so goes this team. We've already seen the Cards' defense pick up the slack when Jones was out with COVID-19 -- he's been activated for Thursday's game -- and win two games in his absence, so that side of the ball has enough bodies and a strong enough rotation to withstand an injury or two and keep on rolling. But if Murray gets hurt like he did last season, and is either limited or out, then a major dynamic of the Cardinals' offense is taken away. Each play has three options: A pass, a run or a quarterback keeper. Take away one of those choices and 33.3% of the Cardinals' offense is eliminated, making it easier for defenses to scheme for them. When Murray has the ball in his hands, defenders freeze. He's so quick and fast that he can elude them anywhere on the field, and he has such a good arm and great touch he can drop dimes standing in the pocket or on the move. If that's taken away, then the Cardinals will be in trouble. -- Josh Weinfuss
FPI rank: No. 4
FPI chance of winning the NFC: 15.3% (3rd)
Why the Rams are a legitimate Super Bowl contender: The Rams completed an offseason blockbuster trade that sent quarterback Jared Goff -- and draft picks -- to Detroit in exchange for Matthew Stafford with the hope Stafford would provide the needed upgrade to power an explosive offense. The 13th-year quarterback has delivered through a 6-1 start, as he's dazzled with no-look passes, navigated with pressure in his face and has ultimately passed for 19 touchdowns, second-most in the NFL. Coupled with Stafford, receiver Cooper Kupp proved to be a force through seven games and leads the NFL with nine receiving touchdowns. The defense, led by lineman Aaron Donald and cornerback Jalen Ramsey, has steadily improved under first-year coordinator Raheem Morris, who has emphasized game-changing plays while downplaying statistics. Morris' unit has closed out three games with turnovers, including wins over the Colts, Seahawks and Lions. The Rams rank tied for seventh in average points allowed per game at 20.9, a drastic improvement from three weeks ago when they were 18th and had allowed an average of 24.8 points per game.
Why they might be vulnerable: Special teams. Under first-year coordinator Joe DeCamillis, special teams have been inconsistent and often unreliable. Unable to settle on a kick or punt returner, the Rams rank 29th in average yards per kick return at 18.4 and 19th in yards per punt return at 7.5. In a Week 7 win over the winless Detroit Lions, special teams appeared woefully unprepared for an onslaught of scenarios the Lions attempted to jump-start their production. After scoring on the opening drive, the Lions recovered an onside kick and later that series faked a punt to convert a 17-yard pass for a first down, and later in the game they converted another fake punt for a 28-yard gain and first down. Rams coach Sean McVay said the team wasn't surprised by the Lions' tactics, but was unable to execute. That's an issue for a team with Super Bowl aspirations, and the Rams must hope that it can be fixed despite seven games without much progress. -- Lindsey Thiry
FPI rank: No. 5
FPI chance of winning the NFC: 11.2% (4th)
Why the Cowboys are a legitimate Super Bowl contender: It's popular to say defenses win championships, but the Cowboys have an offense that is difficult for any defense to stop. If teams want to sit back in coverage, running backs Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard have shown they can dominate games on the ground. If teams want to load up to stop the run, quarterback Dak Prescott can pick them apart with pass catchers Amari Cooper, CeeDee Lamb and Dalton Schultz, plus Michael Gallup will return soon. With their ability to put up points, they can mask some of the deficiencies they have on defense. It's a similar formula the Cowboys followed in 2014 and '16. Those teams had their seasons end in the divisional round of the playoffs, controversially in 2014 (Dez Bryant's non-catch) and agonizingly (Mason Crosby's field goal at the end), but this defense takes the ball away at a higher rate (thank you, Trevon Diggs' seven interceptions).
Why they might be vulnerable: Injuries. Maybe that's too easy, but look at what happened last year when the Cowboys lost players. They fell apart. While the Cowboys are confident Prescott will play against Minnesota despite a calf strain, if it is something that limits him or nags him the rest of the way, that will affect the offense greatly. The Cowboys have dealt with a number of injuries (or absences) already and succeeded with guys such as DeMarcus Lawrence, Neville Gallimore, Gallup, Trysten Hill, Kelvin Joseph and La'el Collins missing time. In order to win, teams need to succeed without all of their cards. But let's add another question: the defense. As much as the defense has improved from 2020, it still allows too many big plays, which is something that cannot happen in the playoffs. The Cowboys will face better quarterbacks in the playoffs (Brady, Rodgers, Murray, Stafford) so they can't give up easy plays. -- Todd Archer
FPI rank: No. 7
FPI chance of winning the NFC: 6.7% (5th)
Why the Packers are a legitimate Super Bowl contender: There's a hunger that permeates the organization after coming up a game short the last two seasons, losing in the NFC Championship Game. Once Aaron Rodgers returned from his offseason of discontent -- and the Packers got their stinker of a season-opening loss to the Saints out of the way -- they've looked almost as good as they did last year. Their offense hasn't been quite as potent -- the scoring numbers are down -- but Davante Adams has been as productive as ever and has gotten just enough help along the way from the likes of Allen Lazard, Robert Tonyan, Aaron Jones and AJ Dillon. They're the first team in NFL history to win six straight after losing an opener by 35 or more points, and that turnaround has fostered a quiet confidence. Rodgers seems satisfied with the way things have gone and appears to be locked in. There's also the sense that this could be their last best chance to get to a Super Bowl for a while, especially if Rodgers wants out after this season. They're in a tough salary-cap situation next year with or without Rodgers, so this season has a bit of a now-or-never feel to it.
Why they might be vulnerable: Injuries and their old bugaboo, the defense. After a charmed existence in the injury department in coach Matt LaFleur's first two seasons, the Packers' luck has turned. They might have to play the rest of the way without their two best defensive players, cornerback Jaire Alexander and outside linebacker Za'Darius Smith. On offense, they've been shuffling their line almost every week, although things could stabilize when All-Pro left tackle David Bakhtiari returns following his January ACL surgery. That could happen on Nov. 7 at Kansas City. They changed defensive coordinators, turning to Joe Barry, this offseason and the jury is still out on whether they've improved. The other factor is Rodgers. His NFC title game performances have not matched the rest of his typically heroic acts. If he doesn't play better if and when the Packers get to that point, they're headed for another disappointing end. -- Demovsky