The NFC West always seems to find a way to be interesting, doesn’t it? The rivalries, the quarterbacks, the persistent ability to produce legitimate Super Bowl contenders… there’s always something going on in that division, and so far this year is no exception.
Following Sunday’s action, the Seattle Seahawks are all alone in first place in the NFC West — the only one of the division’s four teams with a winning record. An impressive victory over the Chargers in Los Angeles moved Geno Smith, Kenneth Walker III & Co. to 4-3, one-half game ahead of the idle Los Angeles Rams and one full game in front of the San Francisco 49ers and the Arizona Cardinals.
You remember the Seahawks, right? The team that traded away Russell Wilson for a bunch of picks and players, then staged a training camp QB competition between Smith and Drew Lock, while the whole world expected them to trade for Baker Mayfield or claim Jimmy Garoppolo once he got released (which he never did). This was thought to be one of the worst teams in the league coming into the season — a true contender for the No. 1 overall pick, which we all assumed they would use to draft their quarterback of the future.
Well, a funny thing happened on the way to C.J. Stroud. The Seahawks seem to have done a really good job developing Smith in a backup role behind Wilson all of those years, and Smith has stepped in and delivered one of the surprise performances of the season so far. A 210-yard, two-touchdown performance Sunday, combined with 168 rushing yards and a pair of scores from rookie running back Walker, helped the Seahawks put up 37 on a Chargers defense that was supposed to be one of the stronger units in the league.
And you know what’s really funny about all of this? The Seahawks could have a chance to get that No. 1 overall pick anyway, since they have Denver’s first-round pick and the Broncos just lost their fourth game in a row to fall to 2-5.
Just goes to show, you never know about a season until you get into it a little ways and figure out… that’s right… which preseason predictions were overreactions and which ones were not.
Let’s start this week out west.
The Seattle Seahawks are the team to beat in the NFC West
While we were all distracted (understandably) by the Wilson trade, the Seahawks quietly put together a strong offseason. Just look at their draft. They found their current starting tackles in the first and third rounds. Second-rounder Walker looks like a true superstar at running back. Cornerback Tariq Woolen is an interception machine and a leading Defensive Rookie of the Year candidate. Cornerback Coby Bryant (you know, the “other” rookie cornerback from Cincinnati) has been a playmaker on the back end. Seattle GM John Schneider may well have crushed what will turn out to be a crucial draft for his franchise. Smith has been very good, but Walker’s 168 rushing yards Sunday was the third 150-plus rushing yard performance by a Seahawk so far this season. They’re playing well in all phases and look like they haven’t just fluked their way into first place.
Full credit to the Seahawks and everything they’ve done. Clearly, the expectation that they would be one of the league’s worst teams ranks among the most foolish of this year’s preseason overreactions. If they can run the ball this way and improve on defense as the year goes along, there’s no reason to think they can’t be a real postseason contender. But 4-3 isn’t 7-0, and that Rams team lurking right behind them is the defending Super Bowl champion. The 49ers just traded for Christian McCaffrey. The Seahawks still have to play the Rams twice, and they’ve lost eight of their last 10 games against the Rams. And while they somehow only have three road games left, they’re in Arizona (whatever), L.A against the Rams (as discussed) and in Kansas City (yikes). There is work to do before we can consider the Seahawks the class of the NFC West, as impressive as it is what they’ve done so far.
Even with Christian McCaffrey, the 49ers still aren’t a real Super Bowl title contender
Hey, before you start with me, understand: I know, of course, that we didn’t get the full McCaffrey/Kyle Shanahan experience Sunday, just two days after the Niners traded for him. I’m sure he’s going to be a much bigger part of their offense and a much more high-impact player in the coming weeks as he gets acclimated. I didn’t expect him to jump right in and dazzle Sunday.
All of that said, yeeesh did the 49ers look terrible. This was a home game for their top-ranked defense, which got a bunch of key players back for this one, and they were absolutely embarrassed by Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs. And yes, it is Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs — who make a lot of teams look bad — but the Chiefs haven’t been a consistently dominant offense this year. The Niners committed 10 penalties, three turnovers, got sacked in the end zone for a safety and tackled as if the Chiefs’ ballcarriers were slathered with butter. The 44 points allowed were the fifth-most the 49ers have ever allowed in a home game, and they’ve now allowed 72 points in their last two games after allowing just 61 over their first five. Dismal performance for a would-be contender, regardless of strength of opponent.
Verdict: NOT AN OVERREACTION
Chalk all of that other stuff up to a bad day if you want, but the stubborn fact that keeps the Niners from operating on the level of the true top teams in the league (i.e., the Chiefs) is that they are painfully average at the quarterback position. Kyle Shanahan knows this, and it’s why he traded so many top assets for Trey Lance and started him this year even though no one would take Jimmy Garoppolo off of his hands. You watch Garoppolo in a game like Sunday’s — one in which all of the normally great pieces around him aren’t playing their best, one in which he needs to be the one to elevate everyone else — and you’re reminded that he’s just not that kind of guy. He holds the ball as if it’s stapled to his hand. He makes throws that make you wonder what he’s seeing. He’s fine on his best days, and downright costly on his worst. And it’s not that you can’t win the Super Bowl without a special quarterback. Heck, the Rams just did. It’s just that if you don’t have a special quarterback, you need everyone else around him to be excellent in every game that matters. Sunday mattered, and Garoppolo’s supporting cast was bad enough to expose him.
Which one do you guys want to start with this week? Brady? Fine. The good: As far as we know, Brady was in all of the Saturday meetings, walkthroughs and whatever else his team needed him to do this week. The bad: Well, he and the Bucs’ offense were invisible during the part of Sunday’s game that mattered. Against a Panthers team that traded two offensive starters over the past week and is making headlines for which players are and aren’t available in trades, the Bucs trailed 7-0 at halftime, 14-0 at the end of the fourth quarter and lost 21-3. Brady averaged 5.9 yards per pass attempt, and for just the 12th time in his 22-year career, his team failed to score an offensive touchdown.
As for Rodgers, he took on the Washington Commanders and finished 23-for-35 with a pair of touchdown passes to running back Aaron Jones. The Packers’ run game, which has been pegged by most outside observers (and some of their own coaches!) as their best way back to being a productive offense, remained dormant. Jones and A.J. Dillon combined for 38 yards on 12 carries against one of the league’s worst run defenses. The Packers have lost three games in a row for the first time under Matt LaFleur, whose four losses already equal a career single-season high with 10 games still to play.
Look, I was wrong about the Packers. I thought they would win the NFC. And while they certainly still could, because the third-place Philadelphia Phillies are in the World Series and anything is possible in sports, they certainly do not make a case as one of the conference’s top teams. The one thing on which they can hang their hat — and you will surely hear about this as the weeks go along — is that the one year Rodgers won the Super Bowl, the team got hot (and healthy) at the end of the season, winning its last two games to get in as a 10-6 wild card and rolling through the postseason. So Rodgers (if not any of his teammates) at least has that experience to fall back on as he watches his team sink further and further behind the first-place Vikings in the NFC North.
Brady and the Bucs, meanwhile, are 3-4 but somehow still tied for first in their division, giving them plenty of time to recover and play like the team we (and they!) thought they were. And if Mike Evans hadn’t let a long touchdown pass clang off his hands in the first quarter Sunday, the whole game (and the whole narrative about the Bucs) might be different on this Monday morning. But make no mistake: They need to find a way to play better. Brady’s head appears to be elsewhere, and you can say that’s for a good reason, but nobody forced him to come back out of retirement. It’s on Brady to help make this better, and he needs to start soon. Regardless, the NFC field doesn’t look like one that’s going to run away from Rodgers and Brady, so my thinking is at least one of them — I don’t know which — can turn things around and sneak into the field.
The Colts will have yet another new starting quarterback in 2023
Surely you know by now that the Indianapolis Colts are on their fifth different starting quarterback in five years. After Andrew Luck’s surprise retirement just before the 2019 season, they went with Jacoby Brissett as the starter for that season, signed Philip Rivers for 2020 only to see him retire after one year, traded for Carson Wentz in 2021 but couldn’t get rid of him fast enough and then signed Matt Ryan for 2022. Ryan has not exactly been a stabilizing force, and a week after his best game of the season, he threw two interceptions in a relatively lifeless 19-10 loss to the Titans — the Colts’ second loss to divisional rivals Tennessee in the last four weeks. Ryan has turned the ball over a whopping 12 times in his first seven games, and the Colts have trailed at halftime in every game they’ve played this season. They’re one of only two teams over the past five years that have trailed at halftime in each of their first seven games, along with last year’s Jets.
The Colts are 3-3-1 and not yet buried because they were able to beat the Broncos and the Jaguars the last two weeks without their best offensive player, running back Jonathan Taylor. He was back for Sunday’s game, though not yet up to full speed, and should be a major help moving forward. We also anticipate that they will get defensive superstar Shaquille Leonard back very soon. Frank Reich has coached his team back from slow starts in the past, and the toughness they showed in winning those two games without Taylor should provide them a foundation to fall back on as they slug their way toward a playoff appearance the rest of the way. If Ryan isn’t the QB when 2023 starts, I’m going to bet that Reich won’t be the coach and Chris Ballard won’t be the GM anymore, either, so we’re talking about cataclysmic, rebuilding-level stuff for the Colts. I just don’t think Reich and the veterans on this team let that happen, and I think the turnovers will slow down and Ryan has more Week 6-type games in him.
The Bengals are still a strong threat to repeat as AFC champions
Due respect to the Chiefs, Raiders and anyone else who won convincingly Sunday, but I’m not sure any team looked as scary-good as Cincinnati did in beating a previously hot Atlanta Falcons team. The Joe Burrow-Ja’Marr Chase connection was in peak form, as Chase caught 130 of Burrow’s 481 passing yards and scored two dazzling touchdowns.Tyler Boyd had even more receiving yards — 155, to be exact — while Tee Higgins fell seven yards short of giving the Bengals three 100-yard receivers on the day. If you’d been waiting for the Bengals’ offense to sizzle the way it did late last year and through the team’s run to the Super Bowl, Sunday was the day you were waiting for.
Verdict: NOT AN OVERREACTION
If they can play the way they did Sunday, they’re as scary as anybody. They’re a little more than six months removed from knowing what it feels like to win huge, huge games against the conference’s top teams. Their three losses have come by a combined eight points, so with a break here or there they could be a 7-0 team. The Ravens are right there with them at the top of the division and currently own the tiebreaker by virtue of having beaten the Bengals in Week 5, but they play each other again and the Bengals look like the kind of team that’s only going to get stronger as the season goes along. The Bills and the Chiefs have kind of established themselves in the early going as the clear-cut top two teams in the AFC, but the Bengals beat the Chiefs twice last year, including in the AFC Championship Game, and they’re as hungry this year as anyone. Don’t count out the defending champs when you’re projecting your AFC playoff field and results.