Four NFC teams have clearly separated themselves from the rest of the pack. As we head down the home stretch, I thought I’d make the case for why each of these teams can win the conference and get to Super Bowl LVIII in Las Vegas.
SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS
We’ll start with the San Francisco 49ers because, frankly, their case to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl is the easiest to make right now.
First of all, it appears they have already gone through their bad stretch this season. San Francisco lost three straight games in Weeks 6-8 before heading into its bye. Why is that a positive? Because the 49ers went through that difficult time with injuries to All-Pro LT Trent Williams and WR Deebo Samuel, among others, and figured things out.
Since then, San Francisco has won four straight by at least 13 points, including blowout victories against playoff-bound teams such as the Jaguars (34-3) and the Eagles (42-19).
That win over the Eagles was especially important because San Francisco scored touchdowns on six straight drives after a sluggish first quarter. The 49ers established themselves as the team to beat in the NFC by that performance and their dominant 42-10 victory over the Dallas Cowboys earlier in the season.
Second-year quarterback Brock Purdy is playing at an MVP-caliber level. San Francisco has a plethora of explosive weapons on offense, and its defense got a big boost during its bye when it added edge rusher Chase Young.
The 49ers appear to have the highest ceiling in the conference.
The Philadelphia Eagles still have a very compelling case to get to the Super Bowl for the second consecutive year.
Let’s start with their record.
They are 10-2, the best mark in the NFL, which gives them the inside track for NFC's No. 1 seed. That's gigantic. It’s hard to overstate the difference between having to win three games (including one on the road) as opposed to winning just two games at home. The Eagles still control their destiny as far as seeding is concerned.
Philadelphia is just about to wrap up what has been, by far, the toughest part of its schedule. The Eagles will get to end the season with two meetings against the New York Giants sandwiched around a date with the Arizona Cardinals. That could certainly help the Eagles cruise into the postseason on a roll and feeling good about themselves.
Most importantly, Philadelphia was the best team in the NFC and arguably the NFL last season for a reason. The Eagles have a beautiful roster that includes the best offensive line in football, an MVP candidate at quarterback, a dynamic duo at wide receiver and one of the best defensive lines in the sport.
Whether or not the team's defensive line or the recent signing of LB Shaq Leonard can mask the Eagles' shortcomings at the second and third levels remains to be seen. But this is a highly talented team with a playoff pedigree and a great chance to only need two home wins to get back to the Super Bowl.
Yes, I know the Cowboys haven’t been to the NFC Championship game since 1996 — but maybe that means they’re due? [Insert your favorite smiley or laughing emoji here.]
OK, well if you aren’t buying that statement, you absolutely should be buying the way this team has been playing lately. It won four in a row after a gut-wrenching loss in Philadelphia in Week 9. And the first three of those wins were by 20-plus points before they just held off the Seahawks 41-35 Thursday night in Week 13.
Sure, the New York Giants, Carolina Panthers and Washington Commanders aren't exactly a murderer’s row of opponents. But when you watch the Cowboys, you not only see their talent but can see the way they are executing at a high level.
Stop me if you’ve heard this before, Dak Prescott is playing at an MVP-caliber level. Even though his weapons, such as CeeDee Lamb, are having great years, it is actually the stellar play of Dallas' offensive line that has stood out to me the most during this stretch. That’s a top-three group in the NFL.
Meanwhile, defensively, the Cowboys have multiple game-wreckers both upfront and on the back end. Micah Parsons may fall just short of being Defensive Player of the Year for the third straight year, but offenses around the league certainly treat him like it. There’s not a defensive player I’d rather have on my team.
Perhaps the biggest surprise that makes the Cowboys such a contender has been the way DaRon Bland has stepped up at cornerback after the season-ending injury to fellow ballhawk Trevon Diggs. Bland has already set the record for pick-sixes in a season — and there are still five games left.
The Cowboys are no doubt legit, but it would be an uphill climb for them to reach the final game of the season if they don’t beat the Eagles on Sunday night. That would basically lock Dallas into a wild-card spot, which is a tough road for any contender. The game against Philadelphia is close to a must-win if the Cowboys want to get to the Super Bowl.
Honestly, it’s just cool and fun to include the Detroit Lions in a conversation like this. With a 9-3 record that matches the 49ers and Cowboys', the Lions have earned this.
While it is admittedly difficult for a team to make a run to the Super Bowl in its first trip to the postseason in years, Detroit has several things going for it that gives it a chance.
It starts with a dynamic offense that is led by QB Jared Goff. Goff has shown he is capable of taking a team to the Super Bowl — he did so when he was with the Los Angeles Rams. Truthfully though, this offense is so much more than just Goff.
OC Ben Johnson is one of the brightest young minds in the game and is thought to be one of the most highly sought-after head coaching candidates this offseason. Goff and Johnson are aided by a top-five offensive line (which, again, sounds familiar) and some young skill players such as RB Jahmyr Gibbs and rookie TE Sam Laporta who have helped take this offense to an even higher level.
Plus, the Lions have coach Dan Campbell, who is one of the frontrunners for Coach of the Year. Not only does he deserve high marks for his ability to motivate and change the culture in Detroit, but his aggressiveness on fourth down, fake punts, etc. could be the edge that helps the underdog Lions beat one of these other contenders.