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A Look At The NFC Landscape

Posted Feb 5, 2018

Which teams can challenge the Eagles in 2018?

Eagles tight end Zach Ertz scores the go-ahead touchdown in the Super Bowl.

The Eagles and Patriots played one of the most entertaining Super Bowls of all-time on Sunday, and Philadelphians won’t soon forget the incredible memories of that journey.

While they revel in that bliss for the foreseeable future, the other 31 fanbases are ready to turn the page.

By Monday morning, ESPN had already unleashed its “way-too-early” power rankings for 2018, putting the Patriots at No. 1 and the Eagles a spot behind them. It’s not a surprise to see the two conference champions atop the pecking order, and the Patriots will continue to lead the way until Tom Brady and Bill Belichick hang it up.

But what about the NFC? It has been the more volatile conference of late, with Super Bowl contention one year guaranteeing little the next.

The Panthers won 15 games in 2015 and made the Super Bowl, but have gone 17-15 without a playoff win the past two seasons. The Falcons had a dominant offense in 2016 but regressed this season despite the same personnel.

On the flip-side, little was expected of the Rams, Saints and these champion Eagles in 2017, yet they all finished among the conference’s elite.

So, what to make of it heading into 2018?

While some Super Bowl winners regress based on salary cap realities or fewer lucky bounces, the Eagles do not look like a team headed down that path. They led the NFC in point-differential at plus-162 in the regular season – proving the 13-3 record was no fluke -- and while they will have to make some moves to get under the salary cap, the presence of Carson Wentz on a rookie deal gives them much more wiggle room than a team paying a star quarterback market value.

The Eagles were able to absorb his injury because they loaded up both sides of the ball with premium players, while also paying more than the usual backup quarterback rate for Nick Foles, who finished as Super Bowl MVP.

While the Eagles are situated to contend once again in 2018, there are a host of teams on their heels.

Few saw the Rams’ 2017 breakout coming, and they, too, have quarterback Jared Goff on a rookie deal. He should improve in his third season, while star running back Todd Gurley and game-wrecking defensive tackle Aaron Donald are both young, impact pieces.

The Saints added a great infusion of talent through the draft, and were one miracle touchdown catch by Stefon Diggs from making the NFC Championship game. As long as Drew Brees continues to play at a high level, New Orleans should contend.

Speaking of Diggs, the Vikings have a great defense and wide receiver corps, but are currently without a quarterback under contract. Much like the Eagles, they are a team with an impressive structure and should be able to find success no matter who ends up starting under center in 2018.

Then there are teams like the Cowboys, Packers, Panthers and Falcons. Dallas took a step back in 2017 but also has a star quarterback on a rookie deal, while Green Bay is a factor as long as Aaron Rodgers stays healthy.

Atlanta beat the Rams in the playoffs and went toe-to-toe with the Eagles on the road, so it could be in the mix once again. Carolina’s viability is tied closely to its passing game. Cam Newton must rebound to his 2015 form and needs more weapons, and the Panthers’ coaching staff underwent major changes on both sides of the ball.

The Seahawks are a wild card. Quarterback Russell Wilson is a star, but it’s unknown how the rest of the offense and the defense will look after a critical offseason as head coach Pete Carroll too changed out a large part of his coaching staff.

Where, exactly, does that leave the Cardinals?

Like the Eagles and Vikings, the Cardinals have a stingy defense and play-makers on offense. With strong quarterback play, it’s easy to envision a scenario in which the team jumps right back into playoff contention. However, until that position is ironed out, it’s impossible to know how the team will stack up.

Recent history suggests one thing: It doesn’t take much for would-be contenders to fall and lower-tier teams to rise.

General Manager Steve Keim has often talked about remaining competitive on a yearly basis, keeping an eye on both the short- and long-term health of the franchise.

The Cardinals might not be in the conversation of NFC favorites right now, but it only takes a few astute offseason decisions to change that narrative.

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