Is there a greater jinx going than being universally declared the best team in the wide-open NFC?
Ask the 49ers. Or the Packers. Or the Seahawks. Or the Saints, who zoom into Week 10 with a five-game winning streak, a 35-point prime-time beatdown of Tom Brady, and this week’s media deification as — wait for it — THE BEST TEAM IN THE NFC!
“This,” Saints coach Sean Payton said this past week, “is a funny league.”
Not funny, ha-ha. Funny, interesting. Especially if you’re in the cross hairs as the latest alleged best team in the NFC.
The reigning conference champion, the 49ers, swaggered into Week 1 with firepower unmatched in the NFC. They lost at home to upstart Arizona before the roster decimation by injury began in earnest in the Meadowlands the following week.
Today, the 49ers are 4-5 and sitting ninth in the NFC, one spot ahead of the Vikings.
“Things can go well, and we know week to week how fortunes can change in this league,” Payton said. “You enjoy [the good games] and then get ready to work.”
Nothing was working better during the first month of the season than Matt LaFleur’s Green Bay offense. Scoring records were falling left and right as Aaron Rodgers and the Packers scored 43 against the Vikings, 42 against the Lions, 37 against the Saints and 30 against the Falcons.
The 37-30 win at New Orleans dropped the Saints to 1-2. Rodgers was rejuvenated! Drew Brees was just old.
Green Bay swaggered into Tampa on Oct. 18. LaFleur was 17-3, the second-best coaching record through 20 games in NFL history. Rodgers had 13 touchdowns. And the Packers hadn’t turned the ball over a single time in their 4-0 start.
Bucs 38, Packers 10. Rodgers threw two interceptions, including a pick-six. They’re still 6-2 now, but they’re also 2-2 in their past four games, including an embarrassing home loss to a one-win Vikings team.
About that time, the football world was falling in love with Seattle’s motto — “Let Russ Cook!”
This is the motto one comes up with when one is sporting the league’s worst defense, no Marshawn Lynch-like runner and a quarterbacking magician named Russell Wilson.
People far and wide wanted to bypass the final 11 games and hand Wilson his first MVP trophy as some sort of career achievement. With him, nothing else mattered because Seattle was 5-0 after a how’d-they-do-that comeback against the Vikings.
Seattle swaggered back from its bye to lose two of three games. A trip to Buffalo last week featured Josh Allen outcooking Russ, and then some.
Meanwhile, a national audience was tuning in to see the Brady-Brees rematch of Week 1.
Saints 38, Bucs 3. Brees is rejuvenated! Brady is just old.
Good luck, New Orleans, as you put that NFC-best winning streak on the line against, who else, the 49ers team that 10 weeks ago was the … BEST TEAM IN THE NFC!
The NFC has seven teams with a winning record. If the season ended today, only six of them would make the playoffs because NFC East leader Philadelphia (3-4-1) would get the fourth seed whether we like it or not.
The current order of seeds are the Saints (6-2), Seahawks (6-2), Packers (6-2), Eagles, Buccaneers (6-3), Cardinals (5-3) and Rams (5-3). The Bears, who are 5-4 and riding a three-game losing streak into Monday night’s game against the Vikings, would be the odd man out.
With the playoffs expanded to 14 teams, the top seed is scheduled to be the only team that will get a bye in the first week of the playoffs. That, of course, could change since the owners voted to expand the playoffs to 16 teams and do away with the byes if games end up being canceled because of COVID-19.
But until games are canceled, there’s still a huge advantage to being the best team in the NFC after Week 17. Being called the best team before that appears to be more of a burden than a blessing.
Mark Craig is an NFL and Vikings Insider. Twitter: @markcraigNFL. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.