Practically everyone paid to opine about football expected Seattle, San Francisco and Green Bay to be powerhouses this season. It looks like they won't be disappointed. Atlanta's total collapse was a surprise, and New Orleans is back to pre-bounty form, but another awful year in the NFC East gives this NFC season a similar feel to 2012.
Unlike the AFC, the NFC still sets up as a fascinating playoff push. Carolina and Detroit especially have the ability to beat anyone and make a run.
Here's what we learned in the NFC at midseason:
Seattle Seahawks: 7-1
»Pete Carroll's defense has lived up to the hype, even as guys like Chris Clemons, Bruce Irvin, Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett get up to speed at different times. There just aren't any weak spots and safety Earl Thomas probably is having his best season. (Which is saying a lot.)
» Seattle's offensive line is a bigger problem than ever. The Seahawks could get left tackle Russell Okung back from injured reserve, which would help greatly. In the meantime, the team's current tackles struggle against edge rushers, forcing Russell Wilson to improvise too much. It's an uneven passing attack that often looks especially average on the road. The addition of Percy Harvin is needed.
San Francisco 49ers: 6-2
»Frank Gore is ageless. While most of the league doubled down on throwing the ball, the 49ers ramped up their creative running game after early Colin Kaepernick struggles. Gore, 30, is running more than he has in the last four seasons and leads the league in 20-plus yard runs. The 49ers offense goes as their running game goes.
»Eric Reid is a keeper. The 49ers' rookie safety looks like an upgrade over Dashon Goldson, helping to solidify questions in their secondary. The 49ers are 6-2 and have a chance to get so much better down the stretch with Michael Crabtree, Mario Manningham and possibly Aldon Smith returning to the roster.
Arizona Cardinals: 4-4
» There aren't many defenses with more raw talent than Arizona. Calais Campbell, Daryl Washington and Patrick Peterson are playing at Pro Bowl levels. Tyrann Mathieu and Darnell Dockett aren't far behind. Defensive coordinator Todd Bowles was a punchline in Philadelphia last year, but he's done a nice job highlighting his players' strengths. This is a unit that will keep Arizona competitive almost every week.
»Carson Palmer is no kind of long-term answer at quarterback. It's no surprise he can't survive when the pass protection is weak, but Palmer has made a lot of poor decisions and missed throws that you can't blame on the offensive line. The Cardinals are a quarterback and a tackle away from being true contenders.
St. Louis Rams: 3-5
» We didn't learn enough about Sam Bradford. In this supposed "make or break" year, Bradford tore his ACL after giving his supporters and detractors plenty to chew on. He showed flashes of putting it all together, but often looked slow processing information. He doesn't improve the players around him, and Tavon Austin is not ready to help this team. Bradford is close to a league-average quarterback, which is worth plenty. The Rams aren't going to give up on him, so this feels like a wasted season.
»Monday night's performance against Seattle notwithstanding, the Rams' defense has been a disappointment. Robert Quinn is one of the best edge rushers in football, but the secondary consistently has struggled. The Rams have performed like an average defense; the expectations were much higher.
- -- Gregg Rosenthal *
New Orleans Saints: 6-1
» Rob Ryan's defense is the surprise of the year, with all apologies to our friends in Kansas City. Despite an avalanche of injuries, Ryan turned a historically bad defense into a weapon. Cameron Jordan is a Defensive Player of the Year candidate. Safety Kenny Vaccaro should be a Defensive Rookie of the Year candidate. This is a group that is better than the sum of its sometimes mismatched parts.
»Drew Brees is playing lights out, yet this Saints offense isn't quite the same. They aren't protecting well, and the offensive line is struggling badly in the run game. Jimmy Graham is the only consistent vertical threat. With Marques Colston in hiding and no run game, it's all about Graham and Darren Sproles. That's still enough to be fifth in points, with Brees and the return of Sean Payton making this one of the most difficult teams to prepare for.
Carolina Panthers: 4-3
» Carolina's defense is even better than Ron Rivera imagined. Their two rookie defensive tackles, Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short, have turned a longtime positional weakness into a strength. Thomas Davis is playing better than ever. The secondary has not been a problem. This is a top-five defense that should lead the team to the playoffs if Cam Newton doesn't turn into "Bad Cam" again.
» The Panthers can smack around terrible teams. Carolina is fifth in the NFL in point differential, but they only are 4-3 because they self-destruct in close fourth quarters. We still don't know if they can win close games against quality teams, but we'll find out soon enough. They face the 49ers, Patriots and Saints (twice) down the stretch.
Harrison: Week 9 Power Rankings
Atlanta Falcons: 2-5
» Sunday's loss to Arizona was humbling. The Falcons can't protect Matt Ryan against a quality defense. They have gotten absolutely nothing from Steven Jackson and Roddy White this season. Julio Jones isn't coming back. It's a miracle the Falcons have been a dangerous offense to this point, but that's not going to continue with a brutal schedule down the road.
» The Falcons are playing for next season because their defense has no playmakers following Sean Weatherspoon's season-ending injury. The pass rush was invisible even before Kroy Biermann was lost for the season. They couldn't even get pressure on Carson Palmer. General manager Thomas Dimitroff needs to re-tool on defense for 2014.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: 0-7
» We learned that engaging in a public back-and-forth about your starting quarterback's maturity probably isn't the best idea a few weeks into the season. You can marvel at the talent on Tampa's roster -- especially on defense -- but there's something else going on here. The defensive intensity has dipped after the first month. Penalties are rampant. That comes back to coach Greg Schiano.
- -- Gregg Rosenthal *
Green Bay Packers: 5-2
»Aaron Rodgers has proven once again he is the Packers' lead singer, but he finally found a drummer to keep the beat going. Eddie Lacy has provided Green Bay with a punch it has lacked for years. He's a power back who can keep the Packers on schedule, doesn't need huge holes and can be a load on the goal line. Getting Rodgers in third-and-short has been killer for a steady Packers offense.
» The Packers have gotten a lot of miles out of their rookies. We mentioned Lacy's impact. Left tackle David Bakhtiari has been up and down after being forced into the starting role. However, Bakhtiari has progressed each week protecting Rodgers blind-side. He's a keeper. Cornerback Micah Hyde also has played well in spot duty in the secondary and in punt returns.
Detroit Lions: 5-3
»Reggie Bush's presence transformed the Lions' offense. He can take advantage when teams sink back to stop Calvin Johnson and has finally given the Lions' play-action legitimacy. His ability to run tough between the tackles has been a revelation.
» Linebacker DeAndre Levy has improved leaps and bounds. He's stopped over-running plays, and his pass defense is worlds better than last season. He's taking advantage of blockers being swallowed up by a stout defensive line. Levy's currently rated as the sixth best 4-3 outside linebacker by Pro Football Focus, after ending last season No. 40 on their list.
Chicago Bears: 4-3
» Injuries have upset Marc Trestman's first season. Jay Cutler's injury is the headliner, but the defense, specifically the front seven, has been decimated. Losing defensive tackle Henry Melton in Week 3 might be the least talked about big injury. Losing Nate Collins, D.J. Williams and now Lance Briggs has made things worse.
»Alshon Jeffery's emergence has been a bright spot. Paired with Brandon Marshall, Jeffery provides the Bears with one of the biggest receiving duos in the NFL. Jeffery has developed his route running and ball skills and should only improve under Trestman, regardless of who the quarterback is in the future.
Minnesota Vikings: 1-6
» We learned one big thing in the Vikings' first half: Christian Ponder is not the future starter. The 2011 first-round draft pick still struggles finding open receivers and makes terribly slow reads. Josh Freeman was brought in, but that report card remains incomplete.
» The Vikings' defense has been atrocious. It ranks in the bottom three in total yards allowed, fourth worst in pass defense and trending downward, and the run defense is only slightly better. Worst of all, the defense can't get off the field on third down. It's not a surprise to see the cut-aways of an exasperated Jared Allen on the sideline. Well, at least we'll have this play to remember.
- -- Kevin Patra *
Dallas Cowboys: 4-4
» The Cowboys might have the most inconsistent defense in the league. One week after holding the Eagles to three points, they gave up the most yards in franchise history at Detroit. This is the first defense in NFL history to surrender four 400-yard passing games in the same season. Cornerbacks, linebackers and safeties have taken their turns getting burned in coverage.
» Don't expect the return of DeMarco Murray to fix the struggling ground attack. Dallas has rushed for 100-plus yards just once in eight games compared with five 100-yard rushing games for the opponents. This is the strongest of a weak NFC East field, but the Cowboys need more balance on offense.
Philadelphia Eagles: 3-5
» The quarterback of the future isn't on the Eagles' roster. After becoming the fourth team in NFL history with five consecutive games of 430-plus yards, the Eagles have been held to 10 total points over the past two weeks with Nick Foles and Matt Barkley taking the majority of the snaps. Chip Kelly's offense works, but he's going to need to make adjustments with Michael Vick out of the lineup.
» Philadelphia's generous secondary needs a near complete overhaul, but the front seven has held four straight opponents under 100 rushing yards. Fletcher Cox and Cedric Thornton comprise one of the most formidable defensive-end tandems in the league as the building blocks of Billy Davis' defense.
Washington Redskins: 2-5
» No matter what you heard or read about Robert Griffin III after the Redskins' Week 7 victory over the Bears, the star quarterback isn't playing at a level close to his 2012 form. It might be only a matter of weeks before his pre-injury confidence and explosiveness are back, but he's not there yet. His passing has been every bit as disappointing as his running.
» As rookie Jordan Reed emerges as one of the NFL's most productive young tight ends, the Redskins boast a promising young nucleus with potential Pro Bowl selections at quarterback, running back, wide receiver and tight end. The same can't be said on the other side of the ball, where there are more questions than answers.
New York Giants: 2-6
» The Giants can't run the ball, ranking in the bottom five in the league in yards per carry and yards per game. They have started five different players at running back, with Andre Brown likely to make it six after the Week 9 bye. If they can find balance on offense, a run at the division crown remains possible.
» On the flip side, a revitalized Justin Tuck is leading a defensive line that is stopping star running backs cold. Over the past five games, Jamaal Charles, LeSean McCoy (twice), Matt Forte and Adrian Peterson have combined to average fewer than 3.0 yards per carry against the G-Men. This defense is no longer a pushover.
- -- Chris Wesseling *
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