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Ranking contenders for NFC's No. 1 seed: Cowboys, Eagles most trustworthy candidates

Love all, trust a few, do wrong to none.

When Shakespeare used this line early in "All's Well That Ends Well," it was an offering of simple, sound life advice for a character who is setting off into the unknown world outside his own after his life had turned tumultuous.

These words also carry some weight when we apply them to the 2022 NFC playoff race. It's been a fascinating season on that side of the conference ledger so far, but recent developments have forced us to reconsider our trust for a few of the contending clubs.

In Week 10, the Eagles lost their first game of the season to the Commanders at home, followed by a narrow road win over the Colts. In Week 11, the Vikings, fresh off a shocking road victory at Buffalo that pushed their record to 8-1, were demolished at home by the Cowboys.

Are the Eagles and Vikings suddenly bad? Are the Commanders and Cowboys better than we think? 

We have a lot to sort out. We did this exercise for the AFC last week, and the picture was still a bit murky there, too. But there was still a clear-cut No. 1 option at the top, followed by some pretty reliable -- but less formidable -- clubs. 

The NFC has a similar picture now. Even with the teams leading in the standings having shown some signs of weakness lately, we're just not sure there are quite as many potential contenders to climb their way to the top compared to its rival conference.

We love them all, of course, and we'd never do any team wrong. But trust is in short supply the farther you go down the list of contenders. 

Currently there are eight NFC teams with winning records, and we'll rank them in order of which has the best shot to earn the top seed and the first-round bye that comes with that prize.

Philadelphia Eagles

For any team, losing to a (presumably lesser) division foe after an 8-0 start to the season would sting. Nearly losing the next week to a team that had appeared to be in disarray not long ago would twist the knife just a bit more.

This, however, happened in Philly. You can imagine the reaction. 

But we’re here to calm the masses. The Eagles are the clear-cut favorites to win the No. 1 seed. No, we haven’t been thrilled with the team’s uninspired recent run. Yet there’s one big factor in their corner: math.

They have nine wins. That’s one more than the Vikings, two more than two other NFC contenders (the Cowboys and Giants) and at least three more over the remainder of the field. 

That’s a big first advantage. 

Then there’s the Eagles’ Week 2 win over the Vikings. That takes care of the first big tiebreaker. If the Vikings happen to fall back, the Eagles already have a head-to-head win versus Dallas, and the Giants -- whom the Eagles will play twice in the remaining seven weeks -- are also slumping.

Jalen Hurts and Co. haven’t played their best football recently and surely will need to pick it up. But by dominating early, they’ve been able to put some distance between themselves and the conference field.

Dallas Cowboys

Wait, hold up. The Cowboys have seven wins to Minnesota’s eight. Dallas also has a tougher remaining schedule. So, what gives?

Well, Sunday’s head-to-head victory in Minnesota is a tiebreaker if they end up with the same number of victories. That’s a hurdle the Cowboys must still reach, and you can’t earn the No. 1 seed without winning your division, so that means Dallas must pass both the Vikings and Eagles.

The Cowboys’ Christmas Eve game at home against the Eagles is shaping up to be nearly a must-win unless they plan on running the table in the other remaining games. That’s obviously a big ask. All of a sudden, the final two games -- at Tennessee, at Washington -- look pretty daunting.

Nonetheless, the Cowboys have the kind of potency offensively and (especially) defensively to make a big run, if not all the way to the top, then certainly very close. Dallas hasn’t exactly been the most trustworthy team, and the hiccup at Green Bay gives us pause. But this team can be very dangerous at its best.

Minnesota Vikings

No, Sunday’s 40-3 home loss didn’t end the Vikings’ season. We’ve seen eventual playoff teams lose regular-season games by a wide margin like that more than you might realize. 

Just last season, we had two playoff teams (the Packers and Raiders) lose games by 35 or more points. Green Bay was the NFC’s No. 1 seed in 2021, too. The year before, the eventual-champion Bucs were dusted, 38-3, at home by the Saints in Week 9. Bad losses can happen to good teams.

But depending on how we define good teams, the Vikings are an interesting case study given their point differential. Minnesota is, incredibly, at -2 right now, the lowest mark by any team to start a season 8-2 or better through 10 games in NFL history, per NFL Research. The previous low was +6 by the 1987 Chargers, who missed the playoffs that year. The Vikings are the only squad with a negative point differential and fewer than five losses in 2022.

Now, that stat alone isn’t reason enough to dismiss them. They have big-play talents on offense and a defense that were, at least until Sunday, able to make a big play when it was needed. 

Even so, it’s hard to fully get behind a team when its two losses are to its two biggest competitors for the top slot in the NFC. Losing to the Eagles and Cowboys by a combined 54 points sends a certain type of message. And when you combine that with how the Vikings have won some games -- narrow wins, including a few over teams that were playing backup quarterbacks -- it really raises some questions.

At 8-2, they have a shot. But it’s a lesser shot than it was a few days ago.

New York Giants

Sunday’s loss to the Lions had to be quite the downer for Giants fans, as Detroit controlled the game from about the midpoint of the second quarter, never looking back. All the reasons why the Giants have had an unexpectedly successful season this year were nowhere to be found at MetLife Stadium.

The Giants’ seven victories have come by a combined 35 points, with none of them decided by more than eight points. Their three losses have been by a total of 34 points, and two of those were at home. They currently would lose the head-to-head tiebreaker against two potential NFC playoff teams, the Cowboys and Seahawks, although the Giants at least can erase the Cowboys’ edge by winning in Arlington on Thanksgiving.

Here’s the other sobering part: The Giants face a wicked schedule down the stretch, with an opponent win percentage of .678 -- the highest in the NFL. The 4-6-1 Colts, who have been much more competitive of late, are the only sub-.500 team left in their remaining seven games. 

But there’s also a flip side to that. Five of those games are against NFC East teams. Win the most competitive division in the NFC, and there is a path to the No. 1 spot. We should know soon enough whether the Giants have a shot or not. Their next four games are against division foes.

San Francisco 49ers

In their convincing Monday night win over the Cardinals, the 49ers certainly looked like the kind of team that could be an NFC favorite to reach the Super Bowl. The offense featured multiple playmakers in major roles, displaying just how dangerous this team can be following the acquisition of Christian McCaffrey

They have some things going in their favor, such as a 4-0 division mark and a 5-2 record versus conference opponents, including a head-to-head win over Seattle. But getting all the way to No. 1 is still a stretch. At 6-4, the 49ers will need to go scorched earth on their last seven opponents and hope the teams above them in the standings falter (and in the case of the 9-1 Eagles, falter badly).

I picked the Niners to make the Super Bowl back in August, and though a lot has changed with their team since then, I'm not inclined to make a switch. The problem is that I just can’t imagine them doing so with home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs. Those early-season losses to the likes of the Bears, Broncos and Falcons are coming back to bite them now.

Had this been a ranking of “the most dangerous NFC teams,” the Bucs likely would find themselves higher on the list. The Tom Brady factor alone would grant them credibility in this department. Their recent playoff experience and possible home-field advantage (for one game, anyway) give them some checkmarks. 

But this is about which team can finish atop the conference, and the Bucs just have too much work to do, record-wise. That’s the byproduct of losses to teams such as the Panthers and Steelers. Win those, and it’s a different story.

No, the Buccaneers are not having a gilded season. But the recent return to winning is encouraging, and even the most hardened Brady haters have to admit that it would be fun to see him lead a late playoff charge. With a softer schedule (an opponent win percentage of .419), it opens the door ever so slightly for a run at the top. 

Winning out, or winning six out of seven games, just isn’t that likely, I feel. This team hasn’t really run the ball consistently yet, and the defense -- as respectable a group as it might be -- has not quite been as dominant as it was in the past.

Really, the final three teams listed here are on almost equal footing: in decent shape for a playoff spot but with very little hope of earning a first-round bye. The only reason the Commanders are below the Bucs -- despite having more victories -- is because of them being fourth in the NFC East, with bad marks in the division (1-2) and conference (3-4).

We must acknowledge how tough Washington has been while winning five of its last six games, riding the hot hand of Taylor Heinicke and a strong defense to rebound after losing four of the first five contests. This isn’t a team that anyone should be excited to play against right now.

But we’ll let someone else make the claim that Ron Rivera’s bunch can zoom all the way to the No. 1 seed. It doesn’t seem like a realistic projection.

Seattle Seahawks

Yes, the Seahawks have battled the disrespect card most of this season. Geno Smith’s career revival has been something to watch, the run game has been reinvigorated and the defense has made tangible strides since the first month or so of the season.

Winning the division remains a realistic goal, with the Week 15 rematch versus the 49ers currently circled in red ink after the Seahawks fell to San Francisco in Week 2, 27-7. Seattle can’t afford too many more division losses, but the NFC West crown remains attainable. There's not a lot separating the final two teams on this list, talent-wise, but the Commanders might be a little stronger on defense, despite Seattle's improvement on that side of the ball.

So don’t worry, 12s, I love your team’s story. I just can’t make the cavernous leap required to project the Seahawks atop the conference, not when I don’t expect them to win their division. Any of these teams can make the Super Bowl from the conference, but not everyone can earn the top seed.

Follow Eric Edholm on Twitter.

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