The Pro Football Notebook

November 9, 2010 7:37 AM

An NFC Upper-Crust Emerges

ClayMatthewsPushesGreenBayToTopOfNFC.jpgFor most of the season the NFC has been a mishmash, a conference dominated more by its stories of failure in Dallas or Minnesota, rather than on the success of a clear front-runner. After nine weeks, it looks like an upper-crust has finally emerged, with Green Bay, Atlanta and New York being the teams to beat in the race for the Super Bowl.

Green Bay administered a mercy-killing to the Wade Phillips era for Dallas on Sunday night and are sitting at 6-3 in spite of having been hit with an almost biblical plague of injuries. They're getting healthy right now and the defense is really coming together. Clay Matthews is making himself a case for NFL MVP--not just Defensive Player of the Year, but MVP, with his ability to dominate from the linebacker spot. Charles Woodson was the Defensive Player of The Year last year at corner and is getting quality help on the other side from Tramon Williams. The loss of running back Ryan Grant has been mitigated by the emergence of Brandon Jackson and John Kuhn. Neither are explosive, but both can keep the pressure of Aaron Rodgers. It's that latter fact that will ultimately determine how high Green Bay rises. They've got the pieces in place, they're starting to get healthy, and the defense is locked into Dom Capers' 3-4 scheme. If Rodgers gets time to throw, Green Bay will get to see Jerry Jones again, and that's when he's hosting the Super Bowl in Dallas this February.

No team is playing better right than the New York Giants, who put an absolute devastation on Seattle, a team who'd previously been fierce about defending its home turf. Tom Coughlin's team is pressuring the quarterback, running the ball and getting it downfield in the passing game. They've won five straight and are getting acknowledgement from a lot of observers as the best team in the NFL. I'm not quite ready to go that far for any NFC team just yet. The big issue with the Giants is getting Eli Manning to make better decisions. He's thrown 11 interceptions already this season. He played mistake-free in Seattle on Sunday, against a defense normally pretty good about forcing visiting QBs into picks. If that continues, New York's going to be tough to spot.

Atlanta hasn't shown the same level of potential dominance as the other two contenders, but the Falcons are steady, consistent and a complete team. I noted in the Sunday preview of their game with Tampa Bay, the entire package--they run the ball with Michael Turner, who again cleared 100 yards in the win over the Bucs. Wideout Roddy White is having one of the best years of any receiver. Tony Gonzalez is a reliable target at tight end. On the defensive front, tackle Justin Babineaux and end John Abraham can make plays. Veteran corner Dunta Robinson anchors the secondary. It's all been put together into a 6-2 record and they've got a road win at New Orleans.

There are without question other contenders, led by the Saints, who are 6-3 and hot on Atlanta's heels. Philadelphia got a big win at home over Indianapolis to stay within a game of the Giants. Chicago's inspiring no one, but at 5-3, they're still within a half-game of the Packers. But overall, the trio of Atlanta, Green Bay and New York are the ones who look to set to win divisions and battle for homefield advantage and first-round byes in the playoffs.

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Dan Flaherty is the editor of the Sports Notebook Family, published through the Real Clear Sports Blog Network, offering daily commentary in college football ,game analysis in the NFL. and coverage of college basketball. He is the author of The Last New Year's, a book that revisits the historic high points of college football's New Year's Day bowl games.

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