Week 8 of the NFL season started with a huge Thursday night clash in the NFC as the Packers narrowly held off the Cardinals in a battle of top NFC contenders. Five teams have created separation in the NFC as top conference title threats, here is a look at the November paths for those teams as the potential playoff bracket is starting to come into form.
These teams are listed in the current standings as of 10/29/2021
Green Bay Packers (+450 to win the NFC as of 10/29/21)
Green Bay is 7-1 and on top of the NFC standings after knocking off the league’s final undefeated team on Thursday night in Week 8. The Packers also earned the head-to-head tiebreaker with Arizona in pursuit of earning the top seed in the NFC for a second consecutive season. Winning while short-handed was a great result for Green Bay, now winners of seven straight games since the opening loss to the Saints but Green Bay has the weakest scoring differential of the top threats in the NFC and will have a difficult November path.
The Packers will have an extended turnaround ahead of Week 9 after the early game in Week 8, but they will head to Kansas City next for a difficult game, even if the Chiefs have been vulnerable this season. Green Bay catches a break in Week 10 as a potentially difficult home game with Seattle seems likely to be without Russell Wilson, although some are suggesting his timetable could be moved up. A huge division game at Minnesota is ahead in Week 11 while on Thanksgiving weekend the Packers host the Rams before a Week 13 bye week. A 2-2 November might be considered an acceptable result for Green Bay with some of the season’s most difficult games ahead in the next few weeks.
Arizona Cardinals (+550 to win the NFC as of 10/29/21)
Falling from the ranks of the unbeaten was a tough result for Arizona last week, particularly given the golden opportunity to escape with a win that was there in the final minute last week vs. Green Bay. Given how difficult the NFC West was projected to be this season, any Cardinals fan must still be thrilled that the team is 7-1, a year after finishing 8-8 and missing the playoffs entirely last season. The Cardinals have the top scoring differential in the NFC and while there are wins over Houston and Jacksonville included to boost the numbers, Arizona has road wins over Tennessee, the LA Rams, and Cleveland as this is not an empty 7-1 resume.
The Cardinals have two difficult division games remaining in November but playing at San Francisco and at Seattle no longer looks quite as difficult as expected. Russell Wilson could be back for the Seahawks in time for that Week 11 game but with a home game with Carolina in Week 10, the next three weeks are a very manageable path for the Cardinals as moving back ahead of the Packers is certainly a possible outcome by the end of the month. Getting a long layoff ahead of the Week 9 game with San Francisco could be greatly beneficial given the lingering injury issues for a few key players but it is clear that Arizona isn’t going anywhere as a serious NFC threat even after taking its first loss.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers (+250 to win the NFC as of 10/29/21)
The Buccaneers haven’t necessarily looked like the defending Super Bowl champions in a 6-1 start but a big reason the Buccaneers were the prohibitive favorite in the NFC while having a great chance to repeat as Super Bowl champions is a favorable schedule. Tampa Bay’s best win so far this season was the narrow opening week win over Dallas as they lost their big road test to the Rams. Tampa Bay won’t play the other three NFC contenders on this list and the most formidable remaining game is a December home game with Buffalo as the path to the best record in the NFC remains clear for Tampa Bay.
October closes with a big division game in New Orleans and a win in that game would give Tampa Bay a significant cushion in the division race. Tampa Bay has a bye week in Week 9 before a playoff rematch at Washington in Week 10. The Buccaneers will complete its series with the four NFC East teams hosting the Giants in Week 11 before a potentially dangerous game in Indianapolis in Week 12. With only three November games, the bye week may be the most important factor for Tampa Bay this month and it is hard to see this group having more than two losses heading into December.
Los Angeles Rams (+400 to win the NFC as of 10/29/21)
The Rams have started 6-1 but they are behind in the NFC West race by virtue of the head-to-head loss hosting Arizona in Week 4. Los Angeles does have a big potential tiebreaker under its belt from beating Tampa Bay in Week 3 and five of six wins for Los Angeles have been against the NFC as Los Angeles will be facing AFC teams in three of the next five games. The Week 14 game at Arizona will loom large in the division race and the chances for the Rams to be the top NFC seed are hurt by a late season schedule closing with Minnesota, Baltimore, and San Francisco, all teams that seem likely to need late season wins in the wild card race.
In the short term the Rams have a serious shot to move up to being the #1 seed in the NFC in November as they close the month at Green Bay after a bye week for a great opportunity to earn a key tiebreaker. After playing as a big favorite in Houston this week, a big AFC test is ahead Sunday night in Week 9 with the Titans before a Monday night game in San Francisco in Week 10 as the Rams will be in the spotlight in November with a chance to move up in the NFC pecking order.
Dallas Cowboys (+600 to win the NFC as of 10/29/21)
As strange as it sounds Dallas may be the overlooked and undervalued team in the NFC race. There is not much of a case for Dallas being the most complete nor the best team in the NFC, and the current Dak Prescott injury situation is a big shadow over that prospect. The NFC East will provide Dallas with a better opportunity than the rest of the conference however. The only noteworthy wins for Dallas so far are narrow road escapes vs. the Chargers and Patriots but Dallas has an incredibly favorable remaining schedule and still has a realistic chance to end up with the top record in the NFC.
Dallas was off in Week 7 and Prescott’s status remains up in the air for Week 8 at Minnesota in one of the most difficult remaining games of the season. If Dallas can win that game, they have home dates with Denver and Atlanta the next two weeks before a big Week 11 game in Kansas City that should be a highly anticipated game. Dallas closes November with the Raiders on Thanksgiving Day and while four of the final six games will be road games for the Cowboys, four of those final six games will be division games. Dallas has a substantial lead in the NFC East and may not face much pressure to go for the #1 seed in the NFC, but at full strength the Cowboys are only likely to be an underdog in two of three remaining games from November to January.
Last season there was much talk of how much more valuable being the #1 seed was in the NFL playoff field with the switch to a 14-team field and only two teams getting playoff bye weeks, but the Super Bowl champion wound up being the #5 seed in the NFC team as a wild card that won three road games before catching a big advantage with a home Super Bowl. The #1 seed did win the NFC in 2019 and 2017 with the Eagles winning the Super Bowl as the #1 seed in 2017 as the last NFC team to do so and over time it should play out to be a significant advantage in the new playoff format. The standings are likely to shuffle significantly in the upcoming weeks and while Green Bay has the current momentum as the top spot, they appear to have the most difficult path in the coming weeks to hold as they try to repeat as the #1 seed in the NFC again this season.