The Saints (5-2), meanwhile, have won five consecutive games. The win streak for the Vikings (6-2) is at four games and the dominant Eagles (7-1) have won six games in a row. The Rams (5-2) had a bye Sunday, but they have won their last two games and have scored 74 more points than they have given up, which is the second best points for/points against ratio in the N.F.L. (The Eagles are at plus 76.)
There’s also something fresh and invigorating about the four upstarts that have climbed atop the N.F.C.’s four divisions.
“We’re having fun and not listening to people telling us what we’re not supposed to be able to do,” Minnesota’s Case Keenum, a backup quarterback, said after the Vikings’ 33-16 victory over Cleveland (0-8) on Sunday. “We’ve got a lot of weapons and we’re cutting it loose.”
Cutting it loose? Sounds like a mantra for the quartet trying to crash the N.F.C. playoff party.
There are some common threads to the successful paths each of these teams have followed. Combined, they are 11-3 on the road, which may be the best measuring stick for excellence in the N.F.L. Also, the Vikings, Rams, Eagles and Saints each have defenses that disrupt opposing offenses and distract opposing quarterbacks, something that was on display in Sunday’s games.
Consider, for example, that New Orleans won Sunday without Drew Brees, the starting quarterback, throwing a touchdown pass, which had not happened in eight seasons. The Saints’ stellar running back, Mark Ingram, nearly gave the game away to the Chicago Bears twice with fumbles in the fourth quarter, but Ingram’s defensive teammates bailed him out each time.
There have not been many games in recent years when the New Orleans defense outshined the offense. But except for one 50-yard carry by Chicago running back Jordan Howard, the Saints held the powerful Howard to 2.36 yards per carry.
The Vikings were trailing Cleveland at halftime and led by only a touchdown entering the fourth quarter. Then Minnesota’s front seven sacked Browns quarterback DeShone Kizer three times in the next three Cleveland possessions and Keenum deftly led the Vikes to a runaway victory.
As for Philadelphia, even when not playing its best – and that was the case in the Eagles’ 33-10 romp over the San Francisco 49ers (0-8) Sunday – they still make winning look easy. Having a defense that held the 49ers to 238 yards and sacked the quarterback four times helps considerably.
The Eagles are living a charmed existence so far. As their quarterback Carson Wentz said: “Being 7-1? It’s a good place to be.”
Granted, some of the current N.F.C. division leaders have not yet weathered the more challenging portions of their schedules. Then again, as teams that did not make the playoffs a year ago, their schedules are generally not as arduous as their brethren who bulled their way into last year’s postseason. It’s called the spoils of parity.
But as the N.F.L. schedule rounds the halfway pole and churns toward a still distant finish line, there are new contenders, a couple of surprising, conspicuous laggards and some struggling old powerhouses desperately trying to catch up.
Which may not be as new and startling as it may seem. Last season, two-thirds of the teams that qualified for the N.F.C. postseason (Giants, Lions, Falcons and Cowboys) had not been in the playoffs during the previous season. This year may produce the same kind of turnover.