NFL

NFL Talking Point: Is there a true frontrunner in the NFC?

By Sports Desk September 23, 2022

Is two games enough of a sample size to glean pertinent information about an NFL team's prospects? Probably not.

Has that ever stopped anyone from making definitive statements about teams and the potential outcome of their season? You already know the answer to that one.

But one thing nobody -- not even the loudest talking head -- can say for certain is that they know who the frontrunner is in the NFC.

In the AFC, plenty are already falling over themselves to crown the Buffalo Bills. An extremely compelling case can be made for the Chiefs and maybe even the Los Angeles Chargers if they can keep Justin Herbert from further injury.

The NFC, though? That's an extremely tough conference to decipher at this early stage.

That is not to say there aren't standout teams. To the contrary, there are six that look to have an excellent shot of representing the NFC in the Super Bowl as they all reside in the top 10 of Stats Perform's power rankings.

Two of them will face off at Raymond James Stadium on Sunday when the Tampa Bay Buccaneers host the Green Bay Packers in what could be the final meeting between Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers, who met in the NFC Championship Game two seasons ago. The Super Bowl-champion Los Angeles Rams will visit the San Francisco 49ers in a rematch of last year's title game in Week 4.

But which of that group has the best shot? Stats Perform has used its advanced data to examine the case for each of the six.
 

Philadelphia Eagles

Record: 2-0

Power ranking: 1

The Eagles have firmly lived up to their offseason hype so far, with Jalen Hurts piloting an efficient offense that is the most explosive in the NFL through two weeks.

Indeed, the Eagles are fourth in yards per play on offense while, prior to Thursday's game between the Pittsburgh Steelers and Cleveland Browns, no team in the NFL had produced more plays of 10 yards or more than Philadelphia's 39.

A.J. Brown, their blockbuster draft-day trade acquisition, has quickly built a superb rapport with Hurts. The former Tennessee Titans wide receiver has registered a burn, which is when a receiver wins his matchup with a defender on a play where he is targeted, on 14 of his 21 targets and is averaging 8.2 burn yards per route (the league average is 3.6).

The threat Hurts provides in the run game has helped Philadelphia rack up 189.5 yards per game on the ground, second only to the Browns. While a small sample size, the Eagles' early success on the ground is illustrative of just how difficult they are to stop with the diversity of their attack.

There's more reason for doubt on defense, with a three-interception effort against the Minnesota Vikings in which the Eagles allowed only seven points following a 38-35 shootout with the Detroit Lions. Yet a very favourable schedule may not see any defensive failings properly tested until Week 12 against the Packers and allow Philadelphia to move into prime position to compete for the NFC's top seed.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Record: 2-0

Power ranking: 4

Tampa Bay's average margin of victory across two games is 13 points. The Bucs eased past the Dallas Cowboys 19-3 and eventually emerged from a fist fight with the New Orleans Saints as 20-10 victors.

Yet it's tough to declare their start to the season as overly impressive, at least by Brady's lofty standards.

The Bucs have scored only two offensive touchdowns as they have battled injuries at the wide receiver position and struggles on the much-changed interior of the offensive line.

Rather than Brady making a hot start to the season he initially decided against playing, it is the Bucs' defense that has led the way.

There were 182 seconds left in their game with the Saints by the time they surrendered a touchdown for the first time this season, with the Bucs conceding only 4.25 yards per play, the third-fewest in the NFL.

Rodgers and Green Bay will provide an early and stern test of their credentials, but there is evidence to suggest the Bucs will eventually have a recipe for a potential second championship run in three seasons.

For all the protection issues in front of him, Brady has delivered a well-thrown ball on 81.7 per cent of his pass attempts and has thrown just one pickable pass in 60 throws. Given the defense's level of play and the weapons the Bucs still have to return, it stands to reason they will soon be delivering much more complete performances that will greatly enhance their reputation as contenders.

Los Angeles Rams

Record 1-1

Power ranking: 3

Thrashed by Buffalo on the night they raised their Super Bowl banner before having to survive a remarkable late scare against the lowly Atlanta Falcons, the Rams do not look like a team ready to repeat.

They still sit third in the power rankings, but there are plenty of red flags surrounding the Rams in this embryonic season.

It is the pass protection that stands as the most pressing concern, Matthew Stafford was under constant duress in the opener and injuries up front have hurt the Rams' cause further, hindering Stafford to the point where he is averaging almost half a yard under expectation in expected passing situations.

With 58 total points allowed, there are clearly vast improvements to be made on defense, too.

However, Aaron Donald already has a league-leading 17 pressures and Jalen Ramsey came up with the game-clinching interception in the endzone against Atlanta, and that often decisive star power makes the Rams a tough team to count out, especially with a game against an Arizona Cardinals team they have consistently dominated on the horizon in Week 3.

San Francisco 49ers

Record 1-1

Power ranking: 5

The greatest threat to the Rams from inside their own division comes from the team who suffered an injury that would have ended the hopes of most teams in the league.

San Francisco lost quarterback Trey Lance in just his second game of his first season as starter in the 49ers' 27-7 win over the Seattle Seahawks on Sunday.

Yet, by keeping Jimmy Garoppolo around on a restructured contract, the 49ers gave themselves an insurance policy, one that can keep them firmly in the mix even without Lance.

Garoppolo has helped the 49ers to the brink of Super Bowl glory in the 2019 season and the NFC Championship Game last term and, while the Niners' ceiling without Lance is perhaps lowered, the floor of Super Bowl-calibre roster has been raised by the former New England Patriot's return to the line-up.

Though they suffered an upset at the hands of a Chicago Bears in Week 1, the 49ers have one of the most complete rosters in the league and their defense is off to a magnificent start, allowing the second-fewest yards per play (4.08) in the NFL.

It was anticipated the safety position may be a weakness. Instead, it has so far been an unexpected strength, as has an inexperienced and remodelled offensive line that has won 81.6 per cent of its pass-blocking matchups. It will be tough to identify an obvious flaw on this team if the pass protection continues to excel, with the play in the trenches made even more critical because of Garoppolo's long injury history.

Minnesota Vikings

Record: 1-1

Power ranking: 8

Hopes the Vikings could become one of the most dynamic offensive teams in football under Kevin O'Connell were damaged by Monday's 24-7 defeat to the Eagles.

Despite another vintage primetime meltdown from Kirk Cousins, the Vikings have the makeup of a team that could contend to go deep in the NFC playoffs if things break right.

They demonstrated how dangerous O'Connell's offense can be in their opening win over the Packers, with Justin Jefferson weaponised by the former Rams assistant's complex attack.

Even though he was kept in check by Philadelphia, Jefferson's 8.5 burn yards per target are the fifth-most among receivers with at least 10 targets in the first two games.

The offensive line remains a problem, but the early signs are that the Vikings' defensive front will be one that tilts games in their favour, having already registered six sacks for negative yardage.

Cousins is delivering the ball accurately, posting a well-thrown rate of 86.5 per cent and, though there are questions about his ability to perform under the brightest spotlight, a schedule that features 10 games against 2021 non-playoff teams could give the Vikings the edge of their division rivals in the fight to get to the NFL's postseason pressure cooker.

Green Bay Packers

Record: 1-1

Power ranking: 9

The Packers got the poor start out of the way in a Week 1 loss in Minnesota that left Aaron Rodgers visibly exasperated. Normal service was resumed, however, in the routine Week 2 win over the Bears.

Green Bay's problem is that the Packers have a roster in which several holes can be picked. The offensive line has struggled amid left tackle David Bakhtiari's prolonged absence, while the Packers' hopes of fixing their continually porous run defense have not come to pass as yet. They have surrendered 5.56 yards per play on the ground, the fourth-most in the NFL.

Rodgers has yet to build a rapport with a young receiver corps as the Packers look to put the Davante Adams saga and eventual trade to the Las Vegas Raiders behind them. Though the lack of a connection may be more down to a paucity of faith in his inexperienced wideouts' ability to catch the ball, rather than any worries about their success in creating separation.

Second-round pick Christian Watson has recorded an impressive 14.4 burn yards per target on the small sample size of seven targets. With Rodgers delivering a well-thrown ball on 89.3 per cent of his attempts, it might not be too long before Watson becomes a more integral part of the passing game, though the diversity the Packers gain through having running backs Aaron Jones and A.J. Dillon on the field at the same time can keep the offense performing efficiently regardless of how the wideouts progress.

Jones, unquestionably one of the most complete backs in the NFL, has produced a big play on three of his eight targets this season, with defenses forced to respect both the run and the pass when he and Dillon line up in two-running back personnel groupings.

The Packers' secondary, despite being shredded by Jefferson in Week 1, is in the top 12 in open percentage allowed while the strength of their defensive line has Green Bay in the top 12 in pass rush win percentage.

Both the front and the back of the Green Bay defense have the talent to rise much higher on those lists and, if such strides are accompanied by Rodgers developing an understanding with his new weapons, the Packers will likely soon have a compelling case for being the conference's elite.

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    After Germany's 5-1 win over Scotland in the Euro 2024 opener, the goals continued to fly in on a busy day of action on Saturday.

    Records were broken as Spain beat Croatia 3-0 and reigning champions Italy came from behind to beat Albania 2-1.

    Switzerland also dispatched Hungary 3-1 in the other Group A meeting to ensure things are finely poised going into the second round of matches.

    The 16 goals scored through the opening four matches of Euro 2024 so far are the most netted at this point of a European Championships or World Cup since Euro '76 (19).

    Using Opta data, we take a look at some of the other standout statistics from Saturday's action in Germany.

    Hungary 1-3 Switzerland: Swiss start in style

    Switzerland have only lost one of their last 15 games across all competitions (W7 D7), a 1-0 defeat to Romania in November 2023, after opening their Group A campaign with a 3-1 victory over Hungary.

    It was a tale of two emphatic maiden performances for the Swiss as Kwadwo Duah and Michel Aebischer became only the third and fourth players to score on their European Championship debut for Switzerland.

    That first-half dominance saw both players score their first-ever senior international goal, too, in what was Duah's second appearance and Aebischer's 21st for Switzerland.

    Aebischer also teed up Duah's well-taken opener in Cologne as the full-back became the first Switzerland player ever to both score and assist a goal in the same match at the Euros.

    Barnabas Varga – who became the fifth Hungarian to score on his European Championship debut – pulled one back with his seventh goal in his last 10 international appearances, with assisted help from Hungary's ever-reliant Dominik Szoboszlai.

    Since the start of 2023, Liverpool midfielder Szoboszlai has had a hand in 10 goals across 15 international appearances (six goals, four assists), though the Hungary captain could not stop a familiar European fate for Marco Rossi's men.

    Breel Embolo's cool, late lob sealed victory to leave Hungary with just two wins from their 12 matches at the European Championships (D4 L6), a win rate of 17 per cent. Among nations with five-plus games at the finals, only Romania (six per cent) and Poland (14 per cent) have a lower success ratio.

    This win also marked a special moment for Ricardo Rodriguez, who appeared for a 22nd game at a major international tournament (Euros/World Cup) – the outright most of any player for the nation.

     

    Spain 3-0 Croatia: Young guns steal spotlight

    Spain got a statement win against Croatia in their Euro 2024 opener, beginning a European Championship tournament with a victory by 3+ goals for just the second time, after their 4-1 win against Russia on MD1 of Euro 2008.

    The spotlight was shining on Lamine Yamal, who became the youngest-ever player to feature at the Euros, capping his historic appearance for La Roja with an assist for Dani Carvajal, who became Spain's oldest-ever goalscorer in the competition at 32 years and 156 days, on the stroke of half-time.

    In Yamal (16y 338d) and Pedri (21y 203d), Spain are the first side to have at least two players aged 21 or under create at least three chances for a side in a game at the Euros since Germany against Czechia in June 2004 (Phillip Lahm, Bastian Schweinsteiger and Lukas Podolski).

    Fifteen years Yamal's senior, Morata became Spain's outright second-highest goalscorer at major international tournaments with 10, and needs only three more to equal David Villa's record of 13.

    It was not the dominant performance people have come to expect from Spain though, as they had less possession than their opponents (47 per cent) for the first time in a competitive match since the Euro 2008 final, which they won against Germany (46 per cent), ending a run of 136 such matches where they had the majority of the ball.

    On the opposite side of the field, Luka Modric became the oldest player since Lothar Matthaus to appear in the European Championships at 38y 280d, but his experience could not prevent Croatia from suffering their joint-heaviest ever defeat at a major international tournament following 3-0 defeats to Portugal at Euro 1996 and Argentina at the 2022 World Cup.

    The Croatia captain also became just the third European player to appear in as many as nine separate editions of major international tournaments, after Matthaus (nine) and Cristiano Ronaldo (10, before Euro 2024).

    Italy 2-1 Albania: Azzurri nightmare soon turns into dream start

    As the reigning champions, Italy would have been fearing the worst after conceding the fastest goal in Euros history – Nedim Bajrami scored after just 23 seconds when Federico Dimarco gifted him a throw-in.

    However, Alessandro Bastoni's 11th-minute equaliser soon settled the nerves, with this the third-earliest time a game at the European Championships has seen both teams score, after Iceland v England in 2016 (sixth minute) and Russia v Spain in 1964 (eighth minute).

    The turnaround was complete with Nicolo Barella's 10th strike for the national side, and his goal-scoring touch proved golden once more – Italy have won all 10 games in which he has found the back of the net.

    Despite not getting on the scoresheet for the Azzurri, Federico Chiesa also impressed as he became the first player at the Euros to record at least three shots, three successful dribbles (four) and win possession in the final third at least three times since Denmark's Mikkel Damsgaard against Belgium in June 2021.

    Albania's goal came from their only shot on target in the match, though it means they have now scored in back-to-back games in the competition for the first time. Now, they need to find just their second-ever win at this tournament against Croatia on Wednesday.

    The Eagles will be glad to see the back of Italy having lost all five of their previous meetings with them in all competitions. However, only three teams have ever beaten them more times, with Spain, who they face in their final group game, topping that list (eight).

  • Spalletti laments Italy attacking bravery despite Euro 2024 opening win Spalletti laments Italy attacking bravery despite Euro 2024 opening win

    Luciano Spalletti warned Italy must show more intent to attack despite their 2-1 comeback victory over Albania in Saturday's Euro 2024 victory.

    Italy won their opening match at the European Championships for a third straight time (also in 2016 and 2020 editions), after doing so only twice in their first eight such appearances (D5 L1).

    The Azzurri needed a fightback performance, however, after falling behind Nedim Bajrami's thumping strike after 23 seconds for Albania against Italy, the fastest goal ever scored in Euros history.

    Alessandro Bastoni headed level soon after, though, before Nicolo Barella's 10th international goal proved the difference to send Italy level on points with Spain at the top of Group B.

    Yet Spalletti was far from impressed with parts of Italy's game despite the Azzurri becoming just the third side to score in 10 successive Euros outings, after England in 2012 (11) and Portugal in 2004 (10).

    "We saw many good things, but they need to actually take us somewhere, otherwise they are pointless," the Italy head coach told RAI Sport.

    "There was the possibility to hurt them several times and we didn't go for it.

    "We prepared the move well, then passed it backwards. We changed our minds too quickly."

    Barella was a doubt after missing both warm-up friendlies but returned with vengeance to guide his side to victory.

    Spalletti grew frustrated when asked if Italy are reliant on midfield maestro Barella, however.

    "A national team must be able to do without anyone, because there are 26 strong players," Spalletti responded to questioning over the Inter star's influence.

    "I don't like this idea that the team depends on an individual."

    Barella, meanwhile, was delighted with Italy's response to Albania's record-breaking opener.

    "It was a bit of a strange start, an opening goal after 23 seconds could really hurt the players psychologically," Barella told Sky Sport Italia.

    "However, we wanted this victory, we should've scored more goals and fell away a bit at the end, but we started on the right foot with this win."

  • Dalic apologises to Croatia supporters as Yamal shines in Spain's Euro 2024 opener Dalic apologises to Croatia supporters as Yamal shines in Spain's Euro 2024 opener

    Zlatko Dalic was left to apologise for Croatia's woeful Euro 2024 showing on Saturday against Spain, whose head coach Luis de la Fuente heaped praise on teenage star Lamine Yamal.

    Spain opened a European Championship tournament with a victory by 3+ goals for just a second time, following their 4-1 win against Russia on MD1 at Euro 2008, after a 3-0 triumph against Croatia.

    Alvaro Morata, Fabian Ruiz and Dani Carvajal were all on target in a dominant first half, while Bruno Petkovic had a late goal ruled out after his penalty was saved and Ivan Perisic encroached to setup the striker's rebounded finish.

    The defeat marked Croatia's joint-heaviest ever defeat at a major international tournament (Euros/World Cup), following 3-0 losses against Portugal at Euro 1996 and Argentina at the 2022 World Cup.

    Dalic could only offer his apologies to the travelling Croatia fans after an underwhelming Group B showing in Berlin.

    "It was a great atmosphere," the 57-year-old Dalic, who led Croatia to the 2018 World Cup final and semi-finals of the same tournament four years later.

    "I apologise for this bad show today. We were not aggressive enough.

    "I hope this was just a bad day."

    Yet the opening win largely centered around Yamal, who became the youngest player to ever feature at the European Championships after appearing aged just 16 years and 338 days.

    The Barcelona winger saw his inviting cross prodded home by Carvajal for La Roja's third goal, much to the delight of Spain boss De La Fuente.

    "Yamal is impressing everyone and going up through the levels," De la Fuente said.

    "He has to keep improving every day, and over time he will become a wonderful footballer."

    De La Fuente also reserved special praise for Fabian, who teed up Morata's opener after 29 minutes.

    "[Fabian] is at the top level," he added. "Based on what we see from him on a daily basis, he's fantastic. He has brilliant technique.

    "We should recognise the quality that he has. He has real imagination."

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