The NFL regular season is quickly wrapping up. Now with just four weeks left in the regular season, teams are looking to sharpen up and make the final playoff push. In the American Football Conference, there were relatively few changes from last year.
The New England Patriots have remained one of the conference’s top teams. Quarterback Tom Brady remains as versatile as ever, despite missing the first four games of the season due to suspension. Brady leads the league with a sparkling 18:1 touchdown-to-interception ratio. However, following the loss of All-Pro Tight End Rob Gronkowski to a back injury, the Patriots will need Brady to be at the top of his game if they hope to make the 2017 Super Bowl 51.
The biggest surprise in the AFC was the emergence of the Oakland Raiders. After going 7-9 last season, the Raiders made a huge leap. They are currently tied with the Patriots for the best record in the AFC at 10-2. While most of their success can be attributed to the signing of free agents such as offensive linebacker Kelechi Osemele or linebacker Bruce Irvin, the biggest reason is the growth of QB Derek Carr. In just his third season, Carr has grown from a second round pick from a small college to a legitimate MVP candidate. Armed with a lethal wide receiver duo in Amari Cooper and Michael Crabtree, Carr was able to light up defenses on a weekly basis.
Carr and his Raiders face a huge test on Dec. 8 as they go on the road to play their division rivals, the Kansas City Chiefs. Carr and the Raiders have lost their last four games against the Chiefs. In the National Football Conference, no team is generating more buzz than the Dallas Cowboys. Last year, the Cowboys suffered through a miserable 4-12 season, mainly due to injuries suffered by starting QB Tony Romo. This preseason, Romo suffered another major injury and many thought that it would be another lost season for Dallas. Instead, the Cowboys possess a league best 11-1 record thanks to the play of their two rookie studs, QB Dak Prescott and running back Ezekiel Elliott.
Elliott was highly touted coming out of college; the Cowboys selected him fourth overall in this spring’s draft. Helping Elliott out is the fact that the Cowboys have the best offensive line in the NFL by far, loaded with studs such as Tyron Smith, Travis Frederick and Zack Martin.
Prescott’s success is a bit more surprising. A fourth round pick, scouts doubted Prescott due to the simple scheme he ran in college and some character concerns. However, Prescott has found success in the NFL by playing efficient, mistake-free football as he has only thrown two interceptions this season. Prescott has largely outplayed fellow rookie QBs Jared Goff of the Los Angeles Rams and Carson Wentz of the Philadelphia Eagles, who were taken with the top two picks in the draft.
Prescott played so well that Cowboys owner Jerry Jones announced that the former had earned the starting QB job even after Tony Romo returned from injury. On the other end of the spectrum, the biggest disappointment in the NFC is without a doubt the Carolina Panthers. After going 15-1 and making the Super Bowl last year, Carolina started the season 4-8, with their playoff hopes all but gone.
The biggest reason was the regression of their defense. After losing star cornerback Josh Norman this offseason, the defense fell apart rapidly. To make matters worse, they lost All-Pro LB Luke Kuechly to a concussion midseason and it only served to make their run defense as disappointing as their pass defense.
QB Cam Newton also deserves a share of the blame, as he regressed noticeably from the high level of play that made him the league MVP last season.
In the NFC, the New York Giants have also taken a huge step forward from last season. After going 6-10 last year, the Giants currently stand at 8-4, mainly thanks to the huge improvement that the defense has made from a year ago.
The Giants will host the Cowboys on Dec. 11, in a highly anticipated match-up. The Giants gave the Cowboys their only loss of the season, but that was back in week one when Prescott and Elliott were playing in their first NFL game. Sunday should give us a great look at two playoff teams rounding into form.