When news got around that Aaron Rodgers would likely miss the rest of the season due to a broken collarbone, it didn't just change the Green Bay Packers, it changed the entire NFL. Among all the significant injuries so far -- J.J. Watt, Odell Beckham, Dalvin Cook, David Johnson -- nothing compares to football without Rodgers. And the rest of the league is, of course, taking notice that a window is now open, with a due amount of sympathy.
Gutted for @AaronRodgers12.- JJ Watt (@JJWatt) October 15, 2017
Hate to see it.
Beyond the macro level sadness of professional football without its greatest player is this: The Packers are in trouble. After headed into Sunday at 4-1, they leave 4-2 and now have to make the biggest possible downgrade any team could possibly have from starting QB to backup. Even if they somehow challenged Colin Kaepernick's grievance by signing him to a contract, or called Robert Griffin III, or begged Tony Romo to consider putting down the mic (none of which are likely to ever happen), it would take more than just a couple weeks to get up to speed, if ever. Green Bay is out of it in the NFC now.
How do the other teams stack up in comparison?
16. San Francisco 49ers
In a way, everything is working perfectly for the 0-6 Niners. Each of their past five losses have been by three points or less, so maybe they're close to being 5-1 technically, but they'd be an extremely weak 5-1. Instead they get to remain competitive while also staying in contention for the number one pick. Now they can also find out what they have in C.J. Beathard, which should also help spell more losses over the rest of the year.
15. New York Giants
Perhaps New York actually had an advantage playing without Odell Beckham and Brandon Marshall on Sunday night against the Broncos, not because of any perceived leadership issues, but because they likely would've never beaten Denver with those receivers anyway, so instead they had to win a defensive battle, something they didn't have a problem with a year ago but struggled with during their 0-5 start. The most encouraging performance belongs to Eli Apple, the 10th overall pick in 2016, who allowed just 38 yards on 10 targets. With tough games remaining against Washington (twice), Seattle, Kansas City, Philly, Dallas and the Rams, it is highly unlikely that the Giants can win enough to overcome their wretched start, but perhaps some moral victories are ahead.
14. Chicago Bears
Mitch Trubisky is going to have a rough rookie season with a lot of growing pains, but at least he's not Joe Flacco. Chicago's resiliency to go on the road, blow a 10-point fourth quarter lead and then secure a victory in overtime may show that even if they aren't a playoff team, they won't be pushed over either.
13. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
It's hard to call yourself a contender if you can't stop the pass and the Bucs single-handedly revived Carson Palmer's career. It seems like Vernon Hargreaves is having a tough time adjusting to being an NFL starter and the Bucs are allowing well over 70% completions on the season, so line up your fantasy QBs accordingly. The next three are as follows: Tyrod Taylor, Cam Newton, and Drew Brees.
11. Arizona Cardinals
They had a 31-0 lead, which is good, but also nearly blew a 31-point lead, which is bad. The Cards are 3-3 but have a worse point differential than the winless Niners. The most encouraging performance may not be that of Adrian Peterson (though his 134 yards certainly are a positive) but instead of left tackle D.J. Humphries. He seems to be getting comfortable in that spot, and that'll be a key to giving Palmer a chance to remain healthy and effective.
10. Detroit Lions
Your reminder this week that Matthew Stafford is the highest-paid player in NFL history comes in the form of his three-pick game against the Saints, including two for touchdowns. Big throws were rare, as Stafford went 4-of-11 on throws beyond 10 yards. The Lions aren't great at running the ball, don't have an explosive offense, and the money they spent on offensive line help looks like a waste. The team might remain competitive in the division because every other North team will be running out bigger potential disasters at QB, though they come at a much lower cost.
9. Green Bay Packers
This team truly is "Aaron Rodgers and the rest." The fact that Brett Hundley (18-of-33, 157 yards, one touchdown, three interceptions, rating of 8.1 when under pressure) may now be the worst starter in the league only exacerbates the issue. The defense is fine, the special teams is fine, but everything will look awful without Rodgers. Can they win enough of their remaining games to even make the playoffs and hope Rodgers can lift them up from there, if he recovers in time?
9. Dallas Cowboys
DeMarcus Lawrence has more sacks (8.5) in five games than any Cowboys player had all of last season, but the defense is among the worst and the offense is just "pretty good" right now. Three of their next four games are on the road and the home game is against the Chiefs, potentially all without Ezekiel Elliott, so we'll know all we need to know about Dallas by Thanksgiving.
8. Carolina Panthers
The Panthers' decline from great rushing team to worst rushing team has been anything but gradual. Carolina ran the ball all the way to the Super Bowl in 2015, but had a huge dip in 2016, and even using a top-10 pick on a "running back" this year has done nothing to help; Christian McCaffrey's 2.7 yards per carry isn't going to cut it. The defense is also not what it once was, having given up at least 24 points in each of the last four games, and now Luke Kuechly is back in concussion protocol.
7. New Orleans Saints
On one hand you want to pump the brakes on this team, and on the other hand the Saints clearly have no brakes. New Orleans put up 52 points on Sunday, and did so against a Lions team that had been ninth in scoring defense, but Drew Brees was not at his best . Then again, he also didn't have to be, since the Saints picked off Stafford three times. This is what Brees has been missing out on all these years: a team that doesn't always require him to be everything. Now, sometimes he can lean on defensive players such as outstanding rookie Marshon Lattimore.
6. Atlanta Falcons
A loss at home to the Dolphins is not a good sign, but the fact that the Falcons allowed two touchdown passes to Jay Cutler and 130 rushing yards to Jay Ajayi is proof positive that the defense is nowhere near where Dan Quinn expected it to be by now. The offense has taken a step back, especially in the passing game where this is more than just expected regression from an all-time great season by Matt Ryan. But Atlanta was quite close to winning or tying on Sunday if not for a huge play by Reshad Jones. This team can rally.
5. LA Rams
They have the world's best punter and best defensive tackle, and one of the best running backs, plus a few other players of note who at one point would've stuck out like a sore thumb on a Rams roster, but now get a little lost in the shuffle, like Andrew Whitworth, Mark Barron, Trumaine Johnson, and Sammy Watkins. So yeah, LA can compete, but none of those names are that of a quarterback, and though Jared Goff has shown some improvements, his accuracy and decision-making still has a long ways to go.
4. Minnesota Vikings
Had they not knocked Rodgers out of the game, who knows if the Vikings would've won on Sunday, but they did and now they're the favorites to win the NFC North. The strange thing is that despite major injuries, Minnesota's offense seems to be outpacing the defense thanks to Adam Thielen, Kyle Rudolph and Stefon Diggs, when he's healthy. Even Laquon Treadwell joined the party this week.
So this was nice pic.twitter.com/W3OWky2qpf- Mike Renner (@PFF_Mike) October 15, 2017
With guys like Everson Griffen, Harrison Smith, Xavier Rhodes and Danielle Hunter, the defense should only improve, and with a potential return of Teddy Bridgewater at some point, who knows how good Minnesota could look by December.
NFL passer rating for just throwing the ball away every play is 39.6- Pro Football Focus (@PFF) October 15, 2017
Xavier Rhodes today: pic.twitter.com/Al2dGt3gxT
Several teams have struggled against San Francisco this season, so Washington's mere two-point win doesn't look that bad in hindsight, especially since one of the Niners' touchdowns came on 4th-and-goal and another was off a fumble at the Washington one-yard line. The defense is really underrated (they may have found corner hidden gems in Quinton Dunbar and Kendall Fuller) and Washington's only losses this year are to the only teams that are currently 5-1. Kirk Cousins has a real shot to set himself up for a new deal in a similar way to how Flacco did so in 2013.
2. Seattle Seahawks
They may be ninth in the NFC standings right now, but things are setting up pretty nicely for Seattle. With no Rodgers in the mix, Russell Wilson could rank as the second or third-best QB in the conference (taking experience into account); they host key games against the Falcons, Eagles, Rams and Washington; the defense should be getting additional help when DeShawn Shead returns from PUP, while rookie Malik McDowell might make his debut soon; and the offensive line may improve with more time to gel and a potential free agent addition like Branden Albert, who recently visited. The Seahawks' offense is stumbling but has consistently gotten better in the second half of every season under Pete Carroll, so it stands to reason that with Earl Thomas back, they'll be back in the playoffs in January.
1. Philadelphia Eagles
The Eagles aren't quite coming out of nowhere. Last season they were fifth in DVOA despite going 7-9, and that was long before Carson Wentz was the type of QB who could lead his team to a win like he can now. The offensive weapons have shown significant improvements both internally (Zach Ertz, Nelson Agholor) and externally (Alshon Jeffery, LeGarrette Blount), which means they aren't wasting their exceptional offensive line, while the defense had their best game yet by intercepting Cam Newton three times and holding Jonathan Stewart to eight carries and -4 yards. The special teams may also be the best in the NFL under coordinator Dave Fipp, led by out-of-nowhere All-Pro candidate kicker Jake Elliott. So as unlikely as a 5-1 start was headed into the year, let's not pretend like the Eagles weren't talented enough to get there.