As the NFL trade deadline drew closer, the NFC’s top teams glanced around the conference lair.
Two perennial dragons, they realized, may not lie ahead to slay.
Because for the first time in their careers as NFL starters, neither Tom Brady nor Aaron Rodgers is a safe bet to make the playoffs.
Brady’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers hold a 45% chance at advancing to the postseason, per FiveThirtyEight’s playoff model. Rodgers’ Green Bay Packers hold just a 17% chance.
Both teams are 3-5 through eight weeks.
This is the first time in Brady’s 22 years as an NFL starter, and Rodgers’ 15, that either has ended Week 8 with a losing record. In that stretch, they have reached 19 combined conference championship games (13 of Brady’s came in the AFC, with the Patriots).
The San Francisco 49ers, Philadelphia Eagles and Minnesota Vikings are ready to fill the void. Before Tuesday’s NFL deadline, they struck.
The 49ers wasted no time, moving 12 days before the deadline to acquire running back Christian McCaffrey in exchange for draft picks in the second, third, fourth and fifth rounds (the last in 2024). He has already demonstrated his multipurpose threat.
The Eagles made the next move, swapping a fourth-round pick for lithe Chicago Bears pass rusher Robert Quinn to frustrate quarterbacks along an already-strong defensive line.
And Tuesday afternoon, before the dust settled, the Vikings swapped second- and third-round picks for the Detroit Lions’ next two years’ fourths (if this net value makes your head spin, you’re not alone), and voila: Tight end T.J. Hockenson, the eighth overall pick in 2019, was theirs. Hockenson helps fill the void created by Irv Smith Jr.’s injured-reserve designation as Smith is expected to miss the next 8-10 weeks with a high ankle sprain.
The message each of these three teams sent: The NFC, amid Brady and Rodgers’ uncharacteristic struggles, is wide open. And three of the NFC’s seven .500-and-above teams are raring to take it.
The 49ers, at face value, staged the boldest move. They were 3-3, with quarterback Trey Lance out for the season, when they unloaded significant capital to acquire McCaffrey. But they had a hunch: As their division rivals, the Super Bowl-defending champions Los Angeles Rams, struggled, the road to the division was clearer. As passing attacks around the league sputtered, head coach Kyle Shanahan’s vanguard run concepts could stand out. McCaffrey’s versatility immediately flashed in his first full-load performance on Sunday. He accounted for 183 yards while totaling a score each passing, running and receiving. The 49ers beat the Rams handily, 31-14.
“You only do this when you have belief in your team as it’s constructed,” 49ers general manager John Lynch said. “We’ve all got to be better, but we still very much believe in this team and that’s why we took a swing at an excellent player.”
For Philadelphia, the NFL’s lone undefeated team at 7-0, adding Quinn served not to shore up a weakness but instead to accentuate a strength. The Eagles already ranked top-five in points allowed, yards allowed, passing yards allowed and pass-rush win rate. No team has more takeaways, as the Eagles and Patriots lead the league with 16. Only the Dallas Cowboys (4.1) have more sacks per game than the Eagles’ 3.3. So why bring in Quinn, who turned heads with 18.5 sacks last year and 11.5 in 2019?
“His addition adds another good player to the system amongst a group of guys that can already get after the passer,” Eagles head coach Nick Sirianni said. “Then you add another guy, and that’s just more fresh legs coming after the quarterback, which to me is one of the most important positions in football.”
Translation: We’re really good, and we want to be really, really good — from now until February.
Lastly comes the Vikings, whose in-division trade for Hockenson responded more to an injury need than their NFC counterparts’ moves did. But also, the Vikings saw the strengths of their offensive weapons, receiver Justin Jefferson’s 107.4 yards per game and running back Dalvin Cook’s 80.1 (with five touchdowns already) topping a group with a strong second receiver in Adam Thielen.
Minnesota ranks top 10 in scoring and offensive production but could benefit from another threat to command attention against complete defenses like that of Philadelphia, which held the Vikings to seven points in their only loss. Hockenson can help the Vikings as a blocker and a pass-catcher, his 15.2 yards per reception top among tight ends this year.
The Cowboys (whose boldest move was sending the Raiders their 2023 sixth-round pick for defensive tackle Johnathan Hankins) were the only NFC team among the top 10 of Yahoo Sports’ NFL power rankings this week that appeared not to have made a meaningful splash.
Undoubtedly, the 49ers, Eagles and Vikings will insist in age-old NFL coachspeak: Their trades were about bettering their own stables, focusing on themselves and maximizing their roster-building strategies for 2023 and beyond. But Brady and Rodgers’ impact on the flurry of trade activity can’t be overstated. There is a rare passing void in the NFC and a rare opportunity, in concert, for the taking.
Two NFC dragons appear, unusually early, to have been slayed.
After the trade deadline, the NFC lair is nonetheless full of firepower.