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Most impactful agents of chaos -- good and bad -- in muddled NFC

The expectation that quarterback Kirk Cousins tore his Achilles tendon Sunday is obviously devastating for Cousins, who is going into free agency this offseason, and for the Minnesota Vikings, who had become one of the biggest chaos agents in the NFC, and now are likely to join the New York Jets in a peculiar purgatory: still in the playoff mix, while likely trying to piece together an offense and hang on without the franchise quarterback. (EDITOR'S UPDATE: On Monday, the Vikings confirmed Cousins' injury as a torn Achilles.)

For the first month of the season, the Philadelphia Eagles and San Francisco 49ers were the class of the NFC, and it was not particularly close. That may still wind up being true by the time the playoffs roll around, but the NFC has been roiled by teams that have wilted, others that have found their footing, and even a few that have done both.

That has muddled the NFC field and clogged the playoff race, and perhaps also influenced trade deadline decisions. No day saw more upheaval than Sunday. Here, in order, are the most impactful agents of chaos – good and bad -- in the NFC.

1) San Francisco 49ers

Utterly dominant for the first five weeks, the 49ers have now lost three straight going into their bye, with their offense out of sync in the absence of Deebo Samuel and Trent Williams, Brock Purdy suddenly prone to interceptions and, in the last two weeks especially, a defense that looks vulnerable against top quarterbacks. That has unexpectedly put the NFC West back in play, with the Seahawks now in front, and given the Eagles a comfortable margin over the 49ers in the early race for home-field advantage (the 49ers are currently the sixth seed). The bye week should help the 49ers' health, but when they return, they will have three of their next four on the road, including back-to-back road games at Seattle and Philadelphia, and what looked like a cake walk to the division title and a high seed now figures to be a fight.

2) Minnesota Vikings

They opened the season with three losses, all by one score. But they've won four of their last five, including what felt like a statement victory over the 49ers last week. Now 4-4, the Vikings have at least kept the NFC North-leading Detroit Lions in their sights and are firmly planted in an extremely jumbled race for one of the three wild-card spots (as of today, they are the seventh seed). Without Cousins, the Vikings have enormous personnel decisions to make about how they will approach the trade deadline with what could be winnable games ahead (at Falcons, vs. Saints, at Broncos, vs. Bears) before the bye. There is no bigger question than who will be the quarterback going forward and how effectively the Vikings answer will have implications for the entire NFC playoff field.

EDITOR'S UPDATE: The Arizona Cardinals are trading quarterback Joshua Dobbs to the Minnesota Vikings, NFL Network Insiders Ian Rapoport and Tom Pelissero reported on Tuesday. The Vikings also receive a 2024 seventh-round pick in exchange for a 2024 sixth-rounder.

3) Dallas Cowboys

Perhaps we will finally get an answer about just how the Cowboys measure up next Sunday, when the Cowboys play at Philadelphia. Otherwise, this is a really confusing two-loss team. Its losses to the Cardinals and 49ers were dreadful offensive performances. But its 43-20 victory over the Rams on Sunday featured four touchdown passes by Dak Prescott, stifling defense and the possibility that the Cowboys could still be trouble for the Eagles, who beat the Washington Commanders with a hobbling Jalen Hurts. And with games remaining against the Seahawks and Lions, the Cowboys will probably have plenty to say about NFC playoff seedings.

4) Washington Commanders

Remember when they started 2-0? The era of good feeling ended quickly. The Commanders have lost five of their last six to drop to 3-5, which likely puts players like Chase Young and Montez Sweat firmly in play at the trade deadline. Unless the Commanders can claw their way back into the wild-card mix, there are almost certainly even bigger changes coming at season's end, as new owner Josh Harris finally puts his stamp on his team.

5) The entire NFC South

Just when it looked like the Atlanta Falcons had settled comfortably into first place after defeating the Tampa Bay Buccaneers last Sunday, their defense gets shredded by the Titans' Will Levis in his first career start (four touchdown passes), and head coach Arthur Smith is creating a quarterback controversy by yanking starting quarterback Desmond Ridder at halftime after the Falcons scored just three points, replacing him with Taylor Heinicke, but then saying after Sunday's loss that Ridder was not benched for performance reasons and that the Falcons have "a lot of confidence" in Ridder. (Ridder was cleared after being checked for a concussion). Meanwhile, the New Orleans Saints beat the Colts and may have steadied their season after losing four of the previous five games. Someone has to win this division (the Bucs, who have lost three in a row, could still do it, too). But this division is chaos personified. At least Carolina won’t go winless.

6) Seattle Seahawks

Maybe nobody is paying attention because the Seahawks opened the season with a blowout loss to the Rams, and most of their victories since have come against some of the NFL's worst teams. But after beating the Cleveland Browns on Sunday, the Seahawks are 5-2, leading the NFC West and the second seed in the conference behind only the Eagles. (Monday night's Raiders-Lions outcome could impact seeding.) Next week's game against the Ravens will tell us more about how the Seahawks will hold up against the league's best quarterbacks (they beat the Lions and Jared Goff but lost to the Bengals before Joe Burrow was even back to full strength).

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