The NFC was a smoking rubble pile.
Contenders were either dramatically threatened or ignominiously dumped, and the rest were already in the struggle-to-keep-jobs mode.
But then came the Seattle Seahawks in the Sunday night game to score a museum-quality road upset of the New England Patriots — the kind of statement performance that tends to trigger their regularly scheduled rally in the season’s second half.
It was time, in the words of Seahawks receiver Doug Baldwin, to “unleash the dragon.”
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The dragon was very hungry Sunday night.
It had to be, because there were bonus components to this one.
The Seahawks played without defensive hellion Michael Bennett, and had just five days to prep and travel coast to coast to take on a Patriots club rested and honed by a bye week.
After the lead had changed hands seven times in a competitive masterpiece, the Seahawks defense finally stoned Tom Brady and his chums on four plays inside the Seattle 2 to put this one to bed.
That these teams would play so well down to the wire is relevant to the topic of the day: Just how hard it is to keep an NFL franchise operating at the highest level over time.
The Patriots are going to rack up their 14th straight double-digit win season. The tandem of coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady will be linked all the way into the Hall of Fame for this string of dominance.
But in the other conference, the Seahawks are trending in that direction, as it seems very likely they’ll end up in the playoffs for the sixth time in seven seasons with their sixth straight double-digit win season.
The salary cap, free agency, punitive scheduling for division champs and reverse draft order have been implemented to keep the standings in a state of churn.
But the Patriots and Seattle have been defying those obstacles.
As standings after Sunday proved, it’s tough to stay on top.
Carolina and Arizona were last year’s NFC title-game combatants. The Panthers are 3-6 and Arizona 4-4-1. Others with recent appearances in conference championship games include Green Bay (4-5), San Francisco (1-8) and Atlanta (6-4).
At 8-1, Dallas is atop the NFC at the moment, powered by some exceptional play from rookies Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott. This is new ground, though, as the Cowboys have been to the playoffs just once in the past six years.
The Cowboys benefited from some miscues by the Steelers late in the game on Sunday to pull out a 35-30 win. So, they’ve got a little magic going at the moment, but they don’t seem unbeatable.
The Packers had gone to seven straight playoffs but are below .500 at 4-5 now.
New England’s Belichick was asked last week for any hints to how he’s kept his club at the top, and he was not eager to share any secrets, only saying that he only knows what seems to work for his team.
But Belichick was quoted as divulging a little more with a Boston radio station recently, and it links the success of the Patriots to that of the Seahawks.
If you examine teams with the most undrafted free agents on their rosters, and who are giving those guys the most playing time, “…we’re right there with Seattle on all those,” Belichick said. “It’s true, and it’s true of Seattle, too. They have a lot of players, as we do, that fall into that category.”
What you get from these guys is cheap labor driven by an underdog’s zeal.
It lets you use your big money to keep that core of stars intact.
It’s how you keep your dragons hungry.
And in the turbulent NFC, it’s enough to keep you at or near the top.