It has only been five weeks, but it’s clear which teams are the top contenders in the NFC. And they aren’t in the NFC East.

1. New Orleans Saints

The return of Sean Payton has obviously been huge for the only remaining NFC squad without a loss, and Drew Brees is the best quarterback in the game right now other than Peyton Manning, but what about that defense? The Saints are allowing just 14.6 points per game, fourth-best in the league behind the Chiefs, Patriots and Panthers (who have only played four games). When the Saints win it’s usually because they’re winning the turnover battle. They’re currently at +6, second in the NFL behind the …

2. Seattle Seahawks

They’re nowhere near as good on the road, but when a team is likely to go 8-0 at home there’s plenty of margin for error. The Seahawks are second in the NFC in point differential at +56 (behind the Saints, who sit at +61), and they’re getting reinforcements:

3. San Francisco 49ers

Mario Manningham San Francisco 49ersThey were reeling for a minute, then they beat the Rams and Texans by a combined score of 69-14. Both of those opponents look terrible NOW, but the 49ers looked like they were in a dogfight in the first quarter at St. Louis and the Texans dominated the Seahawks for a half before Schaubing all over themselves. At least a smidgeon of credit has to go to the 49ers for rediscovering what they’re good at: defense and running through/over people.

The 49ers’ schedule sets up pretty nicely the rest of the way after a tough first five games, and today Jim Harbaugh said Michael Crabtree is “on track” to return in mid-to-late November.

Today Harbaugh also added some positive updates on some PUP/NFI guys: “Tank Carradine, Quinton Dial, Mario Manningham, Eric Wright. All guys that will have the possibility to start practicing next week, so excited about that.”

ESPN’s Adam Schefter said the 49ers are still in on Browns wide receiver Josh Gordon, with Ian Rapoport Rapoporting that a second round pick might be enough to pry him away. We explored that possibility two weeks ago — if the guy can stay out of trouble in regards to the NFL’s drug policy, he’d change the 49ers’ offense immeasurably and probably turn Colin Kaepernick into a better passer overnight (he’d help take some of the heat off Anquan Boldin, too). However, with Manningham and Crabtree set to return in a matter of weeks, the 49ers might not want to gamble on Gordon. But trading for Gordon at the same time Harvin came back from injury sure would be a 49ers/Seattle rivalry kind of thing to do.

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The Packers’ defense and Falcons’ offense don’t look ready for primetime, and the other 3-2 teams in the NFC (Lions, Bears, Cardinals) aren’t scaring anyone … yet. Maybe that’ll change between now and the end of the season, but for now the best games on the NFC docket involve the three teams mentioned above — a trio of squads that possess the best combination of balance, coaching and playoff experience:

  • 11/17: 49ers @ Saints
  • 12/2: Saints @ Seahawks
  • 12/8: Seahawks @ 49ers