The NFL’s draft, schedule, and salary cap were all implemented with the goal of creating parity, but if that’s what’s best, the quality of play this season suggests that yes, in fact, you can have too much of a good thing. With no dominant teams and the league’s best squads all possessing major vulnerabilities, there’s been a lot of ugly football. But there’s a silver lining hidden within all the muck.
The early-season spate of unwatchable games and unpredictable endings has also created an exciting mess of a playoff race this year. Looking toward the stretch run of the season, there are still only a few clear postseason locks. The Patriots are dominating the AFC East, the Cowboys look like safe bets in the NFC, and the Raiders are the best in the AFC West. Past that, it’s mayhem. Nothing makes any sense, and nobody looks like they’re supposed to look.
With nearly everyone still in arm’s reach of the postseason, the next eight weeks should be filled with games that matter, so I come to you with a plea: Just embrace the chaos.
The NFL’s best teams aren’t as good this season as they were 2015, and the worst teams aren’t as bad. Coming into this week’s games, there were just three teams with an overall DVOA over 20 percent (Philadelphia, Dallas, and Denver), while last year at this time there were six. (In keeping with the theme, two of those teams — Philly and Denver — lost this week.) This season, there are 15 teams, almost half of the league, clogging up the “around league-average” area between 10 percent and negative 10 percent DVOA. At this time last year, that number was just eight.
This overdose of mediocrity has led to a lot of bad games with sloppy play by both sides, and has left us with a muddled view of what we can expect heading into each weekend and of the playoff picture that’s developing. Here’s a small sampling of where we stand:
- The Cowboys, Patriots, and Raiders are all really good, and are all in first place in their respective divisions.
- The Broncos and Chiefs are also good.
- The Seahawks are in first place in the NFC West, but can’t throw or run. Or kick game-winning field goals.
- The Vikings are in first place in the NFC North, but they can’t throw or run, and now they can’t play defense either, apparently.
- The Texans are in first place in the AFC South, and their quarterback is a dead redwood tree.
- The Ravens just won their first game in more than a month but are somehow still in first place in the AFC North.
- The Giants are in second place in the NFC East, but for huge swaths of the season have looked terrible.
- The Eagles are in last pace in the NFC East, but they were the best team in the NFL (by DVOA) coming into this Sunday.
- The Chargers are in last place but might be one of the best teams in the NFL.
In the NFC, there are now 11 teams with records between 5–3 and 3–5 (Giants, Redskins, Lions, Packers, Saints, Eagles, Cardinals, Panthers, Rams, Bucs, and Vikings), all still vying for the conference’s two wild-card slots. The AFC is just as fun, with seven four-win teams (Ravens, Bills, Colts, Dolphins, Steelers, Chargers, and Titans) all still threatening in the playoff race.
You just have to look to this weekend’s games to see the “everyone is middling” trend. As Rodger Sherman wrote on Sunday: the 3–5 Chargers beat the 4–4 Titans to make both teams 4–5; the 3–4 Ravens beat the 4–3 Steelers to make both teams 4–4; the 4–4 Lions beat the 5–2 Vikings to make the Lions 5–4 and the Vikings 5–3; the 2–5 Panthers beat the 3–4 Rams to make both teams 3–5; and the 3–5 Colts beat the 4–3 Packers to make the Colts 4–5 and the Packers 4–4.
Something encouraging happened on Sunday, though. If you ignore the names of the teams that played, and the records that they brought into this week, the slate of games that looked so bad on paper prior to the weekend actually produced some entertaining games. The Colts raced out to a shocking 31–13 lead in Green Bay thanks to the excellent play of Andrew Luck and Frank Gore …
… but Aaron Rodgers and the Packers fought their way back into it late, pulling to within five with under four minutes remaining, before the Colts ran out the clock. The Ravens followed the same tack, pushing out to a big 21–0 lead before holding off the newly returned Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers, whose comeback was foiled by the funniest onside kick in NFL history.
Kansas City and Jacksonville went down to the wire before the Chiefs put the game away. The Panthers held off the Rams’ furious late-game comeback. The Titans and Chargers traded leads well into the third quarter before San Diego pulled away, Odell Beckham Jr.’s two touchdown grabs sparked the Giants to a big win over the Eagles, and the Lions won in overtime on an amazing diving touchdown catch by Golden Tate.
The Niners-Saints game produced 1,057 yards of offense and 64 points by the time it was over, and even the Jets-Dolphins game had two fourth-quarter lead-changes before it was ultimately decided by a 96-yard kick return touchdown by rookie Kenyan Drake with 5:15 remaining.
We probably wouldn’t submit any of these games to NFL Films, but what’s becoming clearer is that we may not actually need good football to get a great second half, because what happens next seems like it’s going to be completely unpredictable. With a playoff-contender field that includes about three-quarters of the entire league, just about every game matters going forward, and with not many elite teams, it’s doubtful many teams will ever be able to pull away from the pack. Sure, we’re probably going to see a lot more ugly football, but at least a lot of the upcoming games will feature a playoff atmosphere as the teams involved fight for their postseason lives.
With the way that the playoff race has set itself up, I’m currently channeling Stansfield from Léon: The Professional:
So, while we ponder what it means to live in a world where the Cowboys and Raiders (and Patriots) are the only good teams, let’s take a moment to stop worrying about the quality of play and appreciate what it’s brought us: An insane playoff race that includes about 24 of the league’s 32 teams.