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The NFL’s Peaks and Valleys Led to the Right Teams in the Promised Land

There were strange results and few dominant teams in the NFL in 2021, but the postseason has shaped up perfectly

Getty Images/AP Images/Ringer illustration

When the Jacksonville Jaguars beat the Buffalo Bills 9-6 in one of the most surprising upsets of the 2021 season, Bills quarterback Josh Allen said that no NFL team could be counted out.

“I know their record doesn’t show it, but again, it’s a week-to-week league,” Allen said. “Those guys get paid on that side of the football, too, and they’re hungry for a win.”

But come on. The Jaguars were 1-6, the Bills 5-2. This was the same Bills team that would deliver one of the most dominant offensive performances in NFL history against the Patriots in the playoffs. And they were playing the same Jaguars team that would fire its head coach, who was openly confused about which of his players was getting playing time and why on more than one occasion. In that game, Jaguars linebacker Josh Allen sacked, intercepted a pass, and recovered a fumble from Bills quarterback Josh Allen, the first time any of those events had occurred between two players of the same name. That doesn’t happen week-to-week.

It’s been a weird year. The Bills lost to the Jags; the Titans lost to the Jets. The Cowboys were down by 30 points to the Broncos a week before beating the Falcons by 40. In weeks 9 and 10, the Browns beat the Bengals by 25 and then lost to the Patriots by 38.

Other teams have gone through similar swings. In the first two weeks of the season, Kansas City rallied from a nine-point deficit to beat Cleveland 33-29, and also blew an 11-point fourth-quarter lead to the Ravens, losing 36-35 after a late fumble ended the Chiefs’ attempt at a game-winning drive. Kansas City’s season as a whole has felt like a pendulum swing, from its 3-4 start, which was marked by poor turnover luck and defensive struggles, to a late-season recovery, when both sides of the ball improved enough to finish 12-5 and earn the no. 2 seed in the AFC.

“The parity in this league is ridiculous,” Chiefs coach Andy Reid said in November after beating the Raiders 41-14, a game that in hindsight seems like the moment Kansas City rediscovered its explosive ability on offense.

There have been many close games this season, lending to a sense of down-to-the-wire volatility. Thirty-four games were decided by a game-winning score on the final play, most ever in a single season, and 49 games were decided by a game-winning score in the final minute of regulation or overtime, tied for most in a single season for all time.

But there have also been a lot of blowouts, which contributed to the sense of extreme highs and lows experienced by many teams. The Bengals have been one of the most unpredictable squads in football this season: Seven of their games were decided by exactly three points (3-4 record in those games). Eight others were decided by 14 or more (6-2 record). There were 50 games this season decided by 22 points or more, the second-highest total since at least the 1970 merger. Even some of the best teams had lopsided losses: The Packers, the top seed in the NFC, lost by 35 to the Saints in Week 1. The Bucs have two double-digit losses on their schedule. The Ravens lost a game by 24 points. The Cardinals, who once led the NFC, lost by 24 to the Panthers and 18 to the Lions, results that might have seemed like aberrations at first but ended up part of a slow finish by Arizona.

“The good teams in this league in the second half of the year, they don’t stay the same,” Cardinals defensive coordinator Vance Joseph said in November, when Arizona was 8-1. “They adjust before they have to adjust. Does that make sense? Because the good teams understand that it’s going to get harder every week. Teams have two months of film on you.”

Joseph turned out to be right, though not in the way that he had hoped. Arizona finished on a 3-5 streak and got blown out, 34-11, by the Rams in the wild-card round.

This may be the scenario that the NFL always dreamed of. Eight double-digit underdogs won outright this season, tied for the most in any season during the past 25 years. Parity creates drama and unpredictability. Twelve of the 16 teams in the AFC were .500 or better through Week 12, including every team in both the AFC North and AFC West. That adds up to the most teams .500 or better in a conference through Week 12 in NFL history. In Week 15, the Packers became the first team in the league to clinch a playoff spot; it was just the third time since the league moved to a 16-game schedule in 1978 that no spots were clinched through Week 14.

Parity has been a long-term objective for the NFL, and the design to achieve it is often credited to former commissioner Pete Rozelle, who created the league’s Competition Committee in 1968 and instituted competitive scheduling, where teams that win their divisions get other division winners on their schedules the following season, and teams that finished at the bottom of their divisions face each other. But Joe Horrigan, former executive director of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, told me that the league had been engineering competitive equity for much longer than that.

“It’s funny, you know, we do kind of blame or credit Pete Rozelle, whichever your tastes are, but it really goes back very much to the very beginning of the game, when the league was organized,” Horrigan said.

According to Horrigan, when teams first organized themselves in 1920, going from independent entities to a formalized league structure, they did so for three different reasons. The first was to combat players’ high salary demands, the second was to stop players from changing teams frequently (which they often did to get their higher salary demands met when teams were independent), and the third was to protect college eligibility. The common thread among these aims was that they all restricted player movement. The new league members preferred this setup because unrestricted player movement favored teams that could pay more. At the time, there weren’t league revenue pools from sources like broadcast money that could be evenly split; teams got most of their money from attendance. Because more expensive players created better, more compelling teams that more people would want to pay to see, the rich could get richer very quickly if player movement was unregulated.

“The league thinkers realized at that early age that if we’re going to be a league, we can’t just have a dominant team anymore,” Horrigan said.

Over the following decades, they were proved right—dynastic periods for NFL teams often lined up with imbalances in how they scouted and signed players. In the 1970s, for instance, the Steelers won four Super Bowls and seven division titles in part by scouting HBCUs when other teams would not, exemplifying how a difference in how one team acquired players could have a significant impact on how good it could be. This was particularly true before the current free-agency structure and the salary cap were established in the 1993 collective bargaining agreement.

“If you hit on something as simple as just being open-minded in signing the right players, you could create dynasties. Back then, you could because there was no free agency. You sign them, they were yours until death do us part,” Horrigan said.

These controls on player movement, plus the draft order, and competitive scheduling, help maintain the NFL’s “any given Sunday” ethos. But if some asymmetries have been either so widely adopted that they become commonalities or have been legislated out of the game, there have also been more recent eras when individual teams were dominant simply because they made one decade-defining draft selection, usually a quarterback.

There have been highs and lows for teams in both conferences this season, but it seems notable that the AFC was the more haphazard of the two. A conference that had been ruled by Tom Brady and Peyton Manning since the early 2000s has now been handed over to a collection of young quarterbacks; it would follow that there is more ebb and flow in who is dominant, particularly in what, for the majority of the season, seemed like a down year for Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs, who have come closest to asserting themselves as the next potential dynasty.

It also seems possible that the expansion to a 17-game season has allowed space for greater shifts over the course of the year. When announcing the expansion, Roger Goodell called the 17-game season a “flight to quality.” His logic was that the change slimmed down the preseason in exchange for an extra regular-season game that would “bring even more drama, more opportunities for teams to make it to the postseason and improve the quality of what we do.”

In reality, many of the 14 postseason berths were clinched heading into Week 18. There were three playoff spots up for grabs in the final week of the season, down from five in Week 17 of last season.

There’s more substantial evidence that an unusual amount of games missed due to injuries and COVID-19 introduced unpredictability into the season. Through Week 17, 61 different quarterbacks started at least one game, the most since 2010, according to Stathead. In November, the team leading the AFC, the Titans, set a record for most players used in a single season, with 86. Through Week 17, players collectively missed 787 more games than at the end of last season, according to Man Games Lost, though that’s largely because COVID-19 hit the league harder in 2021 than it did in 2020.

It should be acknowledged that there is no statistical argument for this season being weird or particularly chaotic. I asked Aaron Schatz, editor-in-chief at Football Outsiders, whether his site’s variance statistic showed anything that represented the up-and-down nature of the NFL in 2021. Variance tracks how consistent or inconsistent a team’s performance is on a week-to-week basis, so I wondered whether it would offer evidence of more wild swings among teams this year.

The reality, however, was significantly different. “If you look at the average variance of all teams in each season, this year doesn’t even come close to the year with the most average variance,” Schatz said. “In fact, it’s below average.”

The year with the highest average variance among teams was 2003. That season, the Bills beat the Patriots in Week 1 31-0, then the Patriots beat the Bills 31-0 in Week 17. San Francisco, Buffalo, and Arizona each had huge swings that season. The 7-9 49ers beat the Ravens 44-6 and, in back-to-back weeks, easily beat the defending champion Bucs and lost to the 4-12 Cardinals, a team they went on to beat 50-14 in their rematch later that season. By those standards, perhaps we are living in relatively normcore times.

Except … the Bills lost to the Jaguars! And equations alone cannot impose logic on that result. However, we have basic-as-can-be divisional-round matchups, so perhaps consistency has emerged from the perceived chaos and rubble of the regular season. The one upset in the wild-card round came via such an upstart, unstoried franchise as … the 49ers. A year of parity may have dragged out the timeline, but it’s the usual suspects still alive two rounds before the Super Bowl. It’s playoff time: Let’s get normal.