The Chiefs—owners of the NFL’s last undefeated record, hosts to the league’s best running back, and revivers of Alex Smith’s deep ball (allegedly)—were finally defeated this week, as the Steelers suffocated Kansas City in a 19-13 meeting that was exactly as tedious as that score indicates. We’re now at the point in the season that’s come every year since 1973 (except 2007)—the giant “rock, paper, scissors” match that is the NFL has now handed every team at least one loss. This time, though, the legendary parity of the league feels a bit different.
The Chiefs came into this game against the Steelers as the highest-scoring team in the NFL. Their offense hadn’t turned the ball over since Kareem Hunt coughed up a fumble on his very first play from scrimmage as a pro. And their defense, though nothing to write home about—19th in DVOA—kept doing enough to let the offense make the difference. Kansas City looked like a balanced squad with a guru at head coach and some of the league’s most exciting players to boot. And with impressive wins already over the Patriots and Eagles, who could stop them?
Your answer: the Steelers. Hunt rushed for just 21 yards on nine carries (though he added another 89 on five catches), forcing the team to rely on Smith to carry the offense. Though Smith put up a fine line (19-of-34 for 246 yards and a touchdown), almost all of that came in the second half when the Chiefs were just trying to claw their way back into the game, and Pittsburgh didn’t even give them much of a chance to do that. The Steelers controlled the ball for 36 minutes of clock and racked up 439 yards of offense—with nearly 200 of that coming on the ground. At 7 yards per play, Pittsburgh should have put up much more than 19 points, but it spent most of the middle of the game watching its drives end in punts or turnovers, making the offense look Sisyphean: gaining yards but never actually going anywhere. Despite their dominance, the Steelers still needed a play like this to put away the Chiefs:
That was enough, as Kansas City scored its fewest points since Week 2 of last season. The Chiefs looked bad enough that it’s fair to question whether they are really even the NFL’s best team. (You know, as if you hadn’t already been saying “The Chiefs, really?” all season long.) The only problem with that thought is the very next question: If the Chiefs aren’t The Best NFL Team, then who is? Here’s the unfortunate conclusion: There is no Best Team in the NFL.
The somehow-always-injured-but-somehow-always-excellent Packers suffered an injury the team won’t be able to easily overcome when Aaron Rodgers broke his collarbone in the first quarter of what ended up a 23-10 loss to the Vikings. Green Bay has a 4-2 cushion to work with, but the outlook is bleak: Replacement quarterback Brett Hundley threw three picks and had a 9.5 QBR in three quarters of action. Without Rodgers, the Packers are a fringe playoff team at best.
Though the Patriots are 4-2, the team benefited massively from a bizarre call late in its win against the Jets this week. In its past four games, New England escaped with narrow victories against the Texans, Buccaneers, and the aforementioned Jets and lost to the Panthers. The Patriots came into the day with the worst defensive DVOA in football, and at times looked downright awful against New York, giving up long touchdowns to Josh McCown, who is playing for his eighth NFL team.
The Falcons lost to the Dolphins on Sunday, marking their second straight defeat. Miami has been pathetic this year and Jay Cutler has looked completely washed, and yet the team was able to rally from 17 points down to win, 20-17, in Atlanta. Matt Ryan looks nothing like his MVP self from a year ago, having thrown six interceptions and six touchdowns on the season. His team didn’t score after halftime and sits at 3-2, tied for second in the NFC South.
The team that leads that division—the Panthers—watched Cam Newton throw three interceptions on Thursday night in a 28-23 loss that never felt as close as the final score indicated. All-everything linebacker Luke Kuechly left that game early, but reportedly was not concussed, as previously feared. Christian McCaffrey is one of the best pass-catching backs in the NFL already, but the Panthers’ ground game has struggled, averaging just 3.4 yards per carry so far.
The Broncos have looked good in spurts, but they also lost by 10 to the Bills, escaped with a win against the Chargers only after a last-second field goal fiasco, and drew the Raiders during a week where Derek Carr was out with a back injury. (The Broncos are on Sunday Night Football tonight, but even walloping the lowly Giants wouldn’t tell us much of anything.) The 3-2 Seahawks have the worst offensive line in the league. Yes, we’ve been there before with them, but you can’t be The Best Team if one of your units is The Worst. The Cowboys are likely to lose Ezekiel Elliott for six games. Meanwhile, the Steelers just beat the Chiefs, but Ben Roethlisberger also said “Maybe I don’t have it anymore” a week ago. If your quarterback is saying things like that, then you can’t be The Best NFL Team—those are the rules. Another rule: Don’t lose to the Bears.
That brings us to the best contender for the title of Best NFL Team: the Eagles. One problem—does anyone trust Philadelphia right now? The Eagles’ only loss is to the aforementioned Chiefs, sure, but they also beat the woeful Giants and Chargers by a combined five points. This team is a handful of plays from 3-3. On the other hand, Carson Wentz (1,584 passing yards, 13 touchdowns, three interceptions, 7.7 yards per attempt) has been marvelous as a sophomore passer, and LeGarrette Blount is averaging 5.6 yards per carry. Zach Ertz might be the NFL’s next great tight end. Hell, Jake Elliott might even be the most exciting kicker in football!
So sure, the Eagles can be the NFL’s best team—for now. As the squad with that title, they’re liable to implode on Monday Night Football against Washington next week. And we’ll be right back where we are now: with no great teams, just a bunch of flawed ones, tossing the crown back and forth like a hot potato.