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Welcome to the Bizarro NFL

For the first time in a long time, this weekend is filled with plenty of interesting matchups—just not for the reasons anyone would’ve expected

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Over the past year, a new genre of writing has popped up: We’ll call it “simulation speculation.” “Did the Oscars Just Prove That We Are Living in Computer Simulation?” asked The New Yorker last winter. The Independent asked if we’re in one after Brexit and Trump. Elon Musk is pretty convinced we are in one, too. This is, of course, a silly exercise that fails to grapple with uncomfortable truths or the unpreventable randomness of the world we live in. After all, just last month, scientists confirmed that there is no computer simulation.

But perhaps there is evidence we are in a simulation after all: Have you seen the NFL this year?

As of now, there are eight teams in playoff position who did not make it last year, which would equal an all-time high of year-over-year postseason turnover. After staging one of the worst quarterback competitions in NFL history for the Rams last season, Jared Goff and Case Keenum face off in the game of the weekend this Sunday. The Browns play the Jaguars, and one of these teams is in the playoff hunt. The Buffalo Bills, a team currently in a wild-card spot, benched their starting quarterback this week. And Ben McAdoo remains employed.

This weekend brings a pretty damn good slate of games—better than the bland action we’ve seen the last couple of weeks, and we are going to see some things we are not used to. Here they are:

Washington Redskins at New Orleans Saints

New Reality: The Saints are a running offense.

What’s Happening: Drew Brees is not 2015 Peyton Manning—a football corpse waiting for retirement and relying on his defense to eke out a victory. But he’s not the Drew Brees we’ve watched throw for five of the top eight single-season passing yardage marks in history, either. Perhaps the best analogy is a still very good John Elway in 1996, when his numbers dipped slightly after the emergence of a Broncos run game as Denver became a contender again with a 13-3 season. (Elway’s Broncos never won more than nine games in the four seasons between 1992 and 1995.) This year, Brees’s numbers are still good—he’s down over 50 passing yards per game, no doubt partly a product of his team not trailing as much as years past—and most quarterbacks would die for his 8.0 yards per attempt. But then there’s this from last weekend against the Bills:

In fact, Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram have been two of the most fun runners in the NFL this year. That’s helped, of course, by the presence of Brees. Kamara, for instance, faces eight-man boxes on only 20 percent of his runs. When you add in Brees’s ability to pass with the backs’ ability to use all of the field to run, it seems improbable that the Washington defense will stop New Orleans for long—or that Kirk Cousins and Co. will be able to keep up. Look at how well Ingram and Kamara work off each other:

Add in that the Saints are rolling with one of the youngest teams in the league—they are hitting on draft picks!—and you’ve got the bizarro Saints.

Los Angeles Rams at Minnesota Vikings

New Reality: The quarterbacks you thought were bad are good.

What’s Happening: How bad was Jeff Fisher?

The former Rams head coach had both of these quarterbacks last season, and he turned them into the NFL’s worst scoring offense by a full 40 points. This year, the two quarterbacks split up, with Keenum heading to Minnesota and Goff staying in Los Angeles, and they now run the 10th- and first-place scoring offenses, respectively. There are thousands of things that go into having a good offense, and there’s no telling how important, say, Keenum is as opposed to wide receivers Stefon Diggs or Adam Thielen. But I do know this: Both of these quarterbacks are significantly better than they showed themselves to be under Fisher.

Given the results this year, it is comical that Fisher remained employed for as long as he did—and you should remind yourself of that every time one of these quarterbacks makes a play on Sunday. Just think about how often an overmatched coach gets or keeps a job because he’s “been there before” or “knows how to win” or whatever it is owners say. Retreads actively hurt the sport.

If you needed a second bizarro layer for this game: With the Seahawks possibly sunk by injuries, the Rams have a clear path to the NFC West title. Meanwhile, with the Packers seemingly out of contention after Aaron Rodgers’s collarbone injury, the Vikings look like heavy NFC North favorites. This game could decide who gets a bye in the NFC playoffs. This one is for you, Jeff Fisher.

Atlanta Falcons at Seattle Seahawks

New Reality: These teams are not fighting for a Super Bowl; they are fighting for relevance.

What’s Happening: The wild-card race in both conferences is a confusing mess at the moment, and these two teams are as confounding as any clubs in the NFC. Football Outsiders says they have the first- (Atlanta) and third-hardest (Seattle) remaining schedules in the NFL, so, uh, this one is particularly important.

The Seahawks, on the surface, should be in better position than the defending NFC champion Falcons. Seattle is 6-3 in a conference where there simply aren’t a plethora of teams who look ready to make the playoffs. But their situation is far worse than their record indicates. On defense, Kam Chancellor is likely out for this week at least, Richard Sherman is out for the season, and Earl Thomas’s health is unclear. Duane Brown, the left tackle who was acquired via trade last month from Houston and was going to at least bring some professionalism to the offensive line, is likely out this week, too.

While it is impressive that Russell Wilson can be so productive, this is not a good thing:

Another telling stat via NFL.com’s Ethan Young:

OK, that seems fine but wai—

The Falcons have been stuck in computer simulation mode since Week 3, which was the last time they scored 30 points (something they did 13 times in the regular season and playoffs last year). Since it’s 2017, and because nothing makes sense, we get this: The questionable Falcons offense travels to face the questionable Seahawks defense.

Philadelphia Eagles at Dallas Cowboys

New Reality: The Cowboys are in the midst of a battle for a playoff spot, and the Eagles are NFC favorites.

What’s Happening: Much like the Seahawks, the Cowboys’ situation is worse than their record suggests. Their situation is this:

Obviously, the six-game suspension to star running back Zeke Elliott doesn’t help, but no single injury seems to have done as much to one unit this year as Tyron Smith’s did on Sunday against Atlanta. The injury led to Adrian Clayborn, who is not only still in the league but apparently capable of embarrassing people, doing this to Chaz Green:

Six times. Clayborn had six sacks. So now, without Elliott and with Smith out again, the Cowboys are in that mess of an NFC wild-card race trying to stay afloat. FiveThirtyEight gives them a 14 percent chance of winning the division, which is not horrendous. The Cowboys have a fairly easy stretch after this—the Chargers, Redskins, Giants, and Raiders—and the NFC doesn’t have good-enough teams for the wild card to be out of reach by next week, so the Cowboys are not in a must-win situation. Instead, they must figure out how to play football without two of their best players because they seem clueless right now. Jason Garrett showed no willingness to make adjustments last week when staring down a pretty dark reality—no Elliott, no Smith—and this week’s test won’t just be the Eagles; it’ll be themselves.

Meanwhile, the Eagles being this good is not part of some wild timeline like these other happenings. Carson Wentz is great, Jason Kelce is having one of the best offensive line seasons in a decade and, uh:

That’s gonna work in any simulation.