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This NFL Season, Parity May Finally Extend Deep Into the Playoffs

Without many favorites to speak of—or at least favorites worthy of trust—no teams seem preordained to win the Super Bowl. That makes predictions hard. But it may also make the reality that much more exciting.

AP Images/Ringer illustration

My job is to cover the NFL. I watch the games, and then I produce podcasts and articles about the games, explaining what I’ve learned and what the results mean for the teams as they go on in the season. I try to figure out who the good teams and bad teams are and what will happen when the good teams play one another in the postseason for the honor of being crowned the goodest team. I get all that.

It’s just very hard this year.

I’d say that the 2021 NFL season has been a roller coaster, but roller coasters follow a set of preconstructed tracks. You can look ahead and say, “Ah, that’s where we’re going.” Never does the roller coaster leap directly off its scaffolding and take a sudden left turn as, say, the Arizona Cardinals did when they lost to the 1-11-1 Detroit Lions by 18 points on Sunday. Never does a man leap onto the track and single-handedly stop the roller coaster, as Dennis Allen did on Sunday night when he and the Saints became the first defense in 15 years to shut out Tom Brady.

Entering that game, the Bucs were tied for the top seed in the NFC; now, they’re in a three-way tie with the Cardinals and Cowboys for the second seed. The Cardinals, of course, are fresh off a loss to the Lions; the Cowboys have won three straight, but across that span have scored 20, 20, and 21 offensive points, down five points per game off their season average. Currently filling out the conference’s three wild-card spots are the Saints, who just won that game against the Bucs; the Niners, who are Probably Good (?); and the Rams, who—if this week of football is any indication—are going to lose to the 5-8 Seahawks on Tuesday. The order of cars on this ride keeps shuffling around.

Then there’s the AFC, where the teams are definitely better, but somehow everything is worse. Of the 16 teams in the conference, 12 are .500 or better, including the entire AFC North. The Bengals scored 15 points against the Broncos this week, which seems bad; the Ravens have lost three consecutive games by four total points, which is definitely bad; the Steelers, who played an objectively horrible game even by Pittsburgh standards on Sunday, still squeaked by the Titans. Those Titans have lost three of their past four games, and yet have an 84 percent chance to win the AFC South, according to FiveThirtyEight, given their two head-to-head wins over Indianapolis. The Colts, another Probably Good team making a late-season push, beat the Definitely Good But Maybe Not As Good As We Thought Patriots on Saturday night, knocking New England out of position for the first-round bye. The team that’s now leading that race? The 10-4 Kansas City Chiefs.

All right. At least there’s something we can trust. Oh, wait, the Chiefs nearly lost to the Chargers like eight different times on Thursday. Don’t believe in anything, kids.

Every year, the league tells us that any team can win the Super Bowl. And while that may technically be true, we typically end up with the usual suspects competing down the homestretch. Just last season, the 7-5 Bucs were on the fringe of the playoff picture following consecutive losses to the playoff-bound Chiefs and Rams; then, in a Cinderella story for the ages, QB Tom Brady breezed through the NFC playoffs and appeared in his 10th Super Bowl in 21 possible seasons. Along the way he beat Green Bay QB Aaron Rodgers, who was appearing in his fourth NFC championship game in the last seven seasons, and then Patrick Mahomes, who was appearing in the second Super Bowl of his three seasons as a starter.

Season after season, the league gets some of the parity that it so fervently advertises—but usually it exists in some nebulous second tier, in the frantic clawing of several “1B” teams trying to hang with the ever-reliable, seemingly invulnerable “1A” squads. There may be uncertainty in seeding or dangerous opponents buried in the wild-card slots. But floating above that sea of chaos are the Definitely Good teams. The teams that always show up. The teams that can clearly go all the way.

That’s what’s different about this season. The Definitely Good teams are difficult to identify, and even more difficult to trust. Can we call the Packers Definitely Good when they’re a Tyler Huntley two-point conversion away from losing to a Ravens team that played mostly backups? Can we call the Chiefs Definitely Good when the offense still is a shell of its former self? Can we call the Cardinals Definitely Good after they lost—and I mean lost—to the Detroit Lions?!

Because the teams we would consider mighty keep falling and joining the throng in the middle, identifying Super Bowl contenders has never been easier—or harder. Everyone has a shot, so nobody feels predestined. In the playoffs, when situational game-planning is ramped up to an 11 and matchups are exploited more intentionally, why wouldn’t the Packers lose to George Kittle and the 49ers, given what Mark Andrews just did to them? What happens to the Bucs when they run into Dennis Allen’s defense again, given that it has stymied them more than once during the Brady era? Could Buffalo keep the Colts under 41 points the next time they play? Can the Chiefs score more than three points against the Titans? What if either the Steelers or the Vikings, wizards of one-score games, sneak in as well?

The fun thing about football is that every team, and every fan base, has an answer to its respective questions. Perhaps the most shocking outcome of the generally shocking 2021 season is the shellacking the Lions put on the Cardinals—but once you get elbow deep, it becomes a bit easier to understand. Arizona’s defense was one of the year’s early surprises, but since losing J.J. Watt ahead of Week 8, it has dropped down to a generally average unit by EPA/play (18th) and success rate surrendered (20th). Quarterback Kyler Murray, who missed three games with a sprained ankle, is back but looks less than 100 percent whenever he’s forced to move. And other key players like WR DeAndre Hopkins, CB Robert Alford, and C Rodney Hudson were unavailable for this game.

Similarly, the Buccaneers have had tough injury luck, especially in Week 15, as they lost their three top offensive weapons in Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, and Leonard Fournette during the game. The Titans, too, are operating without Derrick Henry, A.J. Brown, and Julio Jones; six of the Ravens’ top eight players, in terms of 2021 cap hit, were unavailable on Sunday against the Packers.

Unlucky unavailability is a reality of every NFL season, not just this one. But with the additional regular-season game on the schedule and COVID spread rising back to peak levels, getting healthy come playoff time is all the more valuable. In this way, throwing out all of the wild regular-season results may be more than just a gesture to the randomness of the NFL playoff cycle—it may be a legitimately good practice. Forget everything you remember about who beat whom and who embarrassed themselves on national television: One of these teams has to win a Super Bowl come February, and it’s probably going to be the team that has most of its good players available.

But even this is difficult to predict this year! With COVID-19 variants making it more likely than before that even vaccinated players test positive for the virus, a healthy team can suddenly become an unhealthy team. The only solutions here are preventative measures, like the ones the Rams took this week when they saw an uptick in positive tests, and quality, flexible coaching, like that which John Harbaugh displayed when he took this depleted Ravens roster the distance against the Packers on Sunday.

So should we believe in the good coaches? Trust that Andy Reid and Bill Belichick and Matt LaFleur will win out in the end, because if anyone can deal with the wildness of this NFL season, it’s them? That isn’t a bad policy, but it sure does feel feeble. Just as the top teams are less reliable and established this year, so are the top coaches and top quarterbacks. Fifteen weeks into the season, the favorites for league MVP and Coach of the Year alike change on a weekly basis. Reid can’t seem to figure out his offense; Belichick keeps punting the ball on fourth-and-short; LaFleur … OK, LaFleur’s really good. But that’s never been the problem for Green Bay—the defensive coordinator has. (And this year, special teams.)

The long and the short of it is this: It’s pretty much impossible to figure out who the Definitely Good teams are right now. There are three weeks left of the season, and some teams are going to win some games and make it to the playoffs, while other teams are going to lose some really stupid games and not make it to the playoffs. None of it will be predictable or sensible, because nothing has been all year.

Then, in the playoffs, it’ll be easy to believe that things are predictable and sensible again. We’ll buy into Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers and Andy Reid and Bill Belichick again because why wouldn’t we? They’re the titans of the NFL postseason, enduring, unchanging. And it’ll help to feel like football is predictable and understandable once again.

But getting that chalky finish feels less assured, in that everything feels less assured—and that opens the door for some unusual suspects to get the big stages in January and February and make the most of the opportunity. Give me the Browns up 28-0 on the Steelers after one quarter in the wild-card round. Give me Saints-Bucs III for the second season in a row, just so I can watch two equally legitimate playoff quarterbacks in Tom Brady and Taysom Hill go head-to-head. Let’s see Carson Wentz finish the open-ended story of that 2017 season under Frank Reich’s guidance and witness Justin Herbert go up against Lamar Jackson, Patrick Mahomes, and Josh Allen on a Super Bowl run. Imagine Aaron Rodgers announcing his 2022 free agency while holding the Lombardi Trophy in a Packers uniform, and the entire state of Wisconsin disavowing professional football.

I’m turning into the skid—or, to carry our analogy, strapping myself into the roller coaster, raising my arms, shutting my eyes, and letting this thing take me wherever it wants to go. Maybe the healthy teams win out; maybe the good coaches do; maybe the star quarterbacks storm back to show us what we’ve been missing for much of the year. I don’t know, and at this point, I’m excited to find out in real time. The regular season is foreshadowing a playoff experience with just as much chaos—a postseason in which, perhaps for the first time, anyone can actually win it. And boy, does that sound fun.