Good luck to anyone having to determine the NFL’s power rankings on a week-to-week basis these days.
The Green Bay Packers and the Tennessee Titans both lost Sunday, the two defeats marking yet another weekend in which the perceived top teams in the league unexpectedly lost. The previous week, it was the Arizona Cardinals and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers who fell short. Before them, the Buffalo Bills were knocked off by the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Upsets happen regularly in the NFL, but rarely has there’s been such a season that has left fans and pundits asking this fundamental question: Is any team actually good?
Going into this week’s “Monday Night Football,” there were 15 teams hovering around .500 after 11 weeks of the season — either a game above or below, half a game over or under, or exactly at 5-5. The NFL is known for parity, but 15 is a jump over the last two years when 12 (2019) and 10 (2020) teams were around that mark, respectively.
And with the added seventh playoff spot in each conference — put into effect last year — there is a cluster of teams still in the hunt for the postseason.
In the NFC, the Minnesota Vikings and the New Orleans Saints would be the sixth and seventh seeds at 5-5. But behind them are: San Francisco 49ers (5-5), Philadelphia Eagles (5-6), Carolina Panthers (5-6), Washington (4-6) and the Atlanta Falcons (4-6).
Because so many teams have failed to separate themselves, a team like Washington has new life thanks to a two-game win streak.
“That’s the carrot,” Washington coach Ron Rivera said Monday, a day after the team’s 27-21 win over the Panthers. “At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter how you get in. Just ask Tampa Bay. They were the wild card (and won it all last season), you know? All you got to do is get in and we’ll see what happens.”
Rivera said he “absolutely” could use the lure of a wild card spot as a motivational tactic for his team. Last year, Rivera often pointed to the poor state of the NFC East as a way to motivate players to stay focused despite a 2-7 start.
The NFC East appears more out of reach for Washington this year — but Rivera isn’t counting that out, either. He pointed to the five divisional games Washington has to close the year, theoretically giving the team enough of a chance to gain ground. “If you’re going to win the division, you got to control it,” he said.
Still, the Dallas Cowboys appear to have a firm grasp of the East at 7-3. The more realistic scenario for Washington to make the playoffs is as a wild card team.
Yet as optimistic as Washington’s players and coaches might be feeling after Sunday’s win, there are others like the 49ers and the Eagles who are also finding a rhythm at the right time. San Francisco had a convincing win over the Jaguars and has won two straight. The Eagles are coming off dominant performances against the Denver Broncos and Saints.
“(The parity) kind of doesn’t surprise me, to be honest,” Rivera said. “I just think that’s going to be the way it’s going to be. I know the league would love to see it because that keeps everybody in the mix and it keeps the focus and attention on all 16 games played each week, as opposed to coming down and there were only two or three teams that are left to contention.”
Fifteen teams close to .500 isn’t out of the norm for the NFL. From 2015 to 2017, there were 18 teams per year that fell into that range through Week 11, according to Pro Football Reference. Rivera said he thinks the reason for this is that there are “so many great players out there” — and thus the level of competition is more balanced.
But the 2021 season has been unusual in the sense that the league’s best teams have had trouble defending their status as such. From Weeks 9 to 11, according to NFL Research, there have been 11 wins by teams at .500-or-below against division leaders — the most such wins to occur in that span since 1970.
This weekend, three division leaders — Green Bay, Tennessee and Buffalo — lost to a team .500 or worse. In Buffalo’s case, the loss dropped them to second the AFC East behind the New England Patriots (7-4).
There have also been an unusual number of close games. According to the league, there have been 37 contests in 2021 with a game-winning score in the final two minutes of regulation or overtime — the third-most in the NFL history through 11 weeks.
“If you could have all 16 games, or at least two-thirds of them, meaning something at the very end of the year, that’s a huge step,” Rivera said. “So that’s a boom for the league.”