Stand up, take a bow. Raise your hands if you thought that by now the Dallas Cowboys, the San Diego Chargers and the Philadelphia Eagles would be the teams with the best records in football. Have a cupcake if you thought that seven weeks into the season, there would be no undefeated teams. And if you predicted the glut of Super Bowl contenders with one or two-loss records, well, you deserve a standing ovation, because you can be sure very few others did.
The NFL has long prided itself on the somewhat dubious notion of parity, that the phrase “any given Sunday” (although now the phrase should read “any given Sunday, Monday or Thursday”) actually holds some merit. And this notion of parity is somewhat true, in that every year, even the strongest teams suffer what appear to be inexplicable losses to other teams that reside far down the totem pole. But these games have historically been the exception rather than the rule, the poison dart hidden within the strawberry tart.
Take the Super Bowl winners and contenders from the last decade or so of the NFL; you’ll notice a preponderance of “haves,” like the New England Patriots, the Indianapolis Colts, the Pittsburgh Steelers, the Green Bay Packers, the New York Giants, the New Orleans Saints, the Baltimore Ravens and more recently the Seattle Seahawks, the San Francisco 49ers and the Denver Broncos.
The “have-nots,” meanwhile, have continued to languish in mediocrity, with teams like the Jacksonville Jaguars, the Oakland Raiders, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (since their remarkable Super Bowl victory 12 years ago), the Buffalo Bills and the Cleveland Browns maintaining a pretty standard level of performance, ranging from marginal mediocrity to outright putridity.
But this year, even the downtrodden masses have (some) reason to cheer. With the exception of the Bucs and Jets, who have been pathetic in every sense, each team has a little something to look forward to. The Jaguars and Raiders both show signs of having found their franchise QBs of the future, the still-raw Blake Bortles and the savvy Derek Carr. The Minnesota Vikings, reeling from the loss of Adrian Peterson, are trying to find out if Teddy Bridgewater can be their guy. And the Bills have found new owners who will keep the team in Buffalo, while Brian Hoyer and a fearsome offensive line have lead Cleveland (!?) to a truly shocking 3-2 record overall.
Despite being perennial NFL laughingstocks, the Lions find themselves 4-2, the Bengals find themselves 3-1-1 and the Cardinals find themselves 4-1 and alone atop the fearsome NFC West despite starting Drew Stanton for a stretch of games. This may or may not be a sign of the apocalypse.
On the flip side, perennial contenders find themselves in dire straits. The New Orleans Saints and Kansas City Chiefs are both 2-3, with the upcoming schedule helping neither team. The Giants are 3-3 and quickly falling out of a two-horse NFC East division race. The Steelers couldn’t beat the Browns, while the Falcons have lost three straight games by a margin of at least 10 points.
And in between the groups who are finding success and those who aren’t are those who you just can’t seem to judge. The New England Patriots looked like a punch-drunk boxer, then somehow found their edge to recover from two shaky early-season losses. The San Francisco 49ers annihilated the Dallas Cowboys in JerryWorld, then proceeded to lose to Drew Stanton and Jay Cutler. The Packers looked to be in trouble before getting bailed out by clutch play from Tom Wrigglesworth-lookalike Aaron Rodgers. And the Seahawks have now lost two games, with one loss coming to the Cowboys, who were beaten by the 49ers, who can’t ever seem to beat the Seahawks. All of this makes for fascinating football and a nightmare for pundits to try to predict. As ESPN’s NFL Power Rankings show, this season has seen a ridiculous amount of change and upheaval across the board, with ten weeks still to go.
None of this explains why so much upheaval has occurred this season. None of the up and coming teams have really done anything crazy in terms of coaching or roster maneuvers; they’ve just been fundamentally better, while some teams appear to have regressed significantly. It will be interesting to see where this entertaining NFL season takes us, because if the ride is anything as wild as what we’ve seen these last seven weeks, it will be definitely be one to remember.
Vignesh Venkataraman’s head hurts after delving deep into the void of the state of the National Football League. Send him your best remedies at viggy ‘at’ stanford.edu.