BY JACK STERN
In years past, teams with less than a double digit number of wins would have difficulty punching their ticket to the postseason. But this season two teams in the NFC sitting at .500 – the Washington Redskins and Philadelphia Eagles, find themselves on the verge of a playoff berth. The Minnesota Vikings, who sit directly ahead of both teams are one game above .500 at 8-7-1.
While marginally better in the AFC, it appears the final wild card team will finish with nine or ten wins while the North champ finishes with the same record. Even the typically dominate New England Patriots have lost four straight and seem unlikely to have their usual first round bye.
So what’s led to this noticeable decrease in dominance, better competition, and less league wide laughingstocks (okay, not really – Raiders I’m looking at you)? Upsets, team’s beating others with a better record, and a talent gap that has a smaller, more even, distribution than ever before. In a 11-on-11 game, it is increasingly difficult for one or two players to dominate a game, which is why we’re seeing teams with seemingly loaded rosters lose at a higher clip.
The good news of all of this is that even competition between teams has led to an exciting final two regular season games. Who would’ve thought that the Redskins would be fighting for a payoff berth on their fourth quarterback, who prior to Sunday hadn’t won a NFL game since 2010, in Josh Johnson? Or that Nick Foles would potentially have another opportunity to create a Cinderella story in Philadelphia?
Teams that would typically be in the midst of lost seasons are now fighting to play January football, which has made things more interesting for the fan base. Instead of seeing games where one team beats up on another, we’re seeing cat-and-mouse dog fights regardless of opposing records. Each week breeds at least one down-to-the-wire type game along with an upset.
Getting ready to enter Week 16, many of the teams competing for playoff spots have had rough patches of their own at points in the year. Minnesota fired their offensive coordinator, Baltimore had a quarterback change, Seattle has had a grey rain cloud over their franchise the entire season, and the list goes on. Aside from the Ravens firing coordinator Cam Cameron before their Super Bowl run, playoff teams in years prior hadn’t faced the same levels of adversity.
Squads that have played extremely mediocre football for much of the year and faced massive hurdles now have a shot to turn the page and put their best foot forward down the stretch, which in theory is the way it should have always been. After all, what makes pro football so special is the turnover among winning teams and the fact that not everyone comes out of the gate hot.
This is evident in the fact that rather than watching the same few powerhouses dominate the league throughout this season, we’ve seen a few emerge as unlikely success stories. The Matt Nagy led Chicago Bears have clinched their first playoff berth in eight years after getting off to a 0-2 start, while the Cleveland Browns look like they’re built for long term success already having won six games, after winning one the past two seasons.
The league is trending towards fluidity and turnover among dominant teams, as well as mediocre teams being able to play meaningful December football. All of this led to an exciting battle for the remainder of the regular season. Grab your popcorn folks for now that’s a good thing.