The NFL is the league that gave us “parity” as its compelling vision of the future, without telling us that part of parity isn’t really parity but the perception of parity. So the NFL might not really be so even, though it seems that way, which is enough to throw the playoff race wide open halfway through the season.
Teams in the recent playoff thicks like New England, Indianapolis, Jacksonville, Seattle, San Diego, Chicago, Dallas, Green Bay and even Pittsburgh now are down closer to the middle, most of them contending and none of them at their best as they endure their transitions and injuries. When that many commanding teams lose command, it’s hard to tell who’s in charge.
The simple numbers reveal an NBA-style parity from the past, in which most teams are winners and the small number of unfortunates soak up all the agony. Through 10 weeks, 19 of 32 NFL teams have winning records. Twelve teams were a game on either side of .500, but eight of them were on the sunny 5-4 side. Another nine teams were three games on either side of .500, and eight of them were on the contending 6-3 side.
But only three teams are five or more above .500, and it’s not a familiar list: the Tennessee Titans without Vince Young, the Carolina Panthers and the New York Giants. All three of these breakout teams are in the bottom third of the NFL in passing offense, so they’re not what you’d call telegenic.
Then we see a roll call of the league’s altruists, the teams that take all the losses. Seven teams are five games or more under .500, almost doubling the reverse list. There we find the Bengals, Detroit, San Francisco, Seattle, St. Louis, Oakland and Kansas City. All of these teams are nowhere offensively, and all of them except Seattle and San Francisco are outscored by 10 points or more per game.
Remember that all of these teams own two wins or fewer, so they’re not much, if any, better than the Bengals.
And that’s seven franchises and their fans going through this, 22 percent of the league, their seasons already finished. Their next move is a coaching change, if that hasn’t already happened, or the draft.
One might think the misery of so many franchises should flush the rest with victory. But it’s not a happy league right now. The teams from the top that have fallen to the middle are miserable at 6-3 or 5-4. And the breakout teams, such as they are, remain vulnerable.
Tennessee (9-0) and Carolina (7-2) are barely winning, thanks to their defenses. The New York Giants (8-1) are supposed to be the glamorous team out of this group, but it doesn’t really work that way with them. They just slug it out.
But they’ve certainly got something. They beat the unbeaten New England Patriots in the Super Bowl last year and now are 8- 1. They run the ball like no one else, 168.9 yards per game to top the league with such great stars as Brandon Jacobs, Derrick Ward and Ahmad Bradshaw, their three leading rushers.
Eli Manning is playing quarterback well enough to win but not well enough to push his passer rating past 88.8, 15th in the league. Deep threats Plaxico Burress and Amani Toomer average less than 13 yards per catch. But they’ve only given the ball away seven times, fewer than anyone except Miami.
The Giants are the only NFL team in the top three in total offense and defense. The only other teams in the top 10 for both offense and defense are Tampa Bay (6-3) and Philadelphia (5-4), which means both are worth watching down the stretch.
Tampa Bay is the best of the 6-3 teams, better in many measures than Carolina, which leads the NFC South. Of all the solo division leaders, Carolina is the least secure and most likely to drop from the playoff picture because Tampa Bay is solid all the way across: top third of the league in all the offensive and defensive rankings, with special teams ranking among the best.
Usually a team reaches 9-0 and we all start wondering if it can go undefeated. The same question has come up about Tennessee, but only ceremonially. No one believes the Titans can run the table, because they have no explosives. Like the Giants and Panthers, they run the ball well and still have to show they can throw consistently.
But the Titans, like the Giants, can also stop the run. It is an article of faith here, and among most football people, that running the ball and stopping the run are the keys to winning.
If that’s so, then the present rankings might be a reliable guide to the playoff chase. By those measures, we’ll still see the Giants and Titans in the playoffs, but we might be surprised by who will join them: the Titans, Jets, Patriots and Ravens joined by Pittsburgh (6-3) and San Diego (5-4). But the 5-4 Indianapolis Colts have almost no ground to make up, they’ve won consecutively now against Pittsburgh and New England and they have Joseph Addai back to run the ball. They’re not finished.
The NFC has fewer teams in the top 10 at running and stopping the run, an indication that the strong AFC teams are stronger. But Washington (6-3) has to be taken seriously, as does 5-4 Minnesota (except for its quarterback problems).
In the NFC, write down the Giants, Washington, Minnesota, Tampa Bay and Arizona (6-3) as playoff teams, then good luck picking the sixth. It could be Philadelphia, Dallas (5-4), Chicago (5-4), Green Bay (4-5), Carolina or Atlanta (6-3).
The Giants look, by far, like the NFC’s Super Bowl entrant if they can closet that ugly twin that shows up for about half of every season. If not, then the NFC will turn as jumbled as the AFC, which is just how the NFL likes it.
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