Oh, there’s parity in the NFL, all right. Only this season, it’s spelled P-A-R-O-D-Y.
With apologies to the unbeaten New England Patriots and Carolina Panthers and the handful of other teams with respectable records, the NFL is a hot mess this year. Of the league’s 32 teams, 20 are below .500. That’s the most through Week 10 in NFL history, according to STATS LLC.
Six of those teams have managed just two wins. At 2-8, the Cleveland Browns would need to win out just to avoid yet another losing season. There are two divisions where nobody has a winning record.
The AFC South is so hapless you’d have to combine the Jacksonville Jaguars andTennessee Titans with either the Indianapolis Colts or Houston Texans just to match the number of wins New England and Carolina each have.
Over in the NFC East, Dallas has lost seven in a row, the longest losing streak in the NFL. It’s been so long since the Cowboys last won a game, Ben Roethlisberger was sidelined for a month with a knee injury, returned to the lineup, got knocked out with a sprained foot and returned to the lineup again.
The saddest thing about the NFL’s surplus of sad sacks? And no, I’m not referring to the New York Jets’ defense. Almost all of the NFL’s losing teams still have a mathematical chance of making the playoffs.
Sure, the Detroit Lions (2-7) would need the Minnesota Vikings (7-2) and Green Bay Packers (6-3) to play flag football for the rest of the season to have a shot at the NFC North. But down in Dallas, the NFC East title is still within reach for the 2-7 Cowboys.
The New York Giants lead the division at 5-5. Not a winning record, but not a losing one, either. Yay, Giants! Two of New York’s next three games are against Washington and Miami, but the Giants finish the season with the Panthers, Vikings and Eagles, a team that thumped them 27-7 last month.
So say New York holds steady at .500. If Dallas wins six of its last seven, it can catch the Giants. I know, I know. How is a team that hasn’t won a game in two months going to win six in the next seven weeks?
It’s not as far-fetched as it sounds.
Of the Cowboys’ last seven games, two are against Washington. Another is against the Buffalo Bills, whose just-above-.500 record can’t disguise the fact they’ve been walking that fine line between trainwreck and mediocrity all season.
Yet another game is against the imploding Packers. And still another is against the Jets, whose season depends on Ryan Fitzpatrick not being slowed by the injury to his left (non-throwing) thumb.
Oh, and Tony Romo comes back this weekend.
“I want everyone to know we are not done yet,” Romo said Wednesday.
And therein lies the problem.
The playoffs should not be the equivalent of a participation trophy. It’s ridiculous that a team with a losing or even .500 record can make the playoffs over a better team just because they have the good fortune to play in a weaker division.
So long as division winners are guaranteed a playoff spot, however — with one of the top four seeds, no less — there exists the possibility of that happening.
Last year, a 7-8-1 Carolina team made the playoffs at the expense of 10-6 Philadelphia simply because somebody had to win the NFC South and the Panthers were the least-bad of an abysmal bunch. Four years earlier, it was NFC West “champion” Seattle (7-9) bumping out the Giants (10-6).
The NBA has recognized the unfairness of this in their league, announcing in September that its playoff field will be determined solely by record and division winners are no longer guaranteed one of the top four seeds. While it’s not likely to happen, that does leave open the possibility of a division winner missing out on the playoffs.
The NFL will balk at going that far, claiming there’s too much history and prestige attached to its divisions. Never mind that owners had no trouble trampling on nostalgia when they realigned in 2002, adding a division in each conference.
The playoffs are intended to be the pinnacle of the season, and the teams playing should reflect that. Otherwise, this season’s parity won’t be the only thing that’s a joke.
This article was republished with permission from the original author and 2015 Ronald Reagan Media Award recipient, Nancy Armour, and the original publisher, USA Today. Follow columnist Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour.