Why the NFL in 2021 feels more balanced — and unpredictable — than ever before

Sports

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — The Minnesota Vikings are like a lot of NFL teams in 2021 in that their game days have been stressful. They’ve just taken it to an extreme.

The Vikings beat the Seattle Seahawks 30-17 in Week 3, but their other 10 games have been settled by one score, with many of those coming down to one play determining the result.

“That’s the NFL, and that’s kind of how it is,” Vikings coach Mike Zimmer said with a shrug. “We had several games come down to one play.”

The NFL’s other 31 teams haven’t had it quite like the Vikings but can relate. Consider:

  • Twenty-five games this season have been decided on the final play, the most through 12 weeks since the 1970 merger.

  • Thirty-five games have had the winning score come in the final minute of regulation or overtime, the fourth most through 12 weeks since 1970.

So while the Vikings might be ground zero for close games determined by one play, they’re not alone.

The race for this year’s Super Bowl championship seems as open as ever. Through 12 weeks, nine teams had Super Bowl odds at 13-1 or shorter, matching the most teams with odds that short in the past six years.

“The league is always meant to have teams that [are] pretty equal,” Arizona Cardinals defensive coordinator Vance Joseph said. The Cardinals beat the Vikings 34-33 in Week 2 when Minnesota missed a 37-yard field goal attempt on the final play.

“They don’t want teams running away with this thing. They want competition; they want teams to battle down to the end. … To see the league pretty much even, I’m not surprised by that. That’s the way they want it. That’s the way it should be. And it keeps everyone grinding, and that makes it fun.”

In the first two weeks of the season, the Kansas City Chiefs experienced the full spectrum of close-game emotions.

They rallied from nine points down in the fourth quarter to beat the Cleveland Browns 33-29 but only after intercepting a pass to kill a Browns drive late in the game.

The next week they led the Baltimore Ravens by 11 points in the fourth quarter and lost 36-35 but only after a late Chiefs fumble killed a potential game-winning drive in the final moments.

Chiefs coach Andy Reid said no lead is ever safe, but he said he feels that way more than ever this year.

“The league has strived like crazy for the last how-many-ever years for parity,” Reid said. “I’m just looking at the way this season has gone for different teams, and it seems to me that there’s a tremendous amount of parity in the league. Every given weekend, every town, every city, in the NFL has an opportunity to win a game.

“That’s a great thing. We’re in it for the competition, and there’s great competition.”

Unexpected results everywhere

The NFL also has had more than its normal share of lopsided games this season. Thirty-five have been decided by 22 points or more, the second-highest total through 12 weeks since 1970.

But even the league’s better teams aren’t immune from getting blown out. The Cardinals have the league’s best record at 9-2, followed closely by the Green Bay Packers (9-3), Tampa Bay Buccaneers (8-3) and Ravens (8-3). The Cardinals lost a game by 24 points. Green Bay lost by 35. Baltimore lost by 24. The Bucs have two double-digit losses on their résumé.

Strange and unexpected results are everywhere, turning the standings upside down weekly. The Browns recently went through a 63-point swing from one week to the next, beating the Cincinnati Bengals by 25 points then losing by 38 to the New England Patriots.

The Dallas Cowboys one week trailed the Denver Broncos at one point by 30 points then beat the Atlanta Falcons the next week by 40.

There might be no better example of this season’s unpredictability than the Bengals. Five of their games have been decided by exactly three points (2-3 in those games). Their remaining six games have been decided by 14 points or more (5-1), including all four of their divisional matchups (3-1).

More than ever, it seems, taking a result for granted is trouble for just about any of the 32 teams.

“It’s a week-to-week [league], and you’ve got to come to play each and every week,” Buffalo Bills wide receiver Stefon Diggs said.

Diggs and the Bills, then 5-2, lost to the 1-6 Jacksonville Jaguars in Week 9 in one of the season’s biggest upsets. Neither team scored a touchdown, and the Jaguars won 9-6 by kicking one more field goal than the Bills.

“You just can’t get comfortable,” Bills tackle Dion Dawkins said after the contest. “You have to stay hungry and everybody is going to give us their best ball. We’re in a position now that everybody is going to give us their best ball every week. Everybody’s coming for the Buffalo Bills.

“You have to go through the ups and downs of life in football and wins and losses to honestly feel that and understand that. It’s a kill or be killed world, and now that we know that everybody has their best effort against us, then we just know that we have to be at our best every time. We can never take our foot off of that gas pedal.”

No Goliaths

There’s more evidence the competition around the league is what the NFL is striving for. Betting underdogs have a 71-106-1 record straight up this season. That .402 winning percentage for teams that are supposed to lose would be the highest in a season since 2006.

There are no Goliath teams opponents wish to avoid in the playoffs for as long as possible. The defending Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers have rebounded from losing two straight games, but those defeats weren’t to top-level competition. One came to the New Orleans Saints and backup quarterback Trevor Siemian and the other to lowly Washington.

The Chiefs, who won 26 games in the past two regular seasons and represented the AFC in each of the previous two Super Bowls, have come back to the pack. They’re 7-4, and one of their losses, 27-3 to the Tennessee Titans in Week 7, was by the biggest losing margin since Patrick Mahomes became their quarterback in 2018.

Twelve of the 16 teams in the AFC are .500 or better, including all of the teams from the West and North divisions. That’s the most teams .500 or better in a single conference through Week 12 in NFL history. Leaguewide, 21 teams are at least within a game of .500, so the scramble for a division championship or a wild-card playoff berth might be as, well, wild as ever.

The Vikings are one of those 21 teams. They’re 5-6 overall and 4-6 in those games decided by one score.

The Vikings are among the many teams wondering what their record might be if they had just been better on all of the game-deciding plays.

“We were right there,” Minnesota center Garrett Bradbury said after that missed field goal cost the Vikings a win against the Cardinals in Week 2. “We’re going to do the things we need to correctionwise so when we’re in that position again — because we will be — we’re going to finish the game and come out on top.”

ESPN Stats & Information as well as NFL Nation reporters Courtney Cronin, Alaina Getzenberg and Josh Weinfuss contributed.

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