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NFL Playoff Standings: The Golden Age Of Mediocrity

The Dallas Cowboys are barely above .500 going into the Thanksgiving game against the Oakland Raiders. But that actually is a pretty good place to be.


One of the avowed goals of the NFL is achieving parity. What exactly the league means by that can be a little indistinct, but it appears that the idea is that every team should get a turn at the playoffs every few years. The more teams that can win the Super Bowl over a period of time, the better, since this spreads interest through the fan base. To make this happen, the rules of operations, chiefly the salary cap and the way the draft is structured, are designed to help teams who do not win get better. And as a result of seeking parity, it is much harder for teams that do get to the top of the heap to stay there. The old days of dynasties may be gone for good, or at least for as long as the current leadership is running things in the league.

It is apparently working - perhaps better than the league really intended. Take a look at the teams who have seen the most drastic change in their fortunes from last year to now.

Team 2012 regular season record 2013 current record
Baltimore Ravens 10-6 5-6
Houston Texans 12-4 2-9
Atlanta Falcons 13-3 2-9
Washington Redskins 10-6 3-8
Minnesota Vikings 10-6 2-8-1
Kansas City Chiefs 2-14 9-2

A couple of things to point out. First, only one really bad team, the Chiefs, made a big move up from last year that was equivalent to several teams who have largely collapsed. Also, the other five listed here that have dropped were all playoff teams. Only the Ravens (the defending champions) have a realistic hope of still making it back to the playoffs, but the other four can pretty much write it off. And the Ravens are contending with five other teams at 5-6 who are all tied for the last wildcard spot in the AFC East.

If you stop and think about that last sentence for a second, you will see that it means that of the sixteen AFC clubs, only five have a winning record at this point in the season. Five, against eleven sub .500 records. The NFC is in a little better shape right now, with nine of the teams above .500, although that includes four at 6-5. That includes the Dallas Cowboys, who are tied with the Philadelphia Eagles for the lead in the NFC East. (The Detroit Lions and Chicago Bears are the other two 6-5 teams, and tied for the lead in the North, with the Green Bay Packers just behind at 5-5-1.)

One interesting new thing we have been doing at BTB is a weekly power ranking, and participating in it has really brought home how level the playing field has gotten in the NFL. There are only six teams right now that have 8 or more wins, putting them in the almost certain category for the playoffs: New England Patriots, Denver Broncos and Kansas City Chiefs in the AFC (with the last two both being in the same division); and Seattle Seahawks, New Orleans Saints and Carolina Panthers in the NFC (again, with the last two in the same division).

That leaves half the playoff spots open to teams that are really middle of the pack, based on won-loss record. And Dallas is right in the thick of things. A lot of discussion has gone on about how 8 or 9 wins may be enough to take the NFC East. Well, at this stage of the season, that is also true of the NFC North and the last AFC wild card spot, and, as Todd Archer points out, it could well be good enough for one of the NFC wild card spots as well. There could be more than one playoff team decided by tiebreakers this year as a logjam develops in the middle of the pack in both conferences.

The idea of all this is that it gets all 32 fanbases energized. Every team will get a shot at a playoff run over a short span of years. No one will be dominant. The league wants each team to have a good following locally. So far, the results have been a bit of a mixed bag. TV viewership continues to climb, but attendance at the stadiums is down for many clubs, forcing the NFL to relax the blackout rules - and now the FCC may take away the ability of the league to enforce blackouts, period. The NFL may want a homogeneous fanbase spread across the country, but that simply is not going to happen. Some teams will have stronger followings due to history or recent success, and some teams will not be able to keep the fans involved unless they are right at the top of the standings. Some markets just will remain soft even when things do go well for the club.

It is a bit ironic that the growing parity of the league is benefiting the Cowboys this season. The move to use the salary cap as a limiting factor on strong teams grew out of the early nineties Dallas teams that Jerry Jones and Jimmy Johnson put together, funded by Jones' deep pockets and his total willingness to spend what he needed to win games. But now, sitting at 6-5, Dallas is right in the thick of things. The Cowboys certainly had some lost opportunities in the close losses, but the important thing is that they are tied for the division lead in wins/losses and hold the tiebreaker over the Eagles. If they can take care of business, they can get over that "no playoffs" hump. And, as teams like the New York Giants and Baltimore Ravens have proven, anything can happen as long as a team gets into the postseason. That, after all, is what the league has built itself for. Get a bunch of fairly evenly matched teams into the playoffs, and let the unexpected roll.

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