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The NFL is a .500 league by design and this year’s playoff race is proof

This year’s playoff picture is much different than a year ago and it’s by design.

NFL: Washington Redskins at Dallas Cowboys Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

The current playoff picture in the NFL just goes to show you that this is most certainly a .500 league. If the season ended today, only four teams from last year would return to the playoffs in 2017. The Patriots, Seahawks, Steelers, and Chiefs would be the only repeats at the moment. The league loves parity and they get plenty of it every season.

Roster depth and sustained success are two of the most coveted things but they’re also the hardest to achieve in this league. The salary cap goes up every year as does the price tags for players. Teams like New England that are consistently in the Super Bowl discussion every year are actually the outlier.

Speaking of the Patriots, when they inevitably win the AFC East this season, it’ll be the ninth year in a row and 15th division title of the Bill Belichick era. Since 2000, the AFC East has been in the Patriots’ firm grasp all but three times. 2008 was the last time a team other than New England won the east, it was also the year Tom Brady tore his ACL. In stark contrast, the NFC East hasn’t seen a repeat champion since 2004.

Everyone is understandably more than a little disappointed that the Cowboys followed up 13-3 with 7-6 (so far) this year. This team is barely holding on to a sliver of playoff hopes they but it will require them to go undefeated while needing some help from other teams, too.

At the beginning of this year, an article showed the Cowboys ranking sixth in winning percentage for the past 10 years. Above them were the Broncos, Colts, Steelers, Packers, and Patriots. That’s not bad company when you consider there are four Hall of Fame quarterbacks in that bunch including one who played for two of those organizations. There’s ten Super Bowls between those teams as well.

It’s nauseating to think about 8-8, 8-8, 8-8, 12-4, 4-12, 13-3, and now 7-6 but it’s the nature of the beast. Every team in the league is trying to build a quality roster but you can only do so much. The drop off from a starter to a backup is often significant as the Cowboys have experienced this season when Sean Lee, Tyron Smith, and Ezekiel Elliott have been out of the lineup.

As good as Alfred Morris has played when called upon, he doesn’t provide the all-around boost the team has with Elliott. In eight games, Elliott had almost 800 rushing yards and seven touchdowns. Elliott having missed four games still ranks eighth in rushing and third in rushing touchdowns, which is incredible. The other running backs have five touchdowns between them. Dallas has been a good running team even without Elliott but there’s a noticeable difference.

Teams have to take personnel risks and it’s pass/fail. In the NFL, there is that element of luck also. For Dallas, they made quite a few changes in the offseason that will go beyond this season. For everything that has worked out like La’el Collins moving to right tackle or Demarcus Lawrence’s performance there are things you would rather forget like the failure of free agency.

There’s a case to be made that it’s actually quite surprising the Cowboys still have a chance at the playoffs when considering all that has happened. The up and downs of the Elliott suspension, the reshuffling of the offensive line, all the inexperienced players learning on the fly, and at one point playing games without four All-Pro players.

They could very well win every game and it not be good enough to make the dance. The good news is that they’ve been through some growing pains with their younger players and just about all of them have improved.

Simply put, the Cowboys’ have had a roller coaster season. In their seven wins, the Cowboys average margin of victory is 19.4 points. In their six losses, that margin is by an average of 17.3 points. Outside of two nail-biting losses, the Cowboys either blow teams out or get blown out. They’ve had stretches where they were the hottest offense in the league only to go three straight games where they scored a combined 22 points. The defense has had dominating performances and also some that made you wonder if they knew how to tackle. Inconsistency has plagued the Cowboys but they are not alone.

That’s the case for the majority of the teams in the league. The NFL is anti-dynasty which is why everyone loathes the Patriots. They’ve found sustainable success while other teams that have won championships have a really hard time getting back there. The NFL has it’s elite and it’s bottom feeders but most teams just live right in the middle of the ladder hoping to seize an opportunity before they have to start the climb all over again.

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