I have a theory that Vikings-Packers will come to be a microcosm of the season. Two things happened: 1) Sam Bradford was fantastic, making everybody who criticized the Vikings’ trade (hi) look pretty dumb, and 2) The game was as competitive as we thought it would be more than a month ago, before Teddy Bridgewater went down in preseason and Adrian Peterson suffered what looked like a serious knee injury during the game.
Bradford was better than Aaron Rodgers by every statistical measure. He went 22 for 31 for 286 yards and two touchdowns with zero turnovers, which is more completions for more yards, more scores and fewer turnovers on fewer attempts than a man who many argue is the best player in the league. And it wasn’t a fluke. Bradford wasn’t finding receivers wide open in busted coverages. He was hitting them in tight windows, like this:
The Vikings were supposed to be good this season coming off an NFC North title, so from one perspective their win over the Packers isn’t surprising at all. From another, it’s stunning. The Vikings were down their two best offensive players, their running game was listless and they gave up 137 yards in penalties — 65 more than the Packers — and won.
That is to say, we knew this could happen, but not like this, which exemplifies this season’s great paradox: That what we thought we knew was always wrong, and what we always knew was right.
The NFL’s status quo is as strong as ever, but the elite are maintaining their hegemony in unconventional ways. Broadly, you’d think that year-over-year success suggests stability, but a large number of what appear to be the NFL’s best teams are winning without the pieces that made them great in 2015.
For example, the defending champion Broncos look just as good starting second-year, seventh-round pick Trevor Siemian at quarterback as they did with Peyton Manning. The Colts, who the Broncos beat Sunday, look as bad as they did in 2015 even with a fully healthy Andrew Luck.
The Patriots looked as good with Jimmy Garoppolo and without Rob Gronkowski as we could have expected if Tom Brady were starting. And even after Ryan Tannehill led a Dolphins comeback when Garoppolo injured his shoulder Sunday, it would still feel wrong to bet against the Jacoby Brissett-led Pats going forward. (Brissett, by the way, looked fine).
The Steelers are missing Martavis Bryant, Ladarius Green, and Le’Veon Bell, three tremendous talents, and yet are averaging more than 400 yards of offense per game through meetings against Washington and the Bengals. They’ve made players like undrafted rookie slot receiver Eli Rogers and little-known tight end Jesse James important parts of the offense. Xavier Grimble — who IS NOT a part-time Gringotts security goblin, but in fact a third-year NFL tight end — caught the first two passes of his career Sunday, including a 20-yard touchdown.
Inversely, teams that were preseason darlings are struggling to live up to the hype. The Jaguars, a "smart" pick to improve, were dismantled by a figment of a team. The Chargers offense is Philip Rivers, a running back who everyone hated as a rookie, a No. 1 receiver who is Not Keenan Allen, and an approximately ancient Antonio Gates. The defense had just been picked apart by Alex Smith. And yet, the Chargers went up 35-0 before the Jaguars and their young, electric offense scored a point. Through two games the Jags look a lot like the team that averaged four wins over the last three seasons.
In the NFC East, Washington seemed like the clear-cut favorite to win the division after retaining Kirk Cousins and shoring up the defense in free agency. Now two weeks in, they’ve resumed their familiar in-fighting. Cousins, who will make nearly $20 million this season, was outplayed by the Cowboys’ backup Sunday. The Cowboys should have sank to the cellar when Tony Romo went down and their defense was ravaged by the suspensions. Instead, they’ve got their first win of the season, while Washington is all alone in fourth place in the early division standings.
Take a look at the 12 teams that made the NFL Playoffs out of the 2015 season — the Broncos, Panthers, Patriots, Cardinals, Steelers, Packers, Chiefs, Seahawks, Bengals, Vikings, Texans, and Washington. Two weeks in, doesn’t it seem like the 2017 playoff field won’t look much different at all? Three teams are definitely in danger of missing the postseason — the Chiefs, Seahawks, and Washington — but the rest look all-too-safe based on early returns.
That seems strange, and yet it isn’t. The NFL is simultaneously parity-driven and not. It’s been studied. The NFL’s shorter schedule creates greater year-to-year variance for teams relative to other American professional sports leagues, but when schedule lengths are normalized only the NBA is more homogeneous. And unlike NBA teams, NFL teams have massive rosters, constant injuries, and play a game that is routinely determined by one or two plays among just a handful. Logically, the NFL should be chaos, but in reality it hasn’t been.
The reason could be one of two things: 1) Coaches and organizations are way more important than we give them credit for, or 2) The cosmos are messing with us. The former is probably right, but the latter feels more accurate if you’re a fan of any team whose year it should have been.
And who could deny that feeling? Sam Bradford studied a playbook for two weeks and then beat an NFL MVP in his prime. This universe is demonstrably weird.
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