Are the upstart Arizona Cardinals and Detroit Lions paragons of teamwork and selflessness who know how to win close, win ugly and persevere? Or, as one could posit, are they lucky pucks in Plinko machines?
As we tip toe into the second half of the season, these are important questions to consider. Both teams lead their divisions with an uncanny ability to win close games. Both teams have shed injuries from their backs like big plastic chips off wooden pegs. Neither franchise has ever won for long. Should we be prepared to see these teams in the playoffs, or a will their fortune dissipate like luck regressing to reach its inevitable mean?
Let's consider both sides:
The Lions and Cardinals are really great
The results speak for themselves. The Cardinals and Lions both won in dramatic fashion Sunday to record their respective sixth wins of the season. They both did very good things to do so.
For the Lions, the help of Golden Tate has been immeasurable to an offense that has gone without Calvin Johnson and all of its viable tight ends in spots this season. He ripped apart the Atlanta Falcons, catching seven passes for 151 yards and a score. Since Johnson went down in Week 5, the Lions have won three straight games. Since Week 3, Tate has 39 catches for 509 yards and three scores. Extrapolate those five games over a 16-game season and Tate would have 125 catches for 1,917 yards and nine or 10 touchdowns. With another game he should top his career-best 898 yards receiving in 2013.
In the grand scheme, it's a stretch to call any outburst by Larry Fitzgerald a surprise. But in the context of this season, yes, his seven catches for 160 yards and a score were something of a shock. He continued a trend of players stepping up on a Cardinals team that feels light on stars. If it hadn't been him, it could have been John Brown, or any number of players in a ridiculously deep secondary.
Cold reality will soon descend when both teams realize that success can be as fleeting as a hot streak on a game show rigged for failure
Because we've sooo seen this before. The Lions started 6-3 last season to position themselves atop the NFC North, then finished 7-9. They started 6-2 in 2007, and also went 7-9 that season. Their only playoff season since 1999 began 5-0 and went 5-6 the rest of the way. This is not a second half team. Or perhaps, this is a first half team that runs hard into reality down the stretch.
The Cardinals have been to the playoffs twice since 1998, including a Super Bowl appearance. Their 6-1 start has been ... well, actually it's unusual. They've had a tendency to start slow and finish strong, if anything. There's always the cautionary tale of the 2012 season, however, a year when the Cardinals began the season with consecutive wins over the 11-5 Seattle Seahawks (!), the 12-4 New England Patriots (!!), the 4-12 Philadelphia Eagles and 7-9 Miami Dolphins (okay) before finishing out the season 1-11.
But no really these teams may have something
Perhaps the surest signs that these teams may actually be good are the defenses. Consider that a reflection of the coaches leading them.
How the Lions are performing this well on defense is still sort of baffling. That they are performing well isn't a dispute -- 290.4 yards per game (1st), 74.0 rushing yards per game (2nd), 79.5 opponent passer rating (2nd), No. 1 in DVOA (total defense, pass AND rush). They are doing this despite adding just veterans James Ihedigbo and Rashean Mathis in free agency to a secondary that was 20th by DVOA in pass defense last season and 24th overall. They are doing this after firing a defensive-minded head coach and naming a young defensive coordinator, Teryl Austin, who had just one year of coordinator experience at the college level.
If you're a top defender with the Cardinals, you've already missed all or part of this season. But despite missing big names, the defense ranks fifth in defensive DVOA, one year after coming in second. The front seven was decimated with Daryl Washington, Karlos Dansby, Darnell Dockett and John Abraham all lost for the season, yet that hasn't stopped defensive coordinator Todd Bowles from dialing up seven-man blitzes against Nick Foles and an Eagles offense that came within a couple shots from the 16-yard line of winning Sunday. The Cardinals sent the house on 2nd-and-10 and 3rd-and-10, and both passes fell incomplete to seal the win for Arizona.
Coaching changes are the common denominator when factoring out why both defenses are succeeding where they shouldn't. As last year's New Orleans Saints proved, a bad defense can improve immensely year-over-year, and start hot and stay hot. The Cardinals and Lions aren't flukes.
They have something as much as anyone can have anything at any moment, but they probably don't
The freakishness of Sunday's endings are reminders enough of how often we flirt with mortality. The Cardinals had a win probability of 7.7 percent after Cody Parkey kicked a field goal to give the Eagles the lead with two minutes remaining in Sunday's game. The Lions had a win probability of 3.2 percent after Matt Ryan threw for a first down to Julio Jones with 2:09 remaining in the game.
The insanity of the Lions-Falcons ending in London may be impossible to spell out. We tried Sunday. The two teams traded bone-headed mistakes, and the Lions' last mistake -- an inexplicable delay of game penalty on Matt Prater's first game-winning kick attempt -- actually saved the team by giving the kicker another attempt after his first fell wide right. The second attempt was true, and would have been a just result for how the Falcons handled the waning minutes if not for the fact that the Lions equally deserved to lose.
The Cardinals simply made big plays down the stretch to come away with a 24-20 victory, and it'd be unfair to blame them for doing so. But the odds that the plays occurred in the succession they did were low. And there was a (teensy) bit of luck involved. The Eagles turned the ball over in the red zone twice Sunday, once on a fumble. The Eagles have been unlucky, fumbling 11 times this season and losing seven, while the Cardinals have been lucky, recovering four of five opponent fumbles. Fumble recovery percentage should hover around 50 percent. On Sunday, the teams' relative lucky/unlucky streaks finally made a tangible impact.
This week, the Cardinals and Lions checked in at No. 2 and No. 4, respectively, in SB Nation's latest power rankings. Where would they have been had the lost? Eighteen teams have winning records in the NFL through eight weeks. The difference between elite and middling isn't much.
Why can't we not be cynical?
If you treat a football season as a ride to an unknown destination it can be a lot more pleasant.
Because even if we weren't, we still wouldn't expect much
And because that sweet reward is the reason for the sport's existence in the first place, so it can't be dismissed outright. Winners get showered with attention, and when they do we overstate how easy it was and probably give them too much credit.
Plinko is perhaps the most popular game on The Price is Right -- so popular that the game show once dedicated an entire episode to the mini-game -- and that's in part because it gives players the feeling of control. They earn chances on the board by guessing which number is correct in the price of a junk product, then choose where they drop the chip down the slope of the board.
But even choosing an optimal strategy leaves you with a 22.6 percent chance of hitting the big-prize center slot on any turn. The odds of hitting center all five times for the grand prize is astronomically low (no one has ever done it in the history show), and that's dependent on if you can earn five chips in the price-guessing portion of the game.
The contestants know the game, and the flashy, beeping joy of winners is dangerously placating. Plinko has some of the worst odds of any game on the show, but look!
The odds of winning a Super Bowl aren't nearly so low, but they're low enough that most of the fan bases feeling good feelings at the moment will most likely be nursing a loss or a missed playoff appearance to end this season. Plinko is a game, which is football as much as it is life as the Atlantic's Megan Garber wrote:
It is preparation and luck, joy and pain, love and loss, wrapped into a board that is comically large, oddly pasteled, and covered, for practical purposes, in plexiglass. We walk up to it, step by step, praying it will give us the rewards we seek. Plinko, in other words, is Pandora's Box. It is Joe's Volcano. It is the Oracle of
DelphiCBS Television City. It knows all the we are, all that we hope, all that we desire. It gives. And it takes away.
The Cardinals and Lions are due championships as much as any of the 13 teams that have never won it, with roots that extend beyond the Super Bowl era. They might do it this year, too, if everything breaks this year their way.