It's hard to maintain perspective in a sport where teams play just once a week and just 16 times all year. Wins can often seem bigger than they are. Losses can make even the strongest of teams appear fatally vulnerable.
But other than the rare exception like the 2007 New England Patriots, every team loses at some point during the regular season. The last five Super Bowl winners have entered the playoffs with an average of five losses, and some of those have been ugly -- such as the Patriots' 41-14 loss to the Chiefs early last year. On Monday night when the prolific Bengals offense failed to score a touchdown against the Houston Texans in a 10-6 defeat, it sounded the alarms -- even though it was the team's first loss of the year.
"Same old story for star-crossed Cincinnati Bengals," read a headline on NFL.com afterward. Similar tropes popped up on Tuesday across all media platforms as fans and analysts everywhere held the Bengals' Monday night performance as proof that this Cincinnati team was no different than the ones that have fallen in the Wild Card round in five of the past six years.
But that's not entirely fair.
At this point in the season, only the Carolina Panthers and the Patriots have managed to remain undefeated. Every other team destined for the postseason has at least one blemish on their record, though for most teams -- especially in the AFC South and NFC East where no one is above .500 -- it's much more than one:
There are now only 11 NFL teams with a winning record, the fewest entering Week 11 since 1990.— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) November 19, 2015
For the league's top contenders, the question is, does one bad loss even mean anything?
Cincinnati Bengals, Week 10 vs. Houston Texans (10-6)
Because we've all seen Andy Dalton and the Bengals play great during the regular season before, only to eventually flop in the playoffs, we're now looking for signs that this year's results have been nothing more than a mirage. Dalton's career regular season record is 48-24-1. His playoff record is 0-4. His career touchdown-to-interception ratio is 117:71.
The loss to the Texans was an ugly one, but no one expected the Bengals to go 16-0 this season, or even 15-1, or even 14-2. One defeat doesn't mean the sky is falling. Cincinnati still has a top-10 defense and an offense ranked No. 2, according to Football Outsiders. The Bengals still have a 91 percent chance of winning the AFC North and a 62 percent chance of earning a first-round bye, according to FiveThirtyEight. They have outperformed all expectations and are in a great position. Right now that's all that matters. One loss to the Texans doesn't.
Denver Broncos, Week 10 vs. Kansas City Chiefs (29-13)
The first loss for the now 7-2 Broncos came Week 9 against the Colts. But Denver's 29-13 home loss to the Chiefs last Sunday should be one that has Broncos fans terrified. The Chiefs embarrassed Peyton Manning, whose future is now questionable after poor play and injuries all season. That game could be the one we look back at as season-changing for the Broncos.
If Brock Osweiler plays well this week, they could close out the regular season on a high note. If not, Denver is in trouble. The Broncos still have a stout defense, but if they can't get their offense kicking, their dominant start to the season won't mean much.
Minnesota Vikings, Week 1 @ San Francisco 49ers (20-3)
It's never good to lose to a team headed for a five-win season. The Vikings, though, have lost just one game since -- a 23-20 defeat Week 4 in Denver. It might have taken a few weeks, but this Vikings team has turned into one of the best in the league and currently leads the Packers by one game in the NFC North. They've outscored opponents by 44 points this season -- the third-best mark in the NFC -- and boast the league's top rushing attack. The loss to the 49ers is a permanent mark on the Vikings' win-loss record, but it means nothing else.
Green Bay Packers, Week 10 vs. Detroit Lions (18-16)
Green Bay started the season at 6-0, and back-to-back losses to the Panthers and Broncos are at least excusable. But a third loss in a row? To the Lions? At home? Yikes. Then again, they can get back on track with a favorable schedule. If the Packers beat the Vikings in Week 11, they're back at the top of the NFC North.
However, the Packers aren't going anywhere unless they can figure out how to jumpstart their suddenly stagnant offense. Green Bay's lack of talent at running back and wide receiver has been exposed. Teams now know how to take advantage.
Arizona Cardinals, Week 6 @ Pittsburgh Steelers (25-13)
The best example in the group of why it's silly to focus on a single loss. Most would agree that the Cardinals are the best team in the NFC. They've outscored their opponents by 117 points this season -- the second-highest total in the NFL and highest mark in their conference. And yet, somehow this is a group that has fallen to two teams led by Landry Jones and Nick Foles (Week 4 at home).
The Cardinals are now in firm control of the NFC West, and come playoff time everyone will have completely forgotten about those early losses.
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With Thanksgiving around the corner, we're now at the point where we can start making definitive judgments. Some losses can tell us a lot about a team, about where it's vulnerable and weak -- the Packers and Broncos, who looked nearly invincible early in the season, have been exposed in recent weeks. But some, like the one the Bengals suffered Monday, can easily be chalked up to an off game for the entire team. In those cases it's best to throw the result out and instead focus on the larger picture.