Why the 2021 NFL feels more balanced – and unpredictable – than ever before

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KANSAS CITY, Mo. – The Minnesota Vikings are like many NFL teams in 2021 because their playing days have been stressful. They just took it to the extreme.

The Vikings beat the Seattle Seahawks 30-17 in Week 3, but their other 10 games have been settled with one goal, with many of those coming down to one game deciding the outcome.

“It’s the NFL, and that’s how it is,” Vikings coach Mike Zimmer said with a shrug. “We had several games coming down to a game.”

The NFL’s other 31 teams have not had it quite like the Vikings, but can relate. Consider:

  • Twenty-five games this season have been settled at the last game, mostly through 12 weeks since the 1970 merger.

  • Thirty-five matches have been won in the last minute of regulation or overtime, the fourth most in 12 weeks since 1970.

So while the Vikings may be ground zero for close matches determined by one game, they are not alone.

The race for this year’s Super Bowl championship seems as open as ever. Over the course of 12 weeks, nine teams had Super Bowl odds of 13-1 or lower, matching most teams with such short odds in the past six years.

“It’s always meant for the league to have teams [are] pretty straight, “Arizona Cardinals defensive coordinator Vance Joseph said. The Cardinals beat the Vikings 34-33 in Week 2 when Minnesota missed a 37-yard field goal attempt in the final game.

“They do not want teams to run away with this. They want competition; they want teams to fight down to the end … To see the league pretty much straight, I’m not surprised. is the way they want it. That’s the way it should be. And it keeps everyone abrasive, and it makes it fun. “

In the first two weeks of the season, the Kansas City Chiefs experienced the full range of melee emotions.

They rallied from nine points down the fourth quarter to beat the Cleveland Browns 33-29, but only after intercepting a pass to kill a Browns drive late in the game.

The next week, they led the Baltimore Ravens by 11 points in the fourth quarter, losing 36-35, but only after a late Chiefs fumble did they kill a potentially game-winning drive in the final moments.

Chiefs coach Andy Reid said no lead is ever safe, but he said he feels that way more than ever this year.

“The league has been striving like crazy in the last few years ever for parity,” Reid said. “I’m just looking at how this season has gone for different teams and it seems to me that there is a huge degree of parity in the league. Every given weekend, every city, every city, in the NFL has a chance to win a game.

“It’s a great thing. We’re in the competition and there’s a lot of competition.”

Unexpected results everywhere

The NFL has also had more than its normal share of lopsided games this season. Thirty-five have been settled with 22 points or more, the second highest number in 12 weeks since 1970.

But even the league’s better team is not immune to being blown out. The Cardinals have the league’s best record with 9-2, closely followed by the Green Bay Packers (9-3), Tampa Bay Buccaneers (8-3) and Ravens (8-3). The Cardinals lost a game by 24 points. Green Bay lost by 35. Baltimore lost by 24. The Bucs have two double-digit losses on their resume.

Strange and unexpected results are everywhere that turn the position upside down every week. The Browns recently underwent a 63-point swing from one week to the next, beating the Cincinnati Bengals by 25 points and then losing by 38 to the New England Patriots.

The Dallas Cowboys were a week behind the Denver Broncos at one point by 30 points, beating the Atlanta Falcons the following week by 40.

There is perhaps no better example of this season’s unpredictability than the Bengals. Five of their matches have been decided by exactly three points (2-3 in these matches). Their remaining six matches have been settled by 14 points or more (5-1), including all four division matches (3-1).

More than ever, it seems that taking a result for granted is a problem for pretty much all 32 teams.

“It’s a week to week [league], and you have to come to play every single week, “said Buffalo Bills wide receiver Stefon Diggs.

Diggs and the Bills, then 5-2, lost to the 1-6 Jacksonville Jaguars in Week 9 in one of the season’s biggest disruptions. Neither team scored a touchdown, and the Jaguars won 9-6 by kicking one field more than the Bills.

“You just can not get comfortable,” Bill’s tackle Dion Dawkins said after the competition. “You have to stay hungry and everyone wants to give us their best ball. We’re in a position now where everyone wants to give us their best ball every week. Everyone comes after the Buffalo Bills.

“You have to go through life’s ups and downs in football and victories and losses to honestly feel it and understand it. It’s a kill or get killed world, and now that we know everyone has their best efforts against “so we just know we have to be at our best every time. We can never take our foot off that accelerator.”

No Goliaths

There is more evidence that competition around the league is what the NFL is striving for. Betting underdogs have a record of 71-106-1 right up this season. This winning percentage of 0.402 for teams that are expected to lose would be the highest in a season since 2006.

There are no Goliath team opponents wanting to avoid in the playoffs as long as possible. Defending Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers have returned after losing two games in a row, but those defeats were not for top-level competition. One came to the New Orleans Saints and backup quarterback Trevor Siemian and the other to the humble Washington.

The Chiefs, who have won 26 games in the last two regular seasons and represented the AFC in each of the two previous Super Bowls, have returned to the flock. They are 7-4, and one of their losses, 27-3 to the Tennessee Titans in Week 7, was with the largest loss margin since Patrick Mahomes became their quarterback in 2018.

Twelve of the 16 teams in the AFC are .500 or better, including all teams from the West and North divisions. That’s the most teams 0.500 or better in a single conference through week 12 of NFL history. Throughout the league, 21 teams are at least within a game of 0.500, so the battle for a division championship or a wildcard playoff spot can be as wild as ever.

The Vikings are one of the 21 teams. They are 5-6 overall and 4-6 in these matches settled with one goal.

The Vikings are among the many teams wondering what their record could be if they had just been better in all the match-fixing games.

“We were right there,” Minnesota center Garrett Bradbury said after the missed field goal cost the Vikings a win against the Cardinals in Week 2. “We will do the things we need to correct so when we’re in that position. Again – for that we will be – we will end the fight and get to the top. “

ESPN Stats & Information as well as NFL Nation reporters Courtney Cronin, Alaina Getzenberg and Josh Weinfuss contributed.

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