Once upon a time in the NFL, it was possible to peruse the league standings at the midpoint of the season and get a pretty good idea of which teams were Super Bowl favorites, or at least contenders. But in 2017, pro football has become a hodgepodge in which perennial NFL doormats have risen from the ashes to exact revenge from their long-time tormentors, while injuries to quarterbacks have torpedoed the playoff hopes of teams expected to be contenders. Furthermore, it’s become increasingly difficult to gauge the relative strength of teams using conventional metrics.
To cite only some of the most outlandish examples, consider that the Carolina Panthers, a team that just defeated last year’s NFC-champion Atlanta Falcons 20-17 in Week 9, currently have a 6-3 record but only a +9 points differential (i.e. points scored vs. points given up). By comparison, the Los Angeles Rams have a record of 6-2, but a points differential of +108. So the Rams—leading Carolina by only one-half game in the overall conference standings—have scored 99 more points against their opponents through nine games than the Panthers. As for the Arizona Cardinals, they’re 4-4 and only two games behind the NFC West Division-leading Rams, despite their current points differential of -62 through eight games.
The Steelers’ difficulties in converting scoring opportunities to points are well documented. But who would have guessed that—in addition to the Steelers and their arch-rival Patriots posting identical 6-2 records to date—the two teams’ current points differentials also are nearly identical (+36 for Pittsburgh and +37 for New England)? The main distinction seems to be that, whereas Pittsburgh’s offense has struggled to score points, New England’s defense has struggled even more to prevent opponents from scoring.
Leading the NFL pack are the surprising Philadelphia Eagles, sporting an 8-1 record, a +104 points differential and quarterback Carson Wentz, who’s thrown 13 more TD passes than Ben Roethlisberger this season. As if the Eagles weren’t already chocked full of talent, they recently acquired running back Jay Ajayi in a trade with the Dolphins.
The 6-2 Rams have also been turning heads. For the first time in 16 years, including a substantial period when they were playing in St. Louis, the Rams are off to a fast start. After demolishing the hapless Giants 51-17 on Sunday, the Rams already have scored more points in 2017 than during their entire 2016 regular season. Their current +108 points differential is the best in the league. This is particularly astounding because last season the Rams were 4-12 and the league’s lowest-scoring team.
Following their dismal 0-2 start, the New Orleans Saints have reeled off six consecutive wins for the second-longest winning streak in the league behind (you guessed it) the Eagles who currently have stacked up 7-straight wins. The 6-2 Saints currently have a points differential of +66, placing them at No. 3 in this category among the “good” teams.
Sure enough, the Minnesota Vikings—a team which had modest expectations at the beginning of the season—are also 6-2 with a points differential of +44. The Vikes currently are riding a 4-game winning streak, while quarterback Case Keenum currently ranks No. 5 in the league in total quarterback rating, right behind Tom Brady.
But in addition to the teams with the best records so far, a few other teams also could easily make strong bids for their conference titles and a trip to Super Bowl 52. First among these teams is the 5-3 Dallas Cowboys—provided of course that they can keep Ezekiel Elliott on the field for the remainder of the season. In whipping the Kansas City Chiefs 28-17 in Sunday’s featured matchup, the Cowboys demonstrated they’re a different and dangerous team with Elliott in the lineup. Despite their undeniable talent and having come into Sunday’s game with a 6-2 record, Alex Smith and the Chiefs were no match for the sheer star power deployed by the Dallas offense.
The Jacksonville Jaguars also extended their record to 5-3 on Sunday, throttling Andy Dalton and the Bengals’ offense for a 23-7 victory. The Bengals were forced to operate for roughly half of the game without their star receiver A.J. Green, who was ejected for fighting near the end of the first half. We’ll have more about the Bengals a bit later in our “Ugly” section but, as for the Jaguars, their current +89 point differential—plus sharing the AFC South lead with Tennessee—places them squarely in the contender category. But despite their record, the Titans don’t quite belong in that same category because of inexperience at quarterback plus their mediocre -12 points differential.
In addition to the Steelers and Patriots with matching 6-2 records, the Chiefs and Carolina—both currently 6-3—and the Seattle Seahawks (5-3) round out the NFL’s “Good” category.
Teams judged as “Bad” are those that, despite records which might seem to place them among the contenders, currently suffer from circumstances which likely will conspire to dash their playoff hopes. The Houston Texans had the look of a rising NFL power before they lost their phenomenal young quarterback Deshaun Watson for the remainder of this season with a torn ACL. Without Watson and defensive superstar J.J. Watt, the Texans look like they’ll be pretty bad during the season’s second half.
The Green Bay Packers (4-4) also had the look of a serious contender before Aaron Rodgers went down with a season-ending broken collarbone last month in a game against Minnesota. If the Packers’ showing on Monday Night against the Lions is any indication, Brett Hundley isn’t likely to take this team anywhere in 2017. Similarly, the Atlanta Falcons (4-4) appear to have reverted to the middling team which nobody ever expected to see in a Super Bowl prior to the 2016 season—let alone being in an ideal position to win the franchise’s first Lombardi Trophy prior to their infamous, fourth-quarter meltdown. When you talk about underwhelming teams this season, how much worse can things get for a team with Atlanta’s talent than their current -2 points differential?
The New York Jets (4-5) and Buffalo Bills (5-3) have shown flashes of promise during the first half of this season, but not nearly enough to surpass the Patriots in the AFC East—nor even to do significant damage in the playoffs if either team should happen to somehow sneak in as a wild card. Likewise, the Denver Broncos (3-5) and Oakland Raiders (3-5) had been expected to make some noise in the AFC West, but the Chiefs appear to be on the verge of running away with that division, just as Pittsburgh is currently doing in the AFC North.
The Baltimore Ravens, former arch-enemy of Pittsburgh, have now been relegated to the Bad category. But even in their degraded state, the Ravens still are stubbornly trying to win football games, as they nearly managed to do with a late rally against the Titans in Nashville on Sunday.
Rounding out the “Bads,” are the Los Angeles Chargers (3-5); Washington Redskins (4-4); Chicago Bears (3-5); Tampa Bay Buccaneers (2-6); Arizona Cardinals (4-4); and Detroit Lions (4-4). These teams are just good enough to raise their fans’ hopes and just bad enough to dash them on the rocks.
To qualify for this category, win-loss record is only one consideration. It also helps your standing if you lose control of your marquee players, alienate your entire fan base and encourage your community of fans to turn against each other in the online equivalent of jail riots. These criteria strongly commend the Cincinnati Bengals as a primary candidate for inclusion in the Ugly category. While the 3-5 Bengals might not be quite as inept as fellow “Uglies” the Cleveland Browns (0-8) or San Francisco 49ers (0-9), they’ve managed to explode any notion among Cincinnati fans that the home team will come anywhere close to a playoff berth by the time December rolls around. And because the Bengals have elevated fan-torture to a veritable art form during the past five decades, no other team in the NFL is capable of engendering the sheer snarling and gnashing of teeth among fans which this team accomplishes annually. Of course, the Browns and 49ers might be hopeless, pathetic and beyond the pale. But unlike Cincinnati, at least Cleveland and San Francisco don’t pretend to be pretty.
Another ugly 3-6 team—which also happens to be the Steelers’ opponent next Sunday—is the Indianapolis Colts. The Colts have also lost the services of their starting quarterback Andrew Luck for the remainder of the season. As their -98 points differential indicates, they’re even worse than the Bengals (-29) despite sharing the same record. Indy’s 20-14 victory over the Texans on Sunday speaks more of the dismal state of Houston’s quarterbacking situation than of any resurgence on the part of the Colts. Second-year quarterback Jacoby Brissett has had a difficult initiation to the ways of the NFL and, despite showing some recent improvement, his current stats (5 TD passes, 4 interceptions and 4 fumbles) place him squarely in the heart of QB Palookaville, an address currently shared by Andy Dalton and Joe Flacco.
While their current record is a manageable 4-4, the Miami Dolphins also deserve ugly recognition because they haven’t resolved their quarterback issue and their current points differential is -63, placing them at about the same level of ugliness as the 4-4 Arizona Cardinals (-62 points differential). By the way, the Dolphins also earn ugly honors by trading away a talent such as running back Jay Ajayi in exchange for a 4th-round draft pick.
Rounding out the Uglies are the New York Giants (1-7) whose -78 points differential places them at an even lower floor on the descending elevator of bad.
The Steelers’ path forward
What does all this mean for Pittsburgh and Steelers’ Nation? First of all, it means that the Steelers have a rare opportunity during the remainder of this season, provided they’re able to take advantage. Seven of the eight games remaining on Pittsburgh’s 2017 schedule will be matchups against demonstrably mediocre opponents. Three of these teams (Indianapolis, Green Bay and Houston) have lost their starting quarterbacks for the season due to injury. The other three first-string quarterbacks Pittsburgh will face who still remain in action are Dalton, Flacco and DeShone Kizer—each of them likely to face demotion during the 2018 season, if not sooner. As for the Titans, their promising young quarterback Marcus Mariota currently has only six TD passes and five interceptions, so it’s evident he’s still learning the ropes in the NFL. On paper at least, this leaves Tom Brady and the Patriots as the sole significant challenge for the Steelers’ defense during the entire second half of the season.
Because the Steelers currently have a substantial advantage in the standings over both the Ravens and Bengals, the next eight games represent a golden opportunity for Tomlin and company to focus on honing the finer points of their game on both sides of the ball. By all indications, of course, both the Patriots and Chiefs will enjoy similar opportunities. And the AFC team that ultimately punches its ticket to Super Bowl 52—likely to face a stronger NFC opponent than last season’s Hindenburg Falcons—will be the team that leverages its current advantage in the NFL standings most effectively. As things stand now, Pittsburgh’s opportunity to be that team looks as bright as the prospects for any other NFL team.