Column: Where did all the NFL contenders go?

Kansas City Chiefs' Cairo Santos (5) celebrates with teammate James Winchester (41) after kicking the game-winning field goal against the Carolina Panthers in the final second of the second half of an NFL football game in Charlotte, N.C., Sunday, Nov. 13, 2016. (Bob Leverone/AP Photo)

As enjoyable as this past Sunday was, it hasn’t been the best season for the NFL. It’s a proven fact that television ratings are down (although they bounced back Sunday), and although there are a variety of reasons why that may be, with some reasons more valid than others, it speaks to the quality of the product at the end of the day.

To produce a great NFL game, you usually need great NFL teams, and this year we just don’t have many of those. Not as many as we usually do, at least.

We have plenty of good teams, or at least teams that can produce a good performance. That list goes on and on, headlined by teams like Philadelphia and Atlanta that have one great unit, The Eagles have a stellar defense, and the Falcons have a stellar offense. The other side of the ball, for both teams, is much more questionable.

But how many teams can you look at, entering a given game, and feel confident that they will show up and compete for 60 minutes? How many teams are strong across the board, and deserve to be labeled as reliable?

That list is much shorter: Dallas, New England and potentially Seattle. Even from that group, the Cowboys could conceivably hit a wall if their incredible rookies begin to struggle, and the Patriots’ defense isn’t up to its usual standards. These are very minor nitpicks; both of these teams are the clear favorites from their respective conferences to reach Super Bowl 51.

The Seahawks make the list because they’ve proven that they hit a higher gear once the season enters its second half, and that gear may have been hit Sunday as they won in New England.

Now, this may not seem fair to remaining six-win and seven-win teams that have accumulated impressive resumes through ten weeks. That list is as follows: Kansas City, Oakland, Denver, Houston, Atlanta and potentially the New York Giants should they win Monday night against Cincinnati. That game had not yet been played when this was written.

But look at each of these teams, and questions begin to arise.

Kansas City, Denver and Houston combine ruthless, fundamentally-sound defense with frequent bouts of complete offensive stiffness. It is hard to imagine any of those teams, save Denver on its home turf, on the right day, taking down either Dallas or New England. Seattle would be a more likely win.

Oakland and Atlanta bring explosives offenses to the table, but both can be stopped by the right team. They could potentially keep up in a shootout, but relative lack of experience could slow both down in the playoffs.

So let me ask: what teams, outside of those three named previously, would you feel comfortable labeling as contenders? Who could you bet on as Super Bowl champion and walk away feeling like you didn’t just toss money into a furnace?

The distribution of quality teams isn’t as skewed this year as it was last year, and while that has made for more unpredictable outcomes, it has not made for a more enjoyable season. Last year, 10 of the league’s 32 teams finished within .100 percentage points of a .500 winning percentage. Through ten weeks this year, 17 teams are within that range, with that number leaping to 19 if Cincinnati beats the Giants on Monday night.

There are a whole bunch of average teams, and average teams do not guarantee good football. Great teams usually do.

Take away those great teams, and the NFL schedule each week looks far less enticing to the viewer. Denver at New Orleans and Seattle at New England were both great games Sunday, but only one looked like it would be at 12:30 p.m. Even then, the ending in New Orleans was hindered by incompetent officiating.

I don’t know where all of the contenders went, but they’re not here. The list of Super Bowl contenders runs, at most, three deep. The NFL is suffering from the same lack of potential champion variability that the NBA is right now. That has to be at least part of the reason why television ratings have been down, although they rebounded Sunday in the wake of the presidential election cycle ending.

Not great for NFL fans. Peeking at the Week Eleven schedule, I can’t say I’m thrilled for another day of football, although I’m hoping dearly for another slate of games like the one we got this past Sunday.

Maybe the Chiefs can find some offensive juice. Maybe the Raiders will figure out how to stop teams from running the ball. I hope so. Let’s make the playoffs great again.


Tyler Keating is associate sports editor for The Daily Campus, covering football and men’s basketball. He can be reached via email at tyler.keating@uconn.edu. He tweets @tylerskeating.