The NFL needs help when even its marquee games stink

NFL: Minnesota Vikings at Philadelphia Eagles

At this time last year there were five undefeated teams in the NFL.

As of right now, there are zero. The Philadelphia Eagles defeated the Minnesota Vikings 21-10 on Sunday, handing Sam Bradford and Co their first loss of the season and dropping their record to 5-1. There’s been a clear shift in the NFL towards parity over the last 12 months, and it may not be a great one for the immediate health of the league, especially after the onslaught of ugly games that have been bombarding viewers of late.

The Vikings-Eagles was Exhibit A (Exhibit B, the stinker between the Cardinals and Seahawks was, unfortunately, to follow later). The two teams combined for five turnovers in the game’s first quarter alone. Philadelphia exploited Minnesota’s battered offensive line: Bradford was sacked six times by his old team, fumbled twice and threw for just one touchdown to go along with an interception. The Vikings offense managed just 93 yards rushing and couldn’t capitalize on Eagles QB Carson Wentz’s two early interceptions. And the Cardinals-Seahawks game was even worse: two of the best quarterbacks in the league failed to throw a single touchdown pass between them over four excruciating quarters and overtime, before the kickers – men whose only job is to kick a football quite far – missed the chippiest of chip shots to leave those viewers still sentient with a 6-6 final scoreline. NFL.com tried to sell it as a “historic tie” on Monday morning. That’s one way of describing it – there were a few other opinions shooting around though:

Minnesota’s performance has ensured that every team has already suffered at least one loss this season. That’s a far cry from last year where the Denver Broncos, Cincinnati Bengals, New England Patriots, Green Bay Packers and Carolina Panthers were all undefeated after Week 7. The Panthers, notably, lost only a single game before reaching the Super Bowl.

Now, these Vikings were never as talented as any of those teams. No one was seriously expecting them to flirt with a perfect season a la Carolina. In fact, in the first few weeks of the season, very few would have pegged them as being the last undefeated team, not after they lost both franchise players – Teddy Bridgewater (possibly for good) and Adrian Peterson – to injuries.

Which is not to say that Minnesota are a bad team, and they’re especially not as bad as they looked during the debacle in Philly. They’re a very good team, and should still be favored to win their division, but they’re just not a great team. In fact, there may not currently be any great teams in the league.

Look at how the teams that were undefeated at his stage last season are doing this time around. The two-loss Broncos have had to lean on their secondary after saying goodbye to Peyton Manning and Brock Osweiler over the offseason. The Patriots can blame their one loss on not having either Tom Brady or Jimmy Garoppolo available, but their iffy defense and kicker Stephen Gostkowski’s case of the yips aren’t exactly intimidating the rest of the league. Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers, despite lighting up the woeful Chicago Bears on Thursday, hasn’t looked like his perennial MVP candidate self. The Bengals started the season 3-4 while the Panthers are suffering a malady several degrees worse than a mere “Super Bowl hangover.”

Apart from whatever’s happening in Carolina, this is the normal state of things. Fortunes rise and fall in the NFL, it’s the whole ancient Greek drama aspect of the sport. The issue is that there aren’t really any teams who have risen fully up the ranks in response. The Dallas Cowboys might be the best team in the league, but nobody fully trusts them. The Atlanta Falcons just suffered two straight heartbreaking losses in a row. The Pittsburgh Steelers could be starting Landry Jones in place of the hurt Ben Roethlisberger for the next month. Even when they win, the Seattle Seahawks have been making fans sleepy.

As much as we love the idea of every team having an equal chance, the NFL is more entertaining when there are a few Goliaths out there. It’s worth wondering if the comparatively mediocre field has contributed to the noticeable dip in quality of the on-field product this year. Wins seem to be decided by who makes the fewest moronic mistakes – or aren’t decided at all when, as we saw in the Seahawks-Cardinals game, two of the “best” teams in the league can’t even kick a 24-yard field goal. The blowout victories inspire more boredom than awe while the close games feel more sloppy than thrilling. It’s perhaps fitting that one of the most competitive games of the year ended on a botched pass interference call.

Hopefully, this is a temporary thing. We’re not quite halfway through the season, there’s still plenty of time for some of these good teams to emerge as great ones. Unfortunately for Minnesota, Sunday’s ugly loss doesn’t bode well for their chances of being one of them.

Quote of the week

“Yes, this man signs my son’s checks as I’ve been reminded on Twitter. Mr Mara owns the New York Giants. He doesn’t own Annie Apple.”

Annie Apple, mother of Giants cornerback Eli Apple, has not been hesitant to criticize New York Giants owner John Mara for essentially enabling kicker Josh Brown even after he admitted to his criminal behavior. On Sunday she wrote about her own experiences with DV in a powerful guest column for Sports Illustrated, where she explains why she refuses to remain silent.

Gif of the week

Punter running for a first down? Punter running for a first down.

Stat of the week

212. That’s how many yards Miami Dolphins running back Jay Ajayi ran for in his team’s 28-25 win over the Buffalo Bills. It was the second straight game in which Britain’s greatest NFL player ran for 200+ yards, tying a record he now shares with Earl Campbell, Ricky Williams and (um) OJ Simpson.

Fantasy player of the week

Andrew Luck (QB, Indianapolis Colts). In the Colts’ 34-26 win over the Tennessee Titans, Luck threw for three touchdowns and passed for 353 yards, continuing to raise the question of whether or not a quarterback can be a MVP candidate when his team is below.500.

Elsewhere around the league

• Well that quarterback change didn’t last long. The New York Jets lost Geno Smith to injury early in his first start of the season. Smith got the start following the benching of Ryan Fitzpatrick, who has been all kinds of terrible after signing a contract extension over the offseason. Pressed back in service due to a starter’s injury – stop us if you’ve heard this one before – Fitzpatrick led the Jets to a 24-16 victory over the Baltimore Ravens, proving once again that he’s always at his best when his role isn’t guaranteed.

• Matthew Stafford has started 100 games, he has led a game-winning drive in the 4th quarter or later in a mind-boggling 24 of them. Washington’s Kirk Cousins thought he had a comeback win for Washington after completing a 19 yard touchdown run to give his team a lead, but there was no out-doing Stafford who took the Lions on a jaunt that’s becoming almost standard for him. Stafford threw the real game-winning TD pass to Anquan Boldin in the game’s final seconds. Detroit won 20-17.

• The Atlanta Falcons and San Diego Chargers had their own body-swap comedy as the Falcons blew a 10-point fourth quarter lead to the Chargers, who then won 33-30 on an overtime field goal. This game was somehow one of only three Sunday afternoon games, as if the NFL needs a few more hints on why they’re starting to lose viewers.

• While there are no more undefeated teams in the league, there remains an utterly defeated team. The Cincinnati Bengals beat the Cleveland Browns 31-17, dropping their record down to 0-7. I guess it’s just not the year for Cleveland sports.

• The New York Giants’ Landon Collins made this amazing, exhausting interception run in the inaugural NFL game at Twickenham against the Los Angeles Rams. The Giants defeated the Rams 17-10, making for a positive end to what has otherwise a regrettable week for the embattled franchise.

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