In the N.F.L., Change Is Inevitable. Just Not Atop the Standings.
The Vikings’ offense was on the verge of mutiny, but then Kirk Cousins threw eleventy zillion touchdown passes (O.K., 10, after throwing only three in Minnesota’s first four games). The Dallas Cowboys had the most complete offensive roster in the N.F.C., but then they imploded in three consecutive losses. The Miami Dolphins seemed destined to earn the No. 1 overall draft pick, but then the Cincinnati Bengals started playing, too.
One of the unimpeachable truths of the N.F.L. is its week-to-week unpredictability, and it recalls a sentiment expressed long ago by Mark Twain, who claimed to have counted 136 different kinds of weather during a single spring day in New England.
Except that the weather never changes in New England. It is always cool and overcast with a chance of Super Bowl. Ideal hoodie conditions.
Heading into Monday night’s game at the Jets, the Patriots, again, sit atop the A.F.C., one of two unbeaten teams in the N.F.L., where results and perceptions fluctuate from Sunday to Sunday, but where the postseason standings appear to have been preserved in 2018. Of last season’s 12 playoff teams, eight — including five of six in the A.F.C. — finished Week 7 holding a spot.
Among that group, the Indianapolis Colts, who defeated Houston, 30-23, on Sunday to vault ahead of the Texans in the A.F.C. South, might seem a revelation, what with having lost their generational quarterback, Andrew Luck, to retirement on the eve of the season and all. But that would discredit the quality of a roster that won a playoff game last season and the coaching job of Frank Reich, a former backup quarterback himself.
Even the newcomers in the N.F.C. are not all that new. The Green Bay Packers (6-1), perennial contenders who missed the playoffs the last two seasons, are thriving behind a remodeled defense that, until Aaron Rodgers blistered Oakland for 429 yards and six total touchdowns on Sunday, had outpaced the offense. The investments of the 49ers (6-0) on both sides of the line and the return of Jimmy Garoppolo, a onetime Tom Brady replacement, have fueled San Francisco’s long-awaited revival.
But what distinguishes many of these teams, and other flourishing ones, from their predecessors — and from the dregs of the N.F.L. — is how well they have mutated. They are thriving in ways that are unfamiliar and disorienting but that also reflect their circumstances and personnel. Without any elite offenses to rival the 2018 iterations of the Chiefs or the Rams, this season has been ruled by teams willing and capable of successful adaptation every week — or close to it. That competence, not outright excellence, has been enough for teams to maintain their presence at the top.
Consider how New Orleans has evolved in the last five weeks, since Drew Brees, its outstanding quarterback, injured his thumb. The Saints’ offense is not as productive without him, but with their rapacious defensive front, it does not need to be. Instead the Saints have relied on Teddy Bridgewater to fire short passes — according to the N.F.L.’s Next Gen Stats, his average throw traveled but 6 yards, trailing only the former Jets backup Luke Falk — and be an effective caretaker. Completing 70 percent of his passes, Bridgewater has led the Saints to six consecutive victories, reinforcing the value of a credible backup.
A more jarring transformation has occurred in Baltimore, where a franchise defined for years by its snarling defense now flaunts an electrifying young quarterback, Lamar Jackson. The Ravens weaponized him by designing an offense intended to make defenses wonder every play whether he will run, hand off or throw. Through Sunday, they had gained the most yards and recorded the most points.
Just behind Baltimore in scoring is New England, whose offensive limitations this year have been mitigated by the five touchdowns the Patriots have scored on returns. No team has mastered the art of reinvention the way the Patriots have. They have started the same quarterback, Brady, for almost two decades, and yet morph from season to season and, especially, from game to game.
These Patriots are bulldozing opponents not because of Brady — who according to Pro Football Reference commands an offense that has scored on 37.8 percent of its drives, 15th in the N.F.L. — but rather on the merits of the defense, which the advanced statistical website Football Outsiders deems the league’s second-best through six games since 1986. New England is allowing the fewest points per game (8.0) and limiting quarterbacks to a 42.6 passer rating, by far the lowest in the league.
It should be noted here that the Patriots’ defensive proficiency could be kind of, sort of connected to the atrocious offenses they’ve played so far: Four of their six opponents — Miami, Washington, Buffalo and the (Sam Darnold-less) Jets — entered Week 7 ranking among the bottom five in points scored.
The Dolphins and the Redskins are at a stage familiar to the Jets and the Bills, whose inability to unearth a franchise quarterback consigned them to years of mediocrity, and worse. The incalculable pressure to identify the next Brady, the next Brees, the next Jackson, compels teams to hang on to quarterbacks too long, hoping they fulfill their lofty draft status, or to select the wrong ones altogether.
There is a reason three such teams are languishing in the quarterback abyss. Tennessee, Tampa Bay and Cincinnati have made the playoffs a grand total of once in their last 24 combined seasons, going on 27. If history is any guide, they, unlike all the other teams barreling toward inevitability, won’t be joining them in the postseason.
Ben Shpigel is a sports reporter and has covered the N.F.L. and the New York Jets since 2011. He has also covered the New York Yankees and, before that, the Mets. He previously worked for The Dallas Morning News. @benshpigel
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