Week 15 of the 2017 NFL Season features the marquee game of the season as the Pittsburgh Steelers host the New England Patriots. These two teams clashed in the previous AFC Championship Game (the Patriots won en route to winning Super Bowl LI) and have been the top two teams in the NFL over the past two decades.
They represent the paragon of on-the-field excellence, along with the Green Bay Packers, and once again they are at the top of their respective divisions, are the favorites to represent the AFC for the 11th time in 17 years, and the two favorites to win the Super Bowl itself.
In a league structured to promote parity and prevent sustained excellence, the Patriots and Steelers have found a way to keep on winning. Even NFL commissioner Roger Goodell had to acknowledge how the two teams are the exception in 2017.
“Frankly, to me, the fact that of our eight divisions, six of them are led by a team that was in third or fourth place last year, that really indicates the competitive quality that exists in our league,” Goodell said at the NFL Owners Meeting in Dallas, Texas on Wednesday. “I think that is exciting. It's exciting for our fans, it's exciting for us. It is sometimes difficult on teams, but this is something we strive for and we're very excited by.”
The Patriots and Steelers having suffered a losing season since 2000 and 2003, respectively, and aren’t a part of that “competitive quality” that requires every franchise to spend some time at the bottom of their division. Technically the Kansas City Chiefs are also still leading their division after winning it in 2016, but they’re tied with a Los Angeles Chargers team that finished fourth in 2016.
The AFC South leading Jacksonville Jaguars finished fourth in the division in 2016 with a 3-13 record. The NFC East is led by the Philadelphia Eagles, who also finished fourth with a 7-9 record. The NFC North, South, and West are led by teams that finished third in 2016 (Minnesota Vikings, 8-8; New Orleans Saints, 7-9; Los Angeles Rams, 4-12) and that’s the league’s bend towards parity at play.
What’s genuinely interesting is that the Vikings, Saints, and Rams all had to play each other this year due to finishing in the same place of their respective divisions, so it’s not like any get to claim an “easier schedule” that most highlight as a cause for the parity.
Instead, a mix of superior drafting, player development, new coaching, and improved play on the field helped these new teams to the top. Selecting earlier in the draft is really the advantage these teams had because it helps to secure the top talent each year- but this year just highlights the razor thin margin between winning and losing.
I would argue that part of the increased “competitiveness” of each game also comes with a decline in actual quality of performance and is not the result of every team improving, but the results are the results. There will be fresh teams in the 2017-18 postseason and that is cause for excitement.
But I’m not going to be surprised when the Patriots or Steelers end up representing the AFC in the Super Bowl and defeating a team like the Green Bay Packers or Seattle Seahawks.