One of the elements that have made the NFL so popular is competitive balance.
Virtually every team has hope every year.
But the churn at the top of the league is especially interesting this season, with some of the NFL’s mightiest teams taking a major tumble, and even falling into the pit of irrelevance.
Consider the four teams that advanced to the conference championship games in 2017: Minnesota, Philadelphia, Jacksonville and New England.
Of those, only New England is currently a division leader, and 7-3 is a ho-hum record for the typically dominant Patriots.
The 5-4-1 Vikings are coming off their two worst offensive performances of the season, have the fourth-most turnovers in the league (16), and need to beat Green Bay on Sunday night to keep a wild-card berth within realistic reach.
The 4-6 Eagles, defending Super Bowl champions and with quarterback Carson Wentz back, have lost three of four and are coming off a 41-point throttling by New Orleans. Mercifully for them, they’re in the tightest division top to bottom — three games separate first and last place — and their next three games are against NFC East foes.
“It’s uncharted territory a little bit,” Eagles coach Doug Pederson said of the uncomfortable position. “I think the guys have handled it well. They’re disappointed, they’re frustrated, quite frankly, as we all are. We haven’t played up to the caliber we’re capable of playing.”
The biggest season-to-season slide belongs to Jacksonville, which has lost six in a row and is in last place in the AFC South at 3-7.
The Jaguars have broken down on both sides of the ball, including lots of big plays surrendered by that star-studded defense.
For a lot of teams around the league, this has potential to be a bounce-back weekend, a chance to gain momentum heading into the final month of the regular season.
Not a single game in Week 12 is a matchup of two winning teams, and that includes the three Thanksgiving games.
A .500 record is good enough to be in contention for a playoff berth at this point in the season, though, and 18 of the 32 teams are .500 or better. So it’s a crowded field of still-relevant teams, and this could be Separation Sunday as the league’s three highest-scoring clubs — the New Orleans Saints, Kansas City Chiefs and Rams — watch from the comfort of their couches.
A pivotal game is Seattle at Carolina, in part because a Seahawks loss means the Rams would clinch the NFC West. But don’t write off Pete Carroll’s Seahawks, who at 5-5 still have a chance to sneak into the postseason as a wild-card team. Seattle leads the league in rushing, despite having no a marquee back, and Carolina is seventh. That game is likely to be a quick one, with both teams keeping the ball on the ground.
Just as the Seahawks won’t catch the 10-1 Rams, the 6-4 Panthers won’t catch the 10-1 Saints. But despite consecutive losses, Carolina is in good position for a wild-card spot.
Speaking of competitive balance, what could be more balanced — on paper, at least — than 5-5 Miami at 5-5 Indianapolis?
Dig a little deeper and you’ll find that the Colts have won four in a row and Andrew Luck hasn’t been sacked in five games. This is a quarterback who for years took the most punishment of anyone, and finally had to sit out the entire 2017 season with a shoulder injury.
The Dolphins, meanwhile, lost three of four heading into last week’s bye. Their offense has gone nine quarters without a touchdown. So they might have the same record as the Colts, but their arrows are pointing in opposite directions.
Luck is enjoying career highs in completion rate (67.3%) and passer rating (101.8), and has thrown 29 touchdown passes, tied with Drew Brees and second only to Kansas City’s Patrick Mahomes (37).
“I was not in a good spot a year ago. I remember that,” said Luck in his typical understated way. “I am in a good spot now.”
Follow Sam Farmer on Twitter @LATimesfarmer