Midway through the N.F.L. season is often the juncture at which sportstalk obsesses about parity driving every team toward .500. Instead, in this midway point there are three 8-0 teams and 16 losing clubs. No one’s ever satisfied — there are complaints of not enough parity.
But N.F.L. parity is a myth. Maybe that’s why so many people believe it!
First a bit on the undefeateds. The Panthers are on a 12-0 streak in the regular season, and now wield the strongest N.F.L. weapon: a mature franchise quarterback (Cam Newton) who’s a multiyear secure starter. New England is on an 11-1 stretch at home in November, with Tom Brady playing like it’s 2007 again. The Bengals have balance on both sides of the ball, but your columnist still isn’t sold: Marvin Lewis is 0-6 in the postseason.
In 2009, when the Colts and the Saints reached 8-0, they went on to meet in the season finale. This leading indicator yields an early forecast of a Pats-Panthers Super Bowl rematch.
Now the myth. Supposedly, parity scheduling homogenizes N.F.L. results. But only two of a club’s 16 regular-season contests are based on the previous year’s outcome, while Mitch Goldich of Sports Illustrated notes that preseason strength of schedule charts tell little.
If the postseason began today, four of 12 playoff teams from 2014 would not repeat. In last season’s playoffs, five of the prior 12 did not repeat. It has been a decade since a back-to-back Super Bowl champion — the 2003-4 Patriots — while four Super Bowl victors in that span failed to make the playoffs the following season. Such year-over-year variation prevents the previous year’s outcomes from saying much about what a team faces in the current season. In turn, two of 16 games, the parity-determined aspect of the schedule, is too small a portion to be a primary driver of N.F.L. results.
Each club plays six games in its division, four games against another division in its conference and four contests against a division in the opposite conference. In-division opponents are cast in stone, while the two other divisions are played on a rotation that’s determined well in advance. Want to know who your favorite team will face in a year? Nearly all 2016 pairings are already determined: scan for “scheduling formula.” Next season, for example, the A.F.C. North plays itself plus the A.F.C. East and N.F.C. East. Cincinnati could finish this season 16-0 while Cleveland finishes 2-14, yet 14 of their 16 games would be locked in regardless of their records.
The common draft, the N.F.L.’s hard salary cap and the fact that some coaches and front offices perennially outperform others — all have more impact on standings than the league’s two-game parity mechanism. Whether teams cluster around the middle, or, as with this season, a few stand out, don’t blame the schedule-makers.