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NFL report: Who's in first? It's constantly changing

NFL report: Who's in first? It's constantly changing

NFL's 1st 17-game season lurks amid talk of rest, recovery

Even coach Mike Vrabel seems to be struggling to understand his schizophrenic Tennessee Titans.

Somewhere, Pete Rozelle is relaxing on a cloud, smiling and preparing to enjoy an afterlife turkey leg.

Rozelle was the NFL’s commissioner in the 1960s and 1970s, before that job made Roger Goodell an unpopular man to everyone except the 32 billionaire owners who pay his salary.

Besides turning the league into the multi-billion-dollar behemoth that it became, Rozelle envisioned a game of parity, where “on any given Sunday,” any team (except, obviously, the Detroit Lions) could beat any other.

Rozelle’s wish has come true. While there are roughly 10 teams that are demonstrably better than the other 22, that doesn’t guarantee much.

Just ask the Tennessee Titans. A week ago, they looked like the NFL’s best squad. Despite losing their workhorse running back, Derrick Henry, to a potentially season-ending knee injury, the Titans edged the New Orleans Saints for their sixth straight victory—and improved to 7–0 against 2020 playoff teams.

Then on Sunday, Tennessee committed five turnovers and lost 22–13 by a Houston Texans team that had lost eight straight and seemed to be determined to get the No. 1 pick in next spring’s draft. The same Texans who have traded away most of their best players and barred the most talented one (Deshaun Watson) from even setting foot in their facility after 22 women accused him of sexual misconduct.

That wasn’t Tennessee’s first head-scratching loss of 2021, either. The Titans somehow managed to lose to the feeble New York Jets, who have the same 2–8 record as Houston. But they still own the AFC’s best record (8–3). Clearly, they play to the level of their competition.

The Titans aren’t alone. Three weeks ago, the Buffalo Bills looked like AFC favorites, despite a narrow loss to Tennessee. They were averaging 33 points per game as they visited Jacksonville—and inexplicably failed to score a touchdown in a 9–6 loss to a then-1–6 team that was ready to fire coach Urban Meyer.

Two weeks later, Buffalo gets steamrolled 41–15 at home by Indianapolis and suddenly finds itself in a familiar position: looking up at Bill Belichick and New England in the AFC East standings.

Want more? The Pittsburgh Steelers had turned around their season with four straight wins—until Ben Roethlisberger landed on the COVID-19 list, and his teammates managed to tie Detroit and ensure the cowardly Lions (0–9–1) won’t endure a second 16-loss season.

With Aaron Rodgers back from the COVID list, Green Bay had a chance to all but wrap up the NFC North title. Instead, a defensive malaise infected the defense and the Pack lost to second-place Minnesota, ensuring the division will remain interesting for a while longer.

That same day, the Dallas Cowboys could have extended their stranglehold on the tepid NFC East, but their injury-plagued offense failed to reach the end zone against a Chiefs defense that allowed a{span}t least 430 yards and 30 points in four of its first five games.

Three weeks ago, the Los Angeles Rams added Pro Bowlers Von Miller and Odell Beckham Jr. to a 7–1 team. Two losses and a bye later, they’re wondering what happened.

Clearly, in a 17-game season with a salary cap and COVID looming, no team can be consistently dominant. And it’s hardly surprising that the longer season has allowed established coaches like Belichick and Andy Reid to figure things out and get their teams ascendant.

For now, that is. Check back in a week or two, when the answer to who’s the NFL’s best team may be totally different.

Steve DeShazo: 374-5443

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