But what fun is that? This sport thrives on the belief that every game matters, that it’s impossible to get lost in such a short season, that there’s not as much pacing as you see in the NBA, MLB or NHL. While a 17-game schedule remains a tiny fraction of 82 or 162, it’s still a taxing elongation for a sport in which every collision takes a toll. Through the first two weeks of this longer campaign, the rhythm of the season feels different.
It’s not reflected in the quality of play. The games have been good and entertaining, as usual. But there already has been some wild week-to-week variance among established winners that goes beyond the typical slow build of a season’s opening weeks. Even though the effort is clear and the atmosphere in the stadiums is charged once again after a pandemic year of limited fan attendance, more teams than normal look like they are ramping up gradually.
The coaches who can afford to be a little patient seem mindful that the extra game requires a more deliberate approach. Most teams rested their starters during the preseason and turned those practice games into evaluation sessions for the bottom of the roster. As a result, the early returns have been full of uneven performances: thrilling debuts followed by duds (ahem, New Orleans), troubling starts followed by comeback flashes of brilliance (Green Bay), uncharacteristically puzzling home performances after season-opening road victories (Pittsburgh and Seattle).
There are always surprise teams that start fast, but it has been something to see Carolina and Denver both with breezy 2-0 starts. Both are plus-24 in point differential. And the Las Vegas Raiders have already knocked off perennial playoff contenders Baltimore and Pittsburgh. Those 2-0s are not like Tom Brady and Tampa Bay looking dominant, or even talented NFC West teams Arizona, San Francisco and the Los Angeles Rams planting their flags early.
But look a little deeper than just who’s hot at the moment. Twelve of the 14 teams that made the playoffs last season already have at least one loss. Indianapolis, which seems solid on paper, is 0-2. Last year’s playoff teams are a combined 15-13.
And it’s not simply because good teams are beating up each other in high-profile matchups. It’s not merely the result of few teams with high expectations getting off to terrible starts. The concern among playoff teams is fairly even; almost all of them have been erratic. The results in the AFC have been especially wild. The AFC’s 2020 playoff roster is just 6-8; all seven of those squads have at least one loss.
At this point, the question shouldn’t be, “Why is my squad struggling?” There’s no need to whimper. Definitely don’t throw anything at your television. Kansas City looks messy right now. It took Green Bay six quarters before it looked like the real Green Bay. This new 17-game season isn’t running away from any good team anytime soon, and even if a gap starts to become noticeable, that extra week will make it a lot harder for teams to maintain momentum.
Normally, it takes about four games for a season to get going. If your team starts 2-2, you’re okay. If it’s 1-3, you’re in trouble but not dead. The first month is about learning quickly, developing habits and building a standard. Avoid a catastrophe, stay healthy, and you can make up ground. That’s the usual rhythm, even if the process makes people anxious.
This season? The first big judgment is probably at about six weeks. It depends on a team’s strength of schedule and upcoming opponents. But somewhere in the neighborhood of six games — unless a team is winless, 1-5 or a really ugly 2-4 — is when the urgency should kick in. That’s when the great teams will probably start to separate themselves.
Of course, that’s about four weeks too many for any die-hard to wait. The wonderful thing about the NFL is that pressure. It always seems like a potential crisis is one loss away. Just the same, a last-minute, come-from-behind victory early in the season can renew all possibilities. The Washington Football Team was seconds from a most awful 0-2 record — with both losses at home. But a New York Giants offsides penalty offered a second chance, and Dustin Hopkins redeemed himself for missing a longer field goal by nailing his attempt after the penalty. At 1-1, Washington can breathe again.
Rarely is treading water so captivating. But the new flow to this schedule shouldn’t be underestimated. It’s still a sprint compared to other sports, but it’s a sprint full of violence and injury attrition that’s asking finely-tuned athletes to hold it together a little longer than usual.
The turnover throughout the league also adds intrigue. In addition to seven new head coaches this season, there are an astounding 15 teams with new starting quarterbacks. The unfamiliarity lends itself to some September mayhem, too.
Try to enjoy the unpredictability as much as Aaron Rodgers loves being ornery. On Monday night, the Packers awoke in the second half against Detroit in a 35-17 victory. They trailed the Lions 17-14 at halftime, a week after a stunning 38-3 loss to New Orleans. But after those six bad quarters, the Packers looked closer to the team that went 13-3 in back-to-back seasons. And Rodgers returned to form, on the field and behind the microphone.
“I think we maybe tried to show that we cared a little bit more,” he told reporters afterward. “I just think people like to say a lot of b------, and it’s nice to come back in here after a game like that.”
At least he was honest about disliking the public’s urge to rush to judgment.
“I think that there’s even more now than when I started playing,” said Rodgers, 37, who is in his 17th NFL season. “There’s so many overreactions that happen on a week-to-week basis. So it’s nice to come out, have a good performance and get the trolls off our back for at least a week.”
The trolls will lurk for one week longer this season, however. The playoffs still present the same grind. And the Packers have Super Bowl-or-bust pressure to manage.
Actually, when you think about it, Green Bay should be excused for a miserable debut. If this season is all about how the Packers finish, they’d be wise to save their closing kick for as late as they can justify.