If there were ever an NFL season to desperately want to avoid an extra playoff game, this is the one. We learn it every chaotic Sunday, watching presumed Super Bowl contenders get blown out by seemingly lesser opponents or falter in games they have no business losing.
This reality is the most familiar rhythm of the 2021 season. If it were a musical score, it would come out sounding like the theme from "Jaws."
Just when you thought it was safe to play the Houston Texans again ...
In a season like this, the most valuable piece of playoff real estate has never been more vital. We’re talking about the No. 1 seed, of course. It's a slot that not only assures home-field advantage, but it also grants a team one less game than the other playoff teams in its conference. Since a 2020 rule change went into effect, the first-round bye goes only to the top seeds in the AFC and NFC. That benefit takes on monumental importance this season, given that no top-level team in the NFL seems capable of avoiding a nonsensical loss.
That group includes the Dallas Cowboys and Green Bay Packers, who have each suffered head-scratching defeats this season. Both squandered a three-week opportunity since the start of November. Dallas and Green Bay have gone 1-2 in that span, losing playoff ground to the Arizona Cardinals during a three-week window when Kyler Murray didn’t play. It's a period when backup Colt McCoy helped engineer a 2-1 performance that was punctuated by a pair of road wins in the NFC West.
Not surprisingly, two key players — quarterback Aaron Rodgers for the Packers and No. 1 wide receiver Amari Cooper for the Cowboys — missed a game in that stretch after testing positive for COVID-19. Both are reportedly unvaccinated. As such, both fell into the league’s 10-day quarantine window for unvaccinated players. And as we saw in the losses that followed, both were sorely missed on the field against the Kansas City Chiefs.
Rodgers' absence was felt in a 13-7 defeat to the Chiefs on Nov. 7, which featured backup Jordan Love struggling to mount any semblance of an offense for Green Bay. As for Cooper, the Cowboys wideout might have feasibly been able to test negative and make Sunday’s game in Kansas City, where quarterback Dak Prescott sorely missed his presence in a 19-9 loss. And he most definitely would have had the chance to test out of the league’s COVID protocols by the Thanksgiving game against the Las Vegas Raiders. But since both games are inside the league’s 10-day quarantine window for unvaccinated players, he was automatically scratched from both on Friday. As bad as it was to lose Cooper for one game, it could get worse later this week.
Conversely, both of those games certainly helped the Chiefs, who didn’t give either Dallas or Green Bay its best game offensively, yet won both tilts and now find themselves back into the thick of the AFC playoff race.
Meanwhile, the losses helped the Cardinals, who somehow managed to log a winning record without their franchise quarterback and took a one-game lead over Green Bay in the race for the NFC's No. 1 seed, as well as a 1 1/2 game lead over Dallas, which has already gone through a bye and played one fewer game than the others.
That might seem inconsequential, given that Arizona and Green Bay each have six games left in the season. But given that the Packers have a win in their head-to-head matchup with the Cardinals, even being tied for that top seed today would be a solid edge for the Packers. And had Green Bay pulled off a 3-0 run while Murray was out, it would have effectively given the Packers a 1 1/2-game lead over the Cardinals in the playoff standings — by way of one extra win and the head-to-head tiebreaker. That’s an immense lost opportunity, especially given the Packers need the bye week like every other team and they might miss the best home-field playoff advantage in the NFC.
The schedules will be a factor down the stretch. Green Bay might have the toughest remaining six games among those vying for the top spot in the NFC, with four of those six remaining teams still in the thick of the playoff hunt.
As for the Cowboys, the franchise has been ravaged by injuries of late, including a concussion suffered by CeeDee Lamb that may ultimately cost him the Thanksgiving Day game, as well. With medical issues amassing and the offense looking awful against the Chiefs largely because of the ailments, the margin for error when it comes to that No. 1 seed is shrinking down to nothing.
All of which takes us back to the past three weeks. Availability mattered in every single one of them. The Cardinals managed to fight through their loss of Murray. The Cowboys and Packers, not so much. Make no mistake, that’s going to matter down the stretch.