While we are clearly deep into the 2021 season, it’s not too late for some teams to make an impact — even if the playoffs are probably out-of-reach. There’s tremendous value in identifying these spots, as the general sports media tends to focus on the hot teams with a storyline.
Instead, we are starting to find teams and setups that could lead to a new hot team and act accordingly.
It’s Time to Fear the New England Patriots
It’s the easiest storyline we could find and the only place to start. The New England Patriots have won six-in-a-row, and their last loss was an overtime game against the Cowboys. Does this sound familiar? It should. I wrote about New England’s surge in a prior installment of this column. I’m doing it again because the Patriots have extended even further beyond the reasonable state of being extended.
The Patriots have surged beyond the surge.
The takeaway is as straightforward as it gets: New England will carry a premium. Will it be worth paying? Maybe. Can the team keep winning? Of course. But just know that one of the most polarizing teams of the past two decades — winning gains attention, whether it’s good or bad attention — is now tied for the most wins in the AFC.
Tread lightly if deciding to buy into the Patriots at this extremely high point.
The Chiefs and Cardinals Win Without Playing
Two of the best teams in their respective conferences shared a bye in Week 12, and their pursuers each had chances to gain ground. Neither did. The Kansas City Chiefs and Arizona Cardinals were most closely being chased by the Los Angeles Chargers and Los Angeles Rams, respectively, and both lost.
In addition to the obvious impact on the standings — breathing room for the two teams — it is more important for the storylines than anything else. When the Chiefs and Cardinals return to action, they will face the Broncos and Bears as division leaders. There are no exceptions to be taken or caveats to be added. This helps validate the teams in the mindset of football fans and, while it’s not like either needed validation, the needle of perception is pushed more dramatically in their directions.
Let’s pay attention to how either reacts in returning from a bye week with an extended lead.
The Philadelphia Eagles Aren’t Quite There, Yet
It’s a long season, both for the teams playing the games and those of us who cover every angle of it. These two go hand-in-hand because I’ve written a nearly identical blurb to this one about other teams in the past. All I have to do is change the name, and it fits.
That’s the point.
The Philadelphia Eagles proved they weren’t ready to take the next step in their road toward a full recovery from a bad start. Before it was the Eagles, though, it was a different team. And after them? It’ll be another team.
We usually refer to the Major League Baseball season as a marathon, but the reality is that all sports force their combatants to survive the ebb-and-flow that is natural with competition. The Eagles may still make a playoff push, but they were knocked down at an extremely inopportune time.
If we’re looking for an edge, we just found one.
I mentioned how I could have cycled through teams in this same setup precisely because we know what to expect from here. Philadelphia isn’t done, despite it not being “there, yet.” Those are two different, unrelated comments.
It’s still worth buying into the Eagles, and we may now get the opportunity to do so at a discount.
It’s Time to Pay Attention to the Dolphins
The numbers disagree with the headline. The Miami Dolphins are 5-7, and, statistically speaking, they would probably need to go no worse than 4-1 to close the season to be in the conversation for the playoffs. Still, we aren’t here only for those who have postseason aspirations. We want to learn something useful that can be applied to future picks.
We learned that Miami is finally starting to play like the team it wanted to be.
Despite the turmoil and injuries, the Dolphins had set out to land quarterback Tua Tagovailoa and make him their franchise quarterback. Their handling of him over the last two years has been nothing short of curious, and maybe the mindset has changed, but we know that he was in their plans for quite a long time. Now, we’re here, the Dolphins are winning games, and they may be hitting their stride at exactly the right time.
Once again, it might not be the right time to matter in the standings, but it turns Miami into a tough team to play. Tough teams beat spreads.
The Steelers and Titans are in Trouble
Two of last year’s division winners, the Pittsburgh Steelers and Tennessee Titans, just lost by a combined 54 points on Sunday. It’s worse than the number, though. The reality is that both teams were exposed in their recent games. Pittsburgh, a team known to win games solely because of its defense, was utterly inept offensively. Tennessee, which has tried to survive the loss of running back Derrick Henry as long as possible, is starting to see the effects of his absence.
Maybe this isn’t a surprise for everyone. As I just stated, we know that each team has flaws. But we also know that they had a pedigree of winning games despite these flaws.
What happens now?
Specifically, the Titans will go on a bye while the Steelers will play another division rival in the Ravens.
Despite the success we’ve seen from both teams, it feels like they are now living week-to-week, where an all-out collapse appears to be possible. If it doesn’t happen, I would be aggressive to buy in whenever we can get a reasonable price.
Mario Mergola is a featured writer at FantasyPros and BettingPros, as well as the creator and content editor of Sporfolio. For more from Mario, check out his archive and follow him @MarioMergola. He has also been one of the industry leaders in NFL against-the-spread picks over the last 7 years.