Bill Parcells famously said, "You are what your record says you are," and from a certain vantage point, he was right.
The more games you lose, the harder you make it on yourself to get into the playoffs. Teams that moan and whine about being better than their record don't have much ground to stand on in the actual standings. There's a bottom-line element to a team's record that absolutely can't be dismissed.
But Parcells was also partially wrong, too -- or perhaps there was some context missing. Sometimes teams' records are deceiving. After all, he should know best: Parcells' final two Super Bowl appearances as a coach came when his team did not have the best conference record that season.
There's also far more recent history of teams outperforming their regular-season marks in the playoffs.
Just last season, the 10-7 Bengals beat the 12-5 Titans in Tennessee in the Divisional Round. The 10-7 49ers topped the 12-5 Cowboys in Dallas in the Wild Card Round. The 12-5 Rams beat the 13-4 Bucs in Tampa. And so on ...
What's a team's point differential? Who did they beat and lose to? Which injuries must we factor into earlier losses (or wins)? Which games are left on the schedule? Even those questions don't account for how certain teams might be better matched up vs. specific opponents, including ones with better win percentages.
The overarching idea is this: Records might be a tidy way of determining playoff matchups, but they're not always gospel when it comes to assessing an accurate league hierarchy.
So let's try to sort through the records and look past the surface-level win totals to see who truly belongs in the discussion of the better NFL teams, with the playoffs drawing near -- and which ones are merely cosplaying as contenders.
Three teams better than their record indicates
Our timing honestly could have been better, given that our pick for the top spot here is coming off a somewhat listless offensive performance against the Saints. But with a defense that has been shutting teams down lately -- San Francisco has posted four straight second-half shutouts and is maintaining an active streak of 94 minutes without a point allowed -- and a collection of elite skill players, this team can hang with anyone.
At 3-3, the product looked tepid. The Chiefs tore up that defense in a second-half smackdown at Levi's Stadium in Week 7, prompting fair questions about the long-term viability of the Niners. But since that point, they've been pretty dominant. Quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo has been great during San Francisco's four-game win streak (72.3 percent completion rate and a 7:0 TD-to-INT ratio in that span). The melding of trade acquisition Christian McCaffrey into the offense has been seamless. Potential bad health luck (Elijah Mitchell suffered a sprained MCL on Sunday) is the one concern that still looms for this offense.
Matchups against the Dolphins in Week 13 and the Bucs in Week 14 could give us an idea of just how far San Francisco has come since the Kansas City loss. The numbers suggest that the 49ers have actually played one of the easier schedules, if we go by opponents' win percentage in 2022. But I won't let that sway me from the idea that this is a Super Bowl defense and one of the best skill-position groups in the league.
I was this close to picking the Dolphins here, but at 8-3, is Miami really being slept on as a Super Bowl contender? Perhaps, but it would have been a lot easier to make that choice if the Fins were at, say, 7-4.
Instead, we'll go with a team that theoretically should be exempt from such a list. Typically, when a team makes a Super Bowl, it would be more apropos to give it an "overrated" designation the following year. But the Bengals helped land themselves here by starting the season 0-2, then falling to 2-3 via a Week 5 loss to the Ravens, then enduring a Week 8 clock cleaning by the Browns that briefly stalled their momentum. Outside of that game, however, Cincinnati has looked pretty damned dangerous the past two months.
Sunday's win over Tennessee, at the site of Cincinnati's momentous road playoff victory, was pretty massive. Had the Titans won that game, perhaps they'd have been the ones to beat out the Dolphins for real estate in this space. But the Bengals' ability to shut down Derrick Henry and control the game from about the mid-second quarter on served as proof they are a legitimate operation again.
It was about this time last season that the Bengals hit the turbo button, notching late statement victories against the Ravens and Chiefs ahead of their run to Super Bowl LVI. There are still some whopper games left on this year's schedule, starting with another rematch against Kansas City, the two teams' third meeting in less than 11 months, followed by five other tough games.
But those contests will provide ample evidence of whether the Bengals truly can run with the league's heavyweights or not, and whether their much-maligned offensive line and defense can stand up to such stiff tests. Getting receiver Ja'Marr Chase (who's been out since Week 7) and running back Joe Mixon (who missed Week 12) back healthy for the home stretch could be enough to make the Bengals scary once more.
This entry requires a huge caveat, naturally, given that the Jets' just replaced the player who was supposed to be their franchise quarterback. But with Mike White reviving his folk-hero status in Zach Wilson's stead, the apparent turmoil under center does not eliminate the Jets as contenders.
Had Wilson been merely decent as a starter, this whole situation would have been a lot tidier. I'd also like this team a bit more with a healthy Breece Hall, although they've done respectable work replacing the rookie running back following his Week 7 ACL tear. Still, Week 12 proved these are not the same woe-is-us Jets. When Wilson was benched last week, it was a tremor. Everyone braced for what has been so common in recent team history: folding hard when times get tough. That would happen sometimes even in September. But we're closing in on December, and the Jets are still good, even if the two Patriots losses sure do hurt (they might make the difference between chasing an AFC East crown and trying to sneak in as a wild-card team).
Like the other two teams listed above them, the Jets are 7-4, making them a borderline choice. That's a darned good record, after all. Both Super Bowl LVI teams, the Rams and Bengals, had that exact record after Week 12 a year ago. But that's sort of the point within the point: Neither of those teams looked championship-caliber heading into Week 13.
The Jets making the Super Bowl would be a stretch. But they have the defensive clout and, with White, a chance to tap into those talented receivers a little better.
Three teams worse than their record indicates
Look, on some level, the Eagles are listed here simply by virtue of their standout record, which would qualify most teams in most years for the top spot in this portion of this article. At 10-1, Philadelphia has reached a late-season plateau that only 14 other teams have matched or bettered since the start of the 2010 NFL season. The question we must ask is whether the Eagles are on par with some of those teams.
For instance, the 2019 Patriots started 8-0, but even when they hit the 10-1 mark, it was clear there were some looming concerns, and they were one-and-done in the playoffs. The following season, the Steelers -- another team that was pretty clearly overrated in some respects -- started 11-0, then faced the same fate in that year's postseason.
It feels like these Eagles are better than those teams. Jalen Hurts has been terrific. Both the offense and defense have been big-play units. Still, this is not some unstoppable runaway-train behemoth. The defense suddenly has some warts, with poor run fits and a kidney injury to NFL interceptions leader C.J. Gardner-Johnson that will keep him out indefinitely. A.J. Brown has been fumbling too much. Dallas Goedert's injury has taken some bite out of the passing game.
Far more teams starting 10-1 or 11-0 have gone on to lose Super Bowls in recent years than have gone on to win them, with the 2013 Seahawks and, yes, 2017 Eagles being the two exceptions. Can this year's Eagles buck that trend? Yes, and the path to doing so is easier on the NFC side, where they could have home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. That's why listing them here is pretty darned risky.
But in a season where the script has been shredded several times, we also wouldn't be shocked if the Eagles come up just a bit shy of getting to Arizona for Super Bowl LVII.
Sunday's dramatic victory over the Cardinals put the Chargers back over .500 and showed just how special Justin Herbert can be. He's truly a great young quarterback who gets overlooked because of the team for which he plays. The Chargers also might be the one team that has shown it can hang with the Chiefs, which is a prerequisite if you have any designs of making it through the AFC gauntlet.
But on the whole, this is -- yet again -- a pretty disappointing outfit. By and large, the Chargers have scraped by against lesser teams and come up short against the better ones. In their six victories, the Chargers have outscored their opponents -- none of whom have a winning record -- by a mere 24 points. Those teams' combined record is 21-46-1.
The Chargers' five losses have been by a combined 54 points. Losing a pair of field-goal games to the Chiefs is nothing to scoff at. But getting blasted at home by the Jaguars (by 28 points) and Seahawks (by 14) raises some tough questions.
With all due respect to Herbert and a receiver room that's getting healthy at the right time, we just don't see the Chargers having what it takes to suddenly become a weapons-grade contender. This is not this year's version of the 2021 Bengals, we suspect, even as badly as some people might want to craft that narrative.
Even before their last two losses to the Lions and Cowboys, there were signs that the Giants might be a bit over their skis at 7-2. It's not as if they hadn't been winning close ones all season -- their record and negative point differential (-7) spell that out pretty clearly. But narrow, hard-fought wins over the Jags in Week 7 and the Texans in Week 10, along with a two-TD loss to the Seahawks in Week 8, seemed to change the trajectory of this surprising team. Those games had a different feel than tight victories over the Titans in Week 1, Packers in Week 5 and Ravens in Week 6.
Injuries have been a big part of the recent swoon, and the Giants should be getting a little healthier here soon. But Daniel Jones and Saquon Barkley have been a bit quiet lately as defenses have been able to key in on the quarterback and running back, with so few other threats on the field alongside them. Defensively, the Giants have been kind of hanging on for dear life, especially against some of the more potent offenses they've faced. If they can't get better at stopping the run, you can almost forget about a big playoff showing.
This season undoubtedly has been a success for first-year head coach Brian Daboll and his staff. The Giants have looked competent and creative offensively and have been far more competitive than expected. They've been within one score in the fourth quarter of every game except against the Lions. But it's not hard to see the gradual slide back to the middle that's been underway for about a month now, right as the Commanders have risen up as the team that could take their place in the NFC East standings.