With the calendar flipping to December on the 2021 NFL season, a clearer picture is emerging of where each team stands. Favorites are rounding into shape in each conference as the chase for playoff spots heats up, while less competitive groups are fading into the background.
But there are some teams whose true quality remains obscured by their records. Whether because of bad luck, cold stretches or other factors, these teams are carrying win-loss tallies that are worse than their overall quality level would suggest -- and thus, could be overlooked or dismissed despite their promise going into the stretch run.
Below are five teams that are better than their records going into Week 13:
Indianapolis got off to a rocky 0-3 start, but only two teams (Green Bay and scorching-hot New England) have won more games than the Colts since Week 4. And the secret to their success isn't much of a secret: In that nine-game span alone, running back Jonathan Taylor has put up what would be fine production for a full season (1,034 rushing yards, 14 rushing TDs and a startling yards-per-carry mark of 6.2). One factor likely working in Indy's favor is the reunification of the offensive line. Quenton Nelson, Braden Smith and Eric Fisher all missed time in the first half of the season, but they've been together since Week 8, and in that span, the O-line has earned Pro Football Focus' fourth-best run-blocking grade. Yes, Carson Wentz (18 passing TDs since Week 4, second-most in the NFL in that time period) has been playing better, and the defense has held opponents to 20 points or less in five of the last nine games, but Indy's status as a lurking threat in the AFC playoff picture boils down to Taylor's dominance on the ground.
Looking at the Niners' losses this season, just two -- one by 12 points against the Colts in Week 7 and another by 14 points against the Colt McCoy-led Cardinals in Week 9 -- stand out as egregious. The other three defeats all came by seven points or fewer, with Aaron Rodgers' 37 seconds of brilliance being the difference in Week 3 and the combination of Jimmy Garoppolo's calf injury and rookie QB Trey Lance's inexperience likely tipping the scales in Weeks 4 and 5. Questions persist about Garoppolo's ability to elevate this roster, and injuries -- the latest affecting the dynamic Deebo Samuel and defensive centerpiece Fred Warner -- remain a concern. But there are signs this team, which ranked 11th in scoring on offense and defense heading into Week 13, is in good position to make noise in the NFC. Currently riding a three-game win streak (which includes a key triumph over the Rams and an impressive showing for a West Coast team in a 1 p.m. ET start in Jacksonville), the Niners have a good shot to get to double digits in victories, with games upcoming against the foundering Seahawks and Titans, as well as the Falcons and Texans. San Francisco makes good use of what it has, and if not for a bit of bad luck might possess one of the better records in the league.
The Bengals might seem like an odd team to include here, given their standing as one of the best teams in the AFC. But I wanted to spotlight Cincinnati because the talent base it has assembled allows this squad to fit the premise: I believe the Bengals are even better than their 7-4 record indicates. Cincy has taken a lot of criticism over the years, but since nabbing RB Joe Mixon in 2017, this organization has really done an excellent job drafting young talent, building a core that also includes QB Joe Burrow, WR Ja'Marr Chase and safety Jessie Bates. Coach Zac Taylor, meanwhile, has really lifted this group since coming aboard in 2019. If not for missed field-goal kicks against Green Bay in Week 5, Cincinnati could have eight wins and be sitting atop the AFC North. As it is, this group has bounced back from a two-game losing streak and is currently among the premier playoff contenders in the conference.
I was torn on whether to include the Vikings here, because their flaw -- a tendency to collapse late in losses -- is rather alarming in terms of projecting future success. Holding a 67-40 first-quarter advantage over opponents in games this season is great; being outscored in the fourth quarter by a margin of 69-56 is less so. Losing Dalvin Cook to a shoulder injury also signals trouble ahead. However, the talent level is real. Kirk Cousins is on a hot streak. And the Vikes' penchant for scoring first (they've done this in five of their six defeats) should eventually lead to more positive outcomes. Despite my nagging sense that it might not, I ultimately feel they are better than a 5-6 team, which is why I decided to roll with them.
A three-game losing skid pushed the Raiders to the periphery of the playoff picture -- but then they climbed back over .500 with zeal in a Thanksgiving win over the Cowboys. Yes, that's just one game, and Dallas was undermanned and banged-up. Still, it was an important sign of competitiveness from this group heading into a stretch run that includes winnable dates with Washington, Cleveland and Denver. Plus, it was encouraging to see Derek Carr top 300 yards for the sixth time this season -- and the third time without throwing a pick -- while also logging his fourth game with a passer rating of 100-plus. Aside from the Week 9 stinker against the Giants, Carr has played fairly well over the past few weeks, ranking in the top 10 in the NFL in passer rating (98.2), yards per attempt (8.4) and yards per game (283) between Weeks 10 and 12. Las Vegas' leaky defense is a concern, but if Carr can get hot, the Raiders will have a chance.