You hear a knock on the door. You traipse over to answer it, expecting an Amazon Prime delivery, an irritated neighbor, or someone who knows how you can save money on your next energy bill. Instead, you see a man in a blue suede suit and thick yellow janitorial gloves dragging a large aquarium behind him on one of those Radio Flyer All Terrain Wagons.
“I’m an exotic fish salesman,” he announces.
You goggle at him. He reaches into his fish tank, takes out a number of blowfish and begins to juggle them. You immediately decide to buy one of them, a memento of the strangest moment of your life. Otherwise, no one will believe you.
“I’m only selling the largest one,” he says. “And you have to guess which one that is.”
Well, sure. That makes as much sense as anything else at this point. But the blowfish, as confused by the juggling as you are, are puffing themselves in and out as frantically as if they were in the presence of Hootie himself. It is impossible to measure one against the other. You venture a timid guess, the salesmen shakes his head solemnly and takes his leave. You try to furtively take a picture, but as usual, it is blurry and the angle is wrong.
This is the best way I know how to describe evaluating the current level of competition in the NFL. The Cowboys seem pretty good, because they have won ten in a row, something that they have never achieved before, even though they have the highest regular season winning percentage in modern NFL history. But we started feeling pretty good about the Cowboys when they earned their fourth win by beating the vaunted Bengals in week 5. That was back when the Bengals were, in fact, vaunted and the Vikings (5-0), loomed as the team to beat down the stretch. We were confirmed in our opinion of the Cowboys when they beat the Packers in week 6, facing down Aaron Rodgers and the leading rushing defense in Lambeau Field. That now seems less like a signature win and more like bowling with the bumpers up. Now, as the Cowboys ready themselves to face a Vikings crew that have lost five of the last six, no one is who we thought they were. Except for the Patriots. The Patriots are who we thought they were, even if Bill Belichick seems determined to get rid of all of his best defensive players.
The overall record of the Cowboys assures us that they are pretty good. But looking back at individual games or looking ahead at potential playoff matchups, things get as bewildering as those juggled blowfish. We know that the Cowboys offense can impose their will upon an opponent, and that their defense cannot. Kirk “How Do You Like Him Now” Cousins and the Redskins lost a game in which they had over five hundred yards, no turnovers and no sacks given up. Only once in thirty-three other instances has a team overcome that kind of stat line the way the Cowboys did. It was the 1998 Vikings, who moved to 11-1, as the Cowboys will be if they beat the 2016 Vikings this Thursday.
Those 1998 Vikings are also a morality tale about seemingly unstoppable offenses that can in fact be stopped during the playoffs. They were the first team to win fifteen games and not win the Superbowl. Since then, the 2004 Steelers, the 2007 Patriots, the 2011 Packers and the 2015 Panthers have repeated this feat. Almost all of these teams leaned heavily on their offense (with the exception of the 2004 Steelers, who had a rookie quarterback who won thirteen games in a row) and several of them were unseated by defensive teams that came out of nowhere (often it was the Giants, somehow) or that had ground through with less fanfare.
How will the Cowboys fare?