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In an NFL season determined to make everything unreliable, you can trust just three teams almost halfway through that slog: the Buffalo Bills, Kansas City Chiefs and Philadelphia Eagles. For now, these are the real Super Bowl contenders, the ones who can stack current success on enough track record for optimal reliability. It’s a surprisingly lean elite tier.

Where are all the good teams? It’s hard to list a top 10 without cringing multiple times. Even the pleasant surprises, like the New York Giants (6-1), Minnesota Vikings (5-1) and New York Jets (5-2), score plenty of narrow wins over mundane foes, causing concern that their good fortune may not be lasting. The NFL is so messy right now that of the 15 games in Week 8, only one game features two teams with winning records: the Giants in Seattle (4-3).

Guess it’s a good year to be a late bloomer. There are 13 teams above .500; four of them have been upgraded in the general classification this season. One way or another, over the next 10 weeks, the league needs to snag 14 vaguely playoff-worthy teams. While there is time to recover, there is also time for more to unravel. It’s not parity. This is amateur-grade nonsense theater, the worst of which is on display in a series of lifeless prime-time efforts.

Earlier this month, when asked about the glut of indistinguishable teams, Tampa Bay quarterback Tom Brady said, “I think there’s a lot of bad football out there from what I watch. I watch a lot of bad football. Bad quality of football. That’s what I see.”

He was frustrated that his team, 2-2 at the time, belonged to this group. The Buccaneers are now 3-5. Their 27-22 loss to Baltimore on Thursday night was their third straight loss and their fourth in their last five games. Brady hadn’t lost three in a row since 2002. In the previous 22 seasons, the man with a .759 career winning percentage and seven Super Bowl rings was never what he is now: two games under the 0.500 mark.

Who could move at the NFL trade deadline? Look at these players.

The problems in Tampa Bay illustrate why the NFL has been in a funk this season. Usually, there are four levels: excellent, good, medium-extensive, and awful. Great quarterbacks provide the stability that keeps the first two tiers filled with compelling teams, alleviating any concerns about underlying mediocrity. But this is a season where Brady and Aaron Rodgers having lost records and bad offenses. Justin Herbert looks average playing through fractured costal cartilage. Russell Wilson, Matthew Stafford and Kyler Murray rank among the bottom third of starting quarterbacks. Indianapolis benched Matt Ryan.

These are seven star quarterbacks representing teams that entered the season with playoff expectations. Two of them, Herbert with the Los Angeles Chargers (4-3) and Stafford with the Los Angeles Rams (3-3), would be in the playoffs if the tournament started today. The two would be the No. 7 seeds, the last teams to succeed in the AFC and NFC.

Any of those hard-working quarterbacks can turn the tide, even Wilson, who plays for a 2-5 team in Denver. Two years ago when the NFL widened the playoff field from 12 to 14, it essentially eliminated the notion of a team being out of contention. Most seasons will have franchises with 6-9 records still dreaming in the past two weeks. But it’s supposed to generate interest and possibly prevent teams from tanking. This does not guarantee a more intriguing product.

Brady takes every loss hard, but this is different. His face looks ashen. His professional and private life continue to collide. It’s not the comeback he envisioned, and at 45 he’s facing questions about if his domination finally comes to an end. But with an impaired offensive line and underperforming offensive weapons around him, the reasons for Brady’s struggles are far more important than his own abilities. His leadership will be tested as much as his body.

“I don’t think you can erase what’s happened in the last eight weeks,” he said Thursday night. “We have to dig deep, see what we are, come to work, try to improve and give ourselves a better chance of winning.”

Someone has to win, right? And this being the NFL – in which peaking at the right time and staying healthy are key – other challengers will smash their way into the conversation with Buffalo, Kansas City and Philadelphia. Right? It looks like a season destined to end with the Eagles (6-0) meeting the survivor of the Chiefs-Bills Super Bowl rivalry. Two No. 4 seeds played in the league game last season, but the gap between the first and second tier was not huge. The regular season provided a warning that little greatness had emerged, and the playoffs reflected classic, entertaining parity. The start of the 2022 season cries out for a shortage of good teams.

Do you think Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers are done? Better not look away.

It could do November 1 trade deadline particularly interesting. It is easier for hiding organizations to convince themselves, as San Francisco did in acquisition of Christian McCaffrey, that they are one star away from making a run. It’s critical that a few teams in winning mode now with expensive quarterbacks, like Green Bay with Rodgers and an insufficient receiving corps, make an effort to salvage their season. But don’t be shocked if a few technically chasing teams see the situation differently and use the deadline as an opportunity to collect more draft picks.

Who is ambitious? Who is pessimistic? Who is desperate? If the trade deadline is busier than usual, it could provide some insight into how GMs view this odd year. Three of last season’s seven AFC playoff teams — Las Vegas, New England and Pittsburgh — are 7-13 combined. Five of last year’s NFC reps didn’t have a winning record: the Rams, 49ers, Bucs, Packers and Arizona Cardinals. While it’s typical to see significant turnover among playoff teams, it’s unusual for so many franchises and quarterbacks known for sustained success to struggle at the same time.

Maybe some of the teams emerging this season are underrated. In Brian Daboll, the Giants may have finally hired the right coach. Kevin O’Connell sparked the Vikings, a team with a decent roster and some recent playoff history. The Jets have too many young talents to dismiss, and Miami might actually turn out better over 17 games. Tennessee has a good record.

But of all the contenders below the top tier, Baltimore and Dallas have the most upside potential, if you factor in talent, eye test and statistical analysis. Few will trust the Cowboys (5-2) because they’ve passed out so often over the past two decades, but because of their defensive improvement, they can’t be overlooked.

The Ravens are 5-3 despite holding a double-digit lead in their eight games. If they can regain their health, they are a few adjustments away from making a significant ascent. And for what it’s worth, Cincinnati (4-3) is the only team in their remaining nine games that has a winning record. They could be a dangerous and confident 12-5 team by January.

Or Baltimore could decide to wrestle in the mud. This season there is a lot of peer pressure to play bad football.