Believe it. This is exactly what the NFL wants, and what it really means, by "parity." Many have suggested that the ultimate goal of "parity" is for every team to finish 8-8 with all twelve playoff positions decided by tiebreakers. We're here to say that ain't so and never was.
No, this is what's meant by parity. After ten games, with six left to play, we have five powerful teams that have all but sewed up their divisions, six lousy teams that are all but eliminated-- and a whopping twenty-one teams that are left to scramble for seven remaining playoff spots. Yep, this is what it's all about. A few at the top, a few at the bottom, and the great majority right smack in the middle. You need your top dogs for everyone to aim at, you need your bottom-feeders to troll for the top draft choice and/or play spoiler, and you need 70% of your fans believing their team still has a shot right up until January. That's parity, sports fans.
Yep, you've got your perennials, the Patriots, the Broncos, the Packers-- even the Bengals, about to reach the postseason for the fifth straight year, qualify here-- on top. You've got your out-of-nowhere surprises: the Carolina Panthers' unbeaten streak and the Jacksonville Jaguars and Tampa Bay Buccaneers both in contention at Thanksgiving. You've got some recent powerhouses-- Seattle, Dallas, Indianapolis-- going through a rough patch. You've got some teams for whom the ball has seemed to bounce favorably, such as the Vikings and the Cardinals, and a few for whom the bouncing ball always seems to be a fumble recovered by the other team-- the Rams, the Saints, and the Dolphins, for example.
It's clear the Patriots, the Panthers, the Bengals, the Broncos, and the Cardinals are far enough ahead in their divisions that it will take a major collapse for any of them to give up their leads; even if they play .500 ball the rest of the way, they're likely to win. It's also clear that the NFC North will be a two-team battle with the loser a likely wild-card, and that the NFC East and AFC South will each produce one division winner, by default if nothing else, but no wild-card team. And then there are those for whom the bell has already tolled: our 49ers, the Lions, the Ravens, the Chargers, the Titans, and the inevitable Browns. That leaves three wild-card playoff berths for as many as fourteen teams to fight over.
So let's take a division-by-division review of everybody's chances, now that winter is approaching and things are getting serious.
NFC East. The Dallas Cowboys, at 3-7, have no shot at the wild-card, but they're only two games back in his division. And make no mistake about it, the mere presence of Tony Romo at quarterback makes every part of this team better, regardless of what the numbers may say. Now, all of these four teams have a .500 mark in the division and there are five division games left. The Washington Redskins play in four of those, two against Dallas and one each against the Giants and Philly, who also face each other one more time. Right now we give the Giants and the 'Pokes each a 50-50 chance to win it, simply because they are the teams with the best QBs.
NFC North. The Packers dealt the Vikings a setback this week, but Minnesota still has a two-game lead over the wild-card outsiders such as Seattle and Tampa. Both the Vikes and the Pack should make it. The Bears, who've already beaten Minnesota once, remain in the wild-card hunt at 4-6 despite losing to Denver at home when they had a chance to gain ground. Chicago have quietly improved their overall game over the past month.
NFC South. Who'd a thunk it? Tampa, winning four of six, breathing down the necks of Atlanta, who have gone 1-4 since opening the season 5-0. The Bucs already won in Atlanta and they get the Falcons at home in two weeks. Meanwhile the Saints, at 4-6, also have a win over the Falcons and get them again at season's end in Georgia. No one's catching Carolina, but the 'Card' is definitely 'Wild' in this division.
NFC West. The Rams' three straight losses have rendered their 3-0 division mark all but irrelevant; they are 1-6 outside the West. And they still have to face all three again. Seattle doesn't get another crack at Arizona until the season finale in Phoenix, and even if the Cards just go 3-3 over the last six games, the Seahawks have to win six straight just to tie. Not gonna happen, but Seattle as a wild-card team is plenty possible, and that'll still give other teams the jitters.
AFC East. The New England Patriots will win the East easily, tying the all-time record, set by the 1970s LA Rams, with their seventh straight division title. Buffalo and the Jets trail by five; we like the Bills, if they remain healthy, as a wild-card team. Not sure at all about New York after losing four of five, and we were never sure about 4-6 Miami to begin with. Like the NFC South, it's hard to see a wild-card team not coming out of this division.
AFC North. It's likely to be five straight postseasons for the Bengals, and two division titles in three years, but if January yields another one-and-done, will Marvin Lewis get the boot? Superstitious folks will claim that once Cincinnati shows they can win a prime-time game, they will win a playoff game. Well, we already know Pittsburgh can do both, but the Steelers will go exactly as far as Ben Roethlisberger's legs will take them. Hard to tell how far that is, but they have a one-game lead for the wild-card today.
AFC South. The Jacksonville Jaguars are only one game out of first place, and it's almost December! Trouble is, they've already lost to both teams ahead of them, though the games were close. For now, presume the Indianapolis Colts, fallible though they are everywhere else, are still Kryptonite to their division rivals (3-0 so far). The Colts play at Jacksonville in three weeks and get Houston at home in four; if, and only if, they lose both those games, then the division might be up for grabs.
AFC West. Osweiler for the season and Manning for the playoffs? Let's talk instead about the Kansas City Chiefs, winners of four straight, and a wild-card team if the season ended today. They host Buffalo this week, and then close out with five straight against teams with losing records. But two of those are against the Oakland Raiders, who are a game behind with a much tougher schedule (Packers, Broncos) ahead. If the Raiders sweep the Chiefs, maybe we'll be talking about them at season's end.
Well, we got through that without one mention of Colin Kaepernick, Trent Baalke, Jed York, Jim Tomsula, or even Jim Harbaugh. That feels good. Doggone good.
Tomorrow? Panthers' unbeaten streak ends as Romo has a day for the ages. Eagles and Lions finish in overtime, decided by a turnover. Bears battle but Packers win a close one.
Enjoy the games and the food, but seriously, remember it is a day to give thanks to the One who created you. Have fun and remember how blessed you are.