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NFL's parity lacks usual predictability

| Sunday, Dec. 1, 2002

Is this exciting or excruciating?

Either way, it's compelling, much like a couple of wrecked cars along the side of the highway, which is probably all the NFL is concerned about.

Heading into Week 13 of the 2002 season, there are an astounding 22 of 32 teams either leading divisions or within two games of tying for a division lead. Sub-.500 teams such as the Buffalo Bills (5-6), the Baltimore Ravens (5-6), the Jacksonville Jaguars (5-6) and the St. Louis Rams (5-6) all take the field today harboring not only realistic expectations of landing a wild card invitation to the playoffs, but also division title hopes.

And, an amazing 10 teams are within one game of having the best record in the AFC.

"In the NFL, you expect the unexpected," Steelers coach Bill Cowher said. "There are no givens. I know it's an old cliche, but I don't know if it's ever been any more apparent than this year."

What other explanation could there be for Philadelphia to waltz into San Francisco on a Monday night and win without Donovan McNabb•

The draft is configured to ensure that the worst, at the least, have a chance to eventually be first, and the salary cap prevents anyone from attempting to buy the pennant. Still the most prominent factor in the NFL's de-evolution into a league devoid of haves and have-nots, by far, has been free agency.

Now, it's all most teams can do to field a representative starting lineup. Along those lines, the personnel decisions made on which players to re-sign, which ones to let fly and how to best plug the holes free agency annually creates and still stay within a budget are as critical as on-the-field calls regarding whether to punt on fourth-and-1 or go for the first down.

There are no more great teams, just hot ones and healthy ones. And those change on a week-to-week basis.

The Raiders' 7-4 record is one of the best in the AFC this season, and the Raiders lost four straight games at one point.

The Broncos also are 7-4, yet they've found ways to lose to the Ravens and the Indianapolis Colts, an indoor turf team that improved to 7-4 by winning in Denver in the snow.

Oh, the humanity.

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have the league's best record at 9-2, but the Bucs should scare absolutely no one (Green Bay Packers offensive linemen who happen to be half-heartedly jogging across a field after a pass interception excluded). How frightening can a team be that features Brad Johnson as its quarterback and Michael Pittman as its leading rusher, even with Jon Gruden scowling from the sideline?

The Packers and Donovan McNabb-less Philadelphia Eagles are second to the Bucs in overall record at 8-3. From the Pack's perspective, is that because Brett Favre is still magic or is it because Green Bay's division includes the equally wretched Bears, Lions and Vikings, all of which are in possession of 3-8 marks?

The Colts' Marvin Harrison makes his way into Week 13 with 100 pass receptions. Indianapolis still has five more games to play, which means Herman Moore's NFL-record 123 catches in 1995 is in serious jeopardy. Does this mean Harrison is poised to become one of the greatest receivers in NFL history• For that matter, was Moore• Or have receptions become much like home runs in baseball, devalued in terms of their historical significance because you can't hit the quarterback and because any defensive back that makes a bone-rattling hit downfield does so in fear of being fined?

Almost no one can kick anymore, and in places such as Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Carolina, Philadelphia and New York they can't even prepare a proper playing surface.

Only the Bengals are what they once were, and the Bengals are 1-10.

After further review, competitive balance reigns. It may be synonymous with "mediocrity," but most NFL people don't look at it that way.

"I think it's great for the league," Cowher said.

He has a point, one that even those who long for another dynasty must acknowledge.

With teams seemingly distinguishable only by the color of its jerseys and the logo on its helmets, just about everyone has a chance to make the playoffs, which means just about everyone has a chance to go all the way.

The upcoming postseason is destined to be like no other in terms of unpredictability. As is the impending stretch run.

And by the time someone lifts the Vince Lombardi trophy aloft, no one will remember or care how they got there.

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