Hope abounds in NFL with 28 of 32 teams mathematically alive

When a pair of mediocre teams awash in drama and dysfunction get together on a chilly December Sunday, there is ample reason to refrain from becoming conspicuously enthusiastic.

Yet, in the ever-egalitarian 21st century NFL panorama -- where disbelief is suspended, the ice-cream truck can win the pole at Daytona and Keanu Reeves harbors authentic Oscar hopes -- a seemingly regrettable Week 14 showdown between the 6-6 Miami Dolphins and 5-7 Pittsburgh Steelers at Heinz Field carries legitimate postseason promise for all concerned. And that, in and of itself, gets me fired up.

Or, as veteran Steelers safety Ryan Clark says, "It's exciting that our games still matter. Sometimes, faith is all you have."

Coming off a Thanksgiving night defeat to the rival Baltimore Ravens and coping with their latest controversy, the Steelers can slip back into the thick of the playoff race as quickly as coach Mike Tomlin doing a sideline two-step during a Jacoby Jones kickoff return.

Similarly, the Dolphins -- a team reeling from the Richie Incognito/Jonathan Martin saga and a protracted and ongoing investigation -- could theoretically occupy sole possession of the sixth AFC playoff spot by the time the sun goes down on Survival Sunday.

And they are not alone. Consider this stat, which is more stunning than Nick Foles' touchdown-to-interception ratio: Twenty-eight of the league's 32 teams head into their 13th game with mathematical postseason possibilities. (The 2-10 Houston Texans could have stayed alive with a "Thursday Night Football" victory over the 3-9 Jacksonville Jaguars; instead it was Jacksonville that ensured another week of relevance with a victory -- although they technically would have remained in the hunt even if they had lost.)

Only the Texans and a trio of 3-9 NFC teams (the Atlanta Falcons, Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Washington Redskins) can officially check out of the final month of what is clearly the most compelling regular season in American professional sports.

It's crazy, but just go with it: Somehow, the NFL trots out a slew of flawed ensembles and still makes it fun. In the NHL and NBA -- where, in each league, 16 of 30 participants qualify for the bloated and protracted postseason -- they'd kill for a final month this interesting. Depressingly, numerous MLB teams are reduced to playing for personal glory by July.

Meanwhile, here we are in the heart of the holiday shopping season, locked in on a league that lops off 20 of 32 teams before New Year's and getting ready for a slate of 16 games that all impact the playoff chase. That includes the aforementioned Texans-Jags tilt, along with Bills-Bucs and Raiders-Jets on Sunday.

Rex Ryan's 5-7 Jets, in fact, should serve as the poster children for keeping the faith until all hope has been irrefutably extinguished. Remember that gloomy press conference four years ago when Ryan, after a 10-7 defeat to the Falcons dropped his team to 7-7 in his rookie season as head coach, declared to the masses, "We're obviously out of the playoffs, and that's unfortunate"?

There was just one catch: The Jets hadn't been mathematically eliminated. They proceeded to sneak in as a wild card, win a first-round game against the Cincinnati Bengals and stun the San Diego Chargers to reach the AFC Championship Game.

The madness continued the next year when the 7-9 Seattle Seahawks, the least accomplished division winner in a non-strike season that the modern NFL has known, hosted the defending Super Bowl champion New Orleans Saints in a first-round playoff game that most people assumed would be Defeat No. 10. As many of you were reminded in the lead-up to this past Monday night's encore presentation, it didn't go down that way: A *Beast* surfaced, the earth shook and the favored Saints went down.

Oh, and the 2010 Green Bay Packers, a team that had to win its final two regular-season games to snag the NFC's No. 6 seed, rode a four-game postseason hot streak that included three road victories to become champions.

When it comes to unfathomable outcomes -- especially in retrospect -- it's tough to top the next year's first-round clash between the Steelers and Broncos, where a currently unemployed quarterback shredded the league's top-ranked defense and propelled Denver to a stunning overtime victory.

Meanwhile, the 2011 New York Giants, who'd arguably needed the Cowboys' Miles Austin to lose a ball in the lights to remain in contention in Week 14, captured the Lombardi Trophy with a four-game run similar to that of the previous year's Packers.

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Last year's Ravens took shocking postseason success to an even more absurd level: After a tumultuous three-and-a-half months that included an apparent season-ending injury to future Hall of Famer and locker room leader Ray Lewis, a contentious team meeting that one player described as "practically a mutiny" and the late-season firing of offensive coordinator Cam Cameron in the midst of a three-game December losing streak, Baltimore looked pretty far from Super.

By early February, Lewis had completed his "final ride" and was destinedfor a victory parade through downtown Baltimore.

For all the struggles experienced by this year's Ravens, who improved to 6-6 with their Thanksgiving triumph over the Steelers, there are plenty of men in that locker room who understandably believe another Super Bowl run is possible. The fact that they control their own destiny is a bonus -- win the final four games, beginning Sunday against the 3-8-1 (and, naturally, still alive) Minnesota Vikings, and Baltimore at least snags the AFC's No. 6 seed.

Chances are, however, that the Ravens have a bit more wiggle room. Credit that to the abnormally wimpy AFC: For the first time since 1995, just five of the conference's teams are above .500 after each has played its 12th game. I get the sneaking suspicion that the 2010 Seahawks might soon have company in the Playoff Participant With Losing Record green room.

We can bemoan that possibility all we want -- or we can collectively celebrate the fact that faith will be present in each and every stadium in which NFL games are played this week, and that Survival Sunday will give the vast majority of football fans a chance to dream.

What does it all mean?

"It shows one of two things," Clark says. "There's either a lot of parity in the NFL, or no one is really all that good."

Perhaps not, but as Clark and his teammates would happily attest, it's good to be alive -- and in the 21st century NFL, that's all that matters.

Follow Michael Silver on Twitter @MikeSilver.

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