As the NFL enters its final month of games, it features a strange contradiction. Just a few weeks ago, five teams made it to Week 8 without suffering a loss, the most to have done that since the NFL-AFL merger in 1970. That suggested a top-heaviness to the league, a divide between haves and have-nots that seemed to fly in the face of the stated goal of parity for the NFL.
But the entire NFL is designed to thwart that separation -- it's what makes the Patriots' sustained run of excellence so noteworthy. The salary cap is in place to even spending. The league spreads much of its massive pool of revenue evenly among teams, regardless of their market size. The draft gives rewards to the teams that do the worst on the field in an effort to bolster them. This season is a testament to how it has worked exactly how long-ago commissioner Bert Bell, who extolled the virtue of competitive balance, envisioned it.
Through 12 weeks, and going into Thursday night's Packers-Lions thriller, 28 of the 32 teams were within two games of a playoff spot. That's the most since the league went to its current format in 1990. And despite the team's gut-wrenching loss, hope still springs eternal even in places like Detroit, where the offensive coordinator and team executives have already been fired but where the team is 4-8 and just 2.5 games behind the Seahawks (6-5), who currently own what would now be the NFC's final wild-card spot. In Tampa Bay, the first overall draft pick, Jameis Winston, has revitalized the Bucs enough to have them at 5-6. In fact, the only NFC team that is three games or more out is San Francisco (3-8). Things are a little starker in the AFC, where the glut of 6-5 teams -- the Jets, Steelers, Texans, Colts and Chiefs -- means the Browns, Titans and Chargers are on the outside of this rather non-exclusive club.
But why are so many teams still in the playoff picture? Vikings general manager Rick Spielman had a theory:
"Because general managers and coaches are doing a great job," he said, laughing, at the league meeting this week.
Spielman was kidding -- mostly -- but then he pointed to quickly turnaround teams that had made coaching changes as one reason. He extolled the work of John Fox in Chicago, in particular, who has the Bears in striking distance at 5-6, in part because offensive coordinator Adam Gase has worked wonders to steady quarterback Jay Cutler. And the Vikings' own Mike Zimmer, now in his second year, has them atop the NFC North with eight wins. Spielman didn't mention them by name, but other examples might be Jack Del Rio, whose Raiders are 5-6, Todd Bowles with the Jets (6-5) and Rex Ryan with Buffalo (5-6). And despite a recent four-game skid, rookie coach Dan Quinn got the Atlanta Falcons out to such a fast start at 5-0 that they are still 6-5 and in position to be an NFC wild card.
The Texans started 2-5 but have reeled off four straight wins to contend with the Colts for the lead in the AFC South, a startling turnaround that, not surprisingly, began once the Texans settled on starting quarterback Brian Hoyer after shuffling between him and Ryan Mallet in the first half of the season. Smith conceded that sometimes it takes the first two months of the season for a team to figure itself out.
"We never thought we were out of it," Smith said. "It's a long season."
The Texans have also been the beneficiaries of a far less cheery and profound reason for the leveled playing field.
Injuries to premier quarterbacks and the decline in play of others -- Tom Brady and Cam Newton are excluded from this conversation -- will be the enduring story of this season, and it has opened doors to upstart teams (even ones that are merely good at hanging around). Indy's Andrew Luckis hurt and the Colts have been undefeated with his backupMatt Hasselbeck. But Luck wasn't playing to his usual level even when he was healthy, causing the Colts to begin the season 3-5, a poor enough start to allow the Texans to find their footing without falling hopelessly behind.
Nor has Aaron Rodgers, who is clearly suffering from the loss of receiver Jordy Nelson. Rodgers' completion percentage is down a full five points from last season, and the Packers have lost four of their last six games to drop behind the Vikings in the NFC North. Ben Roethlisberger has also missed time, short-circuiting one of the league's best offenses and Tony Romo's collarbone altered the entire NFC East, which is mired in mediocrity with no team at .500. The Cowboys have just three wins and have won just once since September. They are also just two games out and with a victory over Washington this week, the Cowboys would be just one game out of the division lead -- which seems absurd to everybody except, perhaps, owner Jerry Jones, who talked openly about the playoffs during a radio show this week.
"I would say that it might have something to do with fewer elite quarterbacks and/or the fact that fewer are playing at an elite level this year," said one team's personnel executive. "Injuries and declining performance."
That includes, of course, Denver's Peyton Manning, who is currently sporting a large boot as he tries to recover from a foot injury. There is no timeline for his return -- in fact, it's conceivable he might never return depending on Brock Osweiler's play -- but Manning's play had been compromised, either by injury or age, long before he was pulled after throwing four interceptions in a Week 10 loss to the Chiefs. That was also a week after he threw two in a loss to the Colts. When Manning exited, he had already thrown 17 interceptions and just nine touchdown passes.
Conversely, Spielman points to the development of the next generation of quarterbacks -- the Vikings' Teddy Bridgewater, the Raiders' Derek Carr, the Jaguars' Blake Bortles -- as reasons why their teams are newly competitive in an altered landscape. (The double whammy of injuries to Josh McCown and the failure of Johnny Manziel to develop point directly to the Browns' current crisis.)
"This is still a quarterbacks' league," Spielman said.
Starting this week, it will be up to them to start winnowing the playoff field:
Three more things to watch around the NFL in Week 12
With just five weeks remaining in the regular season, these are three more games with significant playoff implications for every team:
1) The Vikings-Seahawks game is a potential playoff preview. Spielman has the luxury of knowing that even if his quarterback sputters, he can rely on one of the league's most important non-quarterbacks. The Vikings' success is based on an old-school principle -- run and then run some more with Adrian Peterson -- and it's a style they feel will hold up well when the weather turns foul during the playoffs. They'll get an early look this week if that is true. While Peterson has run for at least 100 yards in four of his last five games to power the league's top rushing attack, the Seahawks' run defense is ranked fifth in the league and has not allowed a 100-yard rusher this season.
2) Both the Colts and Steelers have had their seasons greatly impacted by significant injuries to their franchise quarterbacks. But Ben Roethlisberger has been cleared from a concussion and is expected to play, while Andrew Luck is still recovering from a lacerated kidney. That could make all the difference. While both defenses struggle against the pass, Roethlisberger puts the Steelers in position to take advantage of it. He leads the league's fourth-ranked offense, which averages more yards per play than any other team. The Steelers have scored 30 points in three straight games. The Colts are averaging 23 points with Matt Hasselbeck.
3) The Jets and Giants are both badly in need of wins. A win for the Jets would keep them in the AFC wild-card race, while the Giants would stay in the picture for the NFC East division title, adding some juice to a rivalry that exists because the Jets covet the success and respect the Giants have, while the Giants generally ignore the Jets. With both offenses in the top 10 in scoring, this would seem to come down to defense and in that, the Jets have a significant statistical edge over the Giants, who are last in total defense and in passing defense and may have no real answer for defending Brandon Marshall, who is approaching 1,000 receiving yards. The Jets are third in total defense and 12th in passing defense, but they will be without their top cornerback Darrelle Revis, who suffered a concussion last week. Not having Revis could seriously dent the Jets' chances of holding Odell Beckham Jr. at bay if Antonio Cromartie gets the assignment instead. Beckham has 72 receptions for 1,005 yards.