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NFL parity makes playoff chase a multi-team muddle | TribLIVE.com
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NFL parity makes playoff chase a multi-team muddle

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The Raiders celebrate after outside linebacker Sio Moore (left) sacked Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith during the fourth quarter Thursday, Nov. 20, 2014. The Raiders won 24-20 for their first victory of the season.
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Christopher Horner | Trib Total Media
The Jets' Quinton Coples and Dawan Landry sack Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger during the fourth quarter Sunday, Nov. 9, 2014, in East Rutherford, N.J.

The NFL playoff push began in earnest Sunday, with contenders slowly separating from the pretenders.

However, in an era of NFL parity, there are no sure things as teams jockey for postseason position during the final five weeks of the regular season. Perhaps in no other season has the worn-out axiom “any given Sunday” actually prevailed.

Just ask the Steelers, who lost to the New York Jets and Tampa Bay, a pair of two-win teams.

Or ask playoff contenders Cleveland and Kansas City, losers to Jacksonville (1-10) and Oakland (1-10), respectively. Or ask defending Super Bowl champion Seattle, which trails NFC West-leader Arizona by two games after the Seahawks won 19-3 on Sunday.

Clearly, it doesn’t take much for a power shift in the NFL. It explains, in part, why there have been six Super Bowl winners in the past six seasons. New England was the last back-to-back winner when it defeated Philadelphia in Super Bowl XXXIX a decade ago.

The NFL wants parity, said Steelers guard Ramon Foster. It enables struggling organizations to right their wayward ships with a good draft and a commitment to continuity.

The Indianapolis Colts are a good example, considering they advanced to the playoffs with an 11-5 record in 2012, a year after going 2-14. The Houston Texans, hurt by injuries and unproductive draft picks, fell to 2-14 last season after posting a 12-4 record in 2012.

Since 1995, nearly half of all teams that made the playoffs did not the year before, including the Steelers in 2004, 2007 and 2010. The Steelers, who face New Orleans on Sunday at Heinz Field, are in position to make the playoffs after failing to do so the past two seasons.

“It’s good for the league,” said Foster, who is the Steelers’ NFLPA representative. “You can almost always count on a good game. It’s good for marketing, the teams and every team’s fan base.

“It’s a testament to the teams more than anything that so many teams are competitive. If you look at some of the teams that improved, they have held onto their second- and third-round guys who are now playing well.”

Arizona and New England, both 9-2, had the best records in their respective conferences after Week 11. But 22 teams had between four and seven wins. Incredibly, even this deep into the regular season, 22 other teams had won at least four games.

Nowhere is parity more prevalent than the AFC North. The Bengals’ 22-13 win over Houston pushed them to 7-3-1, and the Steelers and Browns are 7-4. The Steelers, who had a bye week, and Cincinnati control their destiny. The Steelers are seemingly in good shape, considering three of their remaining games are at Heinz Field.

The NFL’s playoff push began Sunday, with 20 of 32 teams within two games of the final playoff spots.

Realistically, the NFC has nine teams still in position to claim one of six playoff berths, including New Orleans and Atlanta. The Falcons (4-7), who lost 26-24 to Cleveland, can begin Week 13 with a share of the lead if Baltimore keeps up with the Steelers and Browns with a win over New Orleans on Monday.

The power structure in the NFL is caused by a number of factors — including the draft, free agency and divisional realignment. Seattle, though, is the only team to change conferences, and that move strengthened the NFC West and weakened the AFC West.

The Seahawks have advanced to the NFC playoffs eight times and have won nine playoff games since 2002. Even though AFC West teams Denver, Kansas City and San Diego qualified for the playoffs in 2013, it’s the only division without a Super Bowl victory since the last realignment.

“Competition is what it’s all about,” Foster said. “If you have 18 teams that can actually win on any given Sunday, that’s what makes the NFL a beautiful thing.”

In a league in which parity reigns, the playoff picture isn’t likely to come into focus until the final week of the regular season. If nothing else, fans of both perennial playoff contenders and a few long-suffering underdogs will be fully engaged during the playoff push.

Those, of course, are the spoils of NFL parity.

Ralph N. Paulk is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at [email protected].

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