Pro football's triumph of equal opportunity

For the first time, neither of the previous year's Super Bowl contenders made the NFL playoff cut.

This football season would have brought a smile to the face of Pete Rozelle.

The late NFL commissioner - and visionary - dreamed of a day when every game would count, when every matchup would turn on a 50-yard kick into the wind, when the Lombardi Super Bowl trophy would travel from city to city like a presidential campaign.

Mr. Rozelle rigged schedules, altered the draft, and helped pave the way for a salary cap that limited team spending - all with the goal of competitive balance.

It now appears that time has come.

On the eve of the playoffs, professional football has reached a never-before-seen level of parity. Unlike years past, when a team like the Dallas Cowboys or the San Francisco 49ers would dominate a season from start to finish, trying to predict the Super Bowl winner this year might as well involve tarot cards.

Of the 12 teams that made the playoffs, only half have more than 10 wins. Three teams made the postseason with only 9 wins.

During the regular season, meanwhile, there were more overtime games than ever before, and, of the final 16 games played last weekend, 12 had playoff implications.

For the first time since Super Bowl I in 1967, both of the previous year's Super Bowl teams, the New England Patriots and the St. Louis Rams, failed to make the postseason.

So much for dynasties.

"The reality is that there has never been more competitive balance in the league," says Vic Carucci, national editor of NFL Insider Magazine and a senior analyst at NFL.com. "The parity is beautiful. You cannot look at any playoff game and know with any certainty who's going to win."

While some pundits have complained that the NFL is watered down to a common denominator of mediocrity, the fans have spoken with clarity. Football's television ratings have soared at a time when other sports are losing fans.

Sky-high TV viewership

Sunday's Jets-Packers game, which propelled the victorious Jets into the playoffs, was off the charts with a massive 19.25 television rating, meaning that nearly 35 percent of the people in America watching TV at that time were tuned in. It was the highest-rated regular-season Sunday game in seven years.

According to a recent survey taken by Harris Interactive, football has widened its lead as the most popular sport among adult sports fans, with 27 percent choosing it as their favorite. Baseball is second with 14 percent.

Nowhere, perhaps, is the excitement more palpable than in New York, where only a few short weeks ago it looked as if neither team would make the playoffs. Now there is talk of a possible Jets-Giants Super Bowl. The Giants are an unimpressive 10-6. The Jets are worse, at 9-7.

"The way this season has gone, I don't think I'd bet against anything," Jets quarterback Chad Pennington told reporters after last week's do-or-die win over the Green Bay Packers. "Why not us and the Giants? Stranger things than that have occurred this season. It really has been a season when you can't predict what's going to happen."

The same optimism prevails in other cities around the league. In Pittsburgh, the Steelers are pinning their hopes on journeyman Tommy Maddox, who came from nowhere to be one of the league's most efficient passers. The Tennessee Titans seemed lost at the beginning of the season, but have now found their course.

The Raiders, led by most valuable player Rich Gannon, who's in his late 30s, may be the team to beat in the AFC. And the favorites in the NFC, the Philadelphia Eagles, are hoping their star quarterback Donovan McNabb gets healthy in time for the stretch run.

The salary-cap effect

The leading source of football parity has been salary-cap restraints, which force teams to keep modest payrolls and continually retool their rosters, especially when inexpensive young players transition to midcareer and demand more money.

Unlike baseball, in which a rich team like the New York Yankees can buy all the best talent, a successful football team has to win by discovering unheralded journeymen, drafting late-round surprises, and dumping overpaid veterans. Also unlike baseball, where the players' union is a dominant force, football is more easily regulated by the commissioner's office.

Free agency, meanwhile, has facilitated the parity. Football players have short-term contracts and can jump from team to team. If owners manage the salary cap well, they can afford to go out and buy short-term talent - regardless of the size of their market.

And, some pundits say, the overall athletic talent level in the NFL is so uniformly high that there is less difference between the stars and the lesser-known players.

In other words, they're all good.

"The athletes are as good as they've ever been," says Mr. Carucci. "The coaches are pushed to the limit. The difference between winning and losing is so small. Everything can come down to an injury, a mistake, or a bad day coaching."

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