Only three weeks remain in the National Football League's regular season and still no team has that sure-fire Super Bowl glint. Overpowering clubs have disappeared, replaced by good ones who peak at various times.
The NFL may be approaching the Utopian dream of total parity, or that situation in which all 28 clubs wind up in a photo finish. ''The NFL won't be happy until every team is 8-8,'' one publication has needled, adding that the difference between parity and mediocrity may simply be one of semantics.
However the situation is perceived, the NFL figures it spells excitement, sells tickets, and boosts the TV ratings. More and more teams, even with average records, stay in contention down to the end. All of which makes sifting through the playoff possibilities a little like untangling a transatlantic cable.
At this point, only three teams have clinched playoff berths: Dallas, an old hand at postseason shootouts, and newcomers San Francisco and Cincinnati, all with league-leading 10-3 records. The 49ers haven't seen the inside of a postseason game since 1972, the Bengals since 1975.
Elsewhere, teams are bunched going into the final weeks. A two-way tie exists in the American Conference East (New York Jets and Miami Dolphins, both 8 -4-1), while the San Diego Chargers, Kansas City Chiefs, and Denver Broncos are deadlocked at 8-5 in the West. Over in the NFC Central, the Detroit Lions, Minnesota Vikings, and Tampa Bay Buccaneers are fighting for division honors and a .500 record.
Atlanta (7-6), Cleveland (5-8), and Buffalo (8-5), the surprise teams of 1980 , haven't taken off the way some thought they would; Super Bowl champion Oakland (6-7) is struggling; and Philadelphia (9-4) has lost its last two games.
The layered look just isn't fashionable in the NFL, where stratification has pretty much gone by the boards and all teams are created somewhat equal by league design. Upsets are something of a misnomer when ''any given Sunday'' occurs once a week.
So what accounts for the balance that's led to this rampant unpredictability? Several factors, really. The most frequently cited are: (1) the NFL's scheduling formula, which uses the previous year's results to pit teams of near-equal strength whenever possible; (2) greater sophistication and computerization in scouting, eliminating to some degree the edge certain teams might have had in player evaluations; and (3) rule changes designed to make the passing game more dangerous. Basically, a ''big play'' is easier to achieve through the air, as it requires the execution of two players rather than 11. This, of course, is a simplification, yet a good passer-receiver combination can be the Great Equalizer.
The team that can pass and defend against it has the best chance of succeeding. San Francisco and Cincinnati beautifully illustrate this.
The 49ers have taken off under Coach Bill Walsh, one of the game's leading authorities on the forward pass. A year ago Walsh found the quarterback he needed in Joe Montana, a rookie out of Notre Dame. Montana spent a good part of 1980 dumping the ball off to his running backs, gaining the necessary confidence with a 64.5 completion percentage. Now he's throwing the ball all over the lot, helping Freddie Solomon and Dwight Clark to become the league's top wide receiving tandem. ''Montana is the kind of quarterback who can throw on every play,'' Walsh says.
Not interested in playing tit-for-tat football, however, the 49ers have beefed up their pass defense with Fred Dean, a rusher supreme, and three high draft picks in the secondary - Ronnie Lott, Eric Wright, and Carlton Williamson. This trio forms the backbone of the ''New Name Defense.''
Cincinnati's aerial circus has experienced a revival under veteran quarterback Ken Anderson, who threw for 235 yards against Cleveland Sunday and often connects with sterling young receiver Chris Collinsworth. Cincinnati has not ignored its antiaircraft needs, either, unleashing some of the best young pass rushers.
That's what the New York Jets are doing, too. Mark Gastineau and baby-faced Joe Klecko head up a unit nicknamed (take your pick) Sacks Fifth Avenue or the New York Sack Exchange, which has been throwing quarterbacks for big losses. At the same time, Jet QB Richard Todd has risen to the challenge and given the Shea Stadium faithful hope for the team's first post-Namath playoff berth.
Quarterbacks naturally are the focal point of any team, which makes the Detroit Lions very happy to have found Eric Hipple. A third-stringer who got his chance when starter Gary Danielson was injured, Hipple has taken charge, both throwing and running for touchdowns. ''Everybody can throw the ball, but he's got a feel for the game,'' former Minnesota QB Fran Tarkenton has observed.
The Lions may be rejoicing over Hipple's play, and the St. Louis Cardinals doing the same because of rookie Neil Lomax's development, but other teams have troubles at quarterback. Los Angeles has still not decided who its quarterback should be (Pat Haden? Dan Pastorini?), and consequently the Rams are choking on San Francisco's exhaust. Baltimore, meanwhile, has stuck with Bert Jones, yet Jones is stewing over owner Robert Irsay's attempts to send in the plays. Is it any wonder the Colts own a 1-12 record, the league's worst?