You don't have to have firsthand memories of the T-formation or of the American Football League to recall vividly when the regular season game between the New England Patriots and Indianapolis Colts amounted to a playoff preview.
These two teams meet on Sunday night, but anyone calling it postseason precursor is either wildly optimistic or they haven't followed pro football this year. The NFL prides itself on the topsy turvyness; the word "parity" entered the sports lexicon because sometimes in the '70s, Pete Rozelle, then-league commissioner, said that the goal was to have a league in which, on any given Sunday, one team could beat the other.
Back when he said the league was a bit of a hegemony. Each decade has had a dominant team, and a fairly stable class of runners-up. Rozelle would like this season. Last season's doormats, Atlanta and Miami, are now tough matchups, and 13 of the 16 AFC teams still harbor reasonable playoff dreams. Only Kansas City, Cincinnati and Oakland are through, and a devoted Raiders fan could dispute that; their team is still in it as they are only two games behind division leading Denver.
Let's start by looking at the AFC out west; it's now the weakest of the four divisions: Denver leads with a mediocre 4-3 record and play that has underwhelmed. Great teams don't get blown out of the building, but that's what happened in Foxboro a few weeks ago when the Patriots stomped the Broncos 41-7. Bronco fans can be optimistic about the years ahead due to the play of QB Jay Cutler and OT Ryan Clady, but the weeks ahead bring a tough slate of games and the Broncos may struggle to match last season's 7-9 record.
San Diego is 3-5 and has been unlucky this season; they have lost two games in the final seconds, one due to a bad call. But they have played poorly, especially on defense. That's why the change in defensive coordinators from Ted Cottrell to Ron Rivera should help. Although Cottrell has had success in the past, the biggest difference between this Chargers team and the ones that went 25-7 over the past two regular seasons is the quality of the defense. The Bolts are giving nine more points a game this year than last. The early season loss of linebacker Shawne Merriman hurts, but no single player has that much impact. Rivera, who coached the Chicago Bears Super Bowl defense two years ago and spent several seasons on the Philadelphia sidelines, will make the Chargers defense more aggressive. San Diego finished last season on a roll and likely do so this season, too.
I don't think the Tennessee Titans, 7-0, are en route to an undefeated season, but they are for real. Their defense has allowed only 87 points, which looks like a typo but isn't. Normally a team that goes undefeated through the season's first eight weeks and boasts an incredible defense should start dreaming about the Super Bowl, but the Titans have a big weakness in their offense. The Titans passing game doesn't intimidate anyone; QB Kerry Collins best game has been 199 yards. Teams have won Super Bowls with little in the passing game, but it is putting a lot of pressure on their defense to maintain their elite play. Any one—or two—of the three teams bunched behind Tennessee, Indianapolis, Houston and Jacksonville, could get hot and win the wild card. The schedule favors the traditional choices of the Colts and Jaguars.
Talk about the immovable object meeting the immovable object; the AFC North features three of the best defenses in the conference and three of the least productive offenses. According to the DVOA ratings at Football Outsiders, a site where the metrics take into account such key variables as down and distance as well as quality of opposition, the Baltimore Ravens and the Pittsburgh Steelers have the second- and fourth-best defenses in the league. Both teams have played tough slates to this point and have very difficult schedules ahead. It may come down to the offenses and while neither team is burning up the league, the Steelers have a slight edge.
At this point last year, it seemed like New England's undefeated regular season actually underrated how good they were. This season, their 5-2 record so far overrates them. The Pats have beaten up on some cream-puff teams and gotten blown out of the building by the two best teams they have played so far. It looks like the Super Bowl loser's curse may apply to the Patriots. Buffalo and Miami have played better than expected and neither has that tough of a schedule going forward; if New England suffers more injuries (they've already lost QB Tom Brady and SS Rodney Harrison), then the Bills or (gasp) Dolphins might see the first round of the playoffs. The Jets haven't been very good on either side of the ball, but I've watched football too long to discount a team with Brett Favre in the lineup. It would be a fitting conclusion to this wacky season to see Favre lead the Jets on some late charge to the playoffs.
So where does that leave us? For my $2 (anyone who bets more than that on the NFL has too much money on their hands) the division winners will be (in order of seeding) Tennessee, Pittsburgh, San Diego and New England with Indianapolis and Jacksonville as the wild cards. And if I'm right, then this Sunday night's game is a playoff preview, just not the tier of playoffs we've come to expect.
Ma rtin Johnson is a regular contributor to The Root.