By Ray Hamill
Pete Rozelle must be smiling down from the great big hall of fame in the sky.
Almost 20 years after his death, the former NFL commissioner’s vision of a modern-day NFL is alive and well, and the man who did more than anyone to make the NFL what it is today would undoubtedly love the parity and competitive nature of the league.
Heading into the final quarter of the season, 21 of 32 teams are in contention for a playoff spot, and this weekend alone, nine of the 15 games feature a pair of teams battling for postseason inclusion.
The AFC is particularly crowded, with 12 of the 16 teams still alive for the six playoff berths, including the 6-6 Texans, who are one win behind a large group of seven-win teams.
And that makes December essentially the beginning of the playoffs in the AFC. Every week is now almost a must-win for the Nos. 5 through 12 seeds, and they can ill-afford to slip up in such a crowded field.
For example, the Miami Dolphins (7-5), by virtue of their superior conference record, jumped from 11th seed to sixth with a win over the New York Jets (2-10) on Monday night, but could easily slip all the way back down again with a loss to the Baltimore Ravens (7-5) on Sunday.
Other games on Sunday with huge AFC playoff implications include the Steelers (7-5) at the Bengals (8-3-1), the Colts (8-4) at Cleveland (7-5), the Bills (7-5) at the Broncos (9-3), the Chiefs (7-5) at the Cardinals (9-3) and the Patriots (9-3) at the Chargers (8-4).
In the NFC, meanwhile, the field is slightly less crowded, but every bit as intriguing, with nine or maybe 10 teams in contention, although in fairness the Falcons (5-7), Saints (5-7) and Panthers (3-8-1) are only in contention because they play in such a weak division.
There is, however, still plenty of positioning to be decided, with the Cardinals, Packers and Eagles all 9-3 and occupying the top three seeds, while the Cowboys (9-4), Seahawks (8-4), Lions (8-4) and 49ers (7-5) are each still contending for at least a wild card.