Parity but no clarity in playoff talent pool

December 06, 2006|By RICK MAESE

Sometimes when I can't fall asleep at night, I try to imagine what the NFL would be like if league leaders lost their minds and implemented a BCS-like system. What a mess that would be. By my calculations, if the season ended today and a BCS system were used to create the Super Bowl matchup, we'd be watching the Chargers face off against the Florida Gators.

Don't worry, this isn't another ragfest on the incredibly inept BCS system; rather, it's a chance to look at the NFL landscape and understand the parity that exists as teams head down the final stretch.

If the season ended today, there'd be no computer system, no human poll that could possibly pick the two teams that should battle for the Lombardi Trophy. That probably will be the case after Week 17, too. Too much changes week to week.

Ravens fans surely felt differently waking up Monday morning than they did falling asleep last Thursday night. The sting from the Ravens' third loss should have softened by the conclusion of Sunday's games: The Colts losing for a second time in three weeks, the Bears learning that their eternal search for a quarterback who can tie his own shoes could continue, the Patriots surviving a scare against one of the league's worst teams, and the Chargers winning by just three points.

At the least, it made the loss to the Bengals a bit easier to shrug off, something Ravens players won't have a hard time doing. While a sense of panic seemed to sweep through the fan base, players' confidence didn't seem to waver. Even in the minutes after the loss, from Brian Billick to Bart Scott to Steve McNair, they seemed to have the loss in immediate perspective.

There's a switch that flips with championship-caliber teams. Once they start to realize their potential, their focus - usually finite and existing in only seven-day windows - suddenly widens. Each game, win or lose, is viewed in the context of the end goal. The Ravens didn't lose as much ground as it might have seemed late last week because nearly all the top teams are showing their vulnerabilities right now.

In fact, there are enough problems here to make a BCS computer take up drinking. And forget the human component of the BCS system (the coaches' poll and the Harris poll). Any evidence of the fallibility of NFL experts starts and stops with ESPN.com's power rankings, where the Cowboys are suddenly listed as the third-best team in the league. Either someone there owns stock in Tony Romo or producers have dozens of new Terrell Owens graphics they're itching to unveil.

But who is head and shoulders better than the Ravens right now?

Maybe the Colts? But they've lost their past two road games and have two more in the next three weeks. They suddenly remind me of Superman II, as though they've stepped out of the Fortress of Solitude and no longer have special powers.

The Chargers have won six straight. But they lost to the Ravens in Week 4, and last I checked, their coach was still named Marty.

The Bears? Their starting quarterback had a 0.0 quarterback rating through three quarters Sunday. He managed to raise it to 1.3 by game's end, which probably is less encouraging than it sounds.

The Cowboys think they're formidable, which is kind of cute. To convince the rest of us, it's going to take more than a last-second field goal against a Giants team that's fading faster than a Back to the Future photograph.

And then there's the Patriots. You never want to rule them out, but at some point, they're going to have to rule themselves in. Losing three home games this season and beating the Lions by just a touchdown Sunday isn't going to do it.

The shuffling of the top teams is becoming a Sunday ritual, and it only benefits a squad like the Ravens, one that's not necessarily better than the other top teams but probably isn't much worse either.

We learned last week that they're all in a similar class, and in the next few weeks we'll find out which ones can play themselves to the very top.

Like the others, the Ravens have things to work on.

McNair has to play like the seasoned vet he is and must show better poise and command of the game. We've seen him this year move the team almost single-handedly down the field. Then we saw him step out of his end zone at Tennessee. And Thursday, he failed to find the end zone in the closing seconds of the second quarter, which could have given his team much-needed momentum heading into the second half.

The Ravens need to remember how they managed to win five straight before Thursday's loss: field position and turnover ratio.

In this age of the NFL, a single loss doesn't mean you're the worst and a single win doesn't mean you're the best. It's all setting the stage for the postseason, and right now the only team I feel safe ruling out is the Florida Gators.

rick.maese@baltsun.com

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