Parity lives, despite Patriots

November 27, 2007 1:34 AM
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For years, the NFL has been the sports leader when it comes to parity.

Pete Rozelle was credited with, "On any given Sunday any team can beat any other team." Despite the Patriots dominance this season, it’s still the mantra of the league. What New England is doing is rare, dominating each week.

It’s far more common to see smaller differences between the good teams, the average teams and the bad ones. For instance, before the season started the top AFC teams in consideration to make the Super Bowl were the Pats, Colts, Chargers, Steelers, Ravens and Jaguars.

Just after the halfway point of the season, beyond the Pats those others have weaknesses that can be exploited. The Ravens and Colts have slipped because of significant injuries. The Chargers and Steelers have new coaches and several upset losses to weaker teams. The Jaguars have a secondary that can be attacked, getting torched by the Colts (29-7 loss) and the Saints (41-24 defeat).

There’s an old betting adage about going against pro football teams who roll by 20 points in back-to-back games. That’s not easy to do, which makes the Patriots’ run this season even more remarkable. If a pro team beats another by 20 points or more in consecutive weeks, it can be a good time to look at the other side, as the club off two blowout wins can be overvalued.

In order to win by that kind of margin in consecutive games, a team has to play close to two perfect games back-to-back. In this day of parity, that takes a rare combination of talent, execution, health and luck.

We saw this with the Cowboys. After destroying the Bears (34-10) and Rams (35-7), Dallas was a 10-point road favorite the next week at Buffalo. They not only failed to cover, but barely won the game, 25-24 after needing a miraculous comeback in the final 30 seconds.

Revenue sharing, the draft and the salary cap have all helped to level the playing field more or less and keep competitive balance. Even the worst NFL team would trounce the best college football team if the two were able to face off at the end of each season. This is because every pro roster is stocked with talented college players, while roughly two or three athletes from a college team are good enough to ever play in the pros.

The draft is a major contributor to parity, with the worst teams having the first shot at the best players. Another reason is that there are so many players that are needed to play football, that you can’t run out and buy 10 to 15 of the best free agents to change the fortunes of your team. You’d go broke.

This is more of a possibility in basketball. If you buy two key free agents, that’s 40 percent of your starting lineup. Two free agent football players, on the other hand, would be less than 10 percent of your starting offense and defense. Instead, pro football teams have to build through the draft, which increases the odds for more equality.

Another example this season is the Giants. NY blew out the Falcons (31-10) and 49ers (33-15) in consecutive weeks, then the next week was a 10-point favorite against Miami overseas. In a sloppy game, the Giants squeezed out a 13-10 win.

In addition, with a relatively small talent gap in pro football, teams can often bounce back from one or two terrible performances with a surprisingly strong game. The Bucs lost opening day at Seattle (20-6) then as a home dog the next week trounced the Saints 31-14. A few weeks ago Denver looked thoroughly lost in a 44-7 defeat at Detroit. The Broncos went on the road at Kansas City the next game and won 27-11 as a dog.

This is parity at work. Salary caps and free agency make it difficult for teams to simply buy players to shore up weak areas, as is the case in baseball. In football, if you pay a lot to get or retain a key player, you may lose a star in another area.

What the Patriots have managed to do thus far is unique, one of those once-in-a-generation teams where everything comes together. Overall, however, you rarely see pro teams keep up 20-point or more dominance for more than two games.