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Inside the NFL: Parity making most every team a playoff contender

Earlier this week, Sean McDermott showed his players a chart of all of the NFL teams that, like his Buffalo Bills, had two losses.

Before the Baltimore Ravens beat the Miami Dolphins on Thursday night, the AFC total was five. No one else in the conference has fewer losses. The NFC has four teams with two, while the Philadelphia Eagles sit atop the entire league with a 6-1 record.

McDermott's point? There's very little separation and a huge chance to separate.

Parity at its finest. Or, to some, mediocrity.

Either way, opportunity abounds.

McDermott "just tries to emphasize separating ourselves, what teams are going to start separating themselves over these next three or four games," defensive tackle Jerel Worthy said. "Just for us to understand, at the end of the day, what we're up against, the type of competition and how diligent we have to stay with our work every single day. And he pushes us every single day."

Pushing is what McDermott does. It's what he would do if the Bills were 0-6, rather than 4-2, entering Sunday's game against the Oakland Raiders.

But these days, the coach pushes with a greater sense of purpose because it's almost November and there's legitimate hope that the Bills share with much of the rest of the NFL.

The season is nearing its midpoint and there doesn't appear to be a dominant force anywhere. Sure, the New England Patriots still have Tom Brady and Bill Belichick. But predictions of their going 19-0 on the way to back-to-back Super Bowl victories died quickly, along with the notion no one need even bother trying to knock them from their perch because it won't happen.

The Pats are 5-2 and, even in winning, they've shown un-Patriot-like vulnerability. Maybe they'll keep that stranglehold on the AFC East, but it does seem a little bit more like a maybe than many of us thought before the season.

"The whole league is competitive right now," Bills defensive end Ryan Davis said. "Just look at our division. A lot of people tried to count us and the Jets out, and we're right in the thick of things. Everybody's with two or three losses in the conference."

It's also true that everyone else in the conference, as well as the entire league -- including the Eagles -- looks pretty much the same.

You see similar flaws – whether it’s a defense that gives up too many chunk plays or an offense that doesn’t produce them with enough regularity. You see more good than great quarterbacking, even from some of the so-called greats, and sometimes downright awful play at the position. You see injuries serving as a larger equalizer, it seems, than in recent memory.

All of which adds up to the postseason being discussed with a straight face pretty much everywhere outside of the winless Cleveland Browns and San Francisco 49ers, the 1-6 New York Giants and the 2-5 Indianapolis Colts.

"When we see the parity around the league, I think, 'Yeah (there's an opportunity to make the playoffs),'" McDermott said. "After a game, you look at the scores and every third score you’re like, ‘Wow! Man, I didn’t expect that.’"

"Everybody feels like they have a chance," Worthy said. "There's a lot of division losses, there's a lot of guys that are in the running in each division. And if you take a team like San Francisco, they may be O-fer, but at the end of the day, they've lost so many games by three points or less."

The season has been wide open enough to open the door to dramatic improvement in a couple of cases. The Los Angeles Rams, who finished 4-12 last season, lead the NFC West at 5-2. The Jacksonville Jaguars, who were 3-13 in 2016, are 4-3 and tied with the Tennessee Titans for first in the AFC South.

Are they better or is the rest of the NFL worse? Has the level of competition elevated to the point where there are more good teams on equal footing or is it just the opposite?

"The whole league, it's a shift now," Davis said. "The teams that everybody wasn't really thinking about are turning that corner. I think we're one of them and we're definitely going to do our job to make sure we keep moving forward every week."

Quick reads

*This has to fall into the believe-it-or-don't category. The 49ers actually included, in a survey they sent to their fans, the following question: "How important is winning to your stadium experience?"

What?

The last time I checked, there's absolutely nothing entertaining about losing. You can have all of the bells and whistles in the world -- the biggest and best scoreboard, the widest variety of gourmet food options, reclining seats everywhere -- but no stadium can overcome the home team's inability to generate what the fans ultimately want for their money: wins. Do I need to say that it's more than a little naïve to see it any other way?

*The decline in television ratings for NFL games prompted plenty of discussion about potential causes. When an executive from one of the league's broadcast partners weighs in on the subject, it tends to draw some attention. Such was the case when Fox CEO James Murdoch said the following at the Paley International Council Summit in New York: "There’s a question mark for the NFL, which is just to think hard about how they’re licensing. So I do think the proliferation of Thursday availability -- and the proliferation of football generally -- does mean that you’re asking a lot from customers to watch Thursday. And then they watch a lot more college football games on Saturdays, and then on Sundays, and then on Monday Night Football, etc. It’s a lot. So I do think that preserving the scarcity value of those events and that audience is something that is worth thinking about.”

Translation: Cut down or eliminate Thursday night games, which most players dread and which often prove terrible viewing, as was the case with the Ravens' 40-0 pounding of the Dolphins.

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