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Mediocrity rewarded in NFL playoffs

Some teams steamroll into the NFL playoffs, some back in and some stumble in as if they'd finally found their way home after wandering around dizzy and lost.

Some teams steamroll into the NFL playoffs, some back in and some stumble in as if they'd finally found their way home after wandering around dizzy and lost.

Take the Seattle Seahawks. Please.

At 8-7, they are mediocrity personified _ yet they've already clinched a playoff spot as the NFC West leader. This is a team that offsets inspiring runs with fumbles, bounces between defensive stands and inexplicable breakdowns. It is not for lack of effort that they struggle. It takes work to be so determinedly self-destructive just when they seem ready to win.

Or take their NFC brethren in ordinariness: Green Bay, which has clinched the North division with a 9-6 record; and the four teams still alive for one of the two remaining playoff spots going into Monday night's Philadelphia-St. Louis game. The woeful Rams (6-8) had a chance, as did Minnesota (8-7), Carolina (7-8) and New Orleans (7-8).

That means at least one NFC playoff team will boast a .500 record.

Aside from Philadelphia, now without injured Terrell Owens, and Atlanta, an average team with an above-average record, the NFC stinks this year.

Blame it on the cycles of the game. Next year it could be the AFC's turn.

The AFC has four strong teams _ Pittsburgh, New England, San Diego, and Indianapolis, though the Colts' patchwork defense may undo whatever marches Peyton Manning and the rest of the offense mount in the playoffs.

As for the devotedly mediocre in that conference who can yet make the playoffs, there are the New York Jets (10-5), Buffalo (9-6), Jacksonville (8-7), Baltimore (8-7) and Denver (9-6) competing for the two available wild-card spots.

The NFL's commitment to commonness is its brilliance and its bane. The late, great commissioner Pete Rozelle promoted the theory of parity back in the 1970s, touting the notion that the league profits most when most teams are competitive. That would keep fan interest higher around the country, translating into higher attendance, TV ratings, souvenir sales and greater revenue for everybody. It would be win, win, win all around.

He was right, yet over the next 20 years there still were teams that dominated at different stages: Oakland, Pittsburgh, Miami, Dallas, Washington, San Francisco. The rest of the league was largely made up of their patsies.

The NFL institutionalized parity with the advent of the salary cap in 1993, though that sports socialism scheme didn't have a great effect on teams until the last five years or so.

Suddenly it became much harder for teams to keep their stars, stack their squads with strong backups in case the stars go down, and build dynasties. The flip side was that decidedly bad teams could turn around in a hurry, as the Steelers did in going from 6-10 last year to 14-1 this year. The Chargers, 4-12 a year ago, are now 11-4.

The new rules of the money game require a creative response: a minimum of stars and a maximum of interchangeable role players. Systems would become more essential than individual talent.

The Patriots, winners of two of the last three Super Bowls and a contender for another this season, solved the scheme best, thanks to head coach Bill Belichick and vice president of player personnel Scott Pioli.

They assembled a winning team that had only two regulars who made the Pro Bowl quarterback Tom Brady and defensive lineman Richard Seymour plus kicker Adam Vinatieri. The fact that Brady was a sixth-round draft pick with a relatively low salary allowed the Patriots to stock up with more better-than-average players who also came at bargain prices.

The Patriots showed that a deep team consisting largely of role players, with a small smattering of stars, could consistently outperform top-heavy teams. They may have to perform a little financial magic when Brady negotiates his next contract, but this is a team built for the long haul.

That's going to be the challenge of Nick Saban as he takes over as the Miami Dolphins head coach. Once a playoff perennial, they've become a joke, and they can't buy their way back to the past the way they once did.

The LSU coach fancies himself a turnaround expert. He did it at Michigan State before going to LSU, and he thinks he can do it in Miami. At 4-11, the Dolphins are having their worst season since the 1960s and their first with a losing record since 1988.

Saban no doubt has been keeping an eye on the genius of Belichick, for whom he served as assistant when they revitalized the Cleveland Browns in 1991-1994.

We've never ever taken over successful programs,'' Saban said, referring to himself in the plural, as if he knows he'll need all the help he can get.We've taken challenges that were difficult, worked hard and had an effect in a positive way. That's one of the reasons I feel I can be successful in this challenge.''

Chances are he will be, if for no other reason than the fact that the system will work in his favor. The salary cap ensures that the mighty shall fall and the meek shall inherit the playoff berths.

Steve Wilstein is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at swilstein(at)

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