In the 1970s, former NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle didn’t like to see the league dominated by a handful of teams. He’d love what has unfolded now.
Every fan of every team has hope. In most cases, it’s plausible. In some cases, it’s implausible. Regardless, there’s hope.
There’s hope because, with four teams in each division, all any team has to do is have a better record than three other teams to make it to the postseason and host a playoff game. In 2010, that’s precisely what the Seahawks did — with a losing record. And they beat the defending Super Bowl champions in the wild-card round.
There’s hope because a trend of high turnover has emerged, with roughly half of all playoff teams not making it back, opening new spots for roughly a third of the teams who were left out the year before. While the 2012 playoff field featured only 33-percent turnover, with four new teams joining the field, three of those franchises were among the six worst in the league the prior season.
The hope extends not only to making it to the playoffs but also to making it to the Super Bowl. Over the last decade, multiple teams who barely made it to the playoffs made it all the way to the championship game — and won it.
In 2005, the Steelers scratched and clawed after having a fork stuck in them following an early December home loss to the Bengals. Four wins to end the regular season were followed by four wins in the postseason — and the long-awaited one for the thumb.
In 2006, the Colts fell to the No. 3 seed, forcing them (for a change) to play during the wild-card round. A subpar run defense caused many to presume they’d be pushed around by the Chiefs at home. But Indy won, and three games later Peyton Manning finally hoisted a Vince Lombardi Trophy.
In 2007, the Giants entered the playoffs as the No. 5 seed in the NFC. After wins at Tampa, Dallas, and Green Bay, the Giants pulled one of the biggest upsets in NFL history, blocking the Pats’ path to 19-0.
In 2010, the Packers squeezed out the sixth seed by beating the Bears in Week 17, then embarked on a run to Dallas that included a close win at Philly, a blowout of the top-seeded Falcons, and another win over the Bears on their own field. Then the Packers prevented the Steelers from winning their third Super Bowl in six seasons.
In 2011, the Giants started 5-2 (as usual), lost four in a row, won three of four to capture the NFC East in Week 17, and then ran the table as the fourth seed, beating the Falcons at home, the Packers at Lambeau Field, the 49ers in San Francisco, and the favored Patriots (again) in the Super Bowl.
Even last year, the Ravens lost four of five down the stretch, fired their offensive coordinator in December, landed in the fourth seed, and got it together when it mattered, winning four straight postseason games to let Ray Lewis walk off into the sunset with his second Super Bowl ring — something few if any had predicted in September.
Recent history proves that the future (for at least the next four months) is impossible to accurately predict. Anyone can get to the playoffs this year, even the Jets, Jaguars, and Raiders. We’ve seen it happen, many times. Come January, anyone who gets a seat at the table can run the table. We’ve seen it happen, many times.
For now, everyone is still 0-0 (except the Ravens and Broncos). Even the teams that fall to 0-1 will still have hope. Even the teams that fall to 0-2 will still have hope. Even at 0-3 or 0-4, the window will still be open, a little.
Come November or December, fans of teams barely hanging around the postseason chase will still have hope, because unexpected late-season turnarounds have happened. Which means they can happen again.
Crazier things have indeed happened, and even crazier things will happen. Pete Rozelle’s dream has come to fruition, which at this point serves only to make fans of the supposed frontrunners really nervous.