In the perfect NFL world — at least from a marketing standpoint — every one of the 32 teams would still be in playoff contention in mid-December. The only question is whether there comes a point when parity becomes parody.

I think we have our answer.

The Ravens fell to 4-6 with their weather-delayed, overtime loss to the Chicago Bears on Sunday in what was cast as another in a long series of must-win games which we have come to find out they really didn't have to win.

Turns out, the Ravens are in pretty good shape in the race for the second AFC wild-card spot when you consider that there are only two teams other than the co-leaders in the West that are as good as 5-5. The Ravens play one of them (the New York Jets) at home this week and have already beaten the other (the Miami Dolphins).

It's fair at this point to ask whether they are really good enough to take full advantage of three straight home games that could boost them back above .500, but it's just as fair to ask the other side of that question. Which of their three opponents are good enough to stop them?

This is just what the NFL had in mind when it combined payroll equality with competitive-balance scheduling and the traditional reverse-order draft to create a system that — at its best — allows one of last year's 14-loss teams (the Kansas City Chiefs) to win nine of its first 10 games this year.

And this is not just an AFC phenomenon, though that's where it is most pronounced, since only five of the division's 16 teams have winning records. There are eight NFC teams above .500, but only one of the current wild-card contenders is better than 6-4.


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Not to worry. This institutionalized mediocrity isn't keeping Roger Goodell up at night because it is just what the commissioner and his owners ordered. In what parallel sports universe could a team (the New York Giants) go winless for more than a third of the season and wake up a month later very much in contention for a division title?

Obviously, whether this is competitive balance at its best or its worst depends on who you ask. The NFL has every right to want fan interest to remain high for as long as possible in as many cities as possible, so having a storied New York team pick itself off the mat and re-install hope in its fan base is a win-win, right?

Ravens fans certainly can't complain that the defending Super Bowl champions haven't been eliminated from playoff or division title consideration in the AFC North during a season in which they can't seem to get out of their own way.

There have been several points over the past three months at which John Harbaugh has followed up a loss by saying that everything the Ravens have worked toward is still in front of them, and — amazing as it might seem after the struggles they have had on so many fronts — that remains true.

If they beat the Jets on Sunday and knock the stuffing out of Ben Roethlisberger on Thanksgiving night, they could well wake up in Week 14 just one game behind the Bengals with a solid chance for their season-ending showdown to determine the AFC North champion.

There may be some football purists among the Ravens' fan base who feel a bit sheepish about their heroes slipping back into the postseason under cover of league-wide ineptitude, but nobody is going to complain about it.

Maybe a few more eyebrows would be elevated around the NFL if there weren't still a handful of marquee teams making good. The league's most popular quarterbacks — Peyton Manning and Tom Brady — have their teams on top of the heap and are set to face off on Sunday Night Football this week. The New Orleans Saints are back after wallowing in last year's bounty scandal. And the Dallas Cowboys are only a half-game out of first place in spite of themselves.

There are some interesting storylines, but you still have to wonder if the NFL's quest for parity has gone too far.

In other words, has the playing field been leveled or is it just flat?

pschmuck@baltsun.com

Read more from columnist Peter Schmuck on his blog, "The Schmuck Stops Here" at baltimoresun.com/schmuckblog and listen when he co-hosts "The Week in Review" on Friday mornings at 9on WBAL (1090 AM) and at wbal.com.

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