NFL scores with unpredictability |

NFL scores with unpredictability

Column by Steve Yingling, Tribune sports editor

Unless you follow the Cincinnati Bengals, Chicago Bears, Carolina Panthers, Seattle Seahawks or Houston Texans, then you are feeling giddy and certain that your team will wind up in the Super Bowl on Jan. 26 in San Diego.

When is the last time that 27 teams in the NFL could make such a claim 11 weeks into a season? Try never.

A strict salary cap, which Major League Baseball could learn from, and the addition of a division to each conference have made the most popular major sport even more appealing to fans this season.

No team has clinched a playoff spot, although Green Bay would have last week if they could have avoided its predictable “Dome Doom” in Minnesota.

In the presalary cap days, the division winners were determined before the season began. Miami, Pittsburgh, Dallas, Oakland and San Francisco locked up playoff berths with such regularity that their stars — Terry Bradshaw, Franco Harris, Ken Stabler, Mean Joe Green, Dan Marino, Joe Montana and Jerry Rice — became as familiar as next-door neighbors.

But this season the divisions are more logjammed than a timber carnival. Only one game separates first from last place in the AFC East and two games sort first-place Denver (7-3) from last-place Kansas City (5-5) in the West.

The teams are more spread out in the NFC, except in the all-new South Division, where Jon Gruden’s Buccaneers (8-2) lead the Saints by a game and Michael Vick’s Falcons by a game and a half.

With the parity of a kickball game during school recess, every week seems to have a big surprise. Last Sunday, struggling Minnesota handed the Packers their second loss, 31-21. A week earlier, the Indianapolis Colts ended their nose dive by grounding the Eagles 35-13 in Philadephia. The way the league is going, expansion Houston will probably upset the Giants this Sunday.

Even the Bengals and Texans are occasionally keeping fans in their seats until late in the fourth quarter. But they need to stop listening to ‘Smashmouth.” That song “All Star” — “Someone told me the world was going to roll me” — doesn’t get the juice flowing before the game the way old ACDC tunes do.

A string of quarterback injuries last weekend will likely add even more parity to the league since all three happened to division-leading teams. Philadelphia (7-3) may suffer the most since Donovan McNabb is one of the top five offensive players in the league. That leaves running back Duce Staley, not to be mistaken with the Saints’ Duce McAllister, as the team’s biggest star. Coy Detmer must now run the show, not a promising thought for a team that still needs to win at least three more games to make the playoffs.

Pittsburgh’s quarterback plight may not be as serious as initially feared. Tommy Maddox has “fully” recovered from a spinal cord injury that left him motionless for 10 minutes Sunday in Tennessee. But the psychological effect of the hit, which could have left him paralyzed, may be a bigger challenge than his 10 years between NFL starts. At least the Steelers have an experienced backup quarterback in Kordell Stewart, who has been given more chances than a pair of worn-out Converse high-tops.

Denver may experience the least dropoff from its quarterback injury. Steve Beuerlein, a 16-year veteran, may actually get more points out of the offense while Brian Griese recovers from a sprained left knee.

Who knows what Week 12 holds for NFL followers? That’s the beauty of this unusual season.

— Tribune Sports Editor Steve Yingling can be reached at (530) 542-8010 or

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