When New York Giants General Manager Ernie Accorsi was working as an executive at NFL headquarters in the early 1970s, he often helped formulate the regular season schedule. Thirty years later, he still remembers the mantra of Commissioner Pete Rozelle.
"It was always 'Good teams against good teams and bad teams against bad teams' early in the season," Accorsi said. "He didn't want good teams playing bad teams because it would probably mean some of the bad teams would get off to 0-3 or 1-3 starts and would be out of contention in the first month. He knew it was important to have a lot of teams in contention for as long as possible."
With 32 teams now and a schedule that has every team in one division playing 14 of its 16 games against common opponents, Rozelle's legacy -- meaningful games and a large number of teams in contention over the last month of the season -- still remains very much a part of the NFL.
Especially this year. With four weeks left in the regular season, only eight teams have been mathematically eliminated from playoff contention -- just two in the AFC.
"You can say what you want about parity, or mediocrity, or offenses having all the rules advantages over the defenses, our game is still unbelievably competitive," said Ron Wolf, the former Green Bay Packers general manager who is now a fan living on the outskirts of Annapolis. "That's really what sets it apart from anything else out there."
In the AFC, only Cincinnati and Houston have been eliminated and, in the NFC, Carolina, Chicago, Minnesota, Detroit, Arizona and Seattle are out. Even more astounding, in the AFC, two division races are tied, and in the other two, all three second-place teams are within 11/2 games of the lead.
No AFC team can clinch a division title this week, and it seems likely that virtually every race in the conference could go down to the final weekend. Pittsburgh seems to have the easiest road to the playoffs, with only one of its four remaining games against a winning team, three of their final four games at home, including their next two against lowly Houston and Carolina. Defending Super Bowl champion New England, tied with Miami for the AFC East lead, has the toughest road, playing four legitimate contenders down the stretch -- Buffalo at home, away against Tennessee and back home against the Jets and the season finale against Miami, the other AFC East co-leader.
It's a little different in the NFC, where Green Bay has clinched the weak North over three 3-9 foes, and Philadelphia, San Francisco and Tampa Bay can win their divisions Sunday under scenarios involving other contending teams. Atlanta also has a chance to clinch a wild-card spot.
But the NFC bracket in the playoffs is probably full, with only home-field advantage still to be settled. The only close division race is in the South, with Tampa Bay at 9-3, the Falcons at 8-3-1 and the New Orleans Saints at 8-4. Atlanta can take the division lead if it beats the Bucs in Tampa on Sunday, but all three times seem likely to be playing in the postseason.
Philadelphia has a three-game lead on the Giants in the NFC East and San Francisco has a three-game lead on St. Louis in the NFC West. Tampa Bay and Green Bay lead the NFC home-field race, and if they remain tied for the best record in the conference, Tampa Bay would have home-field advantage based on its 21-7 victory over the Packers two weeks ago.
The league has not gone through the season without problems or controversy. There has been a flurry of helmet-to-helmet hits and subsequent fines, players being suspended for violations of the substance-abuse policy, injuries to big-time stars such as Kurt Warner, Donovan McNabb and Ray Lewis, and some very frightening injuries as well.
But at the moment the league seems to be riding another crest of popularity with fans.
Games have been wide open this year, with eight all-time offensive records threatened -- including touchdowns, net and gross passing yards and 300-yard throwing games by quarterbacks. There are emerging stars such as Michael Vick in Atlanta, LaDainian Tomlinson and Drew Brees in San Diego. There are feel-good stories such as Tommy Maddox in Pittsburgh, Marc Bulger in St. Louis and Emmitt Smith breaking the league's all-time rushing record.
In addition to having so many teams in contention late in the season, there have been 20 overtime games, one short of the record set in 1995. And teams trailing by 10 points in the fourth quarter have come back to win 13 times, threatening the record of 17 set in 1982.
Of 192 games played, 105 have been decided by eight points or less (54 percent). Last week, 12 of the 16 games were in that category. And with defenses more handcuffed than ever by rules restricting holding, bump-and-run or contact down field, offenses are putting record numbers of points on the board every week.
As usual, free agency and the salary cap, in effect since 1993, have been contributors. With yearly player turnover at about 33 percent per team, some teams take longer to find their stride. When they do, long winning streaks seem to be in order for many.
"Teams need time to jell," said New York Jets General Manager Terry Bradway, whose team started 1-3. "Look at us. We had six new starters on defense and a new quarterback who came in early in the season. We really struggled early, and then it just started to click. Guys learned what their teammates could and couldn't do, they understood the system, and then we get right back in it."
It also means the end of long-running dominance of teams such as the Cleveland Browns and New York Giants in the 1950s, the Baltimore Colts and Green Bay Packers in the 1960s, the Pittsburgh Steelers and Miami Dolphins in the 1970s and the Redskins and 49ers in the '80s. This year, there hasn't been a dominant, fearsome team.
"If you had polled all the general managers before the start of this season and asked them who had the best talent, St. Louis would have won hands down," Accorsi said. "But then they get a few injuries, Warner has problems and they go into a skid. They win five straight, then lose two and they're out of it. You can turn your team around in a year and win a Super Bowl, but the next year it can also go the other way very quickly."