INDIANAPOLIS — Why not us?

That was the question Indianapolis Colts head coach Frank Reich was asking Sunday after his team survived a scare from the Jacksonville Jaguars to reach .500 for the first time this season.

“Why can’t the Indianapolis Colts take over right now?” he asked the assembled media.

It might have seemed like an odd question coming on the heels of a 23-17 victory against a team that fell to 2-7. But it’s been an odd year in the NFL.

To say the least.

Entering this week, 12 of the AFC’s 16 teams have at least five wins. If the playoffs started today, the New England Patriots (6-4) and Pittsburgh Steelers (5-3-1) would hold down two of the wild-card slots. Three teams are tied for the final berth at 5-4.

The Colts are one of three more teams one-half game behind that group at 5-5. It’s a mosh pit of playoff contenders with eight weeks remaining in the longest regular season in NFL history.

The question becomes is this good or bad for the league?

When free agency began in earnest in 1993 with Reggie White shocking the world and signing with the small-market Green Bay Packers, the goal was parity. Everything the NFL does, in fact, is aimed at this goal – from the salary cap to the draft to weighted schedules based (in small part) on where a team finished within its division during the previous season.

It’s all about the “any given Sunday” ethos espoused by former commissioner Pete Rozelle, and the AFC is close to the epitome of that dream.

That’s not to say there’s a runaway over in the NFC. But at least that conference has established a loose hierarchy.

The Green Bay Packers (8-2), Arizona Cardinals (8-2) and Dallas Cowboys (7-2) are at the head of the table, and the Los Angeles Rams (7-3) and Tampa Bay Buccaneers (6-3) are strong contenders. But fully half of the 16 teams have a losing record, and five of the seven playoff spots appear to be already spoken for by the above mentioned teams.

In the AFC, chaos reigns.

The Tennessee Titans (8-2) deserve credit for perseverance, going 2-0 after a devastating injury to star running back Derrick Henry and finding a way to be more than competitive every week. But they are not dominant.

And after the Titans, it’s every man for himself.

Two divisions – the AFC North and the AFC South – don’t have a team with a losing record.

Even three of the four teams under .500 have the potential to be dangerous. The Miami Dolphins (3-7) upset the AFC North-leading Baltimore Ravens (6-3) last week. The New York Jets (2-7) have wins over the Titans and Cincinnati Bengals (5-4). And the Jaguars (2-7) are just one week removed from an upset victory over the AFC East-leading Buffalo Bills (6-3).

Any given Sunday, indeed.

The goal of free agency, the salary cap, etc. was to end the era of dynasties. No more Steelers of the 1970s, San Francisco 49ers of the 1980s or Dallas Cowboys of the early 1990s. Bill Belichick and the Patriots have spent the better part of 20 years foiling that plan, but this year’s AFC might represent the zenith of its success.

It feels as though any of the seven teams who qualify for the AFC postseason could reach the Super Bowl. That means 75% of the conference’s fanbase (cheering for the 12 teams in playoff contention) still has ample reason to dream.

That’s the endgame for parity, keeping as many fans engaged as late into the season as possible.

It can be argued the advent of fantasy football and the more recent widespread legalization of sports betting have lessened – or even eliminated – the need to keep the “home” team foremost in fans’ minds. But casual viewers still want to know what the team’s record is and whether the season has any chance of amounting to something.

In today’s AFC, almost everyone can feel good about their chances as Thanksgiving nears.

Which brings us back to the question at the top of this column.

For the AFC’s dandy dozen, “why not us” is far more than a pipe dream.

React to this story:


Trending Video

Recommended for you