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Is parity dead? Not quite

1/2/2010 - NFL

The concept of parity, one of the more critical bedrocks of the NFL's status as the pre-eminent sports entity of this era, has frequently been dissed this season.

And why not, given the widespread perceived gap in quality of play, and the seeming disparity between the league's premier teams and its bottom-feeders during the 2009 campaign?

Entering the final week of the regular season, there are nine franchises with five victories or fewer, the most since 2005 and third most in the past 30 seasons. And there are four teams with three or fewer wins, which would tie with the 1991 season for the most such woebegone clubs since the NFL implemented a 16-game schedule in 1978.

Exactly one-fourth of the games that have been played so far -- 60 of 240 -- were decided by 20 points or more.

Upon further review, however, parity might not be as defunct an element in the NFL as some have claimed.

Certainly there is anecdotal evidence, such as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' overtime upset of the New Orleans Saints in Week 16 -- the first time in NFL history that a 12-loss team ever defeated a 13-victory franchise -- to suggest that the league is still relatively unleavened.

In the past three weeks alone, 13 teams that were point-spread underdogs at kickoff won their respective games outright. Three of 13 franchises that were double-digit underdogs upset their favored opponents. So while the old "on any given Sunday" credo seemed as if it were on life support for much of the 2009 season, that historical rallying cry of NFL have-nots still holds true in some respects.

"No matter your record, you still go on the field feeling like you have a chance to win if you play well," said Tampa Bay cornerback Ronde Barber after the win at the Superdome last Sunday afternoon. "That hasn't really changed."

One hardly scientific metric of parity, but an empirical element that bears note, is that there are still 17 teams technically in contention for Super Bowl XLIV. Admittedly that number is skewed, because 11 of those franchises are in the AFC, with the NFC having already determined the identity of its six postseason challengers. But no matter the lopsided mix, the 17 clubs in varying degrees of championship contention with one game remaining on the schedule compares favorably to past seasons.

According to the NFL's Record And Fact Book, there were 18 teams remaining in Super Bowl contention entering the final week of the 2008 season. The record for franchises still in the playoff hunt going into the final week of the season was 20 in 2006. Over the past 10 seasons, an average of 16.2 teams retained a playoff chance entering the final week of the season. Since 1990, when the league expanded the playoff pool to 12 teams, that average is 15.5 franchises.

Ten teams already have double-digit victories in '09, and the average for the 10 previous seasons is 10.4. Three franchises have 12 wins or more this season, and that number might increase to five by the conclusion of play Sunday evening. In the past 10 years, the number of teams with at least 12 victories is 4.5.

"It seems like there are more [terrible teams] than most years," said one NFC general manager earlier this week. "But I don't think the playing field is significantly less level than it usually is in our league."

There are five teams that have already secured playoff spots that were not in the postseason in 2008, and that number could grow by Sunday evening. Since 1990, there have been 5.8 new playoff teams every season.

So while there are arguably more bad teams in the league this year than there have been in most recent seasons, parity by no means is a thing of the past.

Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer for ESPN.com.