The parity snare, so-called, is now so all-embracing in pro football that, with few exceptions, 21st-century teams don't open the season with nine-game winning streaks.
Although they're in a league with a number of good teams -- defining a good team as one with a strong defense and a skillful quarterback -- the Chiefs alone are undefeated after two months of football with two months left.
Thus their veteran coach, Dick Vermeil, has the NFL's Team of the Half Year.
And if Vermeil's players win today -- with Cincinnati, Oakland and San Diego next -- they will move a step closer to a playoff showdown with, possibly, the Indianapolis Colts (7-1).
They aren't scheduled against Indianapolis in the final eight weeks of the regular season.
If, however, it's Chiefs vs. Colts for the AFC title later on, one question is whether Chief quarterback Trent Green can hold his own with the flashier Colt quarterback, Peyton Manning.
Otherwise, these teams' running backs are about even (though Edgerrin James is faster than Kansas City's Priest Holmes) and the defenses are about even.
In the whole of the American Conference, only three clubs seem to have a champion's chance: Tennessee (6-2), New England (7-2) and Denver (5-4).
Denver Coach Mike Shanahan, carefully directing a third-string quarterback, Danny Kanell, guided the Broncos to the one-point lead they carried into the last half-minute Monday night at Mile High Stadium.
Then New England Coach Bill Belichick's first-string quarterback, Brady, one of the NFL's great bomb throwers, won it, 30-26, with a deep sideline shot to young wide receiver David Givins, last year's last-round draft choice from Notre Dame who faked the Bronco coverage into the end zone before ducking away to catch the perfectly placed pass.
Earlier Brady bombs, measuring up to 48 and, once, 66 yards, kept New England in a rousing game.
It was a rare prime-time matchup of top-level NFL strategist-philosophers, Shanahan and Belichick, both recent Super Bowl winners and both pass-offense enthusiasts.
And Shanahan led at the half, 17-13, after patiently nursing the Broncos along on a 55-yard touchdown drive with Kanell's small repertoire of passes, including frequent throwaways.
This suggested that Shanahan might have won if he'd had his first-string quarterback, Plummer, who missed the game with a broken foot.
Though Jake the Snake is expected back to lead the Broncos' last-half-season playoff charge, the Monday nighter belonged to Belichick and his bomb-thrower.
Balance of the Best
Pro football's 24 or 25 best defensive teams are all so powerful these days that most games are a struggle for even a quarterback like Indianapolis' Manning.
At Jacksonville today, Manning is an obvious favorite, but he had to throw 37 times last Sunday, completing 23 for 266 yards, to get a six-point victory (23-17) over new Miami quarterback Brian Griese, who was 18 for 29 for 231.
Manning moved the Colts repeatedly against Miami's sound defensive team, covering no fewer than 65 yards on each of six drives, but could drive them all the way only twice. That matched Griese's two-touchdown output for the Dolphins.
Actually, Griese's big plays were more impressive than Manning's. A well-placed Griese bomb set Miami up for a 7-0 lead in the first quarter, and in the second half his 23-yard touchdown pass (to Chris Chambers) was the longest of the game by anybody.
When good pro clubs get together -- some two dozen of them are playing this year in the 32-team NFL -- that's often the way it goes:
* The league's many superior defenses are in charge most of the time, but not on every play. No defensive team has ever played without error for 60 minutes. Nor is it possible to line up a perfect defense every time.
* And when NFL offensive teams execute with exactness, which happens once in a while, their many superior passers, earning or setting up a few touchdowns and field goals, can beat the great defenses.
For numerous reasons, the NFL is in balance now. But it's a balance not of mediocrity but of good teams and good players, the best football players there are.
All Passers Jumpy
Here are four reasons why new San Francisco quarterback Tim Rattay might not perform as effectively every time as he did the other day when he completed a long series of nearly perfect passes to rout the St. Louis Rams, 30-10:
* He isn't big enough or strong enough to be a great pro quarterback in this era. At 6 feet and 200 pounds, Rattay can, of course, play awhile. The question is how long. The son of a coach, he looks like most coaches' sons: studious, informed, proficient. That was enough to overthrow the Rams.
* Rattay hasn't been hit yet. On 49er pass plays, the Rams never once punished him the way the 49er defense repeatedly attacked Ram quarterback Marc Bulger, who was sacked five times and smashed continuously.
The only time the Rams sacked Rattay, they took him down gently, as if he were one of theirs in a training-camp scrum.
It's a given in pro football that every quarterback, no matter how wondrous he seems at first, is a different man after he's been knocked around by blitzing cornerbacks or rough-and-tumble linebackers or 300-pound linemen or all of the above.
Truly has it been said that every pro quarterback is jumpy, that he's never wholly free of worries that the next big hit he gets will be his last.
The NFL will evaluate Rattay after he's been hazed.
* Even though the Rams have seen Rattay a few times in other years, they have never been properly introduced. They don't really know him, so, in San Francisco, that hurt. Every quarterback is different and the Rams aren't familiar with Rattay's particular deportment and nuances.
They know what San Francisco's first-stringer, Jeff Garcia, can do because they've played against him so often. Rattay is something else.
* Against the Rams, Rattay's teammates were executing confidently and eagerly and sometimes spectacularly and hoping for the best. On the 49er team, that hasn't always been the case this season. Something deeper than pass-offense trouble has been amiss up there.
In New Orleans, the Saints are a top-24 NFL team with, it often seems, bottom-8 leadership. There may be another and better way to explain New Orleans' inconsistent behavior. But when an opponent can outscore the champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers three times in a row -- as the Saints have done, last year and this -- it must have competent playing talent.
And every time you see them, the Saints are showing off one of the NFL's fine quarterbacks, Aaron Brooks, as well as one of the most powerful running backs, Deuce McAllister, who combined to upset Tampa Bay again last week, 17-14, on Brooks' 142 yards passing and McAllister's 110 yards rushing.
So why don't the Saints do something like this more often? Why do they keep losing to, among others, Seattle (27-10), Carolina (twice) and Indianapolis in a 55-21 rout?
One explanation, I'd say, is that New Orleans Coach Jim Haslett and his offensive brain trust don't properly integrate their three great threats, Brooks, McAllister and Joe Horn, who, in his eighth season as an NFL receiver, continues to be underrated though he's in his NFL prime.
The Saints, for example, on a typical offensive series run McAllister twice. Then on third down, they put Brooks in shotgun formation to throw the ball.
In other words, the New Orleans coaches are telling their opponents that 1) when Brooks is under center, they're going to run, and 2) when Brooks is in a shotgun position, they're going to pass.
That makes it easy for any defense.
What Bill Walsh advocated when he developed the West Coast offense -- which most NFL teams are trying to operate today -- is an integrated double threat (run and pass) on every play.
The Saints are therefore giving up one of their most threatening weapons, McAllister, whenever Brooks is in position as a shotgun passer on, say, third and five (or six or seven or even nine). For it's much harder to get a big run after a deep handoff than after taking the ball close to the line of scrimmage.
Against an opponent playing pass defense, McAllister, with Brooks under center, could get a quick handoff and run a mile on third and anything. That's much less likely for a shotgun ballcarrier.
The best thing about a successful running play on third and five (or nine) is that, next time, the defense must respect the running back and the passer both on third-down plays. Next time, the defensive coaches will reason that if they overload with blitzing pass rushers on third and long, they'll be playing with fire. McAllister can burn them.
Few NFL coaches today seem to understand that there's a place for shotgun plays on, maybe, third and 20, but almost never on third and eight.