There's reason to make two calls this week: (1) declaring the NFL pennant races over and done with for the season -- before the playoffs are even completed -- and (2) declaring New England the winner of the upcoming Super Bowl.
First, across many years, the league's 32 ownership groups have created a nearly ideal team game for our times, a game so circumscribed by forces such as the draft and salary cap that every team is now like a twin to every other.
Second, in a league such as this, most coaches and players ride the parity train to even-money seasons. Only the most obviously talented people -- the best coach, the best quarterback -- could, if they chose, move to almost any team in the league and win championships.
Two such gifted individuals are New England's quarterback, Tom Brady, and coach, Bill Belichick. Though the NFL lists six or seven quarterbacks almost as good as Brady, he's a cut above. And though Belichick has never won a Super Bowl by more than three points, he leads the NFL's 10 or 12 other great coaches in knowledge, experience and know-how.
The champ is already set
The third week of January, many days before Super Bowl XLI in South Florida on Feb. 4, may seem a strange time to be crowning a champion.
But there is so much parity in pro football now that only those with the most gifted leadership skills stand a chance. And of those who do, the Patriots have the only real chance.
Always barring injuries, the Patriots are slightly superior in so many ways. They also offer the distinctive interplay of Belichick and Brady.
Better than most coach-quarterback combos, B&B; understand the direction in which the NFL has been leaning these many years. They know that they won their three Super Bowls only on late drives to field goals. They know that parity has engulfed every pro club down to its second-string players -- and beyond. They know that on such a level playing field, it's the details that make the difference -- and they know which details matter.
Brady, for example, goes back to passing school every spring, honing his near-perfect throwing motion. As a result, that motion is so simple and clean that he can rely on it in the tightest late-game situations. Belichick, similarly, is always tinkering with his defensive schemes, changing formations and tactics to give his next opponents a challenge they haven't seen before. This ever-new approach helps explain why the Patriots haven't given up a point on their opponents' first possessions in 11 consecutive playoff games.
Brady gives the Patriots the edge on offense, Belichick on defense -- but the edge is so fine in a league overwhelmed with parity that if the Patriots figure to win again, in fact it's no cinch.
And we are talking of just one season here. Year after year, day after day, the constant strain of trying to elevate above the pack means that it's not only difficult for any team to put three or four championship seasons together, it's nigh impossible.
In the NFL, winning isn't everything
Suddenly, the NFL isn't a very good place for coaches to live and work -- except for their salaries. If, as Vince Lombardi said, winning is the only thing, the place to coach nowadays is at a good university.
It's no upset that Pete Carroll chooses to stay at USC in preference to any pro job. You can win in college ball today because you have complete control of personnel.
Pro clubs, bound by a salary cap, are also stuck with a draft structure that punishes success. In college, by contrast, a good recruiter at a prestigious school can guarantee himself above-parity personnel.
Saban can win at Alabama. He couldn't win with the Dolphins and knew it.
In former days, successful college coaches used to "graduate" to an important pro job, leaving a moneyed school for even more money. Those who make that leap today find that the money's still there, but, come Sunday, not the wins.