By Thanksgiving weekend last year, the N.F.L. had issued its first byzantine sequence of events necessary for the and the to secure playoff spots. This year the Colts and the Saints are mired in the same competitive muck as all but a handful of teams. That is bad news for the Saints and the Colts but great news for teams that have usually been eliminated from contention by this time of year.
Before Sunday’s games, 19 teams were within a game of first place in their division, the most through a Week 11 in N.F.L. history. Sunday’s results did nothing to clarify the picture: 23 of the 32 teams are within two games of the lead in their division, with five games remaining.
When the needed overtime to beat the , the N.F.L. notched its eighth consecutive week with at least one overtime game, approaching the record of 11 weeks, set in 2003. A record for close games may also be set. The record was established in 1997, when 27.9 percent of regular-season games were decided by 3 points or fewer. Entering Monday’s game, this season’s rate was 27.4 percent (48 of 175 games).
After Tampa Bay lost to Baltimore, Coach Raheem Morris repeatedly mentioned that the young Bucs put no N.F.L. team on a pedestal. Why should they? Morris’s team, which won only three games last season, epitomizes why Newsome thinks there is less daylight between teams than ever and why this year may be more of a sea change than an anomaly.
“The offenses have caught up with our defenses,” Newsome said. “Two teams that score 50 points in three quarters would have been unheard of. But with spread quarterbacks, young quarterbacks are able to play a little sooner. Quarterbacks are maturing sooner in the league.”
The shift to pass-oriented offenses in the college game, Newsome said, has better prepared quarterbacks to play quickly in the N.F.L. With these quarterbacks, broken teams, like the Bucs with Josh Freeman, the with Sam Bradford and with , can repair themselves more quickly. And when every team is flawed, either because of injuries or because of a lack of personnel, the rising teams meet the teams in transition somewhere in the middle.
In the perpetually weak N.F.C. West, the Rams and the lead the division at 5-6. But the loser of Monday night’s game between the and the would be only two games out of the division lead at 3-8.
Newsome is as surprised as anyone that no team has jumped away from the pack, until he looks around the league and sees weaknesses even in traditional powerhouses. The are starting a handful of rookies on defense, and the Colts are playing with people who were not on N.F.L. rosters when the season started. Injuries have decimated some teams, and Newsome said he and other general managers had talked about a virus striking some teams at specific positions: the corners for the Ravens, the wide receivers for the Giants, the Colts almost everywhere.
Flawed teams may have had fewer opportunities to fill their needs before the season began. Some 200 players were unable to become unrestricted free agents because of rules related to the expiring collective bargaining agreement. Teams that did make big moves — the Chicago Bears’ acquisition of Julius Peppers, for example — improved drastically.
Newsome wishes the Ravens were in a position to play for a first-round bye, but the N.F.L. made it nearly impossible to clinch a division early, by shifting division games to later in the season. The intent was to avoid teams’ resting star players after playoff positions had been secured.
But it has also saved teams like San Diego, which started 2-5, because the have three division games left, including a showdown with the , the A.F.C. West leaders.
In the A.F.C. South, all four teams are within a game of one another. The , trailing by a game, have two division games left. The Colts and the , tied for the lead at 6-5, have three. The , one game back, have four.
In the N.F.C. South, the upstart Bucs (7-4) are two games behind the Atlanta Falcons (9-2), with a showdown at home against them Sunday and the season finale at New Orleans.
“You’ve got to give the league credit for coming up with this,” Newsome said of the new scheduling. “If we come up with the 18-game schedule, we’ll need it.”
Tough Times in Denver
The bad news kept getting worse for Denver Coach Josh McDaniels until Monday night. The lost to the Rams, who last year had one victory and this year had no road victories.
But one day after McDaniels and the Broncos were fined because the team’s video operations director, Steve Scarnecchia, videotaped the 49ers’ walkthrough before the teams’ game in London last month, the real trouble came at Denver’s turnstiles, which did not turn nearly as often Sunday as N.F.L. owners want.
The Broncos indicated Saturday that they could tolerate a coach who did not immediately turn in an employee who broke N.F.L. rules designed to protect the integrity of the game. The team’s chief operating officer, Joe Ellis, said this was not an offense that would get McDaniels fired. But owners have a tougher time stomaching declining attendance and fan apathy because they directly affect the bottom line.
In Denver, fans have had little to cheer. The Broncos, 2-4 at home and 3-8 over all, were booed loudly at halftime. They begin a three-game road trip Sunday in Kansas City. But as much as McDaniels’s actions embarrassed the team’s majority owner, Pat Bowlen, and the potential problems if fans stay away when the Broncos return to Denver for the final two home games, Bowlen told that “I am not interested in making a change” of coaches, either this season or next.
Fines for Fighting
The Titans’ Cortland Finnegan and the Texans’ Andre Johnson were each fined $25,000 Monday after being ejected , with Johnson punching Finnegan at least twice in the back of the head. It was the same fine given to the ’ Richard Seymour for hitting Steelers quarterback in the face Nov. 21. The league did not suspend Seymour, either.
Review of Postgame Incident
The N.F.L. said it was looking into in which Tampa Bay cornerback Aqib Talib and a member of the officiating crew exchanged profanities as they left the field. Talib and the Bucs were enraged by a pass interference call near the end of the first half, which Coach Raheem Morris argued as he headed to the locker room at halftime.
Talib used a profanity in yelling at one official, who, according to witnesses, used the same profanity in return, in front of reporters waiting to enter Tampa Bay’s locker room. Talib had to be restrained.
The officials declined to discuss the incident with a pool reporter after the game, saying they would discuss only on-field decisions.