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Middle class has vanished in 2005

In a season during which the widening schism between the NFL's haves and have-nots has been the subject of considerable debate at league meetings and in negotiations for an extension to the collective bargaining agreement, the treacherous trend has become nearly as profound on the field as on the financial ledger sheets.

A league whose hallmark has long been competitive balance has, in most uncharacteristic manner, watched the scales become skewed. It's almost as if the NFL morphed in 2005 into a gridiron game of "Survivor," with one weak franchise summarily exiled from Playoff Island every week, and teams such as Indianapolis and Seattle seemingly immune from any and all challenges.

Don't believe it? Well, through 14 weeks of the season, 14 teams have been officially eliminated from Super Bowl contention. That's the most franchises eliminated at this juncture, in terms of both raw numbers and percentage of total teams in the league, since the NFL implemented a 16-game season in 1978.

Over the previous 27 seasons (see table at right), an average of 26.1 percent of the teams have been scratched from the playoff race with three weeks remaining. This year, however, a whopping 43.8 percent of the teams are non-contenders and relegated to premature planning for the 2006 season. In most seasons, it takes until after Week 15 to have such a high percentage of teams bounced from playoff contention.

Indeed, it's been a parity schmarity kind of season, with the NFL performing an alarming impersonation of a third-world country, one all but devoid of a middle class. The conventional wisdom is that this season of disparity is an aberration, and that things will return to normal in 2006. But watching the abnormal elements at work this season has certainly thrown a lot of NFL observers for a loop.

"It is kind of surprising to look at the standings and see that many teams out of it with three weeks left to play," said Indianapolis Colts center Jeff Saturday, a seven-year veteran whose undefeated team has contributed the most to the imbalance. "Usually, you have twenty-some [teams] still chasing a playoff spot, but this season hasn't shaken out that way, for whatever reason. It's definitely a little different."

Even if no one can explain exactly why, it's been a lot different, when compared to most seasons.

Only four times previously since 1978 have 10 or more teams been eliminated from the postseason race with three weeks left on the schedule. From a percentage standpoint, the previous high was in 2000, when 12 of 31 teams, or 38.7 percent, were eliminated after 14 weeks. And consider this: At the same juncture of the 2004 schedule, only five franchises had been bounced from the pursuit of a playoff spot, roughly one-third of the early casualties already lined up this season. Not until after the Week 16 results were in were there 14 teams eliminated from the 2004 playoff race.

Interestingly, only two franchises, respective conference pacesetters Indianapolis and Seattle, have secured playoff berths at this point. At the 14-week juncture in 2004, there were five franchises that had clinched postseason spots. In 2003, a half-dozen teams had booked playoff reservations with three weeks left. Since 2000, the average number of postseason berths claimed through 14 weeks is 3.6.

So it's not as if the premier franchises this year have been demonstrably better than their counterparts of the past.

"No, you've got two exceptional teams right now, in the Colts and the Seahawks, but that isn't such a dramatic difference," said the top football official from one NFC franchise. "The bigger thing is that we've got so many really bad teams. I mean, who thought the Packers would have three wins right now? Some of you so-called media experts pegged the Jets as a dark-horse Super Bowl team, didn't you? I think everybody felt like Houston could win maybe seven games. Buffalo was supposed to be a contender, there were a lot of people who thought New Orleans could finally play up to its potential, and Arizona was a big preseason favorite. But instead, look what's happened to those teams."

The six franchises cited by the football executive, all of them underachievers in '05, have totaled just 18 victories. That's not so much a fall from grace as a graceless tumble from the summit of Parity Peak.

Still, there are only five teams -- Houston, Green Bay, New Orleans, San Francisco and the Jets -- that mathematically cannot win more than six games this season. Last season a whopping 12 teams, more than one-third of the franchises, posted six wins or fewer. So what most sets this season apart isn't necessarily the early elimination of so many teams as the elimination of the NFL's middle-class franchises.

In most cases, this one included, the numbers don't lie. The top four teams in the league have accounted for more than one-fifth (21.2 percent) of the victories. And the five most miserable bottom-feeders have registered more than one quarter (25.5 percent) of the defeats. The pendulum of competitive balance, clearly lacking in equilibrium for a change, has essentially swung more toward the pitiful than the powerful. There have been far more teams that have underachieved than those that have over-performed.

"The bottom line," New Orleans wide receiver Joe Horn said, "is that there are a lot of bad football teams this season. Some really good ones, too, but more real bad ones. And there aren't as many so-so teams."

With three weeks remaining, exactly half the league's teams are three or more games over the .500 mark. In contrast, there are 14 teams that are three or more games below the break-even point. Only the Washington Redskins (on the plus side) and Miami Dolphins (in the minus column) are flirting with mundane mediocrity. Everyone else in the league, it seems, is either a prince or a pauper.

And unfortunately, it sure looks like even some of the princes are going to be left on the outside of the playoff soiree, staring in longingly through a window. Here is the sobering downside of the kind of disparity that has marked this season: When there is no middle class, or such a decidedly diminished one, even some of the members of the ruling caste can get cast off an overbooked dance card.

Some teams that might be considered royalty in most seasons might get royally rebuffed, so to speak, come playoff time this year. Just ask the Pittsburgh Steelers, the Kansas City Chiefs and the San Diego Chargers. All are considered teams of playoff potential, yet it is all but assured two of the three won't qualify for the postseason.

Since the adoption of the 12-team playoff format in 1990, only three teams that registered double-digit victories -- Philadelphia and San Francisco in 1991 and Miami in 2003 -- didn't qualify for postseason play. This season, it's certainly conceivable there could be three clubs with 10 victories that are left at home come playoff time.

It has been, for sure, a quirky season, one in which disparity could leave even some clubs with winning records more than a little dismayed.

Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click hereInsider.