Among the 18 or 20 NFL teams at or near the top of a 31-team league after the first half of the season, there is a balance of either mutual mediocrity or mutual excellence.

If you agree with me, it's a balance of excellence.

Pro football players all rank, to begin with, as the very best in a country that plays a lot of football in thousands of high schools and colleges, where 95% or more of the starters never see a pro camp.

Those who do move on are divided up by the various pro clubs about as equally as possible with all sorts of artificial devices, among them a draft, a salary cap, a free-agency system and, most important, a pooled-revenue plan that gives every franchise $70 million in TV income annually to invest in coaches, scouts and playing talent.

True, the athletes all make some mistakes--even those of us who don't play football make some mistakes--but who's surprised that in a six-division league, 18 or more good teams are still fighting for first place?

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A Balance of Differences

It's as groundless to say that pro clubs are all alike as it is to say they're all mediocre or worse.

For example, St. Louis, Washington and Indianapolis are good passing teams that don't win all the time, and Kansas City, Miami and Detroit are good defensive teams that don't win all the time.

And although Jacksonville's Super Bowl favorites are better balanced than most of their opponents, they went through a three-week stretch last month when they scored only 22, 17 and 19 points.

They romped Sunday, 30-7, but that was against a discouraged, depressed Atlanta team that is getting to be a soft touch.

Indeed, the Jaguars' comparatively soft schedule is a central reason why they're favored to get to the Super Bowl.

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Long Passes Test Defense, Not Passer

If this is a league in which parity has been deliberately induced, it was uniquely reflected for all 60 minutes in the Silverdome Sunday.

The Detroit Lions and St. Louis Rams summed up the whole closely played NFL season in the game's first half, when the Rams opened 2-0 before Detroit moved ahead, 7-2, after which the Rams regained the lead, 9-7, then lost it again, 10-9, before stretching out to 12-10 at halftime.

The back-and-forth first half was just a prelude to a second half in which Detroit recaptured the lead, 18-12, built it up with two field goals, 24-19, then lost it, 27-24, before scoring the last touchdown of the game, 31-27.

The Lions showed off their great defense but were a little lucky on offense, converting regularly on third and long, and converting the game-winner on fourth and 26.

A pass on third and six or more is a test of the defensive team, not the quarterback, and the major finding of the game was that the Ram pass defense can be had--even on fourth and 26.