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MICHAEL HOLLEY

Playing fields level out in football

FOXBOROUGH -- Quite frankly, it's a trap, and someone who should know better is going to jump feet-first into it next summer. I won't even be surprised if that someone turns out to be me.

Within a few seconds of the 2004 NFL schedule being released, the longest-running sting in sports will be launched again. Tough and easy games will be debated. Wins will be calculated, based on the (largely irrelevant) performances of the previous year. A new season will unfold. And someone will be fooled once again, refusing to believe that the NFL's brand of cards is always a tricky deck.

Why do we yawn when coaches and players tell us the truth about their league? They admit that the difference between winning and losing is as thin as something Britney Spears would wear, but that fact is often ignored in favor of some exception that just doesn't exist.

On Sunday morning, I heard a very smart analyst say a strange thing about the Kansas City Chiefs. Sean Salisbury said the Chiefs, who were 9-0 at the time, were going to be 14-0 on Dec. 20. That's the day they are scheduled to play Minnesota in the Metrodome.

Deep in his pro football heart, Salisbury had to know it wasn't going to come to that. When the Bengals beat the Chiefs Sunday afternoon, it wasn't a fluke. The Chiefs aren't much different from the Patriots, the Patriots and Titans are kindred spirits, and there isn't much separation between the Titans and Colts. What commissioner Paul Tagliabue has is the most competitive round-robin in North America.

No one can say, with certainty, which team is the game's best. If you find that person, watch out: That's someone who is capable of telling you that they can make you rich -- as long as you pass along a MasterCard and your Social Security number.

Really, no one can handicap this season, scouts and general managers included.

Everyone in New England can appreciate what the 8-2 Patriots are doing, even as Rosevelt Colvin watches on crutches. Instead of having someone brazenly tell them he will be Rookie of the Year -- as receiver Antonio Bryant did when he interviewed with them in 2001 -- the Patriots actually have a humble and worthy candidate in Eugene Wilson. They also have a leader, Rodney Harrison, who commanded respect as soon as he walked in the door and began joking with team owner Robert Kraft.

There are several similarities to the '01 champs: a discouraging loss at the beginning of the season, a couple of injured starters, and a defense that intimidates people. Harrison and Wilson, playing their first season together, are already one of the best safety combos in the league.

But this team also has scars, and the scars are visible.

In their last two games, the Patriots have rushed for a total of 134 yards. You can't criticize offensive coordinator Charlie Weis for rushing volume, because he's called for 51 runs in those two weeks. The running game has been so weak lately that Weis is not getting, on average, the minimum that Woody Hayes craved: 3 yards.

Weis is not the only coach with a mild -- for now -- problem in his unit. Special teams coach Brad Seely has the challenge of straightening out punter Ken Walter. All punters go through slumps, but Walter has been kicking as if the league's stadiums are elaborate glass houses and he's afraid that a good boot will shatter them all.

His per-punt average of 38.2 is 4 yards lower than Craig Hentrich's average, and Hentrich is simply in the middle of the AFC pack. Walter probably can remember hitting the ball better than this as a ball boy with the old Cleveland Browns.

The point, and this isn't necessarily bad news, is that no team could pass an exam. The Titans run worse than the Patriots. The Colts can be run on, as the Jets proved Sunday. And although cornerback Eric Warfield has played well this season, the Chiefs are vulnerable when they are attacked deep.

The 1972 Dolphins can put down their champagne glasses for the next decade. They are the last undefeated team in NFL history, and they toast one another when the final unbeaten in the league takes a loss.

This is not the league from the 1970s and it never will be that again. There is no royalty, and the only real serf is dressed like a Cardinal and resides in the Arizona desert.

Just by watching a handful of games this season, one can understand why the league's coaches and scouts don't sleep. The talent is about the same, the preparation is about the same, and the energy poured into the job is the same.

The results often are left to simple twists of fate.

Tampa's Jon Gruden will hear lots of stories about post-Super Bowl lethargy, but is that why his kicker missed an extra point against Carolina and his defense fell apart in the fourth quarter against the Colts?

New York's Jim Fassel is a couple of losses away from being fired, but he might have retained his job if a kickoff hadn't gone out of bounds on a Monday night against the Cowboys. Or if a punt against the Eagles had been carried out properly.

Who knows what would have happened to the Patriots in Denver if Daniel Graham had caught a fourth-quarter pass at Invesco Field? It was Graham's drop that helped the team and led to the famous decision to give up 2 points in exchange for field position. That wouldn't have been a factor if the tight end had caught the ball.

As recently as 72 hours ago, there was a popular belief that the AFC Championship game was going to be played in Kansas City. Why? We're all aware of how things work by now.

Year after year, the traps remain in the same places. They are just decorated with different logos.

Michael Holley is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is holley@globe.com.

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