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Bob Ryan

A pro vote for NFL’s system

By Bob Ryan
Globe Columnist / October 12, 2010

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I’m just sitting here thinking how chaotic it would be if the NFL operated in the same manner as college football.

College football is now on the verge of you-get-what-you-deserve chaos. The landscape is full of quality undefeated and one-loss teams. The convincing Alabama loss to South Carolina has created a scenario in which five different teams have received a first-place vote in a recognized poll. We might have multiple unbeatens among the established powers. Ohio State, Michigan State (the two Big Ten baddies do not meet this year), Nebraska, Oklahoma, Auburn, and LSU are unblemished, and, however unlikely the prospect, it is not inconceivable that four of them — Ohio State, Michigan State, Nebraska/Oklahoma, Auburn/LSU could remain that way for the remainder of the season.

And that’s before we introduce the frisky undefeated outsiders. Boise State, TCU, and Utah. Boise State has one challenge left, that being No. 21 Nevada Nov. 26. TCU is at Utah Nov. 6. So we’ll eliminate somebody from the discussion in that one. But if there’s an undefeated or two from this group, they will surely be screaming, “Hey, look at me,’’ especially if there are no undefeateds left among the BCS Big Boys.

From the beginning, it’s been a given that a one-loss team from a BCS conference (read: SEC) would have a great chance of trumping an undefeated Boise State, TCU, or Utah. If that happens, the lawyers are already warming up in the bullpen.

The problem as we’ve all noted several billion times, is that there is no orderly provision for a playoff in big-time college football. The two schools that wind up playing for the championship will be there by virtue of opinions. The computers? They’re only as good as the data they’re fed. The computers can’t account for bad fields, bad calls, crazy weather, injuries, or assorted other variables. Frankly, I’d much rather trust the opinions.

Now the NFL does not have this problem. The Super Bowl XLV teams meeting in Jerry Jones’s new playpen Feb. 6 will have gotten there on merit, period. They will have earned their way into the postseason tournament by virtue of outstanding regular-season performance, and if their inclusion happens to involve the use of tiebreakers, it will still be the result of what they did on the field.

But what if the NFL were the BCS? Oy!

On the field, the 2010 NFL is every bit as crazy, convoluted, and indecipherable as the college football situation. We are only five weeks in and the 1972 Dolphins have already opened the celebrated champagne bottle. There are no undefeated teams. Sorry, no November air time for you, Mercury Morris. Your undefeated status was safe and secure before we even got to Columbus Day.

Imagine NFL teams had to play their way into Super Bowl XLV via polls and computers, rather than on the field. It’s utter madness, which is certainly not a bad thing if you’re Roger Goodell. There is no certainty about anything, not when there is no clear No. 1 and not when you’ve got a division such as the AFC South, in which there is a four-way tie for every spot from first to last. In other words, Houston, Indianapolis, Jacksonville, and Tennessee are all sitting at 3-2.

If the NFL were college football, we’d have to start with a poll, so here’s my highly subjective and barely defensible NFL Top 10 through Week 5.

1. Baltimore (4-1), 2. Pittsburgh (3-1), 3. New York Jets (3-1 before last night’s affair with the Vikings), 4. Indianapolis (3-2), 5. Atlanta (4-1), 6. New York Giants (3-2), 7. Your Beloved Pats (3-1), 8. Kansas City (3-1), 9. Washington (3-2), 10. Philadelphia (3-2).

The only thing I’m sure about is 1 through 3. If I were a classically befuddled Associated Press voter (a subset, not the norm), I would have dropped the Steelers for losing to the Ravens. Ridiculous. It was a hard-fought, 17-14 game. No. 2 lost to No. 1. No shame there. And you’ve got to go with the Jets, don’t you? I know I’m fighting inbred anti-New York bias around here, but try to imagine the Jets as the exact same team, located 1,500 miles away. You wouldn’t hate them as much, would you?

But after the first three, good luck. I could probably throw out 4 through 10 and replace any or all of them with the likes of defending champion New Orleans (3-2), Green Bay (3-2), Chicago (4-1, but a very weird 4-1), Tampa Bay (3-1), Jacksonville (3-2), Tennessee (3-2), Houston (3-2), and Arizona (3-2). That gives you 18 teams for 12 playoff spots. Oh, and there’s still time for Minnesota (1-2 before last night), Seattle (2-2), St. Louis (2-3), and Denver (2-3) to inject themselves into the discussion.

Things will sort themselves out to some degree. They always do. Some fast starter will collapse. Some so-so team will find itself and get on a roll. But if there’s ever been a season in which handicapping, analyzing, and, yes, betting is completely uncertain, it’s this one. Even Buffalo scores points. So what NFL result would completely and utterly shock you?

It’s really crazy out there. Can the Colts survive another year without Bob Sanders? Is Atlanta really this good? Are the Giants straightened out? What do we really make of the Kansas Cities, Tennessees, Jacksonvilles, and Tampa Bays? Can Green Bay overcome the loss of Ryan Grant? Right in our own backyard, can the Patriots construct a defense that will make key fourth-down stops?

If this general parity is maintained, we are all in for a great December ride. We will have all our questions answered and no one will have to worry about voters or computers, only athletes and coaches doing their thing.

For college fans, there will be no similar resolution. We will wind up with a champion, but that doesn’t mean everyone will be happy. We may not care for the Super Bowl champion, either, but we will never question its legitimacy.

Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist and host of Globe 10.0 on Boston.com. He can be reached at ryan@globe.com.

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