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NFL AM: Playoff Race is Still Wide Open

After six weeks of action, more than two-thirds of the league’s teams are still in the thick of the playoff race.

Michael Lombardo

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The Power of Parity

Twenty teams are in or within one game of first place in their respective divisions, tied for the most through Week 6 since 2002. Even more amazing is that the list of contenders does not stop with those 20 teams.

The Dolphins are 1.5 games behind the Patriots, but Miami already has a win over New England. The Falcons are just one game back of the Panthers in the win column (two in the loss column) and still have two games remaining against the division leaders from Carolina. Also consider the Chiefs, who can trim the Chargers’ lead in the division with a win this week in San Diego.

Things are especially tight in the northern divisions. The AFC North is the only division in the NFL where no team has a losing record. The NFC North is not far behind in terms of parity and is the only other division where every team is within two games of first place.

“I think our group is mature enough to understand that, just because of what happened Sunday, we’ve accomplished nothing,” said Browns Head Coach Mike Pettine after his team moved a half game ahead of Pittsburgh by throttling the Steelers. “It was a win, it was a great win for us, but it was just one win.”

Bad News for the ‘Boys

Right tackle Doug Free will miss three to four weeks after fracturing his foot in Sunday’s 30-23 win over the Seahawks. It is a tough blow for Dallas, as the Cowboys had started the same five offensive linemen in every game this season. That offensive line, which features three former first-round picks, has been the catalyst for DeMarco Murray’s historic start and Tony Romo’s newfound efficiency.

Free has started every game since the beginning of the 2010 season. Jermey Parnell replaced Free on Sunday and performed well, helping spring Murray on his game-winning 15-yard touchdown run. A former defensive lineman, Parnell is expected to start at right tackle until Free returns.

Along with the tough news on the field, the Cowboys got some bad news away from it. Backup running back Joseph Randle was arrested for shoplifting on Monday evening. He was charged with a misdemeanor Class B theft of $50 to $500, according to Frisco, Texas, police.

A fifth-round pick in 2013, Randle is coming off his best game of the season, as he ran for 52 yards on just five carries against the Seahawks.

The Cowboys, no strangers to overcoming distractions, must overcome one more to extend a winning streak that now stands at five games.

“Mental toughness is a big thing for us,” said Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett. “We talk about it all the time and we try to create an environment for our team so we can become mentally stronger.”

Zimmer’s Zingers

Minnesota Head Coach Mike Zimmer has been a man with a message this week, lambasting his players for everything from tardiness to meetings to a lack of focus on the field. This after the Vikings dropped a second straight divisional game on Sunday, falling at home to the Lions, 17-3.

The three-point performance by Minnesota’s offense was especially frustrating, as the Vikings allowed eight sacks and dropped three passes. The team’s overall lack of discipline has been an issue, as well, as Minnesota has been penalized nine times in each of its last two games.

“I want them to understand that it’s not OK to lose,” Zimmer said. “We have to change the mentality, the mindset of this. I can remember telling defenses in Cincinnati, a long, long time ago, that we have to develop this mindset that it’s not OK to lose. It’s not business as usual. I’m not very accepting of these kinds of things.”

The Vikings believed their offense had turned a corner after Teddy Bridgewater took over under center. The team won his first start against the Falcons, 41-28. Apparently, that had more to do with Atlanta’s awful defense than the Vikings’ blossoming offense. The Falcons rank No. 31 in total defense; the Lions, by contrast, rank No. 1 overall.

This week’s opponent, the Bills, ranks No. 11 in total defense but just No. 26 against the pass, allowing 269.2 yards per game through the air. Perhaps this contest will help Bridgewater and Minnesota’s offense get right so Zimmer can finally simmer.

Join Michael Lombardo for his weekly NFL chat on Friday at 2pm EST. You don’t have to wait till Friday, either … ask your question now

Michael Lombardo has spent more than 10 years as a team expert at Scout.com, primarily covering the Chargers, Cardinals and Panthers. He has been published by the NFL Network, Fox Sports and other venues.

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