TAMPA — For a sport that generates untold fortunes for the gambling industry, trying to pick winners in an unpredictable NFL season such as this sure feels like a losing proposition.
Lately, point spreads mean nothing. And relying on favorites is fool's gold.
The NFL has always sought to have a level of parity unparalleled in sports, and it might finally be there.
• Through the first month of the regular season, there are 23 teams either in first place or within a game of their division lead, the most through four weeks in NFL history. That includes the Bucs, who, at 2-1, trail the 3-1 Saints and Falcons by half a game in the NFC South. No 2009 division winner has sole possession of first place.
• There is just one remaining unbeaten team — 3-0 Kansas City — and it faces long odds in the next two weeks with games at Indianapolis and at Houston.
• Final margins have been slim, too. Through four weeks, 33 of the 62 games played have been decided by seven points or fewer. That's the most through four weeks in the past 22 years.
Don't think the Bucs, who were 3-13 last season, aren't paying heed — despite the many tough games that await them.
"The importance of conference and division wins are going to be paramount this year because I think there's going to be a lot of tiebreakers this year," Bucs center Jeff Faine said. "There's going to be a lot of (scenarios) where one team has to win and these two teams have to lose or whatever for a team to get into the playoffs. It's going to happen. It's just the way the games are playing out. Hopefully we can just take care of business on our end."
Perhaps four weeks don't equal a trend, but what's happening can't be dismissed, either. This is especially true given the recent past.
For example, two teams entered Week 15 with perfect records last season, the Saints and Colts both sitting at 13-0. And in 2007, the Patriots finished their regular season an unblemished 16-0, remaining unbeaten until losing to the Giants in the Super Bowl.
This season couldn't be any different.
Drawing conclusions about matchups on paper has long been difficult in the NFL. But now, seemingly more than ever, that's a dangerous trap.
"In the National Football League, you can't sit around and say, 'Hey, we beat Cleveland, and Cleveland beat Cincinnati,' " said Bucs coach Raheem Morris, whose team plays the Bengals on Sunday.
"That doesn't mean anything. Pittsburgh kicked our butt and Baltimore beat them. That doesn't mean anything. You have to go out and prepare every single week to play our brand of football. Play hard, play fast, play smart and, somehow, find a way to be consistent, and you'll have a chance to win the football game. This league (has) parity every single year."
Is something behind the apparent shift this fall? That's not clear, but there are some theories.
"When I was growing up, you had all these marquee players who had been playing for a long time on the same team," guard Davin Joseph said. "What we have now is a lot of young marquee players. … I'm talking about players such as Ronnie Brown (Dolphins) and Matt Ryan and Roddy White (Falcons), Patrick Willis (49ers), Adrian Peterson (Vikings) — guys who have established themselves really early and are making this league better. Chris Johnson (Titans) is another one.
"It's balanced. We're getting a lot of elite players, and it's really making things competitive. It seems if you look around the league, every team has a marquee player and that's why it's making things more competitive. Every Sunday, it's a fight."
Whatever the reason, the level playing field can only help young teams such as the Bucs, Rams and Chiefs that are sure to encounter growing pains in efforts to rebuild.
"I was talking to (offensive line) coach Pete Mangurian, and he was saying there was one year when his team went 11-5 and didn't make the playoffs," Faine said. "This year, you'll see a team that's .500 make the playoffs. Shoot, maybe even a 7-9 team. Whatever it is, there's definitely a lot of parity this year."
Stephen F. Holder can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow the team at bucs.tampabay.com.