But it rarely looks like it does this year, with only one of the eight teams remaining for the divisional playoff round having returned from that spot in 2018.
That would be the Kansas City Chiefs, with all of the others fresh to the party. None among the Packers, 49ers, Vikings, Seahawks, Texans, Ravens or Titans was similarly viable at this time last year, when the others still fighting were the Rams, Cowboys, Eagles, Saints, Colts, Chargers and Patriots. It's a fact that might encourage a Bears fan that all is still not lost.
I know it's not the strongest argument for optimism, but work with me here.
This could never happen in the glass-ceiling NBA, where having merely a pair of great and healthy players ensures a certain level of competitiveness. It's rare in modern baseball, where so many teams choose to pocket more of their immense profits instead of even trying to win, and even the puck-luck of hockey isn't enough to scramble the standings to this extent. There are a handful of factors at work that conspire to give every team in football at least the puncher's chance envisioned by commissioner Pete Rozelle decades ago.
First and foremost is the obvious role that injuries play in derailing the best-laid plans. As everyone pursues the holy grail of prevention, the brutal truth still holds that health in this sport is largely just dumb luck and tough-guy phrases like"next man up" are only intended to obscure the reality that most backups aren't starters for a reason, which is usually that the other guy is bigger, faster, smarter or all three. Rosters this time of year are often unrecognizable from what they were in September, full of players who were on some other practice quad or teaching middle-school gym class as recently as last summer. And if your quarterback goes down, forget it.
It's the injuries that make it a fools' errand to look at a given schedule, but even that system is designed to promote equity by punishing success with a more difficult slate while tempering failure with an easier one. It's a lesser factor, but it is one.
Then there's the constant level of officiating variance that ends up deciding far too many close games in the NFL. Despite having the finest technology at its disposal and multiple sets of eyes on every play, not a game goes by without something inadequately adjudicated or explained or that something obviously preposterous is entirely missed or decided on a spur-of-the-moment interpretation of a recently changed and minimally understood rule. Even in situations that don't come down to an obvious call or non-call making the difference in the critical moment, the aggregate level of human-error injustice and uncertainty makes it matter even less what the teams actually do.
And that's how you get here, left to spin the wheel and hope for the best. It can be more comforting than the assurance that Mitchell Trubisky now is going to learn how to understand coverages.