Balance of powerWe've chosen five categories to characterize how we view the NFL's 32 teams after the first six weeks of a season in which parity has been relegated to parody. Here's a look:

<LI>Schlage (a "lock" for the playoffs): We thought about expanding the number of teams by one or two here but, for now, we're going with an elite five: New England, Philadelphia, Indianapolis, Denver and Minnesota. Still some concerns about the Colts and Vikings defenses and they may have to win some shootouts.

<LI>Heaven's door (knock-knock-knockin' at possible playoff spots): Hard to ignore the combined 9-1 record of the two New York teams, isn't it? But we want to wait one more week -- and it has nothing to do with the Jets matchup at New England on Sunday -- before moving them up a notch. Same with Atlanta, where Michael Vick has flashed snippets of brilliance, but where the defense has been the most significant constant. Joining those three: St. Louis, Pittsburgh and Jacksonville. We're anxious to see how Ben Roethlisberger reacts on Oct. 31 when the Steelers rookie quarterback tries to figure out the exotic defenses that New England coach Bill Belichick will have schemed up.

<LI>State of Missouri (still have something to show me): We moved Seattle down into this subset because, while we're not alarmed by the Seahawks' two-game losing streak, the loss of defensive end Grant Wistrom to injury and a suddenly unsettled wide receiver situation changes the dynamics. San Diego is more competitive than we thought, now that we have seen the team in person, but the Chargers need to make some plays on the outside offensively and have to tighten up the right cornerback spot. Joey Harrington had better start playing better in Detroit and ditto Baltimore's scattershot Kyle Boller. Houston has surged nicely the past few weeks but we're not convinced yet they won't backslide a bit.

<LI>Middle men (currently mediocre or, in some cases, the potential to at least rise to average): A few surprises here -- present bottom-feeders such as Cincinnati, Buffalo, Tennessee, Kansas City -- because those teams all possess enough talent, on paper at least, to still make a run. They are joined by Dallas, Washington, Green Bay and Cleveland. Actually, we might have named this the Jekyll-Hyde category, because that's how many of these teams play. Good enough to beat anyone in the league. Bad enough to lose to anyone, too.

<LI>Stick a fork in 'em (they're done): Miami, Oakland, Arizona, San Francisco, Carolina, Tampa Bay, New Orleans and Chicago. Oh, sure, they'll have a surprise or two. But it's time for these teams to start planning for 2005.

-- Len Pasquarelli