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Manly Pink

On the NFL’s playoff system, Peyton Manning, and those pink uniforms.

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I love the NFL in October. Aside from cash flow and Peyton Manning's quarterback rating, these aren't the best of times for the National Football League. One report after another continues to link America's most popular sport with brain damage to its workforce. In August, the league settled a lawsuit with thousands of former players accusing their former employer of complicity in lingering ailments resulting from serial concussions. The fact that the cost of the settlement — $765 million — is considered chump change by NFL standards only speaks to the breadth of pro football's influence in this country. So what if CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy) has become as familiar in football lingo as PAT? Crack a cold one and kick off!

But the NFL gets it right in October. For years now, football players, coaches, and officials have joined the rest of the country for Breast Cancer Awareness Month by wearing pink wherever their bodies and uniforms will allow. From marquee quarterbacks to turf-spitting offensive guards, players take the field in pink shoes, pink gloves, and pink wristbands. They wear pink towels. Coaches have pink ribbons on their league-issued game shirts. Somehow, the sight of fearsome Dallas Cowboys lineman DeMarcus Ware rushing a passer with pink gloves on his hands brings the battle against breast cancer into focus. Football is a tough game, as every case of CTE makes tragically clear. But the game has nothing on chemotherapy, and never will.

My mom is a breast-cancer survivor. She was diagnosed late in 2011, then spent most of 2012 undergoing chemo treatments (I joined her in New England for two of them). I've seen football players walk off the field with broken and twisted limbs. I've seen football players walk off the field after excruciating last-minute losses and after 40-point eviscerations. But I've never seen a tougher person than my mom walking through the hallways of a hospital after five hours of injecting poison into her body. It's one thing to spend three hours against a football team you can't handle. Try introducing the chemical equivalent of that opposition into your bloodstream for eight months.

So here's to the NFL taking a healthy PR turn this month. It's a lot harder for moms, wives, and sisters to tear a sport apart for the damage it's doing when its players are so clearly on board in a fight that can and must be won.

I'll be joining my mom to help celebrate her 70th birthday next week. And I may just wear a pink wristband.

More NFL thoughts:

• Mark this down: a 6-10 team will someday qualify for the NFL playoffs. And it may be this year. The Philadelphia Eagles and Dallas Cowboys stand atop the four-team NFC East with records of 2-3. Neither is a good football team.

The best chance both clubs have of reaching seven wins is playing each other and the other two weaklings in their own division (the Washington Redskins and the 0-5 New York Giants). But because the NFL is built upon eight four-team divisions — with division champs all qualifying for the playoffs — one of these softies will host(!) a football game in January.

Four-team divisions are absurdly small. They reduce the sample size for measuring any single team's strength. Each conference should be divided into two eight-team divisions. Then a division title would have meaning ... and actually earn a team an opening-week bye in the playoffs. The next four teams — regardless of division — would qualify for the playoffs based on won-lost record, and not an accident of geographic division. Scheduling would be more challenging. So what? When we see a 6-10 playoff team, you'll be screaming for challenge.

• The Year of Peyton Manning continued to unfold Sunday, when Denver's quarterback threw another four touchdown passes in a 51-48 shootout win over Dallas. Having led the Broncos to a 5-0 start, Manning leads the NFL with 1,884 passing yards, 20 touchdown passes (one interception), and a passer rating of 136.4. The question is not so much "Can Peyton win another Super Bowl?" It's "How many Super Bowls can Peyton win?"

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