If it seems as though nearly every NFL game this season has come down to the final seconds, that's not your imagination.
Through nine weeks, there have been 31 matchups with the winning score made in the last two minutes of regulation or overtime — nearly one quarter of all games. That's the most since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970.
In each of the last four seasons, no more than 24 games had been decided that late through Week 9.
And many of these teams have been celebrating their wins very, very late this year. Of the 31 such games, 21 had the decisive points scored in OT or the final 10 seconds of regulation.
The Carolina Panthers have lost twice on last-second field goals in a season when all but one of their games were decided by a touchdown or less.
"If this doesn't show how close the margin is, it's sickening," coach Ron Rivera said.
As with many NFL trends, parity is a popular explanation. Teams are certainly bunched up in the standings: Nineteen had a record between 3-5 and 5-3 through nine weeks, up from 15 a year ago.
A knack for pulling out victories in the final seconds would seem to separate the winners from the losers, but that hasn't been the case in 2012. The Philadelphia Eagles have played a league-high five such games, and they're 3-2 in them. That accounts for all their victories, though — and at 3-5, coach Andy Reid's job is in jeopardy.
Similarly, among teams taking part in four such games, the Lions and Titans have each gone 3-1; Detroit is 4-4 overall and Tennessee 3-6. Only the Colts, led by rookie quarterback Andrew Luck, can say they've gotten a big boost from these heart-stopping endings. They're also 3-1 in those games and now are 6-3 after a lopsided Thursday night win in Week 10.
Only six teams have not had a game with a winning score in the last two minutes of regulation or overtime, and they're all over the standings: the Texans, 49ers, Broncos, Chargers, Bengals and Cowboys. That list may be a bit surprising considering Peyton Manning's comeback ability in Denver and Dallas' penchant for close losses.
The last-second victories also likely reflect a league full of high-flying passing offenses, where the no-huddle is the norm for many teams. In a one-possession game, which is more likely to succeed: the defense protecting the lead or the offense comfortable throwing the ball on every down?
Week 9 was the first this season that didn't feature a game with the winning score in the final two minutes or overtime; there were at least two every previous week.
"When it comes down to it, nobody really knows what's going to happen," Broncos cornerback Champ Bailey said, "and everybody looks dumb one week and smart the next."
AP Pro Football Writer Arnie Stapleton contributed to this story.
Online: http://pro32.ap.org/poll and http://twitter.com/AP_NFL