Ah, parity.

The idea that no team is too much better than another. The idea that almost all teams have a shot at the playoffs.

It was on display Sunday afternoon at Ford Field. The Lions and Cardinals, both proud possessors of 4-7 records, were nonetheless in the thick of the playoff hunt. And so, before a crowd that needed a Dunkin’ Donuts mascots race to be stirred into making noise, a battle was waged.

The good news for Detroiters: The home team won. The bad news? Watching these two teams play, and realizing that either one could make the playoffs, is like seeing Nick Lachey and Jessica Simpson and realizing they could be president and first lady. It’s technically possible. But it’s just so … wrong.

Be honest. This was subpar football from subpar teams. “Not pretty,” admitted Steve Mariucci — and he won! It was passes swatted at the line of scrimmage and interceptions as plentiful as apples in Washington. It was a fumble that wasn’t called and facemasks that were. It was a Detroit offense that sputtered and coughed and still looked like a Formula One race car compared to Arizona and its debuting quarterback, John Navarre.

Navarre, who used to play down the road at Michigan, still seemed to be throwing passes at college speed. He was picked off four times, and several of those were by defenders who chased the ball down from behind. You could give credit to the Lions’ defense –and let’s be nice and do that — but come on. Don’t expect to see that kind of gimme stuff the rest of the season.

What happens against Green Bay?

And that’s the problem here. With the Lions “improving” to 5-7, getting their first win since October, they get shade from an NFC umbrella that is symbolic of the Jesse Jackson credo, “keep hope alive.”

But for what? Does anyone think the Lions, as they currently play, are worthy of a final grouping with Philadelphia or even Green Bay?

“I was surprised to hear” that the Lions still had a chance at the playoffs, Kevin Jones said after Sunday’s 26-12 victory. “Coach came in and told us last week and it gave us new hope. It energized us today.”

I’m glad for the extra juice. But when a coach has to inform you that you still can make the playoffs — and even you are surprised — doesn’t that say something about the system?

Not that anyone is knocking Jones’ efforts Sunday. The rookie running back got his mojo working. He finished with a personal-best 196 yards, just one shy of the Lions’ rookie record. He had a terrific 74-yard explosion through the line — he cut left, then played peekaboo with the defenders and Roy Williams’ blocking.

But with the Lions, most silver linings have clouds. Jones did this against Arizona, a team with one of the worst rush defenses in the league, on a day when the Cardinals’ offense kept giving the ball back.

Will he do it against Green Bay next week, or Minnesota the following week, or Chicago and Tennessee in the remaining weeks? Well, that’s the thing, isn’t it? The weary burden of Lions fans? The string-along? The rubber band of hope? They pull you and pull you until finally, they snap you back to ugly reality.

And what about Harrington?

Here was some of the ugly reality. The Lions, despite the four Arizona turnovers, could get into the end zone only twice, both times in the first half. The rest was field goals — three of which came after the Lions faltered in the red zone.

The concentration was weak. An offsides penalty on a kickoff — that’s darn hard to do — negated good coverage and gave a second chance to Arizona, which took the next try deep into Lions territory. Another dumb penalty — hands to the face — turned a third-and-10 into a first down.

All told, the Lions drew 10 yellow flags against an inferior team. Do that next week, it’s deadly.

“Given the opportunities we had, it could have been a more lopsided score,” Mariucci admitted. As for his quarterback, Joey Harrington, who threw a touchdown and a pick? “He was steady,” Mariucci said. “He wasn’t flashy. It wasn’t a terrible performance. It was somewhere in the middle.”

Wow. Talk about a ringing endorsement.

But that’s pretty much how you approach the NFL this season, at least on this side of the conference line. “Somewhere in the middle” might get you an extra game in January. This Lions team, which often looks as if it couldn’t stop — or convert — a third down if the world were hanging in the balance, is nonetheless a contender.

So you look on the bright side. You hope this was the start of the Kevin Jones Show. You hope all Joey needed was a victory under his belt. You hope the defense is buoyed by four interceptions. You hope even when your brain says it’s hopeless.

“Someone from the NFC is going to get into the playoffs without a great record,” Mariucci said. “Maybe 9-7, maybe 8-8, who knows what?”

President Nick would be so proud.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com”

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