|ESPN.com: NFL||[Print without images]|
|Not even the deep-thinking Sheldon Brown, left, can explain the AFC's superiority.|
It isn't, after all, as if AFC franchises have exercised more draft choices than their NFC counterparts over the past decade. The junior conference doesn't have a spending advantage in terms of the salary cap. AFC teams don't evaluate players differently than NFC clubs do. They haven't cornered the market on the league's best coaches. In a world growing increasingly flat, it isn't as if there was some monumental tipping point that dumped the league's best players onto AFC rosters.Yet over the past decade, the facts are indisputable about the AFC's superiority and rarely has that been more obvious than this season. In regular-season play, the AFC won 40 of 64 interconference games, a .625 winning percentage that is second-best in league history. Only in 2004, when AFC teams won 44 games, a .687 winning percentage, has the series been more lopsided. Not since 1995 has the NFC taken the season series between the conferences. Since then, AFC teams are 378-300-2 against the NFC, a .557 winning percentage. AFC teams have won three straight Super Bowls, five of the past six championships and seven of the past 10. The good news for the NFC is that new commissioner Roger Goodell will allow the conference to have a Super Bowl entry. The bad news is that it might not matter. At least in the regular season, the numbers were incredibly one-sided, and that doesn't augur well for the NFC. Only four of 16 AFC teams had losing records versus the NFC and three were 4-0. Dallas, at 3-1, was the lone NFC team with a winning mark versus the AFC. The AFC had more 10-win franchises (5 to 3), and the NFC had more 10-loss teams (5 to 4). Only five NFC teams posted winning records. Seven teams had winning records in the AFC.
The Giants grabbed the final NFC wild-card spot with an 8-8 mark. In the AFC, the Denver Broncos (9-7) couldn't qualify for postseason play. One could make a compelling argument that even a few of the AFC's 8-8 teams -- Jacksonville, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Tennessee -- are as playoff worthy as some of the NFC clubs that are in the Super Bowl derby.None of those numbers, however, offers an explanation why the AFC reigns supreme and why the disparity between the conferences was so profound this season. And therein is the problem: Everyone has statistics to document the AFC's wide advantage, but few have reasons for it. "Everyone always gives you the old 'cycle' theory, like, you know, 'Oh, it's just one of those cycles that we go through in the league. Things will turn around at some point.' But 10 or 11 seasons, or whatever it's been, that's one long cycle," said New England linebacker Mike Vrabel. Said a pro personnel director for an NFC team: "I try to analyze rosters as objectively as I can and maybe I'm wrong, but I don't see that much difference talent-wise between the two [conferences]. I really don't. Certainly, it isn't as if there has been some great talent drain [from the NFC]. Those teams have players. I mean, this isn't like the pre-merger days, when the NFL played one style and the [American Football League] played a completely different kind of game. We're almost 40 years removed from that. There's no reason things are like they are. I mean, it's maddening, to tell you the truth. But the numbers don't lie." Actually, some of the numbers are misleading and, taken at face value, they suggest an NFL that should offer more balance between the conferences.
|Physical players such as Mike Vrabel have contributed to the AFC's extended reign.|
In terms of statistical ranking on offense, the top 10 is split evenly, with five units from each conference. On defense, the AFC owns a 7-3 advantage. The NFL's rushing champion, LaDainian Tomlinson of San Diego, is from the AFC, but there are five NFC runners in the top 10. Six of the top 10 quarterbacks in passing yards and five of the top 10 in passer efficiency are from the NFC. An NFC quarterback, Drew Brees of New Orleans, posted the most passing yards. An AFC quarterback, Peyton Manning of Indianapolis, won the passer rating title, his third straight. In most other stats categories, the conference splits are pretty egalitarian.Strip off all the statistical evidence, though, and virtually no one would suggest that the AFC isn't the better conference by a wide margin. For now, the junior conference is like a junior varsity team. The irony is that, because of history, the perception has been that the NFC is the tougher, more physical conference. Because many of the AFC teams entered the league as onetime AFL franchises, they often were viewed as relying on gimmickry and subterfuge rather than toughness. That's no longer the case. Fact is, most AFC players feel their conference has evolved as far more physical. They won't comment for the record, but New England players feel, almost to a man, that the NFC is soft. There are AFC players who privately speak with disdain about their NFC opponents. "Sometimes when we play [an NFC team]," said one veteran from an AFC North franchise, "you wonder if they're even prepared for the kind of intensity we bring to a game. You get a series or two into it and it's like you're thinking, 'Man, I guess they haven't seen anything like us lately.' I can't explain why it's like that, but it is." That last sentence pretty much sums up the puzzlement most experience in attempting to define the reasons for the AFC's advantage over the past decade and especially this season. But here are two potential reasons for the superiority: Statistics aside, the AFC has the better quarterbacks, in terms of performance and longevity. Second, even in an era when the shelf life for head coaches has been reduced, the sideline bosses in the AFC enjoy more tenure. Don't discount the latter of those. The 10 coaching changes between 2005 and 2006 were split evenly between the conferences. Yet at the end of the 2006 season, AFC coaches enjoyed a nearly two-year edge in tenure over their NFC colleagues. The average tenure for AFC head coaches was 5.1 seasons, 3.2 for NFC coaches. There are only two NFC coaches with more than five seasons with their current clubs. There are five in the AFC, including three with 10-plus seasons on their current jobs.
Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer at ESPN.com.