Commentary

Is the AFC on the wane?

Of conference's remaining QBs, only Brady seems to have Super Bowl mettle

Originally Published: January 13, 2012
By Ashley Fox | ESPN.com

The NFL is cyclical.

Earlier this century, the AFC won four straight Super Bowls and there was a stretch from the 1997 season through the 2006 season when the conference won eight of 10 championships.

The NFC has not won three consecutive Super Bowl titles since Dallas actually knew how to win a championship. Remember those glory days? From the 1984 season through the 1996 season, the NFC won 13 straight Super Bowls. The 49ers won four in that stretch. The Cowboys won three.

How did you know it was good times back then? Daniel Snyder didn't own the Redskins yet, so even they won two Super Bowls. Ditto for the Giants. The Bears and Packers won one apiece.

It feels like we are in the midst of another conference swing away from the AFC's dominance back to the NFC. The Colts were a mess this season without Peyton Manning and are facing the possibility of rebuilding with Andrew Luck. After losing at Denver with a hobbled Ben Roethlisberger and other key players injured, the Steelers suddenly look old and slow. The Jets were a disappointing 8-8 after playing in the last two AFC championship games and continue to set the standard for dysfunctional.

Only one team other than Pittsburgh and Indianapolis in the AFC has played in a Super Bowl in the last eight years. Although Tom Brady is 14-5 in the postseason, he hasn't won a playoff game since beating San Diego in the conference championship game in the 2007 season. He is 0-for his last three playoff starts.

Green Bay, San Francisco, New Orleans and the New York Giants all are capable of winning the Super Bowl. The Giants, Saints and Packers have won three of the last four, and Eli Manning, Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers took home MVP hardware.

One of them could do so again. Green Bay and New Orleans have dominated offensively all season. The Giants have momentum and a swagger reminiscent of the 2007 team that beat the Packers at Lambeau Field to go to the Super Bowl. The 49ers' defense ranks fourth in yards allowed, had 38 takeaways during the regular season and the next rushing touchdown it gives up will be the first of the season.

The four remaining AFC teams are simply not as scary.

[+] EnlargeTom Brady
MPS/US PresswireIt's hard to imagine any of the other remaining AFC quarterbacks in this position.

Although the football gods on Park Avenue would rejoice at the ratings bonanza, this doesn't sound right, at least not yet: Tim Tebow, Super Bowl-winning quarterback.

Neither does this: T.J. Yates, Super Bowl-winning quarterback.

At the risk of further inflaming the esteemed Ravens quarterback, who was quite prickly the other day defending himself to the Baltimore media, this doesn't sound right, either: Joe Flacco, Super Bowl-winning quarterback.

This isn't 2001. The NFL is a quarterback-driven league, and the rules grossly encourage freakish passing numbers. Never have offenses been so prolific. Three quarterbacks topped 5,000 passing yards this season when only two men in the history of the game had ever hit 5K.

This season records fell fast and frequently, which is every reason to expect more to fall in the postseason. According to Elias Sports Bureau, no team ranked 30th, 31st or 32nd in total defense has ever won the Super Bowl. But New England and Green Bay -- the top seeds -- rank 31st and 32nd.

The only quarterback left in the AFC with Super Bowl-worthy chops is Brady, but in the last two games, the Patriots gave up 17 points in the first quarter to Miami and 21 points in the first quarter to Buffalo. New England can't spot Rodgers or Brees or Manning a two- or three-touchdown advantage and expect Brady to bail it out.

Flacco is 4-3 in the postseason and is the only quarterback in NFL history to win a playoff game in each of his first three seasons, but his postseason numbers are not terrific: a 53.3 completion percentage, four touchdown passes, seven interceptions and an average of 150 passing yards.

Speaking with reporters at the Ravens' facility this week, Flacco complained about not getting credit when Baltimore does well and bristled at the notion that he was simply a game manager in the mold of Trent Dilfer, who won a Super Bowl with Baltimore.

"I'm sure if we win [the Super Bowl], I'll have nothing to do with why we won, according to you guys," Flacco said.

Against New England, Denver will try to become the first team that entered the playoffs without a winning record to win two games in the postseason. It has never happened because non-winning teams, by nature, are inconsistent. But if Tebow can throw for 316 yards and an average of 31.6 yards per completion against the Steelers, anything is possible.

What is more likely, however, is that, as he did in a Week 15 win over the Broncos, Bill Belichick will relentlessly blitz Tebow. According to ESPN Stats and Information, in the fourth quarter of their matchup Dec. 18, the Patriots sent extra rushers after Tebow on 10 of his 17 fourth-quarter dropbacks, a higher percentage than any team but the Jets this season. On those plays, Tebow completed just one of 16 attempts for 15 yards and was sacked twice.

The home teams won every game last weekend, the third time that has happened since the postseason was expanded to 12 teams in 1990. If the home teams win every game this weekend, they will have gone 8-0 in the playoffs, a first.

That would be fitting, given all the other records that have fallen this season, which will probably conclude with the pendulum swinging back to the NFC as the dominant conference.

Ashley Fox is an NFL columnist. Follow her on Twitter: @AshleyMFox.