Commentary

Tables turn in conference rivalry

After years of AFC rule, QB-heavy NFC gained head-to-head advantage in 2011

Originally Published: December 28, 2011
By John Clayton | ESPN.com

Even though it came with little fanfare, that the NFC won the inter-conference rivalry over the AFC on Christmas Eve was significant.

You have to go back to 1995 to find the last time the NFC won a season against the AFC. Sure, there have been ties, but the AFC has had a pronounced edge. It was interesting that this year the series went down to the final two games. The Giants' victory over the Jets and the Lions' thumping of the Chargers were the clinchers, giving the NFC a 33-31 edge.

The NFC has made great strides since 2004, when they lost to the AFC 44-20, and 2006, when they lost 40-24. Quarterbacks are a big reason. The Packers' Aaron Rodgers and the Saints' Drew Brees are the top two candidates for MVP. Eli Manning of the Giants is probably in the top five.

Cam Newton of the Panthers exploded onto the scene with record-breaking numbers. The depth at quarterback was so great that Matthew Stafford of the Lions has thrown for 4,518 yards and is no better than a second alternate for the Pro Bowl.

There is no need for the NFC to get cocky about this year's success because it could be fleeting. Peyton Manning's neck injury helped change the balance. Because Manning's no-huddle offense is a matchup nightmare for NFC teams that see Indianapolis only once every four years, the Colts usually go 3-1 or 4-0 against the NFC. This year they were 0-4. Plus, the AFC South was in a quarterback transition and went 5-11 against the NFC North.

Since the great quarterback draft class of 1983, when the AFC landed John Elway, Dan Marino and Jim Kelly, the NFC has often had to play second fiddle. Since 1970, the AFC has won the season series against the NFC 26 times, losing nine and tying seven. In the past 16 years (including 2011), the AFC is 13-1-2.

The quality of quarterbacks in the NFC should keep this rivalry balanced. It's a quarterback-driven league and the NFC has built up its stable of throwers.

From the inbox

Q: As a Vikings fan, I am very disappointed with the coaching staff in the Week 16 game against Washington. I know we all want to win every game, but with the season at a total loss why would we continue to start key members of the franchise's future? Now we lost Adrian Peterson for possibly the start of 2012 and he may never be the same, and the win eliminates the chance at the No. 1 pick and probably takes away the chance to draft USC LT Matt Kalil.

Joe in Moosup, Conn.

A: All Vikings fans are frustrated and rightfully so. The injuries were unpreventable. Losing Peterson was devastating. I still think they can build around QB Christian Ponder. Winning didn't hurt their chances of getting Kalil. The Rams and Colts have drafted left tackles high in the past couple of years, so I don't see them taking Kalil. The Vikings can still get him at No. 3 in the draft. They will have to rebuild the defense, though. The whole process could take a few years. The only good news is it appears there is progress on the building of a new stadium. That at least keeps the Vikings in town.

Q: In regards to what you wrote about Roger Goodell clumping so many division games into Week 16 and 17, I personally do not like it and was wondering if you thought a change back to a more balanced format was forthcoming in the future?

Mike in Los Angeles

A: As I wrote in the past, this is probably something that can't be solved. When there are only six divisional games per team, it's hard to balance out the divisional games over a 17-week season. That's why I was concerned about having teams with 10 out-of-division games in the first 14 weeks because the really good teams could go 7-3 or 8-2 and put themselves in position to play meaningless games. Currently, eight playoff spots are clinched. Two divisions are still undecided. At least there are some meaningful games.

Q: Let's assume the Jets don't make the playoffs. After Mark Sanchez's terrible performance (let's not sugar coat it), is there any chance Jets fans will have the privilege of not having Sanchez be their quarterback next year?

Matt in Millburn, N.J.

A: Someone will pay the price for this season and I think it will be offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer. Unless you are talking about getting Peyton Manning in free agency, what move could the Jets make to get them a better quarterback? At the moment, they would be drafting 22nd in the first round. They won't be able to trade up to get a top first-round quarterback. Too many teams are in front of them needing a quarterback. Would Kyle Orton be better than Sanchez? He might be a little better, but not that much better. The pass-catching corps around Sanchez was older and slower than a year ago. That pulled down his numbers. Sanchez isn't built for 59-pass games, as Rex Ryan said Saturday. Sometimes you can't fire the player. When things go bad, you change a coach.

Q: Why are defenses still ranked by yards allowed? If they aren't giving up a lot of points, aren't yards irrelevant? They should be ranked by points and if that isn't enough maybe a range of stats similar to quarterback rankings.

GoNiners in Tempe, Ariz.

A: Ranking defenses by yards is old school, but it's part of the tradition of the sport. It's much like baseball. The most quoted ratings are batting average and earned run average. But as you know, there are so many other stats for the hard-core fan to evaluate. You see them on ESPN.com and several other online services. Baseball has great sabermetric stats. Pro football is catching up. Stay tuned and you might find a rating system you might like. It's just going to take a while for general acceptance.

Q: I am a huge Panthers fan and I'm wondering what the team should do in next year's draft. The defense is stricken with injuries and the offense is top 10 in many statistical categories. The team will have a relatively high pick (around No. 10) and I feel we should draft a high-end wide receiver with our first pick and then add depth on the defense through the rest of the draft. What do you think?

Thomas in Wilmington, N.C.

A: You seem to have the same mindset as Panthers management. They realize the value of offense. That's why they drafted Cam Newton. With the success of Newton, the Panthers know they need to surround him with as much talent as possible. Had they not taken Newton, they would have drafted A.J. Green. You see their priorities. They need help at defensive tackle, cornerback and maybe one spot on the offensive line. They just need to be in the right position to get a wide receiver.

Q: I feel like next season with a healthy DeMarco Murray, and the surplus of receiving options for Tony Romo, that the Cowboys' offense will be OK. But where does the defense turn? Is there a big free-agent splash to be made, or do they upgrade via the draft?

Zac in Memphis, Ind.

A: The problem is the Cowboys are right at the salary cap. Sure, they can clear some cap room, but I think they are going to have to go more draft than free agency. I really don't think they will make a free-agent splash. They will pick up some cap room to be able to manage, but I get the feeling they are going to use the draft to fill major needs.

[+] EnlargeAlex Smith
Ezra Shaw/Getty ImagesAlex Smith has made big strides, but he's pretty much reached his ceiling as a passer.

Q: It seems like there wasn't as much talk involving the Colts going winless as there was with other teams in the past. When the Dolphins were 0-13 it was a huge story. When the Lions went winless it was a huge story. But when the Colts kept losing this year, it didn't seem to merit huge coverage. Why do you think this was?

Jordan in York, Pa.

A: To be honest, I think the Colts have been in the news more than expected. Sure, few are talking about the team. But Peyton Manning's recovery and future has been a topic of conversation for months. It's still one of the big stories in the league. No one likes to talk about losing teams much, but this has been an interesting team to monitor because of Manning and its prospects of landing Andrew Luck.

Q: I've watched almost all the 49ers' games this year, and although Alex Smith has greatly improved, I feel like the 49ers could almost be unstoppable if he just improved his accuracy by a hair. I think Smith is very close, but can he improve?

Dan in Seattle

A: All players can improve, but after seven seasons I don't know if he can get that much better. He's not really accurate around the goal line, which has led to way too many field goal drives. You have to give him credit for being patient enough to stay a 49er and coach Jim Harbaugh great credit for callings plays that made Smith look good. It's one of the best stories in the league this year.

John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Follow Clayton on Twitter @ClaytonESPN

John Clayton

NFL senior writer