Commentary

Big-picture look at NFC dominance

Win-loss disparity could produce multiple AFC playoff teams with so-so records

Originally Published: October 4, 2012
By John Clayton | ESPN.com

Each year, the NFL sends out reminders of the how teams undergoing slow starts can keep their fans from panicking.

It starts with the percentage of teams that made the playoffs after 0-2 starts. Then the league provides a history of 1-2 and 0-3 starts and rates teams' chances. This week, the NFL pointed out 23 teams that started 1-3 have made the playoffs since 1990.

But how do those chances change in a year of extremes? Based on the start of the season, the NFC has a significant edge in quarterback play and quality teams compared to the AFC. The NFC is 10-4 in interconference games. If more NFC teams go 3-1 or 4-0 in their interconference games, it's going to be hard for the 1-3 teams in that conference -- Detroit, Tampa Bay and Carolina -- to catch up.

On the flip side, the five AFC teams at 1-3 will have legitimate chances because the math of interconference disparities creates more playoff teams with 8-8 or 9-7 records.

Let's review a little history.

• In 2004, the AFC dominated the NFC with a 44-20 record. Six AFC teams won 10 or more games compared to only three in the NFC. The Green Bay Packers started 1-3 that year and made the playoffs as a divisional champion with a 10-6 record. Two NFC teams made the playoffs with 8-8 records.

• In 2006, the AFC beat the NFC with a 40-24 record, and no AFC team that started 1-3 made the playoffs.

• In 2009, the AFC was 37-27 against the NFC, and no AFC team that started 1-3 made the playoffs.

• In 1999, the AFC was 38-22 against the NFC. Again, no AFC team made the playoffs after a 1-3 start.

Get the point? As long as one conference has a significant edge over the other, the playoff stakes for the better conference go up while the dominated conference keeps more teams in the running.

Here are the top 10 trends for NFL Week 5.

[+] EnlargePeyton Manning
Ron Chenoy/US PresswirePeyton Manning appears to be getting stronger each week. Can he top Tom Brady on Sunday?

1. Rivalry renewed: Could this be the last Tom Brady-Peyton Manning meeting? Through the 2000s, the Brady-Manning matchup highlighted seasons. Unlike John Elway and Dan Marino, who didn't have many face-to-face games, Brady and Manning played just about every year. This is their 13th meeting, including the postseason. Brady holds the edge in victories 8-4, but Manning has won four of the past six. By throwing for 1,162 yards and eight touchdowns in September, the 36-year-old Manning doesn't look like a quarterback ready for retirement, but you never know for sure. Brady is 35 and wants to play into his forties. Everyone knows the four neck operations have limited Manning's throwing. According to ESPN Stats & Information, 24 percent of Manning's completions in 2009 were on throws 11 yards or longer. He completed 51 percent of those types of throws for 12 touchdowns. This year, 22 percent of Manning's completions are in the 11-yard-plus range, and three of his 12 passes of 21-plus yards have been intercepted. Brady hasn't had much of a drop-off in his throwing range. This year he's completing 48.9 percent of his 11-plus-yard throws and has five touchdowns and only one interception. He completed 45.5 percent of those passes in 2009. You get the feeling this won't be their last meeting.

2. Drew Brees vs. Philip Rivers: The Chargers drafted Rivers because they thought Brees might not be good enough to get them to a Super Bowl. As it turned out, Brees became one of the greatest free-agent acquisitions in NFL history, helping the Saints win a Super Bowl. The Rivers-led Chargers have never made it past the AFC title game. Both teams are at interesting crossroads. The Chargers are 3-1 with a one-game lead in the AFC West. The Saints are 0-4 and could be all but out of any playoff race with a loss. What's interesting is Rivers has won more regular-season games than Brees since taking over for Brees in 2006. He's 66-34 while Brees is 62-37. Brees has five playoff victories and a Super Bowl ring. Rivers has three playoff wins and hasn't been to the playoffs since 2009. There will be plenty of emotion in New Orleans for this game. Brees will be trying to throw a touchdown pass in his 48th consecutive game, which would break a tie with Johnny Unitas for best all time. Suspended Saints coach Sean Payton will be in attendance. Rivers knows this won't be an easy game.

3. Quarterbacks on alert: Matt Cassel, Mark Sanchez and rookie Russell Wilson are the first group of quarterbacks who are in danger of losing their starting jobs. Kansas City's Cassel has turnovers in all four games, including three interceptions in Week 4, which has moved Brady Quinn ever closer to the chance to replace him. Sanchez knows Tebow-mania is heating up because of the team's listless offense, but the Jets don't have much for any quarterback to work with now that Santonio Holmes is done for the season. Wilson has been restricted to a conservative offense because he's a rookie. But can the Seahawks continue to think playoffs with a passing offense that ranks 32nd in the league? Of the three, Cassel is probably in the most danger. He's in front of a home crowd that wants him to be replaced and faces a Baltimore Ravens defense that can read quarterbacks and get turnovers. Wilson travels to Carolina and faces a defense that is beatable. Will Pete Carroll let Wilson throw more and get into some kind of passing rhythm? As for Sanchez, he appears to be doomed. At some point, the team might switch to Tebow if the losses pile up, but that might not help much. Tebow has generated only 103 yards of offense in the 32 plays he has been on the field. The "Mild-cat" is working about as poorly as the regular offense. Oh, by the way, Sanchez has to face a Houston Texans defense that has stifled everyone in its path.

4. Take the over: It was a September to remember for offense. The 2,986 points scored in the first four weeks were the most over any four-week stretch in NFL history. Eighteen quarterbacks are on pace for potential 4,000-yard seasons. The 487-yard net average for passing yards per game is shattering the 459.4-yard NFL record set last season. The Chargers-Saints game should be high scoring. You figure the same for the Broncos and Patriots. The Atlanta-Washington game should also be high scoring. The Redskins are scoring 30.8 points a game but are giving up the same number on defense. Matt Ryan comes into FedExField having thrown 11 touchdown passes this year while running an up-tempo offense that is averaging 31 points a game. The Shanahans -- Mike and Kyle -- have come up with many creative ways to get points out of quarterback Robert Griffin III. According to ESPN Stats & Information, the Redskins have run the pistol formation (shotgun with one running back and a variety of motion) 54 times this year and averaged 6.6 yards a play.

5. The Pennsylvania championship: A lot is on the line when the Eagles visit Heinz Field to face the Steelers. The Steelers can't afford a loss because it would drop them to 1-3. But they have had the bye week to get safety Troy Polamalu and linebacker James Harrison off the injury list. The two have missed a combined five games. Harrison will help with the pass rush. Polamalu will provide the big plays and leadership on defense. Michael Vick didn't have a turnover in Week 4 after a three-week start in which the Eagles had 12. The Steelers came out of training camp with a long list of injuries, but this is the healthiest they've been all season. There is even a chance RB Rashard Mendenhall will get to make his 2012 debut. He's coming off reconstructive knee surgery.

6. Are the Vikings for real? The Vikings, who play Tennessee this week, have been one of the biggest surprises of the early season. They are 3-1 and have a huge win over the San Francisco 49ers. Adrian Peterson has made an incredible comeback from reconstructive knee surgery. Christian Ponder might be the most improved quarterback in football. Ponder isn't screwing it up. He hasn't thrown an interception this season. But he's also not taking many chances. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Ponder's average pass is travelling 5.4 yards downfield, the lowest in the league by far. He has become the king of the bubble screen. Ponder has completed 26 passes that actually went behind the line of scrimmage.

7. All "Nicked'' up: Giants coach Tom Coughlin has a right to worry about wide receiver Hakeem Nicks. Nicks can be one of the top receivers in football, but he's injured. His foot is sore. A knee has swelling. The Giants play the Cleveland Browns, and Eli Manning has to re-arrange his targets when Nicks is out of the lineup. And there's another problem. Domenik Hixon has been hurt, so Manning shifted to using Ramses Barden a little more. Now Barden's status is in question because of a concussion. Manning has no trouble getting passes to Victor Cruz, but if he's down at least two receivers because of injuries, expect a lot of double-teams on Cruz.

[+] EnlargeClay Matthews
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesThe Packers' Clay Matthews will try to add to his sack total against Colts rookie Andrew Luck.

8. Tough week for the young guns: The five rookie starting quarterbacks have combined records of 6-13, and only Wilson and Griffin III have .500 records. Each has a tough assignment this week. The Colts' Andrew Luck has to face the Green Bay Packers and linebacker Clay Matthews, who has seven sacks. Brandon Weeden of the Browns draws the Giants' pass rush. RG3 will have to try to outscore Matt Ryan and the Falcons. Wilson travels to Carolina to face the Panthers. Ryan Tannehill, coming off a great start for the Dolphins in Arizona, faces the Cincinnati Bengals. That's four playoff-caliber teams and an up-and-coming Panthers squad.

9. Cover None to Cover 2: One of the most unbelievable parts of last week's Jacksonville-Cincinnati game was that the Bengals escaped with a great defensive effort when they were down four injured cornerbacks. Blaine Gabbert averaged only 8.1 yards a completion against the battered Bengals secondary. Now, Gabbert faces a healthy Bears Cover 2 defense. Unless the Jaguars open up the offense, the Bears should have an easy assignment. It should also be noted the Bears lead the league with 14 forced turnovers.

10. Will it be Candle-Pick Park? You'd be surprised which quarterback leads the league with touchdown passes. It's Ryan Fitzpatrick of the Buffalo Bills with 12. But he has thrown seven interceptions, and on Sunday he visits a 49ers team that had a plus-28 turnover ratio last season. According to ESPN Stats & Information, all seven of his picks have come against a rush of four men or fewer. But can Fitzpatrick be cautious? The Bills' defense is giving up 32.8 points a game. He may have to take some chances.

John Clayton

NFL senior writer