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Signs point to NFC superiority

Even though I was completely impressed with what I saw of the Cincinnati Bengals when they practiced against the Atlanta Falcons, I don't hold great hopes for the AFC this season.

The NFC looks so much stronger as a conference. During last year's training camp tour, I noted a slight decline in some of the top franchises in the AFC. The Pittsburgh Steelers were looking older and more vulnerable. The Baltimore Ravens had questions about their defense, and even though they won the Super Bowl, the defense struggled. The New England Patriots also looked a little more exposed. On paper, only the Houston Texans, Denver Broncos and Indianapolis Colts appeared ready to improve from the 2011 season.

This year, I get the same feeling. If true, an NFC-dominated league will have a significant impact on all playoff races.

Overall, the NFC went 39-25 against the AFC last season, and it wouldn't surprise me if the win total improves. Since camps started, I've been doing a mental exercise of looking at the quarterbacks in the NFC. The exercise involves figuring out who might be considered the worst quarterbacks in the four NFC divisions. If the answers are Carson Palmer, Christian Ponder, Josh Freeman and whoever wins the Eagles' job, that's a pretty impressive list.

Last season, only three NFC teams finished with fewer than seven wins -- Arizona, Detroit and Philadelphia. An argument can be made that all three should get to at least seven. If they do, their success could come in the interconference games.

As you watch preseason games, keep a close eye on how first-team units in the AFC match up against the NFC's top units. If AFC teams struggle, it could mean tough seasons and strange, watered-down races in that conference.

From the inbox

Q: I was thinking about the current situation with Greg Jennings in Minnesota. How much does that affect Green Bay's game plan? I never really thought about it before, but Jennings has to know all the ins and outs and what calls mean when Green Bay is running its offense. Does this give Minnesota an edge?

Jordan in York, Pa.

A: I think a lot of that can be overrated. It's the West Coast offense. The Vikings have run it, and the Packers have been running it for years. Plus, coaches often adjust their offenses and their calls during the offseason, and Jennings wouldn't have been in any of those meetings. Free agency has been around for two decades. Players move from team to team all the time, and coaches make minor adjustments as a result.

Q: Is the fast-paced offense a good thing for fans? On the surface, it seems like it is because you get to see more plays instead of 22 men standing around doing nothing while the QB decides what to do. But are there other repercussions? Does the standard of play drop off because of fatigue/more injuries? Or is it all a win for the fans?

Dave in Worchester, England

A: I see no downside. When quarterbacks go no-huddle in the middle of games, energy picks up. The only problem is if the fast-paced offense goes three-and-out several times. Then defenders have to spend extra time on the field and those defenders can wear out. The teams switching to fast-pace offenses aren't surprising to the players. Those players needed to do more running and prepare for being on the field for more plays. Coaches have to be aware of fatigue and make sure they monitor if certain players are tiring out. The Patriots averaged 74.4 plays a game last season. Their offense was exciting. Expect more teams to bring similar excitement this season.

Q: What do you think of offering the players of the winning Pro Bowl team nonfinancial awards such as allowing them to carry over extra timeouts or coaches' challenges to the following season? Nonfinancial awards could be a great incentive to take the game more seriously.

Adam in Baltimore

A: I hate it. An all-star game shouldn't affect the regular season or the playoffs. I don't like the baseball decision to award home-field advantage to the league that wins the All-Star Game. I still consider that a mistake. Sports are in the business of giving fans the best path to a championship. In all sports but baseball, teams have to slug their way through a regular season to position themselves to get home-field advantage and win a championship. Cluttering up the regular season with carryovers from a meaningless all-star game is wrong.

Q: I know you're probably sick of all the Pro Bowl questions, but this hit me the other night and I can't shake it. When I was kid in the late '80s and early '90s, I remember watching players compete in skills challenges. What happened to that? And do you think bringing it back would help ratings?

James in Clearwater, Fla.

A: At this stage, why not? If the NFL can find a way to sponsor those things, it's just another television event. At this stage, that's all the Pro Bowl has become. Despite the poor caliber of play, the game draws ratings. The idea needs to go through the players' association. If it can get enough commitments from players, the union should go to the league and plan some type of skills challenge. The NFL followed the lead of the players to go with this draft format for the Pro Bowl. Why not do the same thing with a skills competition? Go for it. The alternative is scrapping the game totally. All ideas should be in play now.

Q: Training camp has begun and the injuries are cracking the foundations of all 32 teams. As a Lions fan, I fear a major injury to Calvin Johnson, Matthew Stafford, Reggie Bush, Ndamukong Suh, Stephen Tulloch or anyone who will make the 53-man roster. Is there a way the NFL could help reduce the amount of injuries happening in the offseason?

Ray in Monroe, Mich.

A: The league is trying, but there is no way to make this sport completely safe. Football is a game of collisions. The harder the hit, the more chance of getting a player hurt. The NFL and the union will always be trying to find new ways to slow down the rate of injuries, but it's impossible to stop them. Don't follow your team with fear. Enjoy the players as they perform. Every team and every fan worries about losing players to injury, but that extra worry takes away from the enjoyment of the sport.

Q: As far as bye-week fairness, I seem to recall when bye weeks were first introduced, there was at least talk of having teams coming off a bye playing against other teams coming off a bye. What do you think?

Tom in Orlando, Fla.

A: The bye week concept came before the NFL reorganized the league into eight four-team divisions. There are fewer division games to go around. To add drama to the end of the season, the NFL has 16 division games in the final week of the season and it tries to build up a good stable of divisional games in December. It also tries to have a good number in the first three weeks of the season. That doesn't leave enough to spot divisional games after byes.