With one week left in the regular season I must ask, has the tide finally turned? Has the unbridled domination of the NFL by the AFC finally been undone? Can the NFC finally hold its head high and make a case that it is not a Triple-A version of professional football?
The last time the NFC had any kind of recognizable pride was Super Bowl XXXVII, when the Tampa Bay Buccaneers routed the Oakland Raiders 48-21 (Note: this is also the Super Bowl that decidedly proved it is not wise to trade a coach, thank you Al Davis). The following year the Patriots won their second Super Bowl in three seasons and the perception ever since has been that the AFC is far superior to the NFC.
The feckless performance by the Seattle Seahawks and Chicago Bears in consecutive Super Bowls did little to altar that notion. Even the lone NFC win in the last six seasons has been rewritten as the New England Patriots failure in the face of the 1972-73 Miami Dolphins and a fortuitous catch by the Giants David Tyree. The game has been forgotten as one that New York won by forcing the Pats to play a grind-it-out defensive game unlike any they had played in that perfect regular season.
Now, suddenly, the NFC has six teams with double digit wins guaranteed a spot in the postseason, while the AFC only has four. Could this be the season that the power shifted finally begins or at least the season the NFC is deemed a worthy conference to compete with the AFC? Can I stop using interrogative sentences and begin presenting evidence by way of declarative sentences? Stay tuned (that’s an imperative sentence, but I’m getting closer).
The only major factor that the NFC has on its side is that there were two teams realistically chasing a perfect season in the conference to the AFC’s one. The Minnesota Vikings remained a candidate for the perfect season until Week 7 and the New Orleans Saints remained immaculate until Week 15. The Indianapolis Colts, the lone AFC team in the perfect-season running, lasted until Week 16.
The fact the Colts lasted the longest in this race is a point for the AFC. The fact that Indianapolis pulled its starters with 5:36 remaining in the third quarter actually gives the AFC another point. Colts Coach Caldwell basically laughed in the face of the quest for the perfect season, making the competition that the Colts basically won seem trivial (though letting down all those fans with Colts tickets). He saw that the Patriots proved that the perfect season is nothing without the Super Bowl win and suddenly the AFC’s best team looks more mature and poised than the NFC’s best team (the Saints), who admitted it wanted this juvenile distinction.
The harder facts- the comparison of records- is clearly on the side of the AFC. Overall, the AFC is 124-116. The NFC is currently 115-123, but will be 116-124 after the all-NFC North Monday night game between the Minnesota Vikings and the Chicago Bears.
Not all of the AFC or the NFC is going to the playoffs though. The only teams that are going to the playoffs for sure from both the conferences are the current division leaders. The AFC division leaders are currently 13-2 against NFC opponents and the NFC division leaders are only 11-5 against AFC opponents. The NFC’s record includes losses to the terrible teams like the Raiders and middle-of-the-pack teams like the Titans. The AFC teams have lost to the Vikings and the Saints. That is a huge difference in quality of losses.
The NFC may have two wild card teams with 10 wins, but the AFC has five teams with 8-7 records still playing for two playoff spots. That field of competitive teams has forced me to keep the NFL tie-breaker rules bookmarked since Week 14. The only other team the NFC wild cards had to worry about in that time was the New York Giants (looking at the NFL standings you may notice the Atlanta Falcons are also 8-7, but that is only after they won two games in a row far too late in the season to matter).
Even in the needless subjective defining of teams the NFC pales in comparison. The offensive juggernaut New Orleans Saints are the younger brother to the wizened offensive mastery of the Indianapolis Colts. The unpredictably explosive Philadelphia Eagles are less practiced at that unpredictability than the San Diego Chargers, whose ability to score 21 points in a quarter on a whim is now a staple. The venerable excellence of the Minnesota Vikings is undermined and largely unappreciated because the franchises inability to win a Super Bowl (they should have won at sometime with the Purple People Eaters or in the years during the Randy Moss saga) while the New England Patriots have been able to redefine their franchise history of epic failure in the 21st century by winning three Super Bowls and by becoming arguably the team of the decade. Nobody immediately recalls the 46-10 loss in Super Bowl XX when thinking of the Pats, not even Chicago Bears fans.
The AFC remains the clear-cut supreme conference of the NFL while the NFC still needs a few more Super Bowl wins and the overhaul of quite a few of the teams’ offenses to begin to end the AFC’s dominance.