You had a great run, AFC. But the NFC has taken the torch - by force. The 2012 season is the year we will remember as when the NFC reclaimed their spot as the league's best conference.
The NFL is cyclical. When the NFC was the dominant conference, their teams won 13 consecutive Super Bowls (1984-1996 seasons). After the 1997 Denver Broncos broke the dry spell, the AFC won nine of the next 12 Super Bowls.
As is usually the case, the balance of power swung back and stayed with the AFC thanks to superior talent at the two key positions of head coach and quarterback. Bill Belichick found Tom Brady in New England, Tony Dungy was the best coach for Peyton Manning, and Ben Roethlisberger won Super Bowls under Bill Cowher and Mike Tomlin in Pittsburgh.
Those three teams and quarterbacks have started the last nine Super Bowls for the AFC, and 10 of the past 11. They have also been the class of the AFC, enjoying three of the most successful runs in NFL history.
But nothing stays the same forever. All three lost their most recent Super Bowl over the last three seasons, shifting the power back to the NFC and their prolific combinations at coach and quarterback.
Tom Coughlin and Eli Manning have bested Brady and Belichick in two Super Bowls. Two 2006 rookie coaches, Sean Payton and Mike McCarthy, paired up with dominant quarterbacks like Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers. They have won the last three championships (four of the last five).
More than just the Super Bowl wins, the NFC has recently been dominating the AFC in the regular season.
Even when the AFC was at its best, 2004 (14-9) and 2006 (12-15), their non-conference record through seven weeks was never as gaudy as the 19-9 (.679) mark the NFC holds this season. It comes after winning the 2011 season series, 33-31, for the first time since the league went to eight divisions in 2002.
Last year appeared to be an aberration for the AFC with Peyton Manning's neck surgeries derailing the Colts' season. Matt Schaub went down after 10 games in Houston. Philip Rivers' play deteriorated. Ben Roethlisberger had a high-ankle sprain late in the season. Things should have improved this year through healing alone.
But that has not been the case, and it shows up in the marquee match-ups.
- Peyton Manning threw three interceptions in Atlanta (4-0 against the AFC West) on a Monday night game. He has one interception the rest of the season.
- Baltimore's first loss of the season was to Philadelphia after leading 17-7 at halftime.
- Houston, widely considered the best AFC team, was blown out at home 42-24 by a Green Bay team who came in struggling.
- New England has already lost to Arizona and Seattle.
Teams buried in the NFC playoff race right now could be leading or tied for the lead in certain AFC divisions.
How did the NFC take control?
These changes do not happen overnight. Without much consistent winning, the NFC has used high draft picks to add significant talent since 2007, such as Calvin Johnson, Adrian Peterson, Patrick Willis, Matt Ryan, Matthew Stafford, Ndamukong Suh, Clay Matthews, Sam Bradford, Cam Newton, Aldon Smith, Jason Pierre-Paul, Earl Thomas, Julio Jones, and Robert Griffin III.
- Nine teams this season are averaging over 25.0 points per game, and six are from the NFC.
- Of the 11 teams allowing fewer than 21.0 points per game, nine are from the NFC, including the top four.
- Eight of the 10 teams allowing the most points per game are from the AFC.
- Seven of the top 10 teams in turnover differential are from the NFC.
The NFC only has two teams (at best) with serious quarterback issues. The Eagles already have a successor behind Michael Vick (Nick Foles), while the Cardinals deal with injuries and inconsistencies from John Skelton and Kevin Kolb. St. Louis (Bradford), Carolina (Newton) and Detroit (Stafford) each wish their No. 1 overall pick was playing better right now, but those players are not going anywhere next year.
The AFC could see quarterback changes (this year or next) in Buffalo, New York, Kansas City, while situations with Tennessee, Jacksonville, Oakland and even San Diego are anything but stable. That is seven of the 16 teams.
The five best quarterbacks in the AFC were all drafted in 2004 or earlier. The cupboards have not been properly restocked around the conference, leading to the NFC's resurgence.
Sorting out the AFC
After seven weeks, the AFC has just three teams with a winning record. Houston (6-1) and Baltimore (5-2) are on a bye this week, while the Patriots (4-3) barely escaped the Jets. This is not the AFC we are used to seeing.
|Season||Winning teams||Best record|
|2007||7||Patriots (7-0), Colts (6-0)|
How do we sort out this mess? Let's put the teams in tiers.
The Elite: Super Bowl favorite
Houston Texans (6-1 record, +88 scoring differential)
J.J. Watt leads a defense that is the best (ever?) at tipping passes at the line and causing havoc. The running game with Arian Foster is always a threat, and Matt Schaub is deadly with play-action passing.
This is the closest thing to an elite team in the AFC, yet all everyone will remember is how the Packers blew them out at home, that Matt Schaub has never started a playoff game, and we get to see them on a Monday night (Week 14) in New England for another big test of where they stand as a contender.
The Good: Could put it all together for a title run
Baltimore Ravens (5-2 record, +13 scoring differential)
This ranking may only be temporary, because without Ray Lewis and Lardarius Webb, the already suspect defense looks like a shell of its former self. No one respects the run defense (league-high 250 attempts faced), and the Ravens allow more first downs per game (25.0) than anyone except New Orleans.
If this is the end of the AFC's run on top, it is only fitting we are experiencing the end of Baltimore's dominant defense led by Lewis. The transition to an offensive team with Joe Flacco is still not there, and Flacco has a history of playing very subpar on the road. Best news for Baltimore is they stacked five wins early in the season.
Denver Broncos (3-3 record, +32 scoring differential)
If games were only about the fourth quarter, the Broncos would be the best team in football. Denver has outscored their opponents 79-6 in the fourth quarter, but has trailed by at least 20 points four times this season.
With Peyton Manning playing at an elite level through a front-loaded schedule, look for the Broncos to go on a run and only get better as the season moves along. They have a shot to win out and challenge Houston as the best team in the AFC.
New England Patriots (4-3 record, +54 scoring differential)
The Patriots have struggled to close the deal offensively in the fourth quarter in five of their last six games. The secret is Tom Brady's offense has always struggled in these situations, but it was never a problem because the defense was historically great at shutting teams down late to win the game.
Despite 19 wins since 2011, the Patriots currently only have one win over a team with a winning record, and that was in the 2011 AFC Championship against Baltimore with some help from Lee Evans and Billy Cundiff at the end.
Pittsburgh Steelers (3-3 record, +8 scoring differential)
As has essentially been the case since his rookie season, the Steelers have the third best quarterback in the AFC, which always gives them a chance to win any game.
While Roethlisberger is playing well with a more controlled offense that limits his turnovers and sacks, the defense has struggled and lost three fourth-quarter leads. With so many injuries on both sides of the ball - though not many leading to the injured reserve list - the Steelers could be a Giants-esque team that gets hot at the right time, but crushing losses to Oakland and Tennessee makes you wonder how far they have fallen.
The Enigmas: Hard to trust
San Diego Chargers (3-3 record, +11 scoring differential)
In all likelihood the Chargers blew their shot at the AFC West (and Norv Turner's job) with that 24-point meltdown in the second half against Denver. It will be interesting to see if they can rebound from that or slip further. A Wild Card is certainly within reach for this team, and they usually get hot late in the season.
Cincinnati Bengals (3-4 record, -21 scoring differential)
After some buzz with a 3-1 start and Andy Dalton playing well, the Bengals have dropped three straight winnable games, including two at home. Last year the Bengals won against the bad competition, and went 0-8 against playoff teams. This year they still cannot beat the big boys of the AFC North, and even blew a trip to Cleveland. Dalton needs to play better and they could use another wide receiver besides A.J. Green.
Miami Dolphins (3-3 record, +3 scoring differential)
You could definitely argue the Dolphins have the second best defense in the AFC behind Houston (ranked No. 6 in points per drive). Rookie Ryan Tannehill has continued to improve, and they were a missed field goal in overtime and 4th-and-10 stop in Arizona away from being 5-1 right now. With a favorable schedule, let's see where this goes.
Indianapolis Colts (3-3 record, -41 scoring differential)
With one more win than all of last season, Andrew Luck has the Colts competitive and led a great comeback win over the Packers. But this team is too flawed (see nearly blowing the lead to Minnesota and then blowing one late against Jacksonville) to make any serious damage this season, and the return to glory is still a season or two off.
Tennessee Titans (3-4 record, -89 scoring differential)
They have already been blown out four times, but have won three games with wild comebacks. Matt Hasselbeck has stabilized the offense the way Jake Locker could not, and they have about the same shot as Indianapolis and Miami at a Wild Card.
The Crowded Cellar: Some people are going to lose their jobs over this
Buffalo Bills (3-4 record, -56 scoring differential)
They have three wins, but two are over teams in this tier, and Arizona missed an easy field goal that would have won the game. Defensive coordinator Dave Wannstedt cannot possibly survive the season after these inept performances against the Jets, Patriots, 49ers and Titans.
Oakland Raiders (2-4 record, -58 scoring differential)
Relying on 10-point comebacks at home in the fourth quarter is not a recipe for sustained success. Neither was giving up so much to get Carson Palmer off the couch last year. Let the next coach figure this one out.
Cleveland Browns (1-6 record, -33 scoring differential)
The Browns have been competitive every week, and might have a quarterback, but he's 29 years old. Josh Gordon looks good, but the other rookie Trent Richardson is not impressing. Pat Shumur's on the hot seat with a 5-18 record.
Jacksonville Jaguars (1-5 record, -76 scoring differential)
Good for Jacksonville not giving in to Maurice Jones-Drew's holdout, and it has nothing to do with his latest injury. Running back is such a replaceable position. The bad news? Blaine Gabbert is still the quarterback, but apparently that beats having Chad Henne as your starter.
Kansas City Chiefs (1-5 record, -79 scoring differential)
The Chiefs have 21 turnovers in six games and have turned to Brady Quinn as their staring quarterback. Oh, Romeo.
Scott Kacsmar (@CaptainComeback) writes for Cold, Hard Football Facts, Bleacher Report, Colts Authority, and contributes data to Pro-Football-Reference.com and NFL Network.