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Halfway through season, NFC is dominant

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Halfway through season, NFC is dominant

Halfway through the season, something's missing - mostly - on a list of the league's elite teams.

The AFC.

It's difficult to make a case for including any team from the conference other than Houston among the league's best, while unbeaten Atlanta, San Francisco, Chicago, Green Bay and the New York Giants could be considered in that category from the NFC.

Coming off three straight Super Bowl wins and four out of the last five, the NFC is playing some dominant football on both sides of the line.

In interconference play, it's up 23-13 on the AFC, led by the Falcons sweeping the AFC West, and the Bears going 3-0 against the AFC South - with Chicago meeting the Texans on Sunday in the biggest matchup of the season so far. The Bears are slight favorites in the showdown of 7-1 teams.

That's not too much of a surprise, really. Chicago is home and only Pittsburgh, 3-0 against the suddenly vulnerable NFC East, has showed strength among AFC teams when crossing over.

The NFC has outscored the AFC 1,012-767 in head-to-head matchups, and has a plus-30 turnover margin in those games.

``The quarterbacks as a group are deeper in the NFC,'' says former NFL executive Pat Kirwan, who has looked extensively at the differences in the conferences. ``The bottom teams in the NFL are all in the AFC: Jacksonville, Kansas City and Cleveland.''

Just as pronounced are the statistical rankings, with six of the top eight defensive teams coming from the NFC. In a league where just about everyone can play offense - sorry Jacksonville, your 117 points wouldn't cut it in the ACC - the efficient defenses tend to swing the pendulum of power.

But if you want offense, something the league is providing plenty of once again this year, note that seven of the 11 highest-rated passers are from the NFC, as are eight of the top 11 receivers. The ground game? Try the top four, led by Minnesota star Adrian Peterson, and six of the first 10 are NFCers.

There's far more balance to NFC attacks.

``I think the balance has to be more maybe not weekly but over the course of the season,'' said Buccaneers coach Greg Schiano, whose team has averaged 36 points in winning three of the last four, two of those victories against - you guessed it - the AFC.

``You have to take what the defense gives you. Different weeks the defense is going to afford you different opportunities. I think that's the hardest thing, coaches being able to recognize it and if it's different than what they've shown, being able to adjust. And for your players being able to get that communicated to them and having a system that is flexible enough to change the game plan because of the way they are playing the offense.''

Back to defense, consider that seven of the top 10 players in sacks, and 11 of the first 15, are from the NFC. Six of the eight best sacks teams are from the conference.

Of the 19 players with at least three interceptions, 13 are from the NFC.

Get the picture? Well, half the picture considering we have eight more weeks left in the regular-season.

Kirwan cautions that the AFC, which had the edge in interconference play from 1996-2010 (the NFC edged it 33-31 last season) could turn it around before January.

``I will say with Peyton Manning and John Fox in Denver, Andrew Luck in Indy and with the Steelers' strong push,'' Kirwan said, ``they are helping the AFC close the gap.''

Defenses have not closed the gap in what every year becomes more of an offense-oriented league. Games are averaging 705 yards gained, nearly 12 ahead of the record pace of last season. Yards through the air is rising to the stratosphere, more than 17 yards a game higher than the 2011 record.

The Bears' defense is adding significantly to the points totals, which are not quite on a record pace and might slow down as cold weather hits in many NFL cities. Chicago has seven interception returns for touchdowns and eight scores on defense already.

``At any given time on Sunday, anyone on this defense can score,'' said star linebacker Brian Urlacher, who did just that last Sunday. ``We didn't have that back in the day.''

Here's another wrinkle. Consider that the NFC has been dominant even though three teams usually among the contenders - New Orleans, Dallas and Philadelphia - have fallen into mediocrity. Or worse.

The Saints, of course, have been damaged by the bounties scandal that cost them coach Sean Payton for the season. Having a sieve of a defense has exacerbated their fall to 3-5, leaving them on the very outer fringe of the playoff race.

That's also where the Cowboys and Eagles have plummeted to through eight games. Dallas has issues with fundamentals such as receivers running the right routes and actually holding onto passes. Philly's defense can't tackle anyone and the offense, specifically Michael Vick, keeps turning over the ball.

Still, they tend to keep games close, as do most teams except the Titans, who have allowed a ludicrous 308 points in going 3-6. Already, 31 games have had the winning points scored in the final two minutes or in overtime. Eleven of those were decided in the last 10 seconds of the fourth quarter and 10 went to OT.

Among the players producing the heroics in those games have been a bunch of rookies in what might be the strongest freshman class in years. Five first-year quarterbacks have started and, generally, made an impact, with the Colts' Andrew Luck - top overall pick last April - noteworthy for his success. He's lifted Indianapolis into the playoff push after the team won two games last season.

Robert Griffin III in Washington and Russell Wilson in Seattle have provided all kinds of excitement at the position, but don't think only young QBs are making headlines. From running backs Doug Martin in Tampa and Trent Richardson in Cleveland to Bucs safety Mark Barron and Patriots DE Chandler Jones, it's been a rocking half-season for rookies.

``I don't really know if there's something in the water or what. The rookies are definitely making a huge impact this year,'' Dolphins running back Reggie Bush said.

So are Manning and Peterson in their comebacks from major injuries and surgery. Now that Manning is approaching full health and a symbiotic relationship with his receivers, the Broncos have started looking like Super Bowl material. Peterson, coming off left knee surgery, returned to the lineup in less than nine months and has been, well, as sensational as ever.

For all the NFC superiority, the great comebacks, the offensive explosions and the remarkable rookies, the first half of the 2012 season might be most remembered for the opening three weeks of replacement officials. Indeed, if the Packers miss the postseason and the Seahawks make it, Seattle's 14-12 victory in Week 3 on a last-second desperation pass that sparked the end of the lockout of the regular officials will be revisited endlessly.

Thankfully, there's nearly two months of action left to dim the memories of those blown calls and indecisive non-calls. Eight weeks of points galore, perhaps. Of record-setting performances, for sure.

Maybe even an AFC revival.

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Stanley Cup Final 2018: X-factors that could swing the series

Stanley Cup Final 2018: X-factors that could swing the series

The Washington Capitals and Vegas Golden Knights have met only twice in their history. Neither team was expected to get to this point so you can go ahead and throw away the stats, the matchups, the data and the history. A new story will be written in the Stanley Cup FInal.

Who will ultimately win the Cup? Here are four factors that could ultaimtely swing the series.

1. Goaltending

The Caps have faced elimination only twice in the playoffs and Braden Holtby did not allow a single goal in either game. He enters the Stanley Cup Final having not allowed a single goal in 159:27. Andrei Vasilevskiy began to take over the series with his performance in Game 3, Game 4 and Game 5, but Holtby outplayed him to finish off the series in Washington’s favor.

Marc-Andre Fleury, meanwhile, has been the best player in the playoffs. Not the best goalie, the best player.

Through 15 games, Fleury has a .947 save percentage and four shutouts. As good as Vegas has been this postseason, Fleury has stolen several games for the Golden Knights.

Both of these goalies are certainly capable of stealing away a series for their respective teams. Which one will outplay the other?

2. Time off

Rust is a real thing in hockey. Just any team when they come off a bye week. When the Caps and Golden Knights take the ice on Monday, May 28, it will be the first game for Vegas since May 20. That’s over a week off.

Yes, getting rest at this time of the year is important, but too much rest leads to rust and that should be a major concern for Vegas, especially for a team that was playing so well and has so much momentum.

In the Eastern Conference Final, the Caps stunned the Tampa Bay Lightning by winning both Game 1 and Game 2 in Tampa. Could they do it again with a rusty Vegas team? Will the long layoff cost the Golden Knights one or even two home games to start the series?

3. The McPhee factor

Vegas Golden Knights general manager George McPhee was the Caps’ general manager for 17 years starting with the 1997-98 season. He was fired in 2014, but was ultimately responsible for building the core of the Washington team that is now headed to the Stanley Cup Final.

But that also means he knows those players very, very well.

Nicklas Backstrom, Travis Boyd, Andre Burakovsky, John Carlson, Christian Djoos, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Dmitry Orlov, Chandler Stephenson, Jakub Vrana, Tom Wilson, Braden Holtby, Philipp Grubauer and of course, Alex Ovechkin were all drafted by McPhee. Jay Beagle was also signed by as an undrafted free agent.

A general manager does not sign or draft anyone without knowing a good deal about the kind of player they are. Does that give McPhee a bit of an edge when it comes to facing the Caps?

4. Speed

The Golden Knights are fast. When the expansion draft was all said and done it was clear McPhee had targeted two things specifically: defensemen and speed. The result is an exceptionally fast Golden Knights team that no one has been able to keep up with so far.

Vegas' speed mixed with the goaltending of Fleury has proven to be a lethal combination. Their mobility makes it hard to get the puck from them or even keep it in the offensive zone. Once they get it, it’s going down the ice very quickly and you better keep up with them or it's going to end up in the back of the net. Once they build a lead, it is very difficult for teams to dig their way out as evidenced by their 10-1 record this postseason when scoring first.

Tampa Bay and Pittsburgh were both fast teams as well and the Capitals were able to combat that with strong play in the neutral zone. The 1-3-1 trap has given opponents fits and generated a lot of odd-man breaks for the Caps. Will it be as effective against a speedy Vegas team?

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Trotz's future in Washington remains unsettled on eve Stanley Cup Final

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Trotz's future in Washington remains unsettled on eve Stanley Cup Final

Caps Coach Barry Trotz doesn’t have a contract beyond the Stanley Cup Final, and any potential talks about an extension will wait until the trophy is awarded, GM Brian MacLellan said Friday.

“No,” MacLellan said, asked if a decision on Trotz’s future had been made. “We’re going to address everything after the playoffs are over.”

Trotz’s four-year contract expires at season’s end.

It’s rare for a head coach to enter a season while in the final year of his deal. But that’s how the Caps decided to handle Trotz’s situation last offseason after another strong regular season performance ended with yet another second round playoff exit at the hands of the Penguins.

It was a suboptimal situation for Trotz, a 55-year-old who ranks fifth all-time in regular season victories but, until this year, had never led any team beyond the conference semifinals.

Despite his lame duck status, all Trotz did was produce his best coaching performance to date. 

Consider:

  • While visiting his son in Russia last summer, Trotz visited Alex Ovechkin in Moscow to discuss the changes he’d like to see the Caps’ captain make to his training and his game.
  • When the Caps reconvened for training camp in September, it was clear there were still some hurt feelings in the locker room. So Trotz and his assistants backed off, allowing some necessary healing to occur.
  • When the team suffered back-to-back blowout losses in Nashville and Colorado back in November, Trotz initiated a tell-it-like-it-is team meeting that many players have pointed to as the turning point of the regular season, which ended with the team’s third straight Metropolitan title.
  • Trotz also got his highly-skilled lineup to buy into a more structured, detailed style of play late in the campaign, a transformation that prompted MacLellan to call this playoff run the most defensively responsible of Trotz’s tenure.
  • In each of the two previous conference semifinals, Washington was defeated by Pittsburgh and, as a result, the Penguins had become a physical and a mental hurdle for the Caps. Earlier this month, Trotz helped direct Ovechkin and Co. past the two-time Cup champions.

Although MacLellan wouldn’t say much about Trotz’s contract, he did say that he’s noticed a big change in Trotz’s day-to-day approach to his job, a change possibly prompted by the coach’s free agent status.

“I think his demeanor has changed a little bit,” MacLellan said. “He seems a little lighter, a little looser, a little less pressure. Maybe a little more freedom about how he goes about things. He’s more relaxed, I guess would be the way to describe him.”

MacLellan also acknowledged the job Trotz’s has done this season, beginning with his delicate handling of the dressing room to start the year.

“I think he’s done a good job managing it,” MacLellan said. “To come in this year with so many questions—from my point of view, the lineup questions weren’t that big of a deal—but just the emotional state of our coming into to start the year [and] how to handle that. I think he’s done an outstanding job.”

Indeed, Trotz’s situation remains unclear on the eve of the Final. But we do know this much: He’s having one of the best contract years in NHL coaching history.

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