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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 noncalls. Eight weeks of points galore, perhaps. Of record-setting performances, for sure.

Maybe even an AFC revival.

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Capitals Mailbag Part 1: Looking ahead to a busy offseason

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Capitals Mailbag Part 1: Looking ahead to a busy offseason

It’s time for a new Capitals mailbag! Check out Part 1 below.

Have a Caps question you want to be answered the next mailbag? Send it on Twitter using #CapsMailNBC or by email to CapitalsMailbag@gmail.com.

Please note, some questions have been edited for clarity.

I have written about this before, but Jakub Vrana’s contract has to be priority No. 1. Vrana is absolutely going to be back, but he is going to take a sizable chunk of what little cap room Washington has remaining. General manager Brian MacLellan needs to know how much cap space he is working with this offseason before he can make any decisions about the other free agents like Brett Connolly and Carl Hagelin.

The second most important move would be a trade to free up cap space. Everyone assumes that Matt Niskanen would be the player on the trade block, as you noted. With the free agents the Caps could potentially lose and a prospect pipeline devoid of any high-end offensive skill, I just do not see how the Caps can add enough quality forward depth this offseason without clearing cap space.

Fans should circle June 20-22 as target dates for a possible trade. June 20 is the NHL general managers meeting and June 21-22 is the draft. When you get all the general managers together in the same place, that can spark trade deals. Don’t forget, the draft was when Brooks Orpik and Philipp Grubauer were traded to the Colorado Avalanche last year.

As for Backstrom and Holtby, while I am sure MacLellan would like to get those deals done if possible, these do not rank as high on the priority list as both players are still under contract for another season.

Maclellan was asked on breakdown day if he wanted those deals done this summer and he said, “I don’t think it matters. We’ll have conversations and if it feels like it’s going in the right direction, then we can get more assertive on it.”

The Caps have plenty of issues to deal with for this season to worry too much about Backstrom and Holtby right now.

Jacob C. writes: How does Washington adjust their offseason knowing that they have a $1.15 million dollar cap penalty? 

Washington was hit with a cap penalty because of some late performance bonuses that pulled the team over the cap ceiling.

The money situation was going to be tight for the team regardless of the cap penalty so it is hard to know if anything the team does will be directly related to that, but if I had to guess I believe the player the most affected by this will be Andre Burakovsky.

As a restricted free agent, the Caps will have to give him a qualifying offer of $3.25 million in order to retain his rights and prevent him from becoming an unrestricted free agent. That is high for a player who has scored 12 goals in each of the past three seasons.

Maybe you could justify the risk of overpaying him because the team could potentially see both Connolly and Hagelin walk, but with $1.15 million less to spend that may force MacLellan to not qualify Burakovsky and attempt to convince him to sign for less.

Jack Hughes.

OK, so obviously that is not going to happen. I assume your question is more aimed at who I think the Caps would want of the players who may actually fall to them at 25. The team’s philosophy when it comes to the draft is to take the best available player, which it should be, but the Caps have not taken a forward in the first round since 2014 and that lack of offensive talent is really starting to catch up with them. If forwards start dropping off the board, they cannot afford to wait and see who falls to them. My prediction is that that team is going to come into this draft with the goal of drafting a forward. They will have grades on every first round prospect and, if it looks like a number of forwards could fall their way, great. If a bunch of forwards get taken early, however, I would not at all be surprised if MacLellan tries to trade up to make sure he gets a high-end forward prospect.

Next, let’s look at where the Caps like to get their players from. In the last five drafts, Washington has taken nine players from the WHL and 11 players from European leagues. Knowing that, here are the players I would predict to be high on the Caps’ list:

Kirby Dach C, Saskatoon, WHL
Dylan Cozens C, Lethbridge, WHL
Peyton Krebs C, Kootenay, WHL
Ilya Nikolaev C, Russia
Nils Hoglander W, Sweden

The three WHL players I have seen go pretty high in most mock drafts so if you get down to say, pick 15 and one of those guys is still on the board, that’s when it is time to really pay attention and see if MacLellan tries to jump up to snag him.

It depends on what you consider to be “major.” As I mentioned above, if the Caps want to compete for the Cup next season, I do not see how they can avoid making a trade. If trading Niskanen for what would likely be draft picks would be considered “major,” then yes.

Do I see them making a big multi-player trade for significant pieces? No. Do I see them pursuing a big-name free agent like Erik Karlsson or Artemi Panarin? No. Even if MacLellan does trade Niskanen that only frees up another $5.75 million in cap room and the Caps will need just about every penny to fill in their bottom six.

We could see a Niskanen trade, we could see a them trade up in the draft and the team will almost certainly be active on July 1 to find forward depth, but they are not in the running for any of the big name free agents.

Todd Reirden said on breakdown day, “We're going to go through a full review of all that stuff, but I do not anticipate any changes to my coaching staff."

Obviously, he left himself a little bit of wiggle room there, but it does not appear the team is going to make any changes to the staff.

In terms of how they operate, I anticipate Reirden taking a more hands-on approach to the defense. He really made a name for himself in the league for his defensive acumen and the improvement he brought with him as an assistant coach was not as evident last season with him as head coach.

I do not anticipate any major changes to the system the team plays, but I am curious what they do on special teams. I have not seen a team that consistently utilizes the slingshot well on the power play so I am hopeful the breakouts get an update to get rid of the slingshot. I do not know how you could evaluate the team’s play from last season and say, yeah, let’s keep doing that. But, the sling shot was all the rage across the NHL so clearly someone thinks it actually works.

Second, the penalty kill has to adjust for the personnel it has. The Caps tried a more aggressive penalty kill and it did not work for much of the season. Really, it did not seem to click until Hagelin came on board at the trade deadline. If he stays or Washington gets someone on the roster who can run it as effectively as he could, great. Otherwise, you hope the team can accept the fact that a guy like Chandler Stephenson just is not the same player as Hagelin and adjust accordingly. 

First, the defense as that seems like the easier prediction. I see a second pairing of Dmitry Orlov and Nick Jensen. I expected that to be the plan the moment the team re-signed Jensen. The bottom pair will be Jonas Siegenthaler and Christian Djoos. The Caps need to add too much on offense to commit the money to another defenseman. Siegenthaler looked good in the playoffs and Djoos will be entering his third year in the NHL so it is time for both players to step up. I think we could see someone like Tyler Lewington come in as a cheap No. 7 and as someone the team feels no pressure to get into the lineup.

The offense is trickier as this is where the team may add some free agents. Lars Eller and Nic Dowd will be the centers. That much we know. Travis Boyd remains under contract. I predict MacLellan will be able to work something out with Burakovsky and he stays. A return for Stephenson also seems likely. At that point, the Caps should have about $7.5 million of cap space for two more forwards. I think they could make a run at either Connolly or Hagelin, but not both. It just depends on where their priorities lie heading into free agency. If they cannot get any, they have to turn to free agency and hope they can find a top-nine player they can plug into the third line.

Now here’s where things get interesting. You have the money for one high-end bottom six guy (Connolly, Hagelin or their replacement), but a Stephenson, Dowd, Boyd line does not inspire much confidence. Looking at the prospects, the only prospect who seems close to the NHL is Axel Jonsson-Fjallby, but it is hard to tell given he only played 16 games in Hershey last season.

If the Caps think he is ready, they could look to Jonsson-Fjallby as a Hagelin replacement. If not, could they actually consider bringing back Dmitrij Jaskin? After all, Jaskin will be an RFA and the team could probably get him for pretty cheap. If they do that, Reirden would have to actually use him, but the cap situation makes this not outside the realm of possibility.

So here is what I would say for the third and fourth lines:

Free agent – Lars Eller – Andre Burakovsky
Chandler Stephenson – Nic Dowd – Dmitrij Jaskin
Travis Boyd

Thanks for all your questions! If you have a question you want to be read and answered in the next mailbag, send it to CapitalsMailbag@gmail.com or use #CapsMailNBC on Twitter.

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Baltimore Ravens Roundup: Ravens rank higher than expected in preseason rankings

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Baltimore Ravens Roundup: Ravens rank higher than expected in preseason rankings

Kick off your Wednesday with the latest Baltimore Ravens news including a high preseason ranking for the Ravens.

Player/Team Notes: 

1. The Ravens ranked higher than expected in Peter King's preseason rankings. King ranked the Ravens at No. 12, surprising for a defense that is working on development during this offseason. However, with the Ravens' signing of All-Pro safety Earl Thomas, maybe he will bring the fire the Ravens need on defense.

2. With day 2 of OTAs in the books, the focus has been on quarterback Lamar Jackson. Ravens writer, Kevin Eck noted that during the offseason, Jackson had been working out with Ravens quarterbacks coach, Joshua Harris along with receivers Jordan Lasley and Jaylen Smith, so it remains to be seen throughout the summer on whether or not he has improved namely his passing game. 

Looking Ahead:

July 15: 4 p.m. deadline to get a long-term deal done with designated franchise tag players.

The 2019 NFL schedule is set! See the Baltimore Ravens defend the AFC North at M&T Bank Stadium this season. Get your tickets now at www.BaltimoreRavens.com/tickets.

Credit: Baltimore Ravens for news points.

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