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Monardo: The NFC is superior to AFC

Joseph Monardo | Tuesday, October 23, 2012

 

The NFL is often praised for its parity. On any given Sunday every team is in jeopardy of losing, no matter who it lines up against.

But in this season, one disparity is undeniably present: the NFC stands head and shoulders above the AFC.

After seven weeks of football this fact is all but universally recognized, but the extent to which the National Football Conference’s production thus far exceeds that of its American counterpart is stunning. In head-to-head matchups, the NFC is 19-9. Even more relevant, the division leaders in the NFC are undefeated out-of-conference at 9-0. The leaders in the AFC are 1-5 in such games. Expanding the sample size a bit, the records of the top two teams in each division show the disparity just as powerfully: Those in the NFC are 16-4 against the opposite conference while those in AFC are 5-9. 

If the head-to-head records are not convincing enough, the popularized “eye test” can offer further evidence. How many legitimate Super Bowl contenders are there in the AFC? Among the consensus favorites from the AFC – New England, Baltimore, Pittsburgh, Houston and Denver – only Houston looks like a convincing threat to take home the hardware. Of course, plenty of football remains to be played and any of these teams (and a few others) could put it together and make a run through the playoffs. But at this point in the season their deficiencies stand out just as prominently as their potential. 

The Patriots (4-3), who have reigned on the top level of the NFL for most of the last decade, look anything but invincible. Having feasted on the likes of Tennessee and Buffalo and earning a single quality win over Denver at home, New England squeaked out a 29-26 victory in overtime against the Jets on Sunday. Their offensive statistics place them among the league’s best in most categories, but the Patriot defense hasn’t had much success stopping anybody. New England has allowed 163 points, more than all but two NFC teams but good enough for eighth in the AFC.

Baltimore’s traditionally dominant defense has barely done better, having allowed 161 points through seven games. The Ravens (5-2) don’t have an offense as potent as New England’s to mask the lack of stopping power on the defensive side. Injuries – most notably to Ray Lewis and Lardarius Webb – have hurt the birds, but they have a lot of work to do to become the league’s best team. 

Pittsburgh’s offensive line woes represent the most significant concern for the Steelers (3-3) and the Broncos (3-3) struggle to run the ball consistently. Denver’s average of 93.8 yards per game ranks 23rd in the NFL.

Houston (6-1) really does look to be a legitimate contender – and probably the favorite – for the Super Bowl. Arian Foster and Matt Schaub have struck a balance on offense, but the Texans’ defense has been most impressive. J.J. Watt leads a group that has allowed only 128 points in seven games, second-best in the AFC.

With the Texans carrying the torch for all of the AFC, the NFC’s top teams easily outshine the single bright spot. At this point in the season, the 49ers, Falcons, Packers, Bears and Giants have all made their case to be feared. 

San Francisco’s balanced attack and strong defense has the 49ers (5-2) leading Arizona and Seattle in a competitive NFC West. The Falcons (6-0) are have risen up and remain football’s only undefeated team. The Dirty Birds have used Matt Ryan’s veteran leadership – and ability to find superstars Julio Jones and Roddy White – to pull out close game after close game. Aaron Rodgers is back to tearing apart defenses at the helm of the Packers (4-3) in the NFC North. In the same division the Bears’ defense has allowed only 78 points – by far the fewest in the league – and Chicago (5-1) has found ways to win despite inconsistency from Jay Cutler at quarterback (seven interceptions to eight touchdowns and a completion percentage of 56.7). The Giants (5-2) are in top form. But even if they weren’t, nobody should doubt that New York is a Super Bowl contender after its repeated improbable title runs in recent years. 

Maybe the Texans are better than all these teams. Or maybe one of the underwhelming AFC leaders will kick it into gear and ultimately capture the Lombardi Trophy. Maybe (probably?) some other team will steal the spotlight. Nobody can predict the future, especially in the NFL. But seven weeks of football have made it clear – the NFC teams are cut from a different cloth.

Contact Joseph Monardo at jmonardo@nd.edu