NFL 2012 Preview: The NFC Is Set to Continue Its Dominance of the AFC
Referee John Parry flipped the coin in the air. New York Giants special teams captain Zak DeOssie called tails before it hit the ground. The coin landed on heads and in Super Bowl XLVI, the NFC lost its first Super Bowl coin flip in 15 seasons.
For so long winning the toss in the Super Bowl was about all the NFC could manage against the AFC. Since Super Bowl XXXII in 1998, when the Denver Broncos beat the Green Bay Packers, AFC representatives in the Super Bowl have won nine out of a possible 15 Super Bowl championships. That leaves just six occasions when the NFC representative won the right to visit the White House during the offseason. Of those six victories, half came in the past three years while four of them came in the past five.
Parity is an important part of the NFL's philosophy. It is partially the reason why free agency exists and is completely responsible for the process of determining the draft order each season. However, just because the NFL is set up for parity to exist, it does not mean that it actually does.
Last season, NFC teams established a 33-31 record in games against AFC teams. The Saints, Lions and Giants, all NFC teams, were the only teams who went unbeaten against teams from the opposing conference. One thing each of those teams has in common is an elite talent at quarterback. Drew Brees, Matthew Stafford and Eli Manning all ranked in the top 10 quarterbacks, judging by the quarterback rating including players with at least 300 attempts.
In fact, in a quarterback driven league, it is often the balance at that position which tips the scales in favour of either conference. Therefore it should be no surprise that the NFC dominated the quarterback ratings in 2011. Brees, Stafford and Manning were just three of the NFC's seven quarterbacks who ranked in the top 10 last year.
Only Tom Brady, Ben Roethlisberger and Philip Rivers could crack the top 10 as Aaron Rodgers, comfortably, led the way. Following Rodgers from the NFC were Brees, Tony Romo, Stafford, Manning, Matt Ryan and Alex Smith. While Tom Brady was the sole AFC representative of the AFC in the top five, coming in at third, Roethlisberger and Rivers just snuck into the top 10 at ninth and 10th overall.
To compound the gulf in class, each of the quarterbacks from the AFC are on the wrong side of 30. That is not the case for the NFC players who are much closer to their relative primes. Outside of Romo and Brees, Rodgers was 27 last season, Stafford 23, Smith 27 and Ryan 26.
Also significant is that when you drop out of the top 10, there are three players who stand out as clear favourites to crack the top 10 this coming season. Jay Cutler, Michael Vick and Cam Newton came in 12th, 13th and 14th on this list with only Matt Moore, who will likely be on the bench in Miami this year, separating them from the top 10. Newton, Cutler and Vick had to endure, and overcome, adversity last season which prevented them from reaching their full potential on the field.
That adversity doesn't figure to be there this year. Each player's respective franchise has significantly improved their supporting cast for the coming season. In Chicago Jay Cutler was reunited with his favourite wide receiver, Brandon Marshall, and given an offensive coordinator who will protect him in former offensive line coach Mike Tice. Cam Newton gets talented right tackle Jeff Otah back, with Mike Tolbert also arriving to bolster the backfield. Newton and his young receivers will also have a full off-season of development ahead of Week 1 this year. That experience can only be positive for the offense as a whole.
On first glance, it would appear that Michael Vick's chances of succeeding in Philadelphia have taken a hit as he lost All-Pro left tackle Jason Peters this year. However, the Eagles' line as a whole improved significantly as last season moved on and has the talent to be the best in the league this year. Demetress Bell is not Jason Peters, but he does not need to be for Vick to flourish. Throw into the mix a happy DeSean Jackson and healthy Jeremy Maclin, and Vick could potentially be an MVP candidate this year.
The quarterback ratings aren't the only ones taking notice of the NFC's dominance at quarterback. With Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers and Eli Manning leading the way in the NFC, the last three Super Bowl MVPs I might add, the NFC has the three highest rated quarterbacks from the highly regarded review site Pro Football Focus. In fact, the NFC had twice the number of signal callers in Pro Football Focus' top 101 players. The NFC had six to the AFC's three.
Don't get me wrong though, it's not just the quarterbacks. The NFC had more All-Pro players last year also. The All-Pro team is the group of players selected as the best at their position nominated by media members and coaches. Of the 62 players who received an All-Pro accolade last season, 34 played in the NFC. Of the 37 starters, 19 came from the NFC.
Of course that is last year and the NFL as much as any other professional sports league can drastically change from season to season. However, when you examine the teams entering this year in-depth, it becomes clear that the AFC's talent is a puddle compared to the NFC's ocean.
On paper, there are five clear contenders for the AFC crown. The New England Patriots are the clear favourites, with the Baltimore Ravens, Pittsburgh Steelers, Cincinnati Bengals and Houston Texans all returning the majority of their playoff rosters from last season. Teams like the Denver Broncos, Kansas City Chiefs and Buffalo Bills have big aspirations, but little credibility at the moment after an off-season of turnover.
In the NFC, there are at least nine teams who you would feel comfortable calling contenders and another two or three who could be argued for. The reigning champion New York Giants, the Philadelphia Eagles, Dallas Cowboys, Green Bay Packers, Detroit Lions, Chicago Bears, New Orleans Saints, Atlanta Falcons and San Francisco 49ers all clearly have enough talent to win the NFC. The Seattle Seahawks, Carolina Panthers and Washington Redskins need a few things to fall their way before they can be close to competing.
There are very few NFC teams in complete rebuilding mode. If Sam Bradford is healthy, it can be argued that every single team in the NFC will be capable of challenging for a playoff spot outside of the Minnesota Vikings. In the AFC, there are at least three teams looking to re-align the franchise's compass: the Cleveland Browns, Oakland Raiders and Indianapolis Colts.
The Browns and Colts are ushering in new quarterbacks, but unlike Robert Griffin III in Washington, they are joining rosters with gaping holes. The Raiders on the other hand appointed a new coach in the offseason and had to cut players, never mind bring in new players, to even make their roster financially compliant during the off-season.
It may not be the Baltimore Ravens against the Pittsburgh Steelers, the New England Patriots versus the New York Jets or the Green Bay Packers lined up across from the Chicago Bears, but the most understated rivalry in the NFL is tipping to one side.
Don't worry AFC fans, there's always the coin-toss and the Pro Bowl will be played again next year.
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