Weekend's AFC 'Showdowns' Remind Us Just How Bad Conference Has Become

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Weekend's AFC 'Showdowns' Remind Us Just How Bad Conference Has Become
Jared Wickerham/Getty Images
Rex Ryan's Jets look nothing like the AFC Championship ones.

This just in: The AFC is really bad. Like, really, really bad. 

There are three teams over .500 in the conference. That's as many as in the NFC North.

Were any other team in the New England Patriots' current situation, we’d all be saying they’re doomed to collapse down the stretch. The fourth quarter has become an arena for inconsistency, shameful pass defense, turnovers and special teams disasters.

Baltimore, with its slew of injuries, looks like it may never win again. 

But New England is not “any other team” and Baltimore will eventually remedy itself—or so their recent history would lead us to believe. The present begs to differ. 

The Pats and Ravens are giving up an average of 388 yards per game. Only seven teams (excluding Baltimore) are worse than 388—and their combined record is 15-31. 

Their respective games this past weekend were supposed to be an opportunity to showcase the best the AFC has to offer. So much for that. The only thing we know is that nobody’s close to the Houston Texans—although it should be noted how easily a 4-3 NFC team beat them in Texas. 

Part of me thinks Denver could muscle its way into the Super Bowl, but relying on fourth-quarter heroics is not a recipe for success against top teams—hence the three failed efforts against Atlanta, Houston and New England. Denver has averaged a fourth-quarter opening deficit of 6.8 points through six games. 

Conversely, Pittsburgh has had noteworthy moments, but these end 45 minutes in. The Steelers, 3-3, have led in the fourth quarter of every game. They’ve allowed 20 combined unanswered points to the Titans and Raiders. 

Thomas B. Shea/Getty Images
Texans fans rejoice. Your team couldn't have picked a better time to make huge improvements.

Maybe the most telling example of the conference’s shortcomings is reflected in the teams that are “good” enough to be considered fringe contenders. Ryan Fitzpatrick, Mark Sanchez, Ryan Tannehill, Andrew Luck and Matt Hasselbeck/Jake Locker are all no worse than one game back in the playoff hunt. 

At present, the hottest teams in the AFC are Miami and Tennessee. Their respective two-game winning streaks are the longest in the conference. 

From 2002 to 2010, the AFC outscored the NFC in inter-conference play by a total of 1,593 points, including a point-differential victory in each of those nine seasons. The highest discrepancy occurred in 2004. AFC teams went 44-20 against the NFC and were a combined plus-502 in those games. 

After the 2004 season, however, a steady drop-off ensued. The point differential went to 293 in 2006, 95 in 2007 and a total of just 90 between the ’08 and ’09 seasons. There was a last-ditch effort to maintain supremacy in 2010—the AFC finished plus-194 as a conference—but Green Bay’s victory over Pittsburgh in Super Bowl XLV signaled the end of an era. 

The NFC outscored the AFC by 133 points last year. This year? The NFC is plus-295 as a conference and leads interleague play 19-9. 

The question is not whether the AFC is weaker than the NFC. It is—duh. What we should be wondering, rather, is how this all happened? 

President Obama tells us that building a strong middle class is the key to developing a strong, stable economy. Is that the case in professional football conferences? 

My first hypothesis for this phenomenon was that, in recent times, the AFC had more dominant teams than the NFC (the super wealthy), but subsequently more terrible ones (poor) and fewer average ones (middle class). While the AFC may have had the best of the best, there was more capacity for growth in the NFC.

That’s not exactly the case. There were 30 occurrences of an NFC team winning seven to nine games. Twenty-eight did it in the AFC. Both conferences had exactly 13 teams finish with four or fewer wins. 

My next move was to qualify each conference’s best teams over that span. Remember, the balance of power officially shifted last year (2011 season). 

From 2007 to 2010, eight “unique” AFC teams advanced to the Divisional Round (For example, the Jets only count as one unique team even though they made it in ’09 and ’10). There were 11 unique NFC teams to do so. 

San Francisco failed to reach the second round during the time in question, which means Washington, Detroit, Tampa Bay and St. Louis are now the only NFC teams without a Divisional Round appearance since 2007.

While all four have a losing record this year, you could point to one or two specific things each of those teams is doing that make an appearance within two years very conceivable. 

But let’s get back to the AFC. Three of the most recent AFC contenders—Pittsburgh, Baltimore and New York—got it done with their defense. As is the case with many sports downfalls, injuries have hit these three at their most pivotal positions.

Jim Rogash/Getty Images
It's not meant as a criticism in any way, but Brady seems a bit more on edge this year than ever before.

Each team has lost anywhere from one to three of their most important players for all or part of the current season. Darrelle Revis, Troy Polamalu, James Harrison, Ray Lewis and Terrell Suggs have 23 first or second-team All Pro appearances between them.

The explanations—or should I say explanation—for Indianapolis’ disappearance are/is obvious. 

The Jets, Ravens, Steelers and Colts are down in 2012 for these reasons. New England is underachieving and, poof, the conference is in shambles. 

The fact is, the above teams, paired with perennial on-paper favorite San Diego, hid what was in reality an inconsistent conference, especially from 2008-2009 when they were the only six teams to reach the Divisional Round. 

You usually wouldn’t say a conference is bad due to its lesser teams. But when Miami, Buffalo, Oakland, and Tennessee are on an even playing field with depleted ex-contenders, this new age of the NFL should surprise nobody.

Any other possible explanations?

 

1. Better Players? Twenty players selected since 2007 have made a Pro Bowl roster and currently reside in the NFC—two fewer than in the AFC. Granted, this is hardly a good approach at answering the talent question anyway. The Pro Bowl is really a bit of a joke and you’re not going to convince me that a top special-teamer is as valuable as, say, Matt Ryan or Rob Gronkowski. W-A-S-H.

2. More Cohesion? The average NFC head coach as been at the helm of his current squad for 69 total games (I excluded the Saints from the calculations because their situation is unique. If I give them zero games, that average goes to 65. If I give them Sean Payton’s tenure, it goes up to 72). AFC coaches average under 59 games. This could be significant. “Picking up where you left off” is hard to accomplish with a new head coach.

Of course, the most likely explanation for why the AFC has fallen behind its counterpart is the one most common for everything in life: Just because. But what fun is that?

Next up on the AFC agenda: Avoid the other end of the 502-point differential from 2004. Too bad they’re on pace to shatter that mark. 

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