AFC or NFC: Which Is the NFL's True Power Conference?

James Dudko@@JamesDudkoFeatured ColumnistMarch 31, 2013

Despite the AFC claiming an eighth Super Bowl title since 2000, greater scheme innovation is making the NFC the NFL's true power conference.

It helped NFC teams dominate interconference play in 2012. They boasted a 39-25 record over their AFC counterparts.

Some of the American conference's biggest teams were outwitted by NFC foes. The prime example occurred in Week 6, when the Houston Texans hosted the Green Bay Packers.

The Texans were 5-0 at the time, compared with Green Bay's 2-3 mark. Yet the Packers emphatically triumphed 42-24.

It was the manner of the victory that was so alarming. The Texans were thoroughly dominated on both sides of the ball.

The Packers blitzed Houston's vaunted zone-running game. Aaron Rodgers dissected the Texans coverage schemes with six touchdown passes.

Houston's schemes were outguessed and their players outfought. A similar gulf in coaching and intensity was evident when the San Francisco 49ers bested the New England Patriots in Week 15.

The 49ers went into New England and schemed ways for youngster Colin Kaepernick to upstage veteran Tom Brady. The normally run-heavy 49ers exploited the Patriots secondary, and Kaepernick hurled four scoring throws.

Brady was kept rattled by consistent pressure and a sophisticated myriad of zone coverages. The Patriots rallied to make things closer, but ultimately lost 41-34.

Despite the close scoreline, it was clear the Patriots had been outcoached, a true rarity for a Bill Belichick team.

Two top AFC contenders were outmatched by national conference powerhouses. That's because more scheme innovation is currently taking place in the NFC.

Schematic trends often define sustained periods of success in the NFL. When the AFC was dominating at the start of the last decade, its best teams exemplified this rule.

The Patriots' hat trick of Super Bowls was largely due to a chameleon-like defense. It was a scheme that seamlessly morphed between 3-4 and 4-3 looks to keep quarterbacks guessing.

Now this hybrid multiplicity is a major part of most defensive playbooks around the league. The Pittsburgh Steelers were rewarded with two Super Bowls for their years developing Dick LeBeau's zone-blitz concepts.

The Indianapolis Colts were the innovators on offense. Peyton Manning used multiple-receiver sets to spread defenses and stretch the field. He redefined expectations for modern quarterback play.

The Patriots, Steelers and Colts had a strategic edge over the NFC, and it showed. The trio accounted for six of the AFC's seven Super Bowl wins from 2000-09.

However, the NFC has gradually caught up. The New York Giants upset the Patriots in 2007 thanks to a defensive scheme that outfoxed Brady and his record-setting offense.

Coordinator Steve Spagnuolo had expanded the fire zone-blitz package for 4-3 defenses. When Big Blue repeated the trick four years later, they used a different defensive template to stifle New England.

Current coordinator Perry Fewell relied on a three-safety nickel defense to contain Brady's two tight end attack. One year earlier, the Packers had used their own variation on the nickel defense to defeat the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Dom Capers took the Steelers' zone-blitz scheme to Green Bay, but his real innovations came in the nickel. The Packers defense was less 3-4 and more 2-4-5.

Capers also baffled more than one offense in 2010 with a 1-5-5 alignment, known as the "Psycho" package. From these looks, the Packers manufactured heavy pressure from a defense that suffered more than its share of injuries.

Capers' Psycho look has since been copied by many around the league. It is common to see defensive alignments, featuring multiple standup rushers, moving around to cause pre-snap confusion.

Pete Carroll's hybrid-front Seattle Seahawks defense surrendered the fewest points in 2012. NFC teams have helped redefine defense.

However, the conference's main innovations are reshaping the modern offense.

The read-option "pistol" attack sweeping the league is most prevalent in the NFC. The 49ers and Seahawks have elements of the system woven into their respective offenses.

The Niners use it to take advantage of Kaepernick's dynamic athleticism. The Seahawks do the same to free fleet-footed, young passer Russell Wilson.

The scheme helped Cam Newton win Rookie of the Year with the Carolina Panthers in 2011.

However, the Washington Redskins are the biggest proponents of the option and pistol offenses. They drafted Robert Griffin III in 2012 and made the pistol the emphasis of their scheme.

That proved to be the catalyst for a first division crown since 1999. Now teams are looking to replicate that formula.

The rising popularity of the pistol offense could see Geno Smith taken near the top of this year's draft. It could also provide quarterbacks like Pat White a route back to the NFL.

The AFC was home to a similar innovation five years ago. The Miami Dolphins unleashed the Wildcat package on an unsuspecting league and used it to help go from 1-15 to 11-5.

White was part of the Dolphins in 2009, and his background as an option quarterback is generating interest. The 49ers are keen, according to

Even the Giants could want a multipurpose passer like White on the roster, according to The New York Daily News.

One reason the AFC is falling behind in the strategic race is the diminishing competitive edge in the conference.

There is not enough of a challenge to the established order. That order is made up of the usual suspects who form the prime contenders in the conference.

The Patriots, Steelers and Baltimore Ravens are the usual front-runners. They have been joined by the Manning-led Denver Broncos.

The Patriots and Broncos have a lock on their respective divisions. They are each surrounded by teams in flux, embroiled in cycles of rebuilding.

Meanwhile, either the Steelers or the Ravens can usually be expected to own the AFC North. In the South, it's hard to imagine the Jacksonville Jaguars or Tennessee Titans providing a serious threat to the Texans.

Contrast that with the state of things in the NFC. In the last four years, every team in the NFC East has won the division. Compare that to the Patriots, who last failed to win the AFC East in 2008.

The NFC North contained three teams with 10 wins or more in 2012. Over in the West, the 49ers and Seahawks both posted 11 victories.

The South will remain intensely competitive thanks to the Atlanta Falcons and New Orleans Saints. Obviously the argument isn't necessarily so clear-cut.

Certainly, the Colts and Cincinnati Bengals are youthful upstarts, threatening to usurp the AFC's old guard. However, with divisional and conference dominance currently assured, where's the jeopardy forcing teams like the Patriots to adapt to stay ahead?

Who will Belichick fear in the East in 2012? His team has also featured in four of the last seven conference championship games.

Improving a struggling defense might get the Patriots past the Ravens this season. However, would that be enough to get the better of the 49ers, Packers or Falcons in a Super Bowl?

The AFC used to have the edge in the NFL's annual tactical duel. However, there is now more schematic innovation in the NFC.

The effects of this edge are often obvious when the best of the two conferences meet.


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