The Seattle Seahawks just opened a gigantic can of you know what on the Denver Broncos, but could the outcome have wider-reaching consequences in terms of the competitive balance between the AFC and the NFC?
Is the NFC that much better than the AFC?
The Broncos went into the Super Bowl as favorites. They brought the No. 1 offense and a more-than-suitable defense (No. 10 against the run). Common wisdom—myself included—didn't believe an inept Seattle offense could go toe-to-toe with a "legitimate" passer like Peyton Manning.
Of course, 43-8 demands some retrospection. Too many smart people—myself not included—were wrong about this game, about the Broncos, about the Seahawks, about everything to not wonder what the heck everyone missed. How could the Broncos run roughshod over most of the league and score over 600 points (not a typo) before laying an egg against the Seahawks?
Moreover, that's not the entire story. How could the Seahawks look so incredibly dominant against the NFL's best offense but have much tougher times against the San Francisco 49ers and New Orleans Saints? Heck, Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman told Robert Klemko of Sports Illustrated's MMQB, "The NFC Championship was the Super Bowl. The 49ers were the second-best team in the NFL."
He's probably right.
Against both of those teams, in the divisional and conference championship rounds, the Seahawks only managed 46 points, put together. In the same two weeks against the San Diego Chargers and New England Patriots, the Broncos only allowed a combined 33 points.
In narrative terms, it wasn't just the No. 1 offense and defense; it was the No. 1 offense with a defense seeming to peak facing a No. 1 defense with a struggling offense.
Then, Seattle proceeded to punch Denver in its Rocky Mountain Oysters.
What happened? How could Denver not be ready?
Part of the reason, it seems, is that Seattle's season and postseason against its mostly NFC schedule prepared the Seahawks far better for the big moment than the Broncos' AFC-laden slate of games. That's a subjective opinion many are holding in the aftermath of the slobberknocker, so let's look at it a little more objectively.
Head to Head, the NFC Came out on Top...Barely
The first logical place to go when discussing which conference is better at this whole football thing is their records head-to-head. The NFL has set up a rotational schedule in which teams from the conferences play each other.
Each offseason, this turns into a big to-do when fans and us in the media start griping about things like "strength of schedule." The problem is, however, that things like strength of schedule in February assume things will stay static to the next year.
So, it seems much more worthwhile to go back and look at how each conference actually fared against the other:
|AFC vs. NFC in 2013|
|AFC North||AFC East||AFC South||AFC West|
|Bengals 3-1||Patriots 3-1||Colts 2-2||Broncos 4-0|
|Ravens 2-2||Jets 3-1||Titans 1-3||Chiefs 4-0|
|Steelers 2-2||Dolphins 1-3||Jaguars 0-4||Chargers 3-1|
|Browns 1-3||Bills 1-3||Texans 0-4||Raiders 0-4|
|NFC North||NFC East||NFC South||NFC West|
|Bears 4-0||Redskins 2-2||Panthers 3-1||Cardinals 4-0|
|Packers 2-2||Eagles 1-3||Saints 2-2||Seahawks 3-1|
|Lions 1-3||Cowboys 1-3||Buccaneers 2-2||49ers 3-1|
|Vikings 1-3||Giants 1-3||Falcons 1-3||Rams 3-1|
The bare numbers—wins and losses—come out to a narrow win for the NFC with a .530 winning percentage, while the AFC managed a .460. Neither number shows a fair amount of dominance or futility. Frankly, I assumed they would be a little more skewed.
Take a look at the amount of teams with each record, however:
|AFC vs. NFC in 2013 Re-stated|
By that measuring stick, it becomes a little clearer to see that the AFC's number is dragged down by a few truly terrible outliers and is otherwise balanced. The NFC had plenty of teams that were below .500 against their AFC counterparts as well. Both conferences had six teams that were better than .500 against the other conference.
It might be the first logical place to go, but this hasn't really helped us in our quest for the truth.
More on Strength of Schedule...Measured the Right Way
Measured before the games are actually played—that is, using the previous year's win-loss record—is strength of schedule as a red herring. It's something to talk about, but it draws our attention away from things that really matter. The draft, free agency, injuries, coaching changes, etc. all make the previous year's numbers pretty irrelevant.
Strength of schedule, then, is a much more relevant and useful barometer of what a team faced in the previous year than how it is often used—what a team will face in the coming year. Really, we only talk about strength of schedule in this way in terms of playoff seeding and draft-pick slotting. Other than that, we often "settle" debates on who was better in the previous year by simply pointing out records, divisional finishes and whether or not that team made it to or advanced in the playoffs.
So, how did the AFC and NFC teams fare in terms of strength of schedule in 2013?
|AFC vs. NFC Strength of Schedule 2013|
|Green Bay||0.453||Kansas City||0.445|
What do we learn here? Well, the NFC's S.O.S. was .504 on the year compared to the AFC's .496. Again, the NFC is ahead, but not by much. Statistically, hanging one's proverbial hat on this seems foolhardy.
Truth be told, even this usage of strength of schedule has its downfalls. It doesn't factor in anything other than the opponent's win-loss record. It doesn't even quantify whether the team in question won or lost that game. So let's try another benchmark with strength of victories:
|AFC vs. NFC Strength of Victory 2013|
|Green Bay||0.371||Kansas City||0.335|
Hmm...that measuring stick puts the mark between the NFC and the AFC even closer—even putting the AFC ahead. It's at least a little disconcerting from a logical standpoint that the best teams play the worst records. However, it makes sense, statistically, as the best teams rack up a lot of wins which tend to negatively effect the other team's win-loss record. In a 16-game season, that effect is a lot more prominent than it would be in the much longer NBA or MLB seasons.
Yet, it's the inherent issue with looking at such bare stats. Wins and losses may be what matter most in the NFL, but they very rarely tell much of a story all by themselves.
Let's dig into the games themselves.
Defense Wins Championships? Yeah, OK...Defense Certainly Won This Championship
The maxim "defense wins championships" has always been a little more true in theory than reality. Frankly, offense has won plenty of championships in its day, too, and "defense" seems to be a sketchy term that takes on whatever hindsight needs it to mean.
Does "defense" mean a statistically sound unit? Does it mean plenty of turnovers? Does it mean a pass rush that can't stop runners or vice versa? All of the above? None of the above?
Did defense win a championship last season, when the Baltimore Ravens won a Super Bowl against the San Francisco 49ers? No, it didn't. The 49ers clearly had the better defense, while the Ravens fielded the exoskeletal husks of what used to be Ray Lewis and Ed Reed. The Ravens defense was better this year, and they didn't make the playoffs.
That example is merely anecdotal, however, so while it can serve to provide an exception to the rule, we're not going to divine any special significance to it. We can, however, let it inform us that the team with the best defense may not always have the purely advantageous position that the Seahawks enjoyed against the Broncos.
Let's look at the teams with the least points scored against them in 2013:
|Top 10 Teams "Points Against" in the NFL in 2013|
We see our Super Bowl champions there at No. 1. We also see a whole host of the NFC's playoff competition. We also see, toward the bottom of the list, a bunch of AFC teams—playoff and not—that even the list out. While the very top defenses were in the NFC, the AFC had its own legit crew.
Well, what about the teams that scored the most in 2013?
|Top 10 Teams "Points For" in the NFL in 2013|
This list, almost ironically, is slightly lopsided to the NFC—six to four—though Denver is there at No. 1 and New England is No. 3. Remember how much we talked about how bad New England's offense was this season? Still the third-most points in the NFL—not too shabby.
Seattle, too, is a "surprise" on the list from common narrative, as its offense didn't seem to score a ton of points this season. The Seahawks didn't have a lot of weapons, and the best weapon they had—wide receiver Percy Harvin—was injured.
Looking only at those two numbers makes my skin crawl a little, as football is still a team sport. While only one unit takes the field at a time, there is a cyclical effect to the way the game is played.
A good quarterback can take pressure off of his defense by consistently making the other team play catchup. In that scenario, a defense can focus on pass rushing and doesn't have to worry as much about defending both the run and the pass. Of course, that can backfire, too, and a high-octane offense can make a defense take the field a whole lot more often as the score runs higher and higher.
A great defense can take pressure off of a quarterback, allowing him to run a balanced game plan, giving him great field position and demoralizing the other team with turnovers.
In fact, it's worth noting how those tables above don't say "Top 10 Defenses" and "Top 10 Offenses"—these scoring totals include special teams and defensive scores. They don't factor in turnovers or starting field position. There is a whole lot that both numbers just don't say.
So, instead of looking at the numbers separately, let's look at the numbers together as point differential:
With the numbers placed together, we see a little more lopsided look in a more meaningful way. That's seven NFC teams and four AFC teams. There are also a couple of teams in that NFC group that didn't even make the playoffs—Tampa Bay and Arizona. Those are NFC teams that were what one might call some seriously tough outs in the season that weren't even part of the playoff grouping.
Wait a second: Speaking of tough outs, let's cross-reference those lists:
|Number of Top Scoring/Scoring Against Teams in Either Conference|
That is three more teams that represent a "tough out" in the NFC—in terms of either scoring, keeping opponent scoring low or both—than there are in the AFC. Also, notice what is missing from the AFC list...two little words: "San Diego." (I don't speak Spanish, but you can find out more about those words here.)
In the NFC, every single playoff team is represented on that list. On top of that, two teams (Chicago and Dallas) had playoff aspirations late into the season, and one team (Tampa Bay) had a ton of talent but had a ton of close losses thanks to poor coaching.
That really is the "story" of these two conferences. Speaking to some of my peers, Ty Schalter of Bleacher Report called the AFC "two haves and 14 have-nots." Tom Mantzouranis of Sports Illustrated called the AFC "bi-polar" while referring to the NFC—as a whole—as "stout."
The worry, then, for those AFC have-nots is that the gap (though small now) may widen. These things, at times, can become self-fulfilling prophecies. Money might be the deciding factor in most free-agency situations, but top players may be more apt to join teams they believe have a legitimate shot in the NFC—roughly nine or so teams—than any team that doesn't happen to be Denver or New England in the AFC.
It's safe to say that the NFC was the better conference in 2013. It's even safe to say that it's been trending that way for a few years now, after a decade of AFC supremacy. The difference between the two isn't huge, nor is it insurmountable. The AFC could be right back on top in 2014.
Something about 43-8, though, makes me wonder if this is only the beginning.
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