The AFC needs a reboot.
The conference is a movie franchise that has run its course. It's Fast and Furious Umpteen: No Longer That Fast or Furious. It's Amazing Spider-Man: He's Having Girlfriend Trouble Again. The AFC stars Roger Moore as Tom Brady and Harrison Ford as Peyton Manning, hiding from the Seahawks defense inside a refrigerator.
The NFC is a Marvel movie franchise: vibrant and fresh, with old-school roots but 21st century hipness. The AFC needs new ideas and storylines: maybe not a Belichick-for-Batfleck straight-up swap, but a J.J. Abrams or Joss Whedon to provide a little of their narrative magic.
I feel obligated to kick off my Bleacher Report career with a semi-traditional season preview. But writing an NFL preview in 2014 means leaping enthusiastically into the NFC while procrastinating on the AFC until after the garage is cleaned and the backyard has been mowed, edged, aerated—and has started growing again. Writing about the AFC is either the hardest or easiest task in the world: hardest if you want to say something novel and fresh, easiest if you just cut and paste last year's (or 2006's) preview and hope no one notices.
It's Patriots-versus-Broncos again, Brady-versus-Peyton again, hooray. Watching Brady and Manning square off one or two more times will be like watching Homer and Marge fight for the 26th year in a row. No matter how hard they try to entertain us, they arrive with a sense of been-there, done-that, been-doing-it-for-a-generation. Brady and Peyton are fish and company: they may not have started to stink yet, but we would really love to have the spare room back so we can do something else with it.
Writing about Brady and Manning has become a dreary affair. Everything comes out ponderous and labored, like self-conscious John Facenda poetry. Through the annals of athletic achievement, no Colossus of a rivalry has stood astride the roiling harbor of awesomeness so confidently.
The NFC has legendary quarterbacks, too: Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers. But they are the underdogs, and heroes are much more interesting when they face overwhelming odds, as George Lucas learned the hard way in the Star Wars prequels. Brees and Rodgers get to be Han and Luke in the NFC's ultimate movie mashup. The Seahawks and 49ers are the Avengers and X-Men. Chip Kelly's Eagles are the unpredictable Guardians of the Galaxy. Jay Cutler is Ant-Man: You never thought much of the character, but you are curious to see the new interpretation.
The AFC has script issues that go beyond Brady and Manning. The two best challengers to Patriots-Broncos superiority are the Bengals and Chiefs. If you were picking two coaches to lead a team to 10 or 11 wins and a playoff loss—if your exact goal, for some nefarious reason, was to create an impressive also-ran—which coaches would you choose? Did you select Andy Reid and Marvin Lewis? Thought so. They are video game level bosses, not arch foes.
Meanwhile, the Colts are a lock to run away with Conference-USA, just like last year, and the year before that.
The AFC cannot even produce lovable losers and satisfying foils like the NFC. Tom Coughlin is the Judge Smails of the sports world: slow-burning with hilarious rage after every pie to the face. The Cowboys crafted a better Johnny Manziel narrative than the Browns this offseason without even drafting him. The Redskins could scrimmage against themselves every week and provide a season's worth of drama: Robert Griffin leads the burgundy team, Kirk Cousins the gold, Dan Snyder wiggles his thumb from the owner's box like Caesar, and no one even knows what to call either squad. The Buccaneers throw something different at us every year, like Baz Luhrmann doing laser MTV Shakespeare: It's often a dazzling headache, but what a spectacle! Heck, Hard Knocks even made the Falcons look almost interesting.
There are over a half dozen teams in the NFC that could finish anywhere from 5-11 to 11-5 without invoking catastrophic injuries or the greatest draft class in history: the Panthers, the Rams and Cardinals, the Lions and pretty much the entire NFC East. In AFC divisions, last place is as entrenched as first place. The Jaguars are a lazy Wayans comedy, the Raiders a cut-rate slasher film, the Bills a dreary indie about a small-town family coming to terms with things. The Browns are a SyFy original trying to be so bad they are good, but just turning out bad. The Titans are the 5 a.m. farm report. Their Rotten Tomatoes scores are long established, and there is no evidence any of them (except the Jaguars, who have just learned to take the lens cap off) will bring anything new to the screen.
The Jets are not even all that funny anymore. Rex Ryan has gone from maverick to buffoon to cliche to misunderstood source of refreshing wisdom, like Jerry Lewis in France.
Patriots and Broncos fans may not be eager for a reboot, even though it would do them a world of emotional good. Patriots fans are suffering the side-effects of a male enhancement: It has persisted for 14 years, it is no longer pleasing anyone, and it is time to consult a physician. Every loss is a cataclysm, every victory a foregone conclusion: Patriots fans think the other teams are saloon cowboys in a John Wayne western, wandering around waiting to get socked and flip over the bar. A little adversity—not a 12-4 season, but a real Empire Strikes Back-level setback—would reset the dopamine levels.
As for Broncos fans, they may have figured out in February what Colts fans knew for years. Peyton is the prince who is decorated with wreaths and anointed with oils and incense for six months, then sacrificed to the volcano god just after the winter solstice to ensure the next harvest. Peyton must lose so all of us can win. He won a Super Bowl in 2007, and what happened to the stock market in 2008? Case closed. Counting on him to win more championships is both unfulfilling and dangerous.
OK, that took things too far. Wishing away Peyton and Brady may be too much like wishing away Christmas mornings and lazy summer afternoons. But watching the AFC in recent years has been like watching train races: You admire the talent and engineering that goes into it, but you can't figure out how anyone is supposed to pass. Both Brady and Manning would be more compelling if they weren't intertwined as Brady-Manning, with Roman numerals after their names and everyone else's growth stunted by their long conference shadow.
If only Andy Dalton and Joe Flacco were not so obviously plateaued, keeping their teams with them. If only the Steelers weren't stuck in permanent 2009. If only Andrew Luck wasn't towing Trent Richardson behind him like a hitch-trailer full of wishful thinking.
If only there were some new storylines. Instead, we are fretting about Rob Gronkowski's health again, justifying Chris Johnson's existence again. Philip Rivers and Antonio Gates are still hanging around the playoffs, as contemporary and relevant as a "save the cheerleader, save the world" MySpace update.
The AFC needs a kick in its complacency, the kind Jim Harbaugh, Pete Carroll, Russell Wilson and Chip Kelly have given the NFC over the last five years. It needs new faces, new ideas, a new contender or two to sweeten the stale script. But who can do the job? Bill O'Brien? Blake Bortles? Mike Pettine and Johnny Manziel couldn't sustain the optimistic-faced through early August. Maybe Ryan Tannehill or Doug Marrone will figure things out, but even their storylines are creeping past the expiration date.
So I kick off my B/R career by previewing the NFC and just kind-of rehashing the AFC, because that's all you can do with it. The NFC favorites are the league's two best franchises. The chase is led by two outstanding, proven quarterbacks and a next-gen strategic pioneer. The supporting cast is Casablanca-rich: dreamers, connivers, survivors, cutthroats, foolhardy billionaires, stalwart soldiers, fallen idols, desperate old men and pioneering newcomers.
The AFC? It's Stardate 2014.1. Tom Brady escapes exploding Krypton, Peyton Manning gets a new gadget from Q, the little wizards of Hogwarts twiddle their wands, Mike Pettine can't choose between werewolf and vampire, the Emperor issues Order 66 to the Dolphins offensive line, and Bilbo Dalton trudges through 22 more pages of Tolkien.
It's not a bad movie. We have just seen it too many times. And no one seems eager to change the channel.
Mike Tanier covers the NFL for Bleacher Report.