In most professional sports, the American League/West Coast teams tend to have a dominant stranglehold over their National/East Coast sister leagues. While representatives from both leagues have won their sports respective championships, the AFL in football, AL in baseball, and Western Conferences in basketball and hockey have dominated the regular season for the past five plus years.
Looking for proof? Look at Cliff Lee, the new Phillies pitcher who has been lights out since coming to the National League from the AL-based Cleveland Indians. Or Matt Holliday, an above-average hitter in the AL who has propelled the St. Louis Cardinals to be the most dangerous team in baseball after they traded for him before the trade deadline.
Even less conclusive examples—John Smoltz pitching 15 shutout innings after being plastered for nine runs in three innings by the Yankees—seem to hint at a strong AL dominance, despite the fact that NL teams like the Cardinals and the Phillies have managed to win the World Series in the past five years. Keep in mind that the AL hasn’t lost the All-Star Game in nearly 15 years.
In the NBA, the Western Conference has been noticeably stronger than the East in the past few years; again, discounting the fact that the Miami Heat and Boston Celtics have emerged as NBA champions from the East when it counts. However, in the regular season, Western Conference teams fight tooth-and-nail for playoff spots each year, while teams in the East figure that a .500 record is more than enough to qualify.
The Phoenix Suns finished 10 games over .500 last season (46-36) and finished ninth in the West (out of the playoffs); the Detroit Pistons finished four games under .500 (39-43) and made the playoffs in the East. With their record, the Suns would have been the #5 seed in the East.
Admittedly, I don’t know as much about the NHL, so I’m not even going there (although, if someone’s got the stats to back the Western dominance up for hockey, comment please!).
The NFL has followed suit for the past decade, with the Indianapolis Colts, New England Patriots and Pittsburgh Steelers serving as the lynchpins to the AFC dominance, both in the regular season and Super Bowls. Those three teams have combined to win six of the nine Super Bowls this decade; throw in the Baltimore Ravens’ Super Bowl victory, and we’re left to thank Tampa Bay and the NY Giants for somewhat redeeming the NFC.
However, as the balance of power begins to shift in the NBA (with Cleveland, Boston and Orlando not nearly willing to roll over to the L.A. Lakers or San Antonio Spurs), this might be the year that the East strikes back. And that’s never been more evident than in the NFL.
Now, any staunch AFC defender can shred that suggestion to Swiss cheese by pointing out the AFC’s decade of dominance in the Super Bowl, however; I’m arguing that this year, the NFC runs deeper than the AFC and contains more good teams than playoff spots.
In the 2009-2010 season (at least, before any games of real consequence have been played), there are three divisions in the NFC that have at least three viable playoff contenders. With only three teams in the conference with minimal playoff hopes this year—the St. Louis Rams, the San Francisco 49ers and the Detroit Lions (watch me eat my words about one of these teams come playoff time)—playing in the NFC means a murderer’s row schedule for every team.
Sports Illustrated’s NFL expert Peter King potentially believes the NFC North to be the best division in football this year, with three teams that could register 12 wins on the season.
The Vikings’ addition of QB Brett Favre gives RB Adrian Peterson a bona fide leader to draw attention away from him on the field; likewise, the Bears’ addition of QB Jay Cutler provides Chicago a legitimate quarterback for the first time in decades.
Meanwhile, the Green Bay Packers’ revamped 3-4 defense made them unquestionably the best team in the preseason, as they bullied the Arizona Cardinals’ first-string offense into a 38-10 halftime deficit (the same Cardinals who just represented the NFC in the Super Bowl).
With only the Lions continuing to flounder, the other three teams all have very legitimate playoff aspirations as we head into the first weekend of the NFL season.
The NFC East has been a candidate to possibly squeak three teams into the playoffs for the past few years, as it was almost unquestionably the league’s toughest division in that time. All four of the league’s teams have visited the playoffs in the past five years, with the Giants and the Eagles representing the NFC in the Super Bowl since 2004.
Now, the Eagles return with the controversial addition of QB Michael Vick (don’t let his conduct off-the-field take away from his dynamic presence on-the-field), along with a slew of young offensive stars-in-the-making and a heavily revamped offensive line.
The Giants have arguably the deepest D-line in the NFL, and besides a glaring hole at WR (thank you, Plaxico Burress), the offensive line and run game appears to pave the way for the Giants to the playoffs once more.
The Cowboys got rid of one distraction (Terrell Owens) in favor of another (their new, $1.1 billion stadium), in hopes that teams will be so in awe of their new playing grounds that they’ll be caught off-guard when they step onto the field.
And the Redskins have actually kept an offensive coordinator for more than one year (a rarity, recently), allowing QB Jason Campbell to finally grow into a system and demonstrate why the Redskins’ brain trust considers him to be their QB of the future.
All four NFC East teams could legitimately threaten come playoff time (remember, the Redskins surged out to a 6-2 start before sputtering in the second half of the season). The Cowboys should especially have a bitter taste in their collective mouths, considering their embarrassing end to last season (a 44-6 loss to the Eagles in a winner-goes-to-the-playoffs game).
The NFC South, which last year appeared to be the NFC’s toughest division, returns with a few question marks and a huge number of stars. The Falcons, the reigning NFC South division champs, only got stronger in the offseason with the addition of Pro Bowl TE Tony Gonzalez, who provides QB Matt Ryan another dimension in his second year.
The Panthers hope to ride the legs of the RB tandem DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart to wipe away the pain of last year’s playoff loss to the Cardinals.
The New Orleans Saints return with the league’s most explosive offense once more under the direction of QB Drew Brees; if RB Reggie Bush can live up to his college hype, if RB Pierre Thomas can shoulder the load of a full season, or if the Saints’ defense toughens up this year, the Saints have legitimate playoff hopes.
And while the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have been relegated to an afterthought in the division, QB Byron Leftwich will come into the season looking to prove that he can still make it as a starting QB in the NFL. Along with the RB tandem of Earnest Graham, the oft-injured Cadillac Williams, and new addition Derrick Ward (who picked up 1,000+ yards behind the NY Giants’ offensive line last season), the Bucs will certainly not roll over for any team this year.
The NFC West still appears to be the runt division of the NFC, with only the Arizona Cardinals emerging with an above .500 record last season. Despite some troubles in the preseason, the Cardinals still enter the year as the team to beat, with QB Kurt Warner and WRs Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin attempting to conjure up memories of the Rams’ turn-of-the-millennium Best Show on Turf.
The Seattle Seahawks welcome QB Matt Hasselbeck back from injury with wide open arms, after signing new WR T.J. Houshmandzadeh and RBs Julius Jones and Edgerrin James to help shoulder the offensive load.
The San Francisco 49ers were showing signs of life at the end of last season under new head coach (then-interim coach) Mike Singletary; they hope to continue the magic despite their troubles with WR Michael Crabtree, their first round draft pick this year. The 49ers plan to run RB Frank Gore into the ground this year as the focal point of their offense; if QB Shaun Hill, WR Josh Morgan and TE Vernon Davis can provide minimal offensive support, the Niners could be a huge surprise this year.
Finally, the St. Louis Rams simply hope they can stay relatively injury free after losing QB Marc Bulger and RB Steven Jackson to season-ending injuries last year.
While the AFC has been the dominant league this decade, the NFC stands its best chance to establish itself firmly as a league with legitimate competition top-to-bottom this year. While the AFC may emerge as the Super Bowl champion once again when it’s all said-and-done, the NFC representative will be more than prepared for the Super Bowl this year after navigating the minefield of the NFC.