NFC Closing Fast in Race for Quarterback Supremacy
Not so long ago, the gulf in quality between AFC and NFC quarterbacks was about as wide as Peyton Manning's forehead.
In the past decade, we've seen Super Bowls that pitted Manning against Rex Grossman, Rich Gannon against Brad Johnson, and John Elway against Chris Chandler. We've seen two AFC passers set the single-season touchdown record.
As recently as 2007, four of the top five passer ratings in the league belonged to AFC teams. Even last year, two NFC teams—Minnesota and Carolina—won their respective divisions with quarterbacks who are either out of football (Gus Frerotte) or circling the drain (Jake Delhomme).
But as is typical in the NFL, the times, they are a-changin'.
We saw hints of an NFC comeback last season. Kurt Warner partied like it was 1999. Drew Brees made a run at Dan Marino's passing yardage record, and became the first NFC quarterback to lead the league in touchdown throws since 2003.
Early in 2009, the senior circuit has built on that progress to mount an earnest challenge in the inter-conference arms race.
Brees has come close to hanging half a C-Note on consecutive opponents, including an allegedly elite Philadelphia defense. Matt Ryan looks like he's making a Carson Palmer-esque leap in his sophomore campaign. Eli Manning (finally) looks like a franchise quarterback.
Just how good were NFC quarterbacks last weekend? Brett Favre's 23-of-27 performance wasn't even the conference's most accurate showing. That distinction went to Warner, whose 24-of-26 outing in Carolina set an NFL record for completion percentage in a game with 20 or more attempts.
And the NFC's hot streak has come without much help from a handful of the conference's most accomplished passers. Matt Hasselbeck and Donovan McNabb are banged up. Tony Romo and Aaron Rodgers are struggling.
If some or all of those QBs right the ship, we could be looking at a crop of top-flight NFC quarterbacks that runs nine or 10 deep.
Moreover, the conference boasts just a few legitimate clunkers from top to bottom. Delhomme, Matthew Stafford, and Marc Bulger are most likely candidates to stink up the joint from wire to wire. And remember that once upon a time, Delhomme and Bulger were Pro Bowl quarterbacks. Their ineptitude is not a foregone conclusion.
Swapping out Jay Cutler for Kyle Orton has helped the NFC gain some footing in the quarterback department. So has the return of a thus far-effective Brett Favre.
Ben Roethlisberger is still an elite passer (albeit one trapped behind a nightmare of an O-Line). Sooner or later, Tom Brady will be, too. Philip Rivers is still the best quarterback taken in the 2004 Draft.
But in the middle and lower tiers of the conference, the situation devolves rapidly.
Kerry Collins and Orton are serviceable. David Garrard, Brady Quinn, and Matt Cassel are shaky. We can't print the adjective that best describes JaMarcus Russell, but as Sean Connery might tell Alex Trebek, it begins with a bloody "S".
I'm not saying those guys won't produce a few pleasant surprises. I'm just saying I wouldn't want to handcuff my playoff hopes to most of them.
We'll have a number of opportunities throughout the year to watch top passers from each conference go head-to-head. Ryan and Brady square off this weekend. So do Peyton Manning and Warner.
In Week Four, we'll see Sanchez test his mettle against Brees. And we've got a season's worth of NFC North/AFC North clashes waiting in the wings.
We won't be able to pass definitive judgment on the outcome of the big-picture quarterback derby for a few months. In the meantime, it's nice to have two conferences in the race again.
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