Early into the 2009 season, it appeared that this would be the year that the NFC asserted its dominance. Minnesota, New Orleans, New York (Giants), and Atlanta all looked to be forceful presences in the league. Philadelphia looked to join those ranks as soon as McNabb returned to speed after missing weeks two and three to injury.
Somewhere along the way a switch triggered. Once again the AFC proved the superior conference. To this point in the year, the AFC has a 35-25 record (or .580) in games against NFC opponents. A two or three game variation can be given to scheduling quirks; a ten game advantage is a trend.
This continues the AFC’s advantage in such play, which stands at 55 percent across the last decade. Beyond the regular season, the AFC has also taken seven Superbowls across the same nine-game span. That 7:2 advantage is especially telling considering the NFC’s upset over New England when the Giants hoisted the Lombardi trophy; that moment in history comprises half of the NFC’s present successes.
While only separated by one game, the advantage for best overall record also goes to an AFC team, with Indianapolis remaining undefeated while the New Orleans Saints fell against Dallas. When referencing teams not saddled with losing records, the AFC takes the advantage again (a significant 12 against eight).
Stepping down to the bottom of the league also favors the AFC. The NFC cellar-dwelling Rams, Buccaneers, Redskins, and Lions look almost universally inferior to their AFC counterparts (the Bills, Chiefs, Browns, and Texans). The NFC’s bottom four sport a 9-47 record against the AFC’s 18-38, or double the wins.
Even with the graph-skewing Texans and their division-worst 7-7 record taken away (while leaving the NFC’s "best of the worst" in the equation), it is a .160 to .250 difference in winning percentages—proof the AFC’s upper echelons have not gotten where they are purely by feasting on their divisional dregs.
The old-time mythos of the NFC has been its physicality. The array of big, tough, cold weather teams sporting elite defenses out of the NFC has given way. Presently, the only top five defense coming out of the NFC hails from Green Bay, surprising given the early appearance of the Giants and Vikings defenses. Across the decade itself Baltimore and Pittsburgh have shaped the "tough physical defense" mold originally ascribed to their NFC counterparts.
Stepping away from the defensive front, the AFC has also proven itself ahead in multiple offensive arenas. Adrian Peterson entered the year uncontested for the title of NFL’s best running back. He presently sits at fifth among NFL running backs with 1,235 yards. Of those ahead of him, three out of the four come out of the AFC (league leader Chris Johnson, Cedric Benson, and Maurice Jones-Drew). The only other NFC running back in the top five is Steven Jackson as the lone tool of the Rams.
Looking at quarterbacks, the same trend is present. Four of the top six yardage totals hail from the AFC. Peyton Manning and Matt Schaub lead the way at 1-2, while Tom Brady and Philip Rivers round out the AFC’s leaders. Some excusing is given to one of the NFC’s elite in Donovan McNabb for missing two games to injury, but he would have needed 884 yards in those two games to supplant Rivers.
Another factor whilst looking at the elite quarterbacks of both conferences is age. Favre, Rodgers, Warner, Brees, and McNabb comprise the five top quarterbacks in the NFC (allowances given to McNabb's missed time). Manning, Schaub, Brady, Rivers, and Roethlisberger the five best of the AFC. The average age of the NFC’s top quarterback—33.5. The average age amongst the AFC’s counterparts—29.5 . That is four years of separation where careers can be expected to continue.
The two biggest names crossing from the AFC over to the NFC in the offseason were Jay Cutler and Albert Haynesworth. The pair of big pro bowl names were supposed to lead their teams back into the playoffs following costly payouts (Haynesworth’s cap chewing contract and Cutler’s draft pick draining trade); instead, both teams have underwhelmed and sit a combined ten games below .500.
With several strong teams, an NFC contender may be able to give the conference just its third championship this decade, but looking across the entire league it has to be asserted that the AFC is still the superior Conference.