NFL Issues In New Era of Change as Power Shift Begins: NFC Flair, AFC Beware

John DurstCorrespondent INovember 13, 2010

EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ - NOVEMBER 22:  Eli Manning #10 of the New York Giants talks with Matt Ryan #2 of the Atlanta Falcons after their game on November 22, 2009 at Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey. The Giants defeated the Falcons 34-31 in overtime.  (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)
Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

NFL stars like Peyton Manning, Andre Johnson and Chris Johnson along with power teams like the Indianapolis Colts and Pittsburgh Steelers have had us all drinking the AFC-flavored Kool-aid in recent years, but things may not be as they seem anymore.

The 2010 season's first Thursday night game gave us a glimpse of a possible shift in NFL power, and I think it's time we all step back and take notice.

On Thursday night, the NFC-leading 7-2 Atlanta Falcons beat the Baltimore Ravens, who were tied for the best record in the AFC at 6-2 going into the game, on a game-winning drive in the game's last minute.

Baltimore was thought to be a top-five team by many with the NY Giants being the only legitimate threat in the NFC, but it appears that everyone who subscribed to this way of thinking—myself included—may not be renewing that subscription.

The Atlanta victory isn't just some freak occurrence, either. There have been plenty of NFC teams that have fared well against some stiff AFC competition this season.

The Eagles are 2-1 in out-of-conference games with a notable win against the Colts. The Falcons are a combined 3-1 against their AFC counterparts. The Packers are 2-1 against the "stronger conference" with a win against the NY Jets.

Halfway through the season, the NFC is very close in the overall AFC vs. NFC record in which they trail 18-21. The lowly St. Louis Rams are 1-1 and boast a win against the high-powered San Diego Chargers. The Dallas Cowboys and San Francisco 49ers have only three wins combined and are widely considered two of the worst teams in the league, but all three of their wins have come against AFC teams.

The defending Super Bowl champions are from the NFC as well. The New Orleans Saints have beaten the team that many believe to be one of the best two teams in the league this season, the Pittsburgh Steelers. Saints quarterback Drew Brees is second in the entire NFL in passing yards (2,587) and passing TDs (18) as well. NY Giants QB Eli Manning is third in the NFL in passing TDs.

The NFC has many of the top players in the league in numerous statistical categories. Eagles QB Michael Vick is the NFL's top-rated passer with a rating of 105.3, Falcons WR Roddy White is tops in catches (70) and receiving yards (934) and fourth in TD receptions (7).

Giants WR Hakeem Nicks leads the league in TD catches with nine and three out of the top four in this category are NFC players. Vikings RB Adrian Peterson has 857 yards, only seven yards behind Houston Texans RB Arian Foster for the league lead.

On the defensive side of the ball, the NFC is just as bountifully represented. Green Bay Packers linebacker Clay Matthews leads the NFL in sacks with 10.5. The top five players on this list are Mathews at No. 1, Miami Dolphins LB Cameron Wake in second with 8.5, and then three other NFC guys tied with Kansas City Chiefs LB Tamba Hali at 8.0 (Dallas Cowboys LB DeMarcus Ware, NYG DE Osi Umenyiora, Falcons LB John Abraham).

There are only four players in the league with five or more interceptions, and all of them are from the NFC. The leader of the pack is Washington Redskins cornerback DeAngelo Hall with six. As far as defensive scoring goes, there are 12 players in the NFL right now who have scored a defensive TD in the 2010 season. Out of those 12 men, eight of them play in the NFC.

The New York Giants are beginning to get recognition as the most complete team in the NFL, and with a win this week they would have a six-game winning streak.

The next longest winning streak in the league is three games. It's shared by three NFL teams, only one of which in in the AFC (Oakland Raiders.) The other two teams are Packers and the Falcons, both NFC teams.

Nine of the 16 NFC teams won there last games played. In the AFC, only six of their 16 teams are coming off of a win this week. This means that statistically speaking, the NFC is the NFL's all-around hotter conference right now.

If it's true what they say, and games are won and lost on third downs, then the NFC is doing fine in that department as well. The top two teams in third-down conversions are the No. 1 Atlanta Falcons and the Saints in second place. If the most important part of the game is defense, the NY Giants are No. 1 in that category as well.

I haven't even mentioned the rookies yet, but the newest star is being born right under the radar every week in St. Louis. QB Sam Bradford is the clear-cut leader for offensive rookie of the year, and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have what appears to be the best rookie WR in the game right now in Mike Williams. He's the only rookie on pace to go over 1,000 yards receiving this year.

The NFC may not be ready to dominate the AFC just yet, but the sun seems to be setting on the days of the NFC being a conference of pushovers. They have just as much firepower, fortitude and resilience as the AFC teams have these days.

There is only one game this Sunday that pits an NFC team against an AFC team this week. The Buffalo Bills host the Detroit Lions at 1 p.m. Sunday afternoon. This game has little or no relevancy in the grand scheme of things this year, but there will be plenty of matchups to keep our eyes on in the second half of the 2010 season.

In Week 11, the Chicago Bears travel to Miami to take on the Dolphins and prove they aren't pretenders in the NFC North. In Week 12, the up-and-coming Tampa Bay Buccaneers who are now only one game back of the NFC South division lead take on the Ravens who will be looking for conference redemption. In Week 13, the Texans must remain in the thick of the AFC South by defeating the Philadelphia Eagles.

The Patriots have back-to-back games of relevance against NFC teams in Weeks 14 and 15, facing the Bears in Chicago first and then the Packers in New England's Gillette Stadium. Week 16 gives us another interesting matchup featuring the Bears when they host the Jets.

Week 17 is all in-house games for the conferences, but there will still be one more AFC vs. NFC game after that. The most important game of all, the Super Bowl, could have a much different feel to it this season.

If the NFC could pull out another championship this season, it would mark the first time the NFC has won back-to-back titles since their streak of 13 straight ended in 1998.

The end of that historic streak was the end of an era of NFC dominance and began an AFC run that has been pretty dominant in its own right. They've won eight of the last 12 Super Bowls, but the last four have been a 2-2 split.

If the NFC could get a Super Bowl win this year, it would go a long way in forcing fans to stand up and take notice of the struggling conference's emergence back into the spotlight. It could mark the first time in NFL history that an era is competitive between the conferences, with no clear-cut power conference.

These are already unprecedented times in the shaping of American history, and they could become unprecedented times in the NFL as well. We could be seeing the dawn of the first "competitive era" in NFL history. Keep your eyes and ears open, for we may just be witnessing something special.

The future is now, and right now, any given Sunday means more than it ever has. The NFC is proving that they may just be once again, ready for some football.