Ever since the scoreboard clock read all zeros February 5th many people in the media, as well as many fans have proclaimed that the NFC is clearly the dominant conference in the NFL now. This is something that is not being asked as a question, but stated as an undeniable truth; a fact that nobody in their right mind would possibly disagree with. But is that really the case? Are we jumping the gun a little bit here, or is the NFC indeed ‘clearly the better conference‘ now? Let’s take a look at the reasoning behind that statement and see if there is validity to proclamation.
“The NFC has won three Super Bowls in a row, and four out of the last five”. That is indeed factually true; but does that translate to the entire conference ‘dominating‘ the other one? Three of those wins by the NFC were by a grand total of 13 points (3, 6 and 4 points), and in the other game the Colts were driving for the tying touchdown when a pick-6 resulted in a 14-point swing, which was also the final margin of victory. The Colts rushed for more yards, passed for more yards, and had 100 more total yards of offense; the Saints won, but you can’t really say they dominated the game. The Giants two victories both came down to the final play of the game, and any one of several plays that could have easily gone the other way would have changed the outcome. All the credit in the world goes to the Giants for making those plays, but again that cannot be classified as a dominating performance – though some are trying to portray it as just that based on time of possession. The Steelers were within three points in the 4th quarter in their loss a year ago and outgained the Packers by 50 yards in that game; again, credit goes to Green Bay but it is difficult to classify that as a dominant performance.
The bottom line is that I would say that the NFC has dominated the won-loss column in Super Bowl victories in recent years – but that does not make them the ‘dominant conference‘. The Detroit Lions started the season 5-0; did that make them the dominant team in the NFL? Of course not. To me that title of dominant conference would imply that either (a) several of the best teams in one conference are superior to the best in the other conference, or (b) the entire conference from top to bottom is better than the other conference.
That was the case throughout most of the 1970′s with the AFC, and most of the late 80′s and early 90′s with the NFC. In many, if not most of those years there was little doubt about who would win the Super Bowl, barring a monumental upset. In fact many went so far to consider the conference championship games of those years to be the real competition to determine the best team, with the Super Bowl a mere formality. The same cannot be said for any of the recent Super Bowls; with that being the case, then how can anybody characterize one conference as being dominant? Would it not stand to reason that if one conference was so ‘clearly dominant‘ over the other one that there would be little or no doubt of the outcome prior to the game being played?
“This is a quarterback-driven league, and the NFC has the best quarterbacks”. Similar to the previous statement, I would tend to agree with both parts of this opinion. But can we appropriately conclude that the conference with the best quarterback is not only the better conference, but the ‘clearly dominant’ conference? Substitute team for conference and see how that works out. The best and ‘clearly dominant’ quarterbacks in the NFL in 2011 were Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees, and Tom Brady. None of them were on the team that won the Super Bowl, and only one advanced beyond the division round of the playoffs! If anything the 2011 playoffs showed that defense still counts a whole lot, and that even though the rule changes may indeed have made this a ‘quarterback-driven league’, you still need to have a good defense too. While people that support this theory whill rattle off the names of Rodgers, Brees, Stafford and Newton in the NFC, all of those teams are very flawed (more on this later) on the defensive side of the ball – which precludes them from being considered a dominant team, and therefore as a result a dominant conference.
“Since the number one seed in the AFC lost to a 9-7 team that had the 6th best record in the NFC, that means six NFC teams are better than any AFC team – and therefore the NFC is clearly the dominant conference”. I have heard this argument brought up more than once, and it is so full of holes that it gives me a headache … but here goes. Based on that logic, are the Rams and Bucs also better than the Saints since New Orleans lost to those two teams? Why does the Giants beating the Patriots make them better than New England, but their defeating the Packers and 49ers does not make them better than Green Bay and San Francisco?
The only thing this shows is that once the playoffs start the reset button is pushed and it is a whole new season. Regular season records count for nothing, as fans of the Steelers, Packers and Saints Â can attest to this year. The fact that the Giants this season and the Packers last season needed a little help to get into the playoffs when it appeared with just a couple of weeks to go that the post-season just wasn’t going to happen for either one of them proves that once you get in, everyone is equal. Credit them for taking full advantage of the opportunity, but the fact that a lower seeded team won the Super Bowl does not mean that their entire conference is ‘clearly dominant‘ or that everybody that finished the regular season with better records in their conference is better than the playoff teams in the conference of the Super Bowl loser. It simply shows that they made a few more plays than their opponent did in each of those three or four games, caught a few more breaks than their opponent did, and that they get to rightfully call themselves champions. One thing it does not do is offer any compelling logic that their entire conference is ‘clearly dominant‘.
The reality is that the two conferences are incredibly evenly matched right now, despite conventional wisdom and mass opinion that states otherwise. Could the tide turn and the NFC go on a run similar to what we saw back in the late 80′s and early 90′s, when many were calling for realignment to fix the imbalance because they were convinced it would never shift back? That is certainly a possibility, but I doubt that will happen. First of all the double-edged sword of free agency and the salary cap makes it very difficult for teams to remain highly competitive for an extended period of time. Second, those that have figured out a way to do so are characterized by strong, intelligent owners who hire bright football executives, and leave them alone to run that side of the operations. They have continuity throughout their organization to go along with that autonomy, and are focused on long term success rather than a short term, ‘win it all this year’ mentality. That description can be applied to only a very select number of organizations, and two of them – the Pittsburgh Steelers and the New England Patriots – reside in the AFC. Until the day comes where those two clubs drastically change the way they do business – the way the Colts did when nepotism trumped superior scouting, leading to their recent downfall – I just do not see a likely scenario where the NFC will have a dominant run like they did twenty years ago.
So what exactly is a ‘clearly dominant conference’, and why can the NFC not be termed as one right now? Let’s look at two eras that I would say could appropriately be referred to as having a ‘clearly dominant‘ conference, with specific examples from during those runs.
From 1968 to 1980 the AFL/AFC won ten out of twelve Super Bowls. That would be one part of being dominant, but as I mentioned earlier winning the majority of championships – even though this is over more than double the time period compared to the current NFC run – is not in and of itself enough. Those ten wins were by an average of 12 points, and in many cases the final score made the game appear to be closer than it really was; think of Garo Yepremian’s ill-fated pass attempt in the Dolphins 14-7 win over the Redskins, for example.
The 1976 season is a bitter one for Patriots to remember to this day because of the Ben Dreith game. But that is not just because the Pats lost on a highly questionable call; it was because everybody knew the Pats would have defeated a Steeler team decimated with injuries the following week, and whoever represented the AFC should have no problem with whatever team came out of the NFC that year. Sure enough the Raiders beat the Vikings with ease, with only a Minnesota garbage time touchdown bringing the final score to within 18 points.
Three years later it was a similar situation. The AFC had dominated inter-conference play, winning a whopping 69% of time, 36 to 16 over the NFC during the regular season. The AFC had nine teams with winning records while the NFC had just six, and nobody in the NFC had a point differential of more than 58 points – while the AFC had four teams with a point differential of at least 84 points, and not one but two with a point differential of over 154 points! In the NFC championship game neither team could manage to score even one single touchdown as the Rams beat the Bucs 9-0. Even though the Steelers dynasty was nearing an end, going up against Vince Ferragamo in the Super Bowl was like child’s play for Pittsburgh, who won by 12 despite not being particularly sharp that day, turning the ball over three times.
An even better example of what a truly ‘dominant conference’ is would be the NFC of the late 80′s and early 90′s. Not only did they win thirteen straight championships, they were often by scores you see from college teams that play some cupcake in the early weeks of September before their conference schedule begins: 55-10, 52-17, 46-10, etc. In 1991 the Buffalo Bills won only one fewer game than the Washington Redskins, but were pounded 37-24. In inter-conference games that year the NFC won 33 games while the AFC won just 19. In addition the NFC had eight ten-win teams that season; by comparison the AFC had only four ten-win clubs, and just five teams with winning records. The NFC was indeed the ‘clearly dominant‘ conference that year, even before the Super Bowl was played.
So how does that compare to the current ‘clearly dominant’ NFC? In 2011 the NFC won 33 inter-conference games compared to 31 by the AFC: one game away from a perfect 50/50 split. The AFC won more inter-conference games in each of the three previous years, and 2007 was even. Over the five-year span the AFC has won 17 more games; that doesn’t exactly help support the theory that the NFC is ‘clearly dominant‘ for either just 2011 or over the last five years.
If instead you want to focus on only the top teams, then there may perhaps be an argument there appears to be a shift – but not enough to call the NFC ‘clearly dominant‘. In 2011 the top four NFC teams won a combined four more games than the top four AFC teams, going 51-13 to 47-17. Expand that to the top six teams and it was only a five-win difference, 70-26 to 65-31. Even aided by Green Bay’s 15-1 season that’s not exactly much of a delta. If you look at the top four teams over the five-year period the AFC has won seven more games. When you look at the top six teams in that time frame the AFC has won ten more games. I would say that those records would indicate that the two conferences are even, but you certainly can’t say that the conference that won fewer games in both cases is ‘clearly dominant‘.
“But wait, since 2001 only four different AFC teams have been to the Super Bowl while ten different teams have been to Super Bowl during that time!” And how exactly does that correlate to one conference being better than the other? That’s right, it doesn’t at all. If anything using that statistic works against the NFC, when you consider the current state of the Rams, Bucs, Panthers, Seahawks and Cardinals.
“Look at all the great quarterbacks in the NFC: Rodgers, Brees, Manning, Stafford, Romo, Ryan, Newton. You have the league MVP, the Super Bowl MVP, and the Rookie of the Year!”
I guess this argument makes a lot of sense to those that play a lot of Madden and/or are in a dozen different fantasy football leagues, and one or more of those players helped them win a FF championship. But this is a debate about whether or not the NFC is ‘clearly dominant‘, not which conference has the best quarterbacks. The fact that Newton and his 6-10 Panthers get included in this ‘evidence’ speaks volumes of the absurdity of this logic. Defense still counts, which is why the teams that all but one of those listed did not even make it past the division round of the playoffs, and two didn’t even make it into the post-season.
“But look at those NFC teams: the Packers, Saints, 49ers, Giants, Lions, Falcons, Cowboys, Eagles, Bears; clearly the NFC is dominant!”
Today’s NFL is not like the NFL of twenty or thirty years ago. There are no ‘clearly dominant‘ teams; even the very best teams in the league have very noticeable flaws and weaknesses. The defenses of the Packers, Saints and Lions are rather mediocre. The Giants did win the Super Bowl, but can you call a team that gave up more points than they scored last year dominant? The offensive line of the 49ers is atrocious, and does Alex Smith or his receivers scare anyone? Atlanta has issues with their secondary and has yet to show anything in the post-season. The Bears still can’t give their quarterback adequate pass protection. And the Cowboys and Eagles? Seriously?
I think some of this talk has to do with Indianapolis not only no longer being at the top of the pile, but free-falling all the way to the worst record in the league. The Colts were trending downward even before Peyton’s injury, but few mention the Texans in this discussion; they would have won the division even if Manning was healthy. Houston would have been the best team in the AFC this year, but was derailed due to multiple injuries that caused a ton of lost playing time by their best players, including the one that ended Matt Schaub’s season; despite that they made it just as far as the Packers and Saints did. Perhaps they are not given their due because they haven’t been perennial contenders, but in my opinion they’re the best team in the NFL if everybody is healthy.
The bottom line is that the NFC could possibly become the dominant conference in the NFL – or it could not. But unless you are literally only considering which conference the most recent Super Bowl winners represented, then that statement is factually incorrect. Contrary to popular opinion as of this moment there is no dominant conference in the NFL, much less one that is ‘clearly dominant’.