Through three weeks, AFC proving to be the more dominant conference
At just three weeks, the sample size is admittedly small. And the conclusions and big-picture significance for the NFL season are far from clear as September winds down. But to put it less than gently, has anyone noticed how much NFC butt the AFC is kicking so far in 2013?
For a conference that featured no clear-cut Super Bowl favorite in the preseason, when we critics found plenty to question about the offseason subtractions suffered by the playoff perennials in Baltimore, New England and Denver, the AFC is doing just fine for itself -- thank you very much -- through the first 48 games of the league's regular season.
• In the first 14 interconference matchups of the year, the AFC holds an overwhelming 11-3 edge (.786), after playing just .391 ball (25-39) against the NFC in 2012. The AFC went 6-2 against the NFC in Week 3, with gutty and impressive wins by the Colts in San Francisco, the Browns in Minnesota, the Chiefs in Philadelphia, the Bengals over the Packers and the Dolphins over the Falcons.
• Combined with Week 2's 4-0 interconference mark, the AFC is 10-2 in the past two weeks, with the NFC having only a pair of victories against winless teams (Chicago over Pittsburgh, Seattle over Jacksonville) to show for itself. The NFC's only other win this season came in Week 1 when the Bears rallied past the visiting Bengals in the fourth quarter. For comparison's sake, through three weeks of last season, the NFC held a commanding 9-3 edge in interconference play (.750).
• Winners abound in the AFC, where 10 of the 16 teams currently reside on the happy side of life in the NFL. That includes four of the league's remaining seven undefeated teams (Denver, Kansas City, Miami and New England) and some surprising 2-1's like the Jets and Titans. Both the Bengals and Ravens have rallied to climb above .500 after suffering Week 1 losses, while the Colts and Texans have shown resiliency and some late-game magic in winning two out of their first three.
• The NFC represents the flip side. Only five of its 16 teams have winning records, with three divisions having a single team above .500 (the NFC East, Dallas; the NFC South, New Orleans; and the NFC West, Seattle). Disappointment and unfulfilled expectations abound in the NFC, where defending champion San Francisco is 1-2 and on the first losing streak of the three-year Jim Harbaugh coaching era, the Giants, Redskins and Vikings are a sickly 0-3 and the Packers and Falcons are underachieving at 1-2. Even some 2012 losers that were thought to be on their way up, like the Rams, Cardinals, Bucs and Eagles, have yet to deliver. All lost by double digits in Week 3.
• The six-team AFC playoff contingent from 2012 hasn't missed a beat. All six have winning records and are a combined 14-4, with New England and Denver at 3-0, and Houston, Baltimore, Cincinnati and Indianapolis starting 2-1. The NFC? Not so much. Five of the six playoff qualifiers of last season are losers so far in 2013, with only steamrolling Seattle (3-0) bucking that trend. The 49ers, Packers and Falcons have no reason to panic at 1-2. But you can't say the same for Washington and Minnesota at 0-3. Their playoff hopes are probably already buried. Overall, 2012 NFC playoff teams are just 6-12, with the Seahawks accounting for half of those wins.
Pendulum swings in the AFC-NFC season series always have been the norm. The NFC has had the upper hand the past two years -- and it has won three of the past four Super Bowls -- but the AFC triumphed in eight of the nine years spanning 2002-10. The recent consensus, however, was that the NFC had the rising-power teams in its conference, with San Francisco, Seattle and Washington making playoff runs behind young, superstar quarterbacks last season, and proven postseason contenders like Green Bay, New Orleans, Atlanta and the Giants getting there almost every year because of their veteran star quarterbacks (Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees, Matt Ryan and Eli Manning).
Maybe not this time around, though. Robert Griffin III in Washington and Colin Kaepernick in San Francisco haven't duplicated their 2012 difference-making, while Eli Manning has been a turnover machine for struggling New York, with a league-worst eight interceptions in three weeks. As for Rodgers and Ryan, they have played well for the most part, but the results have not been there for their teams. Both the Packers and Falcons are 0-2 on the road, and 1-0 at home, after losing only eight out 32 games all of last season.
It's the AFC that has the clear-cut better Manning this season (Peyton's Broncos are 3-0 and have scored an NFL-high 127 points), and strong play from young quarterbacks like Miami's Ryan Tannehill, Tennessee's Jake Locker, Indy's Andrew Luck, Cincinnati's Andy Dalton and even Jets rookie Geno Smith is lifting teams to above-.500 starts.
AFC defenses have been better early on, too. Ten of the league's top 15 scoring defenses reside in the AFC, as do eight of the 12 most sack-happy teams. The only two divisions in football that feature three winning teams are in the AFC, with the supposedly weak AFC East posting a league-high nine wins, and the AFC South featuring a three-way clump of 2-1 teams (Indy, Tennessee and Houston).
The NFC has no division with more than six combined wins, and nowhere is the misery index higher than in the NFC East, where it's 2-1 Dallas and then three also-rans in Philadelphia (1-2), Washington and the Giants. New York is off to its worst start since 1996. The Redskins were last 0-3 in 2001. And the Eagles have lost two straight home games to AFC West teams (San Diego and Kansas City) after beating Washington in impressive fashion in their opener.
Things are going so well in the AFC that both teams involved in last week's blockbuster Trent Richardson trade drew inspiration from it and pulled road upsets on Sunday, with the Colts stunning the 49ers and the Browns proving to be both creative and clutch in a win at Minnesota. The Jets' Rex Ryan has made reports of his demise look greatly exaggerated thus far, Andy Reid has been a god-send in Kansas City and the offseason spending sprees/makeovers in both Miami and Tennessee have produced instant results.
In the NFC, things are much less hopeful. Tampa Bay has been a pressure-cooker for both quarterback Josh Freeman and head coach Greg Schiano, Washington's Mike Shanahan and New York's Tom Coughlin look at a loss despite their two Super Bowl rings apiece, while Arizona's Bruce Arians and Philly's Chip Kelly have not produced any turnaround magic through three weeks. Chicago's Marc Trestman is a new head coach who's thriving, and Dallas' Jason Garrett has his Cowboys headed in the right direction, but the hot seat is already a topic in both Carolina (Ron Rivera) and Minnesota (Leslie Frazier).
There's a bevy of interconference games (eight) on the schedule in Week 4, so the NFC has a chance for a quick rebound. But other than Seattle at Houston and maybe Miami at New Orleans, there are not many clear-cut opportunities for the NFC. The Giants aren't in for an easy day in Kansas City, and ditto for Philadelphia at Denver, Dallas at San Diego, Washington at Oakland or Atlanta at home against New England. In London, two 0-3 teams will tangle -- Pittsburgh and Minnesota -- so somebody has to have a happy flight home.
Just less than a fifth of the NFL's regular season is in the books, and 14 weeks still remain. Conclusions can't be reached before October even arrives. But by almost every measure, the AFC is where it's at so far in 2013.