- John Clayton, NFL senior writer
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The last time a conference was as down as the NFC is this year was in the late 1970s.
Remember the dark ages of the NFC Central? From 1978 until the Chicago Bears emerged into a big-time team in 1984, the NFC Central was a parody of NFL parity. Only once from 1978 to 1983 did an NFC Central division winner have a 10-win season. In 1978, the Vikings and Packers tied for the division lead at 8-7-1.
This season it's true across the NFC. Except for the Eagles and Falcons, the NFC lacks consistent performers. The Vikings and Packers have shaky defenses. Someone has to win the NFC West but the Seahawks and Rams don't look like deserving playoff teams right now. Between the two of them, they've beaten only one team with a winning record.
What happened? Why it is so bad? Using the First ... And 10 format, it's time to review the carnage known as the NFC. It's hard to call it First-and-10, though. The NFC looks more like Fourth-and-26.
1. The Schedule: Here's a piece of advice to the NFL Schedule-Makers. Don't schedule so many NFC-AFC games so early in the season. Try to find a better balance of division games through the first half of the season. The NFC South, for example, had only two division games in the first 10 weeks. By Nov. 14, the Falcons were 7-1 and led their division by four games. There was no division race. The NFC North also was late starting divisional games. Green Bay and Minnesota didn't have their first meeting until Nov. 14, and that was only their second divisional game. The weaker conference should have the division games earlier and not have the dominant conference dictate races. Sure, it's hard with only four-team conferences. There are only 12 division games to spread over 17 weeks, but this year, the AFC had a much higher percentage of divisional games early. The problem created by having one conference dominating is it creates fewer winning teams in a conference such as the NFC for the stretch race. The AFC is 35-19 against the NFC, but the top 10 teams in the AFC are 28-4 against the NFC. That's right, 28-4. Only the Eagles, Vikings and Falcons have winning records against the AFC. Here's the glitch in the schedule. For the final three weeks of the season, the AFC has only seven divisional games. The NFC has 14, but many of those games are meaningless because the teams have losing records because they are 1-3 or 0-4 against the AFC.
2. The 3-4 Effect: There must be something to the 3-4 defense in the AFC because it gives the conference a certain toughness. The Steelers, Ravens, Patriots and Chargers are primarily 3-4 teams. These four teams are in the playoff hunt and have defenses ranking no lower than 14th. The 3-4 shuts down the run, and this is going down as one of the greatest running seasons in NFL history. There have been 143 individual 100-yard rushing games, and the record of those teams with the 100-yard rushers is 114-29. Considering there have been 208 games, holding a team or a top back under 100 yards creates a great chance of winning. This is not to say that the NFC should make massive switches to the 3-4. It requires a major roster commitment to bigger linebackers and different types of defensive linemen. It also creates some long-term cap problems for teams that are cap-intensive on offense. What gives the AFC the edge with the 3-4 is that it appears the depth is better on those teams to withstand the injuries that have been so prevalent this season. NFC teams seem to be more fragile on defense and lack the depth of the AFC teams.
3. Quarterbacks: If you notice the rankings of teams in both conferences, it seems to follow the play of the quarterback. The better the quarterback the better the record. Face it, the AFC has done a better job of developing quarterbacks. The AFC has developed Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Ben Roethlisberger, Carson Palmer, Chad Pennington, David Carr and Byron Leftwich compared to the NFC, which still appears to be in that old mold of patching the position. The problem in the NFC is that there are more "have-nots" for quarterback than haves. Chicago doesn't know what it has in Rex Grossman. The Cowboys don't know what they have in Drew Henson. Joey Harrington is hitting some kind of wall in Detroit as is Aaron Brooks in New Orleans. The 49ers and Cardinals need new direction at quarterback. Since 1998, the NFL has been getting three to four quality quarterbacks a year out of the draft and more of them seem to be ending up in the AFC.
4. Defense: Sure, the Colts are defensively challenge. Because most of their cap is tied up with offense, Tony Dungy is forced to play Cover 2 zone and hope to bend but not break with young players on defense. The problem in the NFC is that the defenders bend and break. The Eagles and Falcons are the only current NFC playoff teams ranked in the top 13 in defense and the only teams among the top in the conference allowing less than 20 points a game. The Seahawks, Rams, Packers and Vikings rank between 22nd and 27th. They are giving up between 22.2 and 25 points a game. That makes for exciting football, but being forced to score that many points makes it tough to be consistent as a team. At least the Seahawks are forcing turnovers. They have 32 take-aways. The Rams have only 13, the Packers 14 and the Vikings 16. Coaches tell you that the give-away-take-away stats might be the most important. The Rams are minus-20, the Packers minus-11 and the Vikings minus-4. And these are playoff teams?
5. Pro Bowl Turnover: Take a look at the defenders who end up making the NFC Pro Bowl team this season and you'll see how much turnover there has been on defense in the NFC. Injuries and free agent defections have caused a big disturbance among the elite defensive players in the conference. Michael Strahan, Kris Jenkins, LaVar Arrington, Julian Peterson, Brian Urlacher and others have had their seasons taken away from them because of injuries. Look at the top six vote-getters at cornerback from last year. Champ Bailey and Troy Vincent went to the AFC. Dre' Bly hasn't matched last year's Pro Bowl season in Detroit, partially because of injuries. Mike McKenzie held out and was traded to New Orleans but hasn't had any kind of season. Terence Newman has had an off season in Dallas. Of the 17 defensive players selected to the NFC Pro Bowl team last season, maybe as few as four will be voted back in this season.
6. Coaching Turnover: One of the reasons for the AFC success is that there has been more stability in coaching. This reality offers hope to the NFC because maybe this will settle down and coaches will fit players to their system. Arizona, Atlanta, Chicago, the New York Giants and Washington have coaches in their first season. Seniority in the NFC is almost nonexistent. Mike Holmgren and Andy Reid are in their sixth season. That's the top seniority. Constant turnover of head coaches has hurt the NFC. Look at what John Fox is doing in Carolina, and it shows how continuity works. He's in his third season with the Panthers and has been to a Super Bowl. His style is to play good defense, run the ball and get decent play out of his quarterback, Jake Delhomme, down the stretch of games. Injuries killed his team early. He lost five players for the season in the pre-season and nine more during the coarse of the regular season. His system hasn't changed, so he kept plugging players into his format and the team has rebounded from a 1-7 start with five consecutive wins. Rosters turnover every three or four years because of free agency, but if the coaching systems are in place, there can be stability of performance. The NFC hasn't had that coaching stability because of constant turnover.
7. Overrated Conference: The NFC has eight head coaches who are in their second or third stints. The list is impressive: Steve Mariucci, Bill Parcells, Tom Coughlin, Joe Gibbs, Jon Gruden, Mike Holmgren, Dennis Green and Dennis Erickson. Technically, the NFC has been down a couple of years. These things go in cycles and this is a bad cycle for the NFC. It's easier to go from worst to first in the NFC than it is in the AFC and every coach knows that. Because the conference is so down, it can cause some bad personnel judgments. Parcells did a masterful job coaching up Jerry Jones' team last year and went to the playoffs at 10-6. That success gave the Cowboys a false sense of their talent. Last year's team was 2-4 against winning teams, 8-2 against the losers. Parcells might have been worth a touchdown a game last year. This year, the team isn't as talented because last year's success lulled them into complacency. Dennis Green looked over the weak NFC and thought he'd win 10 games with the talent he had. Another misjudgment. The Cardinals are 4-9. They weren't as good as he thought.
8. Bad Snaps: The NFC made bad decisions at quarterback. Parcells and Gibbs thought an experienced hand at quarterback would serve their teams better. They didn't. Though Vinny Testaverde proved he's still a good starting quarterback, the team is 5-8 and going nowhere. Henson didn't develop at all and may follow the Chad Hutchinson path to NFL Europe. Gibbs pinned his hopes on Mark Brunell and the move failed miserably. The Redskins average only 14 points a game on offense and wasted a great season of defense. Tom Coughlin benched Kurt Warner after a sack filled 5-4 start and threw Eli Manning into the starting job against five of the toughest defenses in the league. Now, players are grumbling about the offensive scheme, and Manning is getting embarrassed on a weekly basis.
9. Money and Change Can't Buy Championships: According to a September analysis by the NFLPA, the Redskins spent about $129 million in payroll but their record is 4-9. The NFC was the most active this offense in the trade and free agent market, and many of the deals didn't work out. Churning rosters with new personnel takes time. The Redskins brought in 24 new players, the Bucs and Giants 23 and the Cardinals 22. If the big moves wash out, so does the team.
10. Age: Sometimes, going with older teams can hurt. The Bucs, Panthers, Redskins and Saints have four of the five oldest teams in the NFL. Older players are considered to be leaders and have proven track records. Often, though, they can break down with injuries. Whether it was injury or lack of leadership, none of the four teams had the success they had hoped for. The formula for success in 2004 is still building through the draft, re-signing core players and being smart in free agency. Just having experience doesn't guarantee success.
John Clayton is a senior writer for ESPN.com.