Commentary

NFC poised to unseat AFC as superior conference

In his weekly mailbag, John Clayton tackles questions on the Chiefs' QB situation, the Steelers' Super Bowl chances, Lane Kiffin and more.

Originally Published: September 17, 2008
By John Clayton | ESPN.com

McNabb/Rodgers/RomoUS PresswireQuarterbacks such as Donovan McNabb, Aaron Rodgers and Tony Romo have the NFC gaining ground.
Although it's too early to proclaim victory, the NFC might have finally passed the AFC.

The NFC is off to a 4-2 start in interconference games, and improved play on offense is a big reason the NFC is flourishing. Thirteen of the 16 NFC teams are averaging 20 or more points a game after two weeks. Overall, NFC teams are outscoring AFC teams, 24.1 to 18.5.

Scoring has been the staple in the AFCl, thanks largely to the exploits of Peyton Manning and Tom Brady. The AFC is considered the conference of quarterbacks, and on most Sundays, AFC teams usually have twice the number of first-round starting quarterbacks than their NFC rivals.

Brady's season-ending knee injury obviously had a major impact on the 2008 fortunes of the AFC. Though Matt Cassel is completing 70.7 percent of his passes since taking over for Brady, the Patriots are half the offense they were a year ago. They've gone from a record-breaking offense that averaged 36.8 points a game to one that is averaging 18.

Slow starts by Carson Palmer of the Bengals, Manning and other quarterbacks have further influenced AFC scoring. Only five AFC teams -- the Broncos, Chargers, Bills, Steelers and Titans -- are scoring in the 20s.

Everything is set up for teams to produce more touchdowns drives, but for the first time in years, the NFC is doing a better job. For the second consecutive year, officials aren't calling ticky-tack holding penalties. That leads to quicker, cleaner games with fewer first-and-20s and gives quarterbacks more chances to complete short passes out of five- and seven-step drops.

Donovan McNabb, Aaron Rodgers, Tony Romo, Eli Manning, Kurt Warner and Drew Brees are off to hot starts. Overall, 10 quarterbacks leaguewide are completing at least 70 percent of their passes.

The addition of Brett Favre to the Jets was supposed to make the AFC the dominant passing conference this season. Surprisingly, the AFC has been running the ball more. Five AFC teams are running the ball more than passing it. Last year, only five teams leaguewide called more running plays than pass plays.

Things will level out over the next 15 weeks, but the early results indicate the NFC might finally have a chance to claim regular-season supremacy. The NFC has had three ties in head-to-head competition since 1995 but no victories.

Let's dive into the mailbag:

From the inbox

Q: For the second week in a row you left the defending Super Bowl champion Giants out of your First and 10 column. With the likes of Jeremy Shockey, Michael Strahan and Tiki Barber out of New York and not creating controversy, are the Giants boring to cover?

Jimmy in Valley Stream, N.Y.

A: That's very observant of you, but there were reasons behind those omissions. We did the Week 1 First and 10 minus the Thursday night season opener because we post the column on a Thursday and wanted to have it hold for the weekend. Last week, the Giants played the Rams. If you think that game was going to merit watching, we need to confiscate your Giants jerseys. That was a bad game going in and only got worse as it played out. We try to avoid cluttering First and 10 with potential 41-13 blowouts.

Short takes

To Ken in Phoenix, I would love to vote Russ Grimm into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. As a voter, I have voted for him several times, but it's going to be hard the next couple of years because of some star defensive players and big-name offensive players. We have a tough backlog. … Justin in Alabama has a good point. He wonders why the Denver Broncos use Tony Scheffler as a backup to Daniel Graham when Scheffler catches all the passes from the tight end position. Scheffler can stretch the field at tight end. The thought is when they want to run, they use Graham. When they want to open it up with Jay Cutler 's passing, it's Scheffler. … Josh notes that the Chiefs, in a down free-agent market, signed three of the free-agent acquisitions who made teams and wants some love for the Chiefs. Listen, the Chiefs had a great draft. They are building it from bottom up, and this year was a good start. But Devard Darling, B.J. Sams and Demorrio Williams aren't the new core group of this team. He's right, though. Free agency is overhyped. … Branson wonders if Raiders cornerback DeAngelo Hall is as bad as he looks so far. According to Stats, Inc., he's the fifth-most burned defender, allowing completions on 12 of 18 passes thrown against him for 174 yards and no touchdowns. … To Jason in Tampa, Fla., no, I don't think QB Jeff Garcia is done in Tampa Bay. Brian Griese is the starter for now, but it's a long season. They may need Garcia at any time. … Darnell in Miami asks why Quinn Gray isn't signed after completing 55.6 percent of his passes with 10 touchdowns and a 85.6 quarterback rating. Gray is one of the better quarterbacks on the market. He'll have a job as a backup before the end of the season. … Greg in Cranston, R.I., wonders why WR Joe Horn hasn't been signed. I asked the same question. Keenan McCardell and Horn are veterans who can help someone. I keep repeating that this is the worst I've seen the depth of the receiver position in more than a decade. … Updating Jimmie in Odessa, Texas, Shaun Alexander visited the Detroit Lions on Tuesday but left without a contract. He returned to his home in Seattle and awaits the next call. … To Taylor in Omaha, I'd say it's going to take another two or three weeks for the Colts' offense to get back to form. The passing game is coming, but injuries along the offensive line have killed the running attack. Play action is so important to what the Colts want to do.

Q: With Shawne Merriman out for the year and Jamal Williams not looking sharp at NT, do the Chargers begin the process of changing from a 3-4 defensive scheme to a 4-3?

Erik in Las Vegas

A: No, they are built for a 3-4 because the scheme is more suitable for their young linebackers. Jyles Tucker will do decently as Merriman's replacement, but his sack potential is more eight than 16. That will have an impact on turnovers and big plays. The bigger concern is Williams. He's been battling knee problems the past couple of years and he's getting older. The Chargers are trying to ease him into the season so he gets stronger as the year progresses. His playing time is supposed to increase each week. Nose tackles are the key to a 3-4 defense. The team is optimistic Williams is going to have a good season, but his slow start has had a major effect on San Diego's defense.

The Chargers will be fine, though. Remember, they play the second-easiest schedule in football. They'll still win about 11 or 12 games. The key for them is beating the Jets on Monday night and getting a winning streak going.

Q: John, how can you not name Browns-Steelers as the best rivalry in the NFL's history? Sure it's been lopsided lately, but the Browns and Steelers hate each other. The cities hate each other. The fans come to blows whenever they're in the same place.

Dave in Cleveland

A: Dave, what wasn't made clear was the assignment given me. I was asked to rate the top five current rivalries, not the best in NFL history. If the assignment called for top rivalries in history, I would have never chosen Eagles-Cowboys over Redskins-Cowboys. Using a historical perspective, Browns-Steelers would rate higher. This was a "now'' rating.

You saw the Eagles-Cowboys game Monday night. It was one of the best games in years and added to the current rivalry. The Browns-Steelers game Sunday night was hard-hitting but one-sided, as normal. The Steelers have won 10 in a row, but I still gave the series some respect. Remember, I grew up in Pittsburgh. I know the historical significance of this series. Colts-Pats win out now. Browns-Steelers win over time.

Q: I was wondering what exactly you meant when you said that the Chiefs using two QBs would be a bad idea unless "they were playing Appalachian State or somebody like that." I found it to be quite an odd comparison considering A) that's not even an NFL team and B) that is a completely random choice. Maybe I'm missing something in your comparison.

Tyson in Boone, N.C.

A: Tyson, I was trying to make a light reference to an NFL team using a college quarterback rotation system, and that simply doesn't work in the NFL. Last I checked, Appalachian State was a college team, and yes, it was picked randomly. The NFL is about quarterback play and producing touchdown drives. The Chiefs temporarily lost Brodie Croyle with a shoulder injury, and Damon Huard is a question mark this week because of a head injury. From the looks of its offense, Kansas City might have a hard time winning in the Mountain West.

Q: What is the buzz in New Orleans regarding second-year wide receiver Robert Meachem? After watching his play in the preseason, it certainly looked like he has the hands and ability to be a starter. With Marques Colston out for several weeks, is Sean Payton going to put Meachem on the field?

Dave in Carlisle, Pa.

A: Meachem is still raw, but you watched how he matured in the preseason. Payton is feeling his way without Colston. He'll be out six weeks, which gives Meachem time to gain more exposure and get more chances. My guess is Payton wanted to stay basic with the experienced receivers going into a hostile environment against the Redskins. The Broncos might afford the Saints the chance to do a few things with Meachem. He's a talent, they just have to use him a little more to see where he is. I think he has a chance to be a good one.

Q: With many teams dealing with injuries and the Colts looking somewhat flat in the AFC, have the Steelers' chances of going to the Super Bowl increased?

Patrick

A: After two weeks, you'd have to rate the Steelers as the No. 1 seed in the AFC. Still, the schedule will wear them down and hurt their chances of being a 12-win team. Defensive end Brett Keisel is out for two months. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is playing with a bruised right shoulder. As long as the Steelers have a moderately healthy Roethlisberger and enough healthy defenders, they will have a chance in every playoff game.

Q: John, I am a loyal Pats fan. With the injury to Brady, why didn't New England look into signing Daunte Culpepper? No QB on the free-agent market knows Randy Moss better than Culpepper?

Sean in Manchester, Conn.

A: Culpepper made it pretty clear he was retired. He was off the board. I tried to contact him after Brady was hurt, but he didn't respond. I thought the Pats should have pursued a Huard trade, but they decided to stay within their system. Bill Belichick has developed a shotgun passing offense that would take time for an outside quarterback time to learn. Huard has been in that system and might have been able to make a smooth transition, but the Chiefs might have been reluctant to give up their top backup. The Pats can still win the division with Cassel, but they will have a hard time going to the Super Bowl scoring only 18 points a game.

Q: Is there any chance Mark Cuban is a Raider fan? I'd give my left arm to see him buy the Raiders and save us from Emperor Davis. From what I've seen, Lane Kiffin is a good coach. He's handled JaMarcus Russell very well, and his game plans are always solid. But he's constantly undermined by Al Davis and even defensive coordinator Rob Ryan.

Riff in Southern California

A: Davis is not selling majority control of his team, and Cuban doesn't seem to be interested in buying an NFL team. Kiffin is doomed in Oakland. The Raiders don't have much of a passing attack, and it's hard to be one-dimensional in this league. Kiffin could be fired at any moment. What the Raiders need is stability. The constant changing of coaches drags down the operation. Davis has a commitment to win, but he needs to show the patience to build a winner.

Q: The Conference USA running back class of 2008 (Matt Forte, Kevin Smith and Chris Johnson) received the majority of the carries from their teams during Week 1. Do you think any of these guys has what it takes to make it through the season as a starter? Also, is Alex Smith a true bust, or was he not really given the chance to succeed in San Fran?

Wesley in Port St. Lucie, Fla.

A: Forte and Smith appear to be locks to get the majority of the carries. They are starters and both the Bears and Lions plan to run the ball a lot. Johnson is an interesting case. LenDale White is the starter in Tennessee, and he's a good one. He's a big back and hits the hole quickly in a nice zone-blocking scheme. Still, Johnson is getting more of the carries because he's more explosive and making more big plays. The Titans are averaging 36.5 runs a game and they run 60.8 percent of the time. There are plenty of carries for both backs.

As for Smith, he'll go down as a 49ers bust, but remember how well he did for Norv Turner. He's a victim of having too many coordinator changes and two years of shoulder injuries.

Q: I almost always agree with your commentary. However, with regard to your assessment of the Broncos and Eddie Royal prior to the start of the season, I disagreed completely. After seeing Royal's first game -- will you admit that you may have been wrong?

Freeman in Tacoma, Wash.

A: I underestimated the Broncos' offense. The WR combo of Royal and Brandon Marshall is one of the most exciting in football. Jay Cutler is one of the best young quarterbacks. The Broncos should be a blast to follow because they are exciting, young and vibrant.

Few saw the Royal thing coming other than Mike Shanahan. Most teams had Royal as a special-teamer, not a special receiver. He's held up against the Raiders and Chargers. However, it will be the defense that will determine how the Broncos will do. They give up a lot of yards and could give up a lot of points. What is clear, though, is that Shanahan's offense has big potential.

John Clayton, a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame writers' wing, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

John Clayton

NFL senior writer