AFC supremacy under the microscope
With several interconference matchups on tap, it can reaffirm superior status
The AFC has been the dominant force in the NFL for more than a decade, and that isn't about to change in 2010.
Week 3 should be a defining week regarding how dominant the AFC will be this season, and the impact could be major. Eight interconference games are on the slate, including a key matchup between the Dallas Cowboys and Houston Texans. If the AFC can win more than half of these games, it could reaffirm its standing as the superior conference.
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The AFC hasn't lost the interconference battle since 1995, although the NFC salvaged a tie in 2000, 2001 and 2007. Already this season, the AFC holds a 6-2 lead. With Peyton Manning, Tom Brady and some of the league's top quarterbacks, the AFC holds an edge in battles among the top teams. The NFC has caught up to a degree with Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers and the emergence of Tony Romo.
But this weekend could be telling. If one conference dominates in a season as the AFC has so often, it creates strange playoff races. The impact could be even more significant this year because commissioner Roger Goodell pushed more divisional games toward the end of the season with hopes of having a more compelling finish to the season.
Let's say the AFC controls this week, pointing to AFC dominance this season. If the dominance is like 2004, when the AFC was 44-20 against the NFC, or 2006, when the AFC was 40-24, the NFC ends up with inferior playoff races. As you get into November, you could have as few as four or five NFC teams with winning records, while the AFC could end up with one or two 10-win teams not making the playoffs.
In 2004, for example, only four NFC teams had winning records at the end. With the NFC East looking a little overrated so far, something similar could happen again.
1. Battle for the NFC South: The best matchup of Week 3 is the Saints and Falcons. You would think this could be one-sided because the game is in New Orleans. The Saints hold a significant home-field advantage and the Falcons don't really know if they have their running attack because of a slow start by Michael Turner and the season-ending knee injury to Jerious Norwood. But the Saints have their own issues. Coach Sean Payton has to adjust to not having Reggie Bush for the next six weeks because of a broken fibula. Bush didn't turn out to be the 1,000-yard back the Saints banked on, but Payton depends on him to create matchup problems. Bush makes big plays. Payton will have to rely more on Drew Brees to distribute the ball to receivers and Pierre Thomas to handle more of the carries. For the Falcons, there isn't as much pressure on them as you would think. Sure, they would fall two games behind the Saints if they lose, but they realize winning in New Orleans is difficult and they can still ride their easier schedule to be a division winner. A Falcons win, though, could shock the world.
2. Revis Island no fantasy: Darrelle Revis netted a four-year, $46 million contract extension by holding out for the entire training camp, but the Jets got greedy when he got back. Coach Rex Ryan put Revis on the field for everything once he returned, and now Revis is going to sit at home Sunday night when the Jets have a key divisional game against the Dolphins. Revis has a tight hamstring and has been ruled out for the game. The Jets have enough talented cornerbacks to match up against the Dolphins' receivers, but there could be one major problem: Antonio Cromartie will probably try to blanket new Dolphins wide receiver Brandon Marshall. Marshall is so big and strong, Cromartie might be tempted to go back to his holding techniques to contain Marshall. If he does, Cromartie could draw multiple penalty flags. The other key thing to watch in this game is the battle between Mark Sanchez and Chad Henne to see who is the second-best quarterback in the AFC East.
3. Quarterback shuffle: Seven backup quarterbacks will be running offenses this week. The Steelers are turning to Charlie Batch against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers because Dennis Dixon needed knee surgery. Eagles coach Andy Reid made the controversial move of going to Michael Vick over Kevin Kolb, even though Kolb has recovered from the concussion that sidelined him against the Detroit Lions. Jimmy Clausen makes his debut against the Bengals after Panthers coach John Fox sacked Matt Moore after two horrible starts. Shaun Hill continues as the Lions' fill-in for Matthew Stafford while Stafford recovers from a shoulder separation. It appears likely that Seneca Wallace will play a second straight game for the Browns because Jake Delhomme is bothered by an ankle injury. The more curious moves are in Oakland and Buffalo. Raiders coach Tom Cable benched Jason Campbell after six quarters and is going with Bruce Gradkowski. Bills coach Chan Gailey has seen enough of Trent Edwards and opted to go with Ryan Fitzpatrick. The question in Oakland and Buffalo is whether those moves will enhance scoring.
4. Texas tailgate party: Houston Texans fans have been pretty casual through the years. Supporting an expansion team, Texans fans tended to stay in the parking lots longer than most, enjoying the barbecues and beverages because the Texans often finished last in the AFC South. Houston officials have had to alert fans kickoff is near to get them to their seats. QB Matt Schaub, RB Arian Foster and coach Gary Kubiak have altered those pregame festivities by coming out of the box with a 2-0 team that is compelling to watch. The Texans play host to the Cowboys on Sunday in a must-win game for Dallas coach Wade Phillips and owner Jerry Jones. If the Texans establish home-field advantage and prevail, the Cowboys are in trouble. Dallas would be 0-3 and considered one of the most overrated, disappointing teams in recent years. Texans fans may be getting to their seats early for this one.
5. What is Andy Reid thinking? The bold move by the Eagles to start Vick over Kolb shouldn't have a downside Sunday. The Eagles play a Jaguars defense that lacks a pass rush and is rebuilding. Vick should be able to run around as he did against the Packers and Lions and put up good numbers. Tougher days will be ahead for the Eagles, however, particularly in Week 4, when the Eagles play host to former franchise quarterback Donovan McNabb and the Redskins. Reid went with Vick because he thought Vick was playing better than just about any quarterback in football. What he forgot to notice was that Vick put up numbers against a fatigued Packers defensive line in Week 1 that played the second half with only three healthy linemen and a Lions defense that allowed Jay Cutler to throw for 372 yards.
6. AFC West versus NFC West: The NFC West went 0-4 in non-divisional games last week, but three Week 3 matchups between these divisions should be important. The Chargers visit the Seahawks. The 49ers visit the Chiefs. The Cardinals play host to the Raiders. If the NFC West is going to be patsies to the AFC West this year, teams such as the Chiefs, Raiders and Broncos could end up with better records than their talents indicate. Everyone pretty much figures the Chargers should win eight or nine games against AFC West and NFC West foes, but a loss to Seattle could alert the rest of the AFC West that there will be a playoff race.
7. NFC North rivalry week: The Vikings failed to land Vincent Jackson, but the good news is they play Detroit on Sunday. The Lions' secondary is good for what ails any receiving corps because it might be the worst in football. Percy Harvin has migraine problems again and Sidney Rice remains out with a hip injury, but Brett Favre should put up decent numbers this week because of the opponent. The better matchup is Monday night, when the Bears play the Packers. Cutler is getting better and better in offensive coordinator Mike Martz's system. Can Cutler match Packers QB Aaron Rodgers pass for pass? He could. The big individual matchup is Chicago DE Julius Peppers against Green Bay LT Chad Clifton. The Packers are thinking about resting Clifton because of an aching knee, and if they do, Peppers could be going against rookie Bryan Bulaga.
8. Mile-high challenge: Peyton Manning takes his aerial show to Denver on Sunday to play the Broncos. Whether he plays in the mile-high altitude or at sea level, Manning usually has his way against the Broncos. It won't help that Broncos star CB Champ Bailey finished the Week 2 game against the Seahawks on crutches because of a foot injury. Denver QB Kyle Orton has the look of a 4,000-yard quarterback, but he's going to need quicker feet to get away from Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis, particularly if Manning can establish an early lead.
9. Keith Bulluck's revenge: The Titans play the New York Giants, and the sentimental story of the week involves Bulluck. Bulluck was a leader and top defender on the Titans for years, but the team elected not to sign him while he was recovering from knee surgery during the offseason. Bulluck signed with the Giants and took out a full page ad in Nashville to thank Titans fans for their support through the years. Bulluck wants to show the Titans they made a mistake in not signing him.
10. Bottom-feeders: Which team could be off to the worst start this season? The competition between the Bills and Browns firms up this week. The Bills visit Tom Brady and the Patriots, and do it with Fitzpatrick at quarterback. With games ahead against the Jets, Jaguars and Ravens, the Bills could be setting themselves up for an 0-6 start. The Browns blew their early chances by losing close games to the Bucs and Chiefs. They visit the Ravens on Sunday, and they follow with games against the Bengals, Falcons, Steelers, Saints, Patriots and Jets. That has the look of an 0-9 start. The Rams, meanwhile, play host to the Redskins. What's interesting about that game is that Washington coach Mike Shanahan is counting on wins against the Rams and Bucs, the two non-common opponents the Redskins have in the NFC East schedule. Last year, ex-Redskins coach Jim Zorn split his non-common games against the Lions and Bucs, and it ended up costing him his job.
John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
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