Will NFC finally end its drought vs. AFC this season?
The NFC hasn't won the battle of interconferences since 1995, but this may be the season it finally ends its drought, writes Len Pasquarelli.
It has been a long, long time since the NFC won the annual interconference series against its AFC counterparts.
How long? Well, Bill Clinton was still president. Most of the country was fixated on O.J. Simpson's murder trial. Bosnia was the most prominent international hot spot. The FBI was still desperately searching for the Unabomber. Devoted Deadheads were mourning the death of Jerry Garcia. And pro basketball fans were celebrating the unretirement of Michael Jordan.
Consumers were still getting accustomed to ordering Christmas presents online from the year-old Amazon.com and computer hackers were still three years away from Googling anything. TLC was rhapsodizing about "Waterfalls" and, on movie screens, loveable but bumbling Forrest Gump was philosophizing over the meaning of life and chocolates.
|INSIDE TIP SHEET|
Here's some of what you will find in this week's Tip Sheet notes.
• McCarthy proving a bargain
• Change in San Francisco
• Stuck in Oakland?
• Petrino struggling
• Showdown in D.C.
• Growing pains for Johnson
• Shanahan gets call
• New deal for Westbrook?
• The List
• Stat of the Week
• Stat of the Weak
• The Last Word
The Atlanta Braves, Houston Rockets, New Jersey Devils and, yikes, even the Nebraska Cornhuskers, were all champions.
Yes, it has been that long, 1995 to be exact, since the NFC won the interconference series. The NFC topped the AFC in 33 of 60 matchups that season, with the Dallas Cowboys punctuating the senior conference's dominance by defeating the Pittsburgh Steelers, 27-17, in Super Bowl XXX.
Since then, the NFC's less-than-scintillating performance against the AFC should pretty much be XXX-out.
In the past 11 seasons, the AFC has registered a 370-300-2 record in the AFC-NFC matchups, and has won the competition every year, except in 2000 and 2001, when the NFC held its own at 30-30 in each of those seasons. The AFC also has claimed eight of 11 Super Bowl championships, including the past four titles, and six of the past seven.
"It's obscene, ridiculous, really, that the AFC has owned the series for so many years," said Green Bay quarterback Brett Favre, who has been around for the entire reign of terror by the junior conference. "It just shouldn't be that way."
And maybe, at long last, it won't be that way this season -- thanks in part to Favre and the Packers, who own a 3-0 mark for 2007 against AFC foes with one interconference game left, a home contest against the Oakland Raiders on Dec. 9.
Through the Thanksgiving Day games, the NFC surprisingly leads the interconference series this season by a 24-22 count. And if those two dozen victories don't seem like all that much, well, consider this: With 18 interconference games still to play, the 24 wins are as many as the NFC managed in 2006, when the AFC posted a 40-24 record. And they are nearly as much as the NFC's average of 24.6 wins the past three seasons.
So 24 wins for the NFC at this point of the season is progress of a sort.
That the NFC has been so thoroughly manhandled for more than a decade now, with the AFC's superiority reflected in a .557 winning mark, is both incomprehensible and inexplicable. What it hasn't been is cyclical, because, in the NFL, such pendulum swings clearly aren't supposed to last so long.
It's as if the AFC never received the memo about parity.
Here's how each team has fared against the other conference this season (through Thursday's games)
Sensible or not, it's tough to argue with the recent history of the series, and more difficult yet to pinpoint the differences that have permitted the AFC to dominate for such an extended stretch.
For much of the time, the AFC has possessed the better quarterbacks and, seemingly, made better draft choices. And though it has been more than three decades since the old AFL's wide-open style, with offenses that threw the ball all over the field and with little regard for game situation, it seems the AFC has been the more imaginative of the two conferences.
Many veterans who have played in both conferences say they have witnessed little difference between the two in terms of overall player talent. But Denver cornerback Champ Bailey, who played the first five seasons of his celebrated nine-year career in Washington until he was dealt to the Broncos in 2004, has noted there is a palpably different feel between the conferences.
"I don't know if it's just because [the AFC] has been so good for as long as I've been in the league or whatever, but there is kind of this sense that it's the better conference," Bailey said. "Even when I was with the Redskins, you felt that way. It just seems that AFC teams carry themselves a little different. There's a different air to them or something. It looks like AFC teams are more confident, especially when they are playing NFC teams. It's as if there is this superiority complex."
Bailey is hardly the only player in the league who feels that way. In fact, several New England veterans, none of whom wanted to be identified because of obvious consequences, noted that the Patriots' coaching staff prepares for games against NFC opponents harboring what one player termed "something bordering on disdain."
Said one New England player: "It's not a lack of respect. It's more like, 'Hey, [the NFC] just isn't as good as us.' That feeling just [emanates] from the top on down when we're playing an NFC team. I mean, doesn't it show?"
The results do.
Since Bill Belichick became its coach in 2000, New England has a 22-8 record versus NFC teams, with a matchup against Philadelphia on Sunday and the season finale against the New York Giants on Dec. 29 still remaining.
Even more remarkable is that half of the Patriots' eight defeats to NFC franchises during the Belichick era came in his first season with the team, when New England was 0-4 in interconference play and just 5-11 overall. Since that 2000 season, the Patriots have never lost more than once a season to NFC opponents, and they are 13-1 since the start of the 2004 season.
And that doesn't even include the Pats' three Super Bowl victories.
"They pretty much define what [the AFC] has been about in the series," Philadelphia free safety Brian Dawkins said.
To this point of the 2007 season, though, the NFC has ignored the definition. Or at least two of the conference's four divisions have.
Nine of the 16 NFC franchises, including all four teams in both the NFC East and NFC North, have winning records in the interconference competition. There are four NFC teams undefeated against their AFC counterparts.
In terms of the interconference competition, the NFC certainly is split into the haves and the have-nots this season. The NFC East and NFC North have played, respectively, the teams from the AFC East and the AFC West in 2007, and have amassed a cumulative 18-4 record in those matchups (the Pats having beaten the Cowboys and Redskins for two of those four wins). None of the eight teams in those two NFC divisions has more than one loss in the interconference series.
On the flip side, the NFC South is a woeful 3-11 versus its AFC South counterparts and all four of its teams have losing records. The NFC West is 3-7 in games against the AFC North and, of its four teams, just Arizona (2-1) is on the plus side of the ledger. In fact, Arizona is the only club in either the NFC South or NFC West with more than one victory against AFC teams.
Still, the NFC, which has become accustomed to losing the season series, will take the results of 2007 over those of the previous 11 seasons. This may well be a serendipitous season, in which the schedule has unwittingly placed the NFC's best divisions against the worst divisions in the AFC. But players from the NFC, who have grown weary of losing the interconference series, didn't make excuses in the past and aren't about to issue any apologies now.
"Maybe it's time," Dallas tight end Jason Witten said, "for things to even out some, huh?"
Things are exactly even in the current ESPN.com Power Rankings, with the NFC sporting five teams among the top 10 and eight in the top half of the poll. It may be a one-team league right now, with everyone chasing the Patriots, but at least there are some NFC teams in the chase, and the conference is finally holding its own in interconference play.
Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer for ESPN.com.