AFC clearly the power conference

With all six teams reaching double digits in wins, the AFC is clearly the power conference in the playoffs.

Updated: January 3, 2005, 3:37 PM ET
By Len Pasquarelli | ESPN.com

The AFC has won five of the past seven Super Bowl titles and there is no reason to believe that the junior conference won't prevail again this year.

Game ball
Bulger
Bulger
Marc Bulger, Rams QB
The second-most famous quarterback product of Pittsburgh Central Catholic High School (the other is some guy named Marino) threw for 450 yards, as Marc Bulger rallied the St. Louis Rams past the New York Jets on Sunday, and into a wild-card berth. Bulger has suffered from injuries and a streak of inconsistency in 2004 but, in a game the Rams had to win, he came up big, completing 29 of 39, throwing for three scores and executing well on a game-winning drive that concluded with Jeff Wilkins' 31-yard field goal. The Mike Martz-designed offense is going to expose its quarterbacks to a lot of hits, and the reedy Bulger took his share Sunday from an avaricious New York front four, but he bounced up every time and made huge throws when he had to.
Scout's take
Comments from two pro scouts, one from each conference, on the weekend's play:

  • "I love (Eagles coach) Andy Reid but, by playing the way he did in the last two games and resting so many people, it seems like he's put his offense in a state of inertia. Look, he knows what is best for his team, OK? But it's going to be four weeks, once the Eagles start the playoffs, since that offense has played in a meaningful game. I see where some of the Philly players are saying, 'Once we get back to practice, we'll regain the momentum.' But I don't know. I never thought it was that easy just to throw the switch, you know?"

  • "I don't know that I can ever remember a tailback who gets outside as easily as (Lee) Suggs, from Cleveland. It's not like he's got great, blazing speed, right? But he just kind of glides past people and, the next thing you know, he's got the corner and headed up the sideline. He's had, what, three straight 100-yard games? Of course, he's got to stay healthy and quit fumbling so much. But he's definitely a 'comer' and someone around whom the next Cleveland coach ought to be able to build a running game."

  • "[New Orleans defensive end] Charles Grant played a dominating game on Sunday, got himself a couple of sacks, was incredibly disruptive. But where's the guy been lately? I mean, he had one sack in the previous nine games and it was obvious he wore down. He's going to have to get himself in better shape next year. He has Pro Bowl ability but you've got to do more than just show up in spurts."

  • "Two more years and [Washington defensive coordinator] Gregg Williams will be a head coach in the league again. What he's done with that bunch in Washington really is [admirable]. And the second time around as a head coach, he'll be a lot better, having learned from his mistakes in Buffalo."

  • "I don't know what more the Bills coaches can do to [rehabilitate] Drew Bledsoe. I mean, there were times this season when he was OK, but on Sunday his mechanics fell apart completely, and he held the ball too long. They've worked hard with him on things like footwork and stuff, but he just reverts at times. I mean, has anyone in league history ever thrown for more yards with such poor techniques?"

  • "[Tennessee] cornerback Andre Dyson isn't a great player and I wouldn't break the bank to get him in free agency. But he is a solid guy, plays bigger than his size, and would be an upgrade for a lot of teams in the league. Of course, I'm saying I wouldn't break the bank to get him, right? But <--!hell,-->there were a lot of corners in the [free-agent market] last spring, who got signing bonuses of, like, $7 million, and Dyson is better than a lot of them."

  • "Watching the Jaguars on Sunday, it occurred to me that [strong safety Donovin] Darius has gotten a lot better in coverage. He had two interceptions but, beyond that, his range looks a little better and he's a lot more aware in coverage. He ways always an 'in the box' safety, I thought, a stop-the-run guy. But he's gotten better [against the pass]. Not great but better."

  • "You watch the Rams play and wonder how their quarterbacks survive. The offensive line is just awful and the blocking scheme isn't far behind. You put up big numbers in that offense but, man, you pay the price because you get hit so damned much. Just ask Kurt Warner, right?"
  • Heard in the pressbox
    Two situations to watch: Tennessee and New Orleans. The rumblings are that Titans coach Jeff Fisher wants more control over personnel and, if he gets it, that could bump general manager Floyd Reese out the door. Reese is very well regarded by Cleveland ownership and is close friends with Nick Saban as well. It appears that Saints coach Jim Haslett also will press for a bit more clout. General manager Mickey Loomis has said he will meet with Haslett, discuss what changes need to be made, and then recommend to owner Tom Benson whether the coach should be retained. Don't be surprised, though, if Haslett makes the first move. ... Assuming he sticks, Haslett has to get his team to play. ... Hottest quarterback prospect in the 2005 draft, assuming he bypasses his senior season and enters the lottery, is Alex Smith of Utah. The junior quarterback who is sliding is Aaron Rodgers of California. ... Despite some reports emanating from spin doctors at LSU, it was the school, and not Jacksonville coach Jack Del Rio, which initiated the contact. Some school officials, perhaps embarrassed by having been jilted by so many candidates, are whispering that Del Rio made the first call. Not true. "And we never, ever discussed money with them, years, anything like that," insisted agent Gary O'Hagan. ... There is virtually no way that wide receiver Koren Robinson, a first-round choice in the 2001 draft, can be back with the Seattle Seahawks in 2005. Robinson played in just one of the final seven games. He missed four because of a league suspension for a repeat violation of the substance abuse policy. And coach Mike Holmgren twice suspended him, including Sunday's season finale, for an unspecified violation of team rules. ... After getting right tackle John Tait this year, the Chicago Bears, who surrendered 66 sacks in 2004, will make a left tackle their offseason priority.
    Certainly, the AFC has a more powerful field, a half-dozen more competitive teams, and that should result in a strong representative. In fact, statistically at least, the AFC bracket is the best since the league adopted the current 12-team format in 1990. The six AFC qualifiers have a combined 73 victories, the most ever by either conference, and, for the fourth time in the last five years, all six teams have double-digit victories.

    How weak a field will the NFC present? The 59 aggregate wins by the NFC entries represent the fewest ever in the 12-team format. The difference between the number of AFC and NFC victories, 14, is the widest ever. Only twice before under the current format, 1994 (NFC) and 1995 (AFC), has a conference begun the playoffs with just three teams that had double-digit wins.

    There are three AFC teams (Baltimore, Jacksonville and Buffalo) with better records than the final two NFC qualifiers. Since '90, there have been only six eight-win teams to qualify for the playoffs, and the NFC bracket has two of them this season. The Minnesota Vikings might want to attach one of those "backup beepers" -- you know, the ones that beep when a truck moves in reverse -- for having backed into the playoffs despite losing seven of their last 10 outings.

    Nope, the power in the playoffs this season once again lies with the AFC, and the conference is likely to flex its muscles with an entertaining tournament.

    Mixed signals in Buffalo

    With their six-game winning streak snapped on Sunday, and out of the playoffs for a fifth straight season, the Buffalo Bills face a tough call at the quarterback position in the offseason.

    After a rocky transition under rookie coach Mike Mularkey, the Bills showed they can play with just about anyone in the league. The roster clearly has playoff-caliber talent. But as the Pittsburgh Steelers' defense again reminded people on Sunday afternoon, quarterback Drew Bledsoe might not have the tools anymore to pull Buffalo through in the big games.

    Sure, the Bills scored more points over the final seven contests than they did in all of 2003, and Bledsoe showed he can manage the game, a role to which he has been reduced. But managing a game and winning it are two different things and, in what was essentially a playoff game for the Bills on Sunday, he was mostly miserable.

    The defense constructed by coordinator Jerry Gray is top-shelf. The special teams are among the NFL's premier groups. But the Buffalo offense, with probably sufficient playmakers given the rapid development of first-round wide receiver Lee Evans, still is not consistent enough, and that puts Bledsoe under scrutiny.

    The problem for Buffalo is that the rookie season for first-round quarterback J.P. Losman was basically a medical redshirt year, because of a broken leg sustained in training camp, and he is far from ready to assume the starter's job. That means Bledsoe almost certainly returns atop the depth chart in 2005. And one can legitimately ask if that will retard the growth of a team with obvious playoff potential.

    Another day at the office

    Anyone think the New England Patriots would defend their Super Bowl title with Rohan Davey playing quarterback? Hey, nothing against the third-year veteran, who was the best player in the NFL Europe League last spring, but the production of the Patriots' offense might dip, uh, a little, with him starting in the playoffs.

    Why do we mention, with Tom Brady perfectly healthy, such a scenario? Because the final week of the season showed once again how different Patriots coach Bill Belichick is from his sideline peers. There were seven franchises that entered Sunday's games locked into their playoff seeds, with nothing to gain in the season finale, and playing out the regular-season string. Of those seven teams, only one, New England, used its starting quarterback for more than a cameo appearance.

    Only one, the Patriots, put aside concerns about injuries and the possibility of losing a quarterback in a so-called meaningless game. Pittsburgh coach Bill Cowher earns an asterisk, because Ben Roethlisberger's dinged-up ribs might have kept him out of any game.

    But Donovan McNabb of Philadelphia and San Diego's Drew Brees didn't play a snap. Brett Favre logged 19 snaps, Michael Vick 24, and Peyton Manning three.

    And Tom Brady, the man the Patriots can least afford to be without? He took 49 snaps and played into the fourth quarter before Davey entered the game. In fact, Brady's 49 snaps were three more than the starting quarterbacks from the other six teams that had secured playoffs spots notched on Sunday afternoon.

    We suppose there are some critics out there who might question the wisdom of Belichick in putting his most valuable player to three full quarters in harm's way. (Likewise, there probably are some smart alecks who will note the Pats were only playing San Francisco, and that doesn't qualify as harm's way.) But Belichick plays the game, plays every game, using each outing as an opportunity to improve and fine tune.

    For six quarterbacks, Sunday was essentially a vacation, and they barely broke a sweat. For Brady, thanks to Belichick, it was another day at work.

    Daunte Culpepper
    Quarterback
    Minnesota Vikings
    Profile
    2004 SEASON STATISTICS
    Att Comp PaTD RuTD Int Rat
    548 379 39 2 11 110.9
    Tip of the cap to Culpepper

    While the Minnesota Vikings underachieved for yet another season and backed into the playoffs, "The Morning After" would be remiss if it didn't cite the incredible season that quarterback Daunte Culpepper enjoyed in 2004.

    Lost in the glare of Peyton Manning's incredible campaign, in which he established records for touchdown passes and quarterback rating, was the fact Culpepper posted one of the greatest seasons ever for a player at the game's most critical position. He completed 379 of 548 passes for 4,717 yards, with 39 touchdown passes and only 11 interceptions. His completion rate, 69.2 percent, is the fifth highest in league history. His yardage is the seventh-best total in NFL annals.

    There have been just four years in which someone threw for more touchdowns. No one has ever thrown for as many yards with so few interceptions. No quarterback in league history has ever thrown for as many yards, with as many TD passes, and as high a completion percentage as Culpepper did in 2004.

    In any other season, Culpepper would have been the NFL's most valuable player. At best, this year, he'll finish second. But that doesn't mean his deeds should go unnoticed.

    Familiar foes

    For the second straight season, the Indianapolis Colts and Denver Broncos will square off in a first-round playoff matchup just one week after having met in the season finale.

    But familiarity is nothing new in the wild-card round of this year's Super Bowl derby. St. Louis and Seattle have met twice, the Rams winning both times. Ditto Minnesota and Green Bay, with the Packers twice triumphing, both times by 34-31 scores. And the New York Jets won at San Diego way back on Sept. 19, the second weekend of the season, long before the Chargers grew into a powerhouse team.

    Familiarity is known to breed contempt. Whether or not it results in great first-round games remains to be seen.

    Punts

    The final quarterback count is in and it shows that NFL teams used 58 different starters in 2004. That is three more starters than a year ago and above the norm for the five previous seasons. Such a number is surprising, since the league seemed to be enjoying quarterback stability at the midpoint of the campaign, but changes significantly increased over the second half. Just a dozen teams started the same quarterback for all 16 games. Five teams had at least three different starters and the Chicago Bears (with Rex Grossman, Jonathan Quinn, Craig Krenzel and Chad Hutchinson) were the lone team to employ four starters. ... Only one team, the 1967 Green Bay Packers, lost its final two games of the season and went on to win a Super Bowl. The Eagles, Falcons and Vikings will try to duplicate that feat this year. ... Minnesota was 11-5 in the first halves of the last two seasons and 6-10 in the second halves. The Vikings, who play at Green Bay in the wild-card round, have lost 20 of their last 21 games outdoors. ... Carolina was 6-2 in its final eight games and both losses were by three points. ... The league's hottest wide receiver, Muhsin Muhammad of Carolina, said Sunday he hopes to remain with the Panthers in 2005. But as he is due a $10 million roster bonus on March 1 and the Panthers are not inclined to pay it, Muhammad will have some suitors now, based on the way he resurrected his career. ... Tampa Bay's 5-11 finish was its worst since 1993 and the Bucs, who are about $25 million over the projected salary cap in 2005, will find it tough to make the sweeping changes that are needed. ... With rookie free agent Willie Parker running for 102 yards at Buffalo on Sunday, the Steelers had 11 individual rushing games of 100 yards or more this season. ... The Kansas City offense set a league record for first downs in a season, with 398. ... It's uncertain if New York Jets defensive end John Abraham, the team's best pass rusher, will be able to return for the playoffs, as he still is rehabilitating from knee surgery. But his running mate, Shaun Ellis, certainly geared up for the postseason on Sunday, notching three sacks and tipping a pass attempt that was intercepted by linebacker Jonathan Vilma and returned for a touchdown. Ellis finished the season strong, with 11 sacks, including 6½ in his final four games. ... The "Tip Sheet" last Friday reported that Dwight Freeney's 40 career sacks are the most ever by a player in his first three NFL seasons. Actually, they represent the third-most. ... Kansas City's Tony Gonzalez set a record for receptions by a tight end, with 102, including 14 on Sunday. The record had been held by Ben Coates of New England, with 96 catches in 1994. ... Green Bay defensive end Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila posted three sacks Sunday, giving him 12½ for the season, including eight in his seven games.

    Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click here Insider.

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