- John Clayton, NFL senior writer
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With all the excitement created by Brett Favre going to Minnesota, Jay Cutler going to Chicago and Matt Ryan emerging as a budding star in Atlanta, I'm starting to wonder if the NFC has finally caught up to or surpassed the AFC as a conference.
The AFC hasn't lost to the NFC in interconference play in 13 years. The AFC has won seven of the past nine Super Bowls. The reason for the edge has been the quarterbacks. It's hard to beat Tom Brady, Ben Roethlisberger, Peyton Manning and others in the postseason. The AFC had the edge on defense by being ahead of the curve in the switch to a 3-4 defense.
But the NFC has made incredible strides. I look at 10 potential playoff teams in the NFC East, South and North as being the teams that could carry the NFC banner over the AFC in interconference competition this year. The NFC East is playing the AFC West. It would be stunning if the Giants, Redskins, Eagles and Cowboys don't go 11-1 or 12-0 against Denver, Oakland and Kansas City.
The NFC North is more formidable with Aaron Rodgers, Favre and Cutler in the division. The NFC North plays the AFC North. That's quietly a great battle because the AFC North has Roethlisberger, Joe Flacco and Carson Palmer. Finally, the NFC South has Ryan, Drew Brees and Jake Delhomme going against the AFC East. With the exception of Brady, the NFC South appears to have a slight quarterback edge in those matchups.
It's not that the NFC has surpassed the AFC at the top. They probably haven't. But the conference is deeper in quarterbacks. Plus, the AFC has more potentially bad teams -- Oakland, Denver, Kansas City, Jacksonville and maybe Cleveland -- than the NFC, which has the Rams, Lions and Bucs.
Here are the 10 top questions heading into the NFL regular season.
1. Can Brett Favre make the Minnesota Vikings a Super Bowl contender?
The Vikings were the most talented team I've seen this summer. All they needed was a quarterback who could manage the game, complete about 20 passes a game and put together game-winning scoring drives in the final two minutes of games. Despite being 39, Favre can do that. Coming off biceps tendon surgery, Favre's not going to be a gun-slinging deep thrower this season. Adrian Peterson should easily put up 1,700 rushing yards, making Favre's job that much easier. The Vikings should get 11 or 12 wins, but to go to the Super Bowl, they would need to play two home playoff games. Favre has faded in cold weather late in the season the past four years.
His signing is clearly the most overrated of any I've seen in the past couple of years and it has nothing to do with Vick the player. The concept of Vick in Philadelphia doesn't fit for impact. Sure, Vick's incredible running skills scare defensive coordinators and coaches. Playing Vick, though, comes at the expense of using Donovan McNabb to his full capabilities. Remember, the Wildcat formation was good for only 5.5 yards. McNabb is worth 6.86 yards a pass attempt. Andy Reid favors the pass over the run. He prefers the screen pass to the power sweep. And I agree with McNabb that putting in Vick for five or six plays affects McNabb's rhythm with the offense. While I'm happy Vick is getting his second chance, he would have made more of an impact on other teams.
3. How big will the Wildcat offense be this season?
It will be used more, but the big impact will only be for the teams that try to work some passing plays from the formation. The Dolphins haven't shown any plays yet in which Pat White passes from the Wildcat. We'll see how that works. There aren't many teams that have Wildcat quarterbacks who pose much of a passing threat. In two games against the Dolphins, the Ravens showed ways to minimize the running impact of the Wildcat. If the Wildcat is only going to produce 5-yard running plays, the innovation will be a nice novelty but its impact will start to fade a little this season.
I still contend the Owens signing was one of the smartest of the offseason. No team needed a second wide receiver threat more than the Bills, and Owens is the perfect complement to take away some double coverage from Lee Evans. But I haven't liked what I've seen from the Bills' no-huddle offense this season. Apparently, Coach Dick Jauron didn't like it either. He fired offensive coordinator Turk Schonert on Friday. Sure, Owens has missed the preseason because of a toe injury. That's been a factor. But the Bills were outscored 31-0 in the first quarter of preseason games. Trent Edwards completed 68.4 percent of his passes, but he got only 4.97 yards an attempt. The Bills still don't look good against 3-4 defenses. And while the defense may bend but not break, I'm concerned it will be on the field too long. Owens makes them better, but it may not be good enough.
5. Will the Detroit Lions turn around now that Matt Millen is gone?
Unfortunately, no. The Lions probably will have 25 to 30 new players on the roster, but the roster is old and brittle. It still amazes me that the Lions are in perpetual rebuilding mode yet they remain one of the oldest teams in the league. For example, the average age of the current Lions starting defense is 29.82, oldest in the league. Adding Favre and Cutler to the NFC North will make it even tougher for the Lions to win a division game. The odds favor them winning two to four games, but maybe if they can get lucky, they can get to six.
6. How will the young head coaches do this season?
It's going to be a struggle. There are nine first-time head coaches, including Mike Singletary and Tom Cable, interim coaches last season. Their average age is 43.77. Mistakes are starting to mount. In Denver, Josh McDaniels, 33, couldn't get along with his two best players, losing Jay Cutler in a trade and Brandon Marshall in spirit. Raheem Morris, 33, apparently made a mistake in not knowing that Jeff Jagodzinski wasn't the right fit at offensive coordinator so he fired him Thursday. Todd Haley, 42, fired his offensive coordinator, Chan Gailey. Cable, 44, faces a major crisis if he was involved in an altercation that caused a broken jaw of an assistant coach. Of all the new coaches, the oldest will be the most successful. Jim Caldwell, 54, should have an 11- or 12-win team in Indianapolis, and Singletary, 50, will be trying to get the 49ers to the .500 mark. If the NFL gets an extension of the collective bargaining agreement with the players' union, I predict teams will start going back to the big-name, high-priced head coaches.
7. Speaking of labor talks, what is going on with CBA extension negotiations?
Very little, and that is sending the NFL down a dangerous path. The owners want some concessions from the NFLPA, but they haven't formalized what they want. Commissioner Roger Goodell is hinting the NFL is heading into an uncapped season. I respond, "Why?" To me, there are simple solutions to the complex economic problems in the NFL. Players can take a smaller percentage of the revenues knowing they will make more money from an 18-game schedule. The completely broken rookie salary scale can be traded away by the NFL giving up the ability to franchise players. My perception is that high-revenue owners can't get together with low-revenue owners on the best way to distribute shared revenues. Until they do, the players will start counting the days to a lockout.
8. What coaches are on the hot seat?
I'd list Jauron in Buffalo, Wade Phillips in Dallas, Jack Del Rio in Jacksonville, Brad Childress in Minnesota, Jim Zorn in Washington and McDaniels in Denver as being on the hottest seats. McDaniels, you ask? Didn't he just get hired? He did, but the Broncos have evolved into a version of an expansion teams this offseason. They are less talented at quarterback after the Jay Cutler trade. Here's the scariest number. They have only eight players on their roster who came to them in 2006 or earlier, and one of them, Brandon Marshall, is a malcontent. That means the Broncos are trying to replace 45 roster spots over three years. A 32-team league doesn't have a big enough pool of players to fill that much of a void.
9. Is the NFL heading toward being a league filled with 3-4 defenses?
I think the league is starting to max out on 3-4 defenses. If you include the Patriots, a dozen teams list the 3-4 as their base defense. There aren't a dozen top nose tackles and enough pass-rushing linebackers to handle such demand. The Patriots, in fact, are switching to a 4-3 defense because they have better defensive linemen than linebackers. Ironically, the Packers will have a successful transition to a 3-4 because they have enough good defensive linemen. The Broncos and Chiefs will struggle in their transition to a 3-4.
10: What should the NFL do about the dozen NFL teams that will have local television blackouts?
The simple answer would be to lift the blackouts, but you know that won't happen. The NFL operates under the simple principle that it wants its stadiums filled before putting their games on free or satellite TV. The concern is that not having the local games televised will break the fans' habit of committing Sundays to NFL games. The concerns are legit. Roger Goodell has to monitor this situation, but I don't see the blackouts being lifted.
John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
The addition of quarterbacks Brett Favre and Jay Cutler has helped the NFC close the competitive gap with the AFC.