As I was doing some light perusing this evening around the wonderfully worldwide web, I stumbled across an article on the National Football Post titled: 'Is the NFC the NFL's New Power Conference?'
The article is written by Jeff Fedotin, whose work I'm not familiar with. Not that that means anything, only that I'm not inclined to either dig in too hard or give him the benefit of the doubt. But I did find myself in stark disagreement with just about everything he had to say in the article outside of one, admittedly important, fact which I'll get to later.
As one might expect, the article begins with some quick commentary about the NFC's period of hegemony in the mid-'80s through the middle of the '90s before turning to the Denver Broncos and their two Super Bowl wins before the turn of the decade. In the new millennium, the New England Patriots embarked on a dynastic run of its own to keep momentum with the AFC.
The introduction then concludes with the following:
The Saints and Packers won the last two Super Bowls, and that is no coincidence. It represents a power shift in the NFL as the NFC has risen back to the top.
Not only do the best teams reside in the NFC, but they also are poised to stay there.
Fedotin's supporting arguments consist of a list of four NFC squads he believes are the torch bearers for the conference:
Philadelphia Eagles -- Fedotin is reluctant to label the Eagles as the team to beat, but he gushes over the addition of five Pro Bowlers this offseason and how the team is in great shape to win both now and in future years due to the favorable contracts of so many of their core players. There's no denying Philly will be in great shape in 2012 and 2013 provided the QB play is solid. The roster definitely is positioned nicely to peak very soon. But I'm not so sure about in 2011, partly because two of those five Pro Bowlers are Ronnie Brown and Vince Young. Brown might have an impact on the Eagles' season, and so may Young, but really, both are complimentary parts whose prior Pro Bowl credentials should have little to no bearing on Philadelphia getting over the hump this season.
The biggest thing tough is that it's awfully hard to win in the NFL if you're undersized and inexperienced in your front-seven. Preseason football means nothing, so I'm not trying to put too much stock in Pittsburgh's thrashing of Philadelphia last Thursday. The Eagles will be better than that without question. But there are irresolvable issues with that defense because guys can't just gain 10 pounds of muscle and get faster in two weeks time, which is basically what the Eagles linebackers need to do in order to not be a serious liability for the defense and the Eagles' aspirations.
Are the Eagles intriguing? Most certainly. Will they be really, really tough when they are playing well? Definitely. But this isn't baseball. You can't just buy your way to championships. It takes for a team to jell. There's also that pesky little issue of Michael Vick managing to stay healthy all year while playing a fearless, borderline reckless style of play. Frankly, I'd take Baltimore and San Diego over the Eagles in 2011.
New Orleans Saints -- Longtime readers of BTSC know how big of a Drew Brees fan I am, so I'm not wont to dismiss their chances in the name of sticking to my narrative here. New Orleans' roster has been a work in progress this past few years, but it's hard not to like the moves they made this offseason getting nastier in the trenches on defense. They'll be unstoppable some weeks, and if Brees' shoulder is healthy and he regains his unrivaled accuracy, they'll be right there in every game they play. ButI still can't get quite get over the fact that the Saints lost to the Arizona Cardinals, Cleveland Browns, Tampa Bay Buccaneers (at home) and Seattle Seahawks last year. There were similar head-scratchers in 2009 and 2008 as well. Last year was last year though. The Saints will for sure be tough, particularly if they are able to secure one of the top two seeds and play at home in the playoffs.
Green Bay Packers -- Not much to say here about the Packers other than that they will likely look a lot like the team that got hot down the stretch and then steamrolled through the playoffs. We'll see how the SB hangover affects Mike McCarthy's gang, but on paper, the Packers look tough.
Atlanta Falcons -- I am beginning to think that Atlanta might morph into an NFC version of the Indianapolis Colts. Both rely on great quarterback play, the defense is built to play on a fast track indoors, and both rarely will crap the bed during the regular season against inferior opponents. The Colts have been that way for years, particularly during the middle and later parts of last decade. In 2010, the Falcons dropped just three games, all to quality opponents (vs. Pittsburgh, @ Philadelphia, vs. New Orleans). I imagine that Atlanta will easily reach double-digit wins in '11, but despite adding Ray Edwards to improve the pass rush, I still don't trust Atlanta's defense come playoff time. It's a bit undersized for my liking in the front-seven.
In the AFC, Fedotin had this to say about the top challengers:
Pittsburgh Steelers -- Despite locking up two of the game's best linebackers to long-term deals, restocking with young talent at wide receiver, and drafting two future starters along the defensive line, Fedotin predictably cites the age of the Steelers defense as a primary concern:
"Nine defensive starters could be at least 30, including LB James Harrison (33), NT Casey Hampton (33), and S Troy Polamalu (30)."
Can't argue with facts, but I personally would have cited a different trio than the two of the top five defensive players in football a year ago, and the NFL's best run-stuffing nose tackle.
Indianapolis Colts - You can never count out a Peyton Manning led team, but I don't think anybody is too high on Indy's chances this year, no matter if Manning misses a week or two at the outset of the season. There's too many holes elsewhere. Still, the Colts would hardly be considered big underdogs were they to meet Atlanta or Philadelphia in the Super Bowl. The problem for Indy is that the AFC has proven to be too damn deep for such opportunities to present themselves outside of its lone successful trip in '06.
New England Patriots: For understandable reasons, Fedontin feels like the Patriots are the most likely candidate to bring the Lombardi Trophy back over to the AFC:
"I see the Patriots - especially if DL Albert Haynesworth fulfills his potential - as the lone AFC team who can compete with the NFC's top three."
Wow, wow, wow. I am a less experienced football writer, but I will never be caught dead saying that a team like the Steelers, Baltimore Ravens, or Indianapolis Colts 'can't compete with the NFC's top three.'
Can't compete? Really? What about last Halloween at the Super Dome? Were the Steelers not competitive despite playing in arguably the loudest single-game environment of the 2011 season? Did the Steelers not 'compete' with the Packers in SB XLIII despite shooting itself in the foot with three turnovers?
Baltimore Ravens -- Why aren't they on this list? If you polled 100 NFL fans, even just casual fans, more than half would mention Baltimore as legit contenders before Indianapolis this season. Baltimore has won 32 games since 2008, including 12 in 2010, and they got better this offseason with the additions of Brian McKinnie, Lee Evans, and their draft picks (most notably CB Jimmy Smith and WR Torrey Smith). To exclude a team that's gotten younger and faster while still retaining enough of its foundational veteran leadership, that just doesn't make sense. The Ravens had the AFC Champs on the ropes last January, and you better believe they'll be a tough out again for the entire league in '11.
New York Jets -- Consecutive AFC Championship Game appearances and they don't make your list of the heavyweights in the AFC??? Sure the Jets are flawed, but like the Eagles, they too splurged on fancy new upgrades. Unlike the Eagles, the Jets don't have a huge question mark anywhere on their roster. Hard to explain that omission.
San Diego Chargers -- You could easily argue that the Chargers aren't really contenders, but as a No. 5, 6 or 7 team in the AFC, they're pretty damn talented. Who was the 6th and final seed in the NFC again? Oh yeah, a Seahawks team that sported a losing record.
So, I guess I might just say that it's not a stretch to say that the creme de la creme is once again in the NFC, but an equally compelling argument could be made for the AFC being just as, if not more, top-heavy. What's harder to argue, at least in my estimation, is that the there has been any real 'power shift' towards the NFC when you look even just a few shades past the surface.
One thing is for sure though, this subject will be kicked around plenty this next few years as the NFC looks to extend its streak of consecutive Super Bowl triumphs on the coattails on a small handful of the conference's most explosive and promising teams.