You had a great run, AFC. But the NFC has taken the torch — by force. The 2012 season is the year we will remember as when the NFC reclaimed their spot as the league’s best conference.
The NFL is cyclical. When the NFC was the dominant conference, their teams won 13 consecutive Super Bowls (1984-1996 seasons). After the 1997 Denver Broncos broke the dry spell, the AFC won nine of the next 12 Super Bowls.
As is usually the case, the balance of power swung back and stayed with the AFC thanks to superior talent at the two key positions of head coach and quarterback. Bill Belichick found Tom Brady in New England, Tony Dungy was the best coach for Peyton Manning, and Ben Roethlisberger won Super Bowls under Bill Cowher and Mike Tomlin in Pittsburgh.
Those three teams and quarterbacks have started the last nine Super Bowls for the AFC, and 10 of the past 11. They have also been the class of the AFC, enjoying three of the most successful runs in NFL history.
But nothing stays the same forever. All three lost their most recent Super Bowl over the last three seasons, shifting the power back to the NFC and their prolific combinations at coach and quarterback.
Tom Coughlin and Eli Manning have bested Brady and Belichick in two Super Bowls. Two 2006 rookie coaches, Sean Payton and Mike McCarthy, paired up with dominant quarterbacks like Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers. They have won the last three championships (four of the last five).
More than just the Super Bowl wins, the NFC has recently been dominating the AFC in the regular season.
Even when the AFC was at its best, 2004 (14-9) and 2006 (12-15), their non-conference record through seven weeks was never as gaudy as the 19-9 (.679) mark the NFC holds this season. It comes after winning the 2011 season series, 33-31, for the first time since the league went to eight divisions in 2002.
Last year appeared to be an aberration for the AFC with Peyton Manning’s neck surgeries derailing the Colts’ season. Matt Schaub went down after 10 games in Houston. Philip Rivers’ play deteriorated. Ben Roethlisberger had a high-ankle sprain late in the season. Things should have improved this year through healing alone.
But that has not been the case, and it shows up in the marquee match-ups.
Teams buried in the NFC playoff race right now could be leading or tied for the lead in certain AFC divisions.
How did the NFC take control?
These changes do not happen overnight. Without much consistent winning, the NFC has used high draft picks to add significant talent since 2007, such as Calvin Johnson, Adrian Peterson, Patrick Willis, Matt Ryan, Matthew Stafford, Ndamukong Suh, Clay Matthews, Sam Bradford, Cam Newton, Aldon Smith, Jason Pierre-Paul, Earl Thomas, Julio Jones, and Robert Griffin III.
The NFC only has two teams (at best) with serious quarterback issues. The Eagles already have a successor behind Michael Vick (Nick Foles), while the Cardinals deal with injuries and inconsistencies from John Skelton and Kevin Kolb. St. Louis (Bradford), Carolina (Newton) and Detroit (Stafford) each wish their No. 1 overall pick was playing better right now, but those players are not going anywhere next year.
The AFC could see quarterback changes (this year or next) in Buffalo, New York, Kansas City, while situations with Tennessee, Jacksonville, Oakland and even San Diego are anything but stable. That is seven of the 16 teams.
The five best quarterbacks in the AFC were all drafted in 2004 or earlier. The cupboards have not been properly restocked around the conference, leading to the NFC’s resurgence.
ProFootballTalk: Patriots QB Tom Brady addressed Wes Welker’s decision to head West to Denver. Brady says he isn’t surprised by anything after being in the league for so long and hopes that Welker has a great season with the Broncos.
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