Monday, April 28, 2008

viva la NFC?

Watching the NFL draft makes me think of how important this Super Bowl was, NFL-history-wise. Not just because it was one of the great games and great upsets of all time, but because it may very well be looked back upon as the turning point that ended the AFC's rule of the league and tipped the balance to the NFC.

To explain: though no one really thinks of it this way, the NFL has a habit of being dominated by one conference at a time. Consider:

1960-68. In this period, there were two leagues, not two conferences. The NFL was vastly superior to the upstart AFL, though only in the last two years were there Super Bowls to demonstrate this. The NFL's Packers won both, by a combined 44 points.

1969-1981. By Super Bowl III, the AFL had caught up to the NFL in terms of talent level and team organization. It won the next two Bowls in stunning upsets, and when the leagues merged, the AFC dominance continued. All told, between III and XV the AFC had an 11-2 record, with Dallas being the only NFC team to win it all in this stretch.

1982-97. Starting with the 49ers victory over the Bengals, the NFC took 15 of 16, including 13 in a row, and most of them were blowouts.

1998-2007. When Denver upset Green Bay, it started a streak of 8 AFC titles in 10 years.

Why does this happen? Quite simply, in each period, the best two or three or four teams have coalesced in one conference. The other conference has had good teams, even dynastic ones, but they have been consistently inferior to the other side. I don't have a good explanation as to why. I'm not sure there is one. The best I can come up with is that constantly playing against great teams in your conference and/or division forces you to build and become a better team. (Consider, for example, how their annual beat-down at the hands of New England made Indy a championship-caliber team. Or how in the early '90s, three of the best four teams in football -- Giants, Redskins, Cowboys -- were banging heads twice a year each in the same DIVISION.) Whatever the reason, the results are undeniable.

The best example is the NFC streak from '82-97. During this period, the NFC had dominant 49ers, Redskins, Giants, Cowboys and Bears teams, and later in the streak, Packers as well. Those six franchises combined for all of the 15 wins, with San Francisco, Dallas, and Washington alone accounting for 11 of these. Yes, the AFC had powerhouses then too. Buffalo and Denver reached the Super Bowl seven times in eight years... and lost them all, six times by double-digits. And I mean BAD double digits. Try 39-20, 42-10, 55-10, 30-13 and 52-17 on for size. And that doesn't count the Bills' 37-24 loss to the 'Skins where they set the Super Bowl record for allowing the most consecutive points out of the gate. Mid-3rd quarter, they were down 24-zip.

What does this mean for the Giants? Well, each of these historic runs of conference domination started with a Super Bowl upset. Jets over Colts in III sparked an AFL/AFC run led by the Dolphins, Steelers, and Raiders. The 49ers stunning '81 season, when the West Coast Offense was born, sparked NFC rule in the 80s and early 90s. Denver's shocking defeat of Green Bay in XXXII turned the tables. But how much longer with the AFC teams that were dominant in this stretch keep it up? The powerful Broncos, Titans and Ravens teams are all largely disbanded. While the Patriots and Colts (and Chargers for that matter) are the teams to beat next season, the former two are getting up there in the years, and their rosters and coaching staffs are constantly being raided by their competition in this era of free agency. In 1981, right after AFC wild card Oakland had thumped Philly 27-10 in the Superdome, who could have predicted one Super Bowl title for the AFC in the next decade and a half? Could we be launching a new age of NFC rule? Time will tell.

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