Debunking the NFC Over AFC Myth, No One Wants to Win the North, Carolina’s Revenge and More
Written by Ross Gariepy
As someone who loyally supports an AFC team, I’m starting to get a bit of an inferiority complex when I look over at the NFC. After all, the NFC has won four of the last five Super Bowls—with two of those wins coming over my Patriots—and five of the past nine Pro Bowls! OK, I’m joking about the Pro Bowl relevance. But it’s been pretty common this year to hear NFL analysts talk about the dominant NFC. And I heard a bunch of talk last year from my friends about how the Patriots only made it to the Super Bowl because they were in a very weak AFC. More recently when I was exchanging emails the other day with a group of college friends about all of our teams potentially making the playoffs, one asshole replied “…I think the bigger story here is that if the Pats were in the NFC, they would almost certainly have been eliminated from playoff contention by now.” Obviously he was exaggerating, but I’m getting pretty fed up with this perception that the AFC is the NFC’s little brother. Having lived for nearly 30 years as a little brother, I can attest to the frustration that must be boiling over in all of the AFC teams. One minute the big brothers are making fun of you and locking you out of the house as a prank, and the next minute you’re bursting through the door with two Super Soakers locked and loaded and start unleashing hell on them (only to realize a few minutes later that water can’t hurt anyone and Mom and Dad are gonna be PISSED when they see what you’ve done to the living room).
But is the talent gap between the two conferences a reality or just perception? Other than waiting for the Super Bowl and hoping it matches up the best team from each conference, there’s a pretty limited set of data that can help us answer this question. When looking at the conferences from top to bottom, I guess the overall record in interconference play is the best indicator. You might be surprised to learn that after 13 weeks, the NFC has a four-game lead on the AFC. It’s a 27-23 record in favor of the big brother. While the NFC jumped out to a dominating record earlier in the year—I think they had a 23-13 record against the AFC at one point—we can all agree that the current record barely favors them. And while it’s fun to look at this from the entirety of the NFL, who really cares about the outcome of Arizona against the Jets (an atrocity to organized sports that was played last week), or Carolina vs Kansas City? I also think it’s irrelevant to look at the record of the best NFC teams vs the bad AFC teams and vice versa. Of course we expect the 49ers to beat up on the Bills. So what about looking at the top seven teams from each conference and how they’ve fared against each other? Seven is a bit of an arbitrary number, but it includes all the likely playoff teams plus an extra team that’s still in contention. I’m happy to report that in all the interconference games played this year between the top seven in the NFC and the top seven in the AFC, it’s the AFC holding a slight lead with a 6-4 record. So suck…on…that, NFC!
Even an expert like me was fooled a few weeks ago into thinking the NFC was significantly better. When I released my Power Rankings after week 9, I had Houston at the top followed by four NFC teams (Atlanta, Chicago, NY Giants, San Francisco). But how quickly things change. Everyone seems to agree that Atlanta isn’t nearly as good as its record. The Bears have lost three of four and are suddenly in danger of missing the playoffs. If the Giants don’t turn things around quickly, they may have a similar record to the Jets by the end of the season. And the 49ers have suffered a tie and a loss to the Rams while also inserting a second-year quarterback with no experience since I wrote those Power Rankings. Meanwhile in the AFC, the Texans continue to be the team to beat, but the Broncos and Patriots have closed the gap and answered a lot of questions. If I was updating my Power Rankings, they’d now look like this:
3. New England
4. Green Bay
5. San Francisco
The one thing I’m wiling to admit is that the NFC seems to have a more competitive bottom tier. Their worst teams are better than the AFC’s worst teams. So you can argue that the disparity at the bottom makes for inflated records of the AFC’s best teams. But it doesn’t matter because we just proved that the AFC’s best has more than held their ground against the NFC’s best.
For the first time in my life, I’m starting to feel a rivalry with an entire conference, not just a team or two that I hate. Usually when the Patriots get eliminated in the playoffs, I turn my allegiance to whatever NFC team has the best shot at knocking off the AFC in the Super Bowl (after all, how could I ever root for Indy, Pittsburgh or Baltimore to win a championship), but this year I’m not so sure that’ll be the case.
Maybe I’ve done enough with this argument to spark some debate and get my first comment on the blog in about four months. Maybe I haven’t. Either way let’s move on to the week 14 picks:
Denver (-10.5) over Oakland: [Editor’s Note: This was written and posted on Twitter before Thursday night’s game.] For those of you who are suspicious about this line, I went ahead and looked into all the numbers and stats for you. There is absolutely no piece of data out there that can convince you to take Oakland. We’re talking about one of the top three teams in the NFL against the worst team in the NFL. And if that sounds all too familiar, it’s because in week 11, we all thought the same thing about Houston vs Jacksonville. That game went to overtime, and Houston was unable to cover the spread. Don’t think that’ll be the case with Denver on Thursday night. Why? I don’t know. I just know I refuse to pick Oakland again this year, especially against a team firing on all cylinders like the Broncos.
Pittsburgh (-7) over San Diego: This line is just annoyingly high enough to make me think about taking the Chargers. After all, we should expect the Steelers to bring Ben Roethlisberger back slowly, meaning they’ll try to run the ball as much as possible and focus more on keeping him healthy than on building a big lead. But the Chargers aren’t just bad at this point in the season; they’re decimated with injuries and bad. They’ve lost four straight road games, three of which came by seven or more points. I hate starting the week off by picking two big favorites. But these AFC West teams (not including Denver) are just so hard to pick. And it’s not like the Steelers need extra incentive right now. They’re fighting off the Bengals for a wildcard spot, and they still have a shot to overtake the Ravens in the North. Big time motivation to not fuck around with an inferior team like San Diego.
Tennessee (+6) over Indianapolis: Their records may be drastically different, but these two teams are a lot closer in terms of talent and stats than you may realize. The big difference that jumps out of course is at quarterback, where it seems the Colts have a huge advantage in Andrew Luck. But do they really? Over Luck’s past three games, he’s thrown seven interceptions and seven touchdowns. He hasn’t had a QB rating higher than 72 or a completion percentage higher than 54 in any of those three games either. It’s impossible to factor in how big of a boost Indy might get if Chuck Pagano shows up for the game (or makes a pre-game appearance in their locker room), but this Colts team is not as good as their record says, and eventually they’ll have to fall back to the below-average team they’re supposed to be. I’ll probably keep picking against them as long as they’re giving close to a touchdown, regardless of the opponent.
NY Jets (-3) over Jacksonville: Is it possible that the Jets, knowing their season is completely fucked, are just making moves based on what will generate the most buzz and attention toward themselves? If Rex Ryan had decided this week that Greg McElroy is his starting QB for the rest of the season and he had told the media that, the Jets would be boring over these final four games. If Rex had said weeks ago that Mark Sanchez is his starter the rest of the year, that would be boring too. So instead we get to all watch as the Jets play musical chairs with their three QBs. Would it surprise you at all if Sanchez gets pulled for Tim Tebow this week and then next Tuesday Rex names McElroy the week 15 starter while making Sanchez inactive, only to pull the old switcheroo in week 16 and make Tebow the starter with Sanchez the backup? Do you think Rex has banged out the complex math to know that he has exactly six starter-backup QB combinations? He’s right on pace…Sanchez-McElroy in week 13, Sanchez-Tebow this week, and then three more weeks to work with. Anyway…I’m picking the Jets because at least they do two things pretty well (running offense and passing defense) while the Jags do nothing well.
Minnesota (+3) over Chicago: Chicago’s really on the ropes right now…They’ve lost three out of four, their history-making defense has taken a big step back, star cornerback Tim Jennings is out at least one game and Brian Urlacher is out for the rest of the regular season. Of course I shouldn’t ignore that the one team they’ve beaten in the last four games is Minnesota. But the Vikings will have the best player on the field in Adrian Peterson on Sunday, and he did average six yards on 18 carries when these teams met two weeks ago. The problem was Minnesota fell behind 25-3 after the first half so Christian Ponder was forced to throw the ball 43 times. Speaking of Ponder, if he had managed to throw one less red zone interception against Green Bay last week, we’d probably be talking about how the Vikings are only one game back from the Bears for the NFC North lead. This would be such an easy Minnesota pick if the line was just a half-point higher (hopefully for you bettors out there it goes to 3.5 or 4 by game time). I’m taking them anyway and hoping the Bears continue their second annual second half slide.
Atlanta (-3.5) over Carolina: We all know the drill here. Atlanta’s a bad 11-1 team. They’ve been extremely lucky (7-1 record in games decided by one score). They don’t know how to put anyone away. Also, you might have seen that Carolina’s out for revenge (with Panthers defensive end Greg Hardy even wishing the dreaded stomach bug on the Falcons). But really, how much stock can you put into a 3-9 team trash-talking and making guarantees? I also think the pendulum has swung far enough in one direction for Atlanta—that they can’t blow anybody out, that they should really by something like 7-4, that you can count on a tight game no matter who they play—that it’s time it swung back the other way. If I’m a Falcons player, I’m saying “enough is enough” with the disrespect and I’m going into this game with the intention of burying the Panthers. This is probably the game that makes us all reconsider how easily we’re dismissing the Falcons as contenders (for the record, I still don’t like them against most of the other NFC playoff teams).
In case you’re not watching the videos or keeping close tabs, I’ll let you know that Molly is tearing it up in her picks this year. She’s pretty much a lock at this point with a 9-4 season record. For this week, I couldn’t decide between Philadelphia and Tampa Bay. Clearly Tampa should win, but they’re 7.5-point favorites. That might be high. So I took the guessing out of it by handing the pick over to Molly. I tried to make sure she knew that Tampa is one of the best against the spread this season (8-3-1) and Philly is one of the worst (3-9). Let’s see what she decided on:
St. Louis (+3) over Buffalo: These two teams seem pretty evenly matched, right? One’s a little better on offense (Buffalo), and one’s a little better on defense (St. Louis). No distinct advantage for either team at quarterback. The Bills are 5-7; the Rams are 5-6-1. St. Louis can’t really win on the road; Buffalo doesn’t really have much of a home field advantage. In a year where the underdog is 20 games over .500 through 13 weeks, take the points when all else fails.
Cincinnati (-3) over Dallas: Hard to believe both these teams were left for dead after week 9 losses dropped them both to 3-5. The thinking is always that a team can’t lose more than six games if they want a shot at the playoffs. So it wasn’t crazy to count the Cowboys and Bengals out at that point. Since then Cincinnati has won four straight, and Dallas has gone 3-1. If the Cowboys lose, they’re out. The Cowboys are out (Side Note: If this line was even a half-point higher, I’d be taking Dallas).
Washington (-3) over Baltimore: Washington’s another team that was counted out after week 9, and they were an even worse 3-6 at the time. Suddenly with the NFC East looking like an exact replica of the NFC West from years past, it’s a wide open division. Baltimore’s last three games have looked like this: three-point win over Byron Leftwich at Pittsburgh, overtime win at San Diego due to a combination of a miracle play and a checked-out opponent, loss at home to Charlie Batch and the Steelers. That’s a three-week run that even the Chiefs would be embarrassed by. I think the Ravens finally won’t play a game that’s decided by three points…I think they get blown the F out and suddenly we’ll have a very interesting finish in the AFC North.
Kansas City (+6.5) over Cleveland: Just a miserable game to pick. Cleveland’s obviously the better team, but…6.5 points? I dunno, is it logical to think that after the Chiefs played an inspired game in the wake of last Saturday’s tragedy they’ve now had to deal with a full week of distractions, stress and a bunch of other things that have hurt their ability to focus on football? It’s definitely possible, but I’m taking the points. That’s a HUGE spread for a team like the Browns.
San Francisco (-10) over Miami: This is one of two switcheroos I’m pulling with my picks this week (“switcheroo” being defined as “a pick I switch at the last minute, after having written a whole justification about taking one team, doing a 180 and deciding on the other team”). You know what the 49ers do once every three or four games? Blow a team out. This week might be their last chance to have one of those games before the season ends. And since I have nothing more to contribute to these two teams, I’d like to make sure everyone’s now seen Jim Harbaugh’s guest appearance in Saved By the Bell, The New Class from years ago.
New Orleans (+5) over NY Giants: This is the other switcheroo. I had started to write out a paragraph about how the Saints haven’t beaten anyone good this year, and how the Giants would bounce back from their loss in Washington on Monday. I still think the Giants win, but I think the Saints can give us a backdoor cover (after losing two games last week to the backdoor cover—New England and Dallas—I will be on the lookout for them for the rest of my life). It’s supposed to be ugly weather in New Jersey on Sunday, and I think this game will be appropriately ugly.
Seattle (-10) over Arizona: So Seattle lost one of their two Pro Bowl-caliber cornerbacks because Brandon Browner decided to drop his PED appeal and start serving his four-game suspension this week. Luckily against Arizona, you only need one good cornerback, and it looks like Aqib Talib-wannabe Richard Sherman will still be in there for the Seahawks. I have no idea how the Cardinals will score any points in this game. If the ‘Hawks can just claw their way to 14 points, they’ll cover the spread. Call it a hunch, but I think they get it done.
Green Bay (-7) over Detroit: I’m torn for a bunch of reasons on this game. Because it’s a Sunday night prime time game, I wanted to write that Aaron Rodgers on national TV is turning into what Peyton Manning has always been under the spotlight. After all, Rodgers easily beat the Bears in week 2 in the Thursday night game and then demolished the Texans in week 6 in the Sunday night game. But the Packers also got blown out by the Giants just two weeks ago in that same Sunday night slot (and let’s not forget about the Monday nighter at Seattle in week 3…regardless of the referee debacle, Green Bay wasn’t all that impressive in that game). So the “Rodgers on national TV” argument carries no weight. What about the fact that Detroit’s lost four in a row? Well in that stretch they’ve lost by two, three, four and 10 points. Not exactly getting embarrassed or anything. And you can’t really say Green Bay is rounding into playoff form or anything. In their last three games, they beat the Lions by four, then got laughed back to Wisconsin in their big game with the Giants, and then beat the Vikings by nine, but probably only because Christian Ponder is so very bad. I’m gonna hate myself for this, but I’m giving Green Bay one last chance to impress me. Sunday night, in Green Bay, needing to win to stay in front in the North and in the chase for the #2 seed in the NFC. I’m ready to be impressed but prepared to be disappointed.
Houston (+4) over New England: I refuse to spend a lot of time thinking about this game because I’ll inevitably convince myself to pick the Patriots. Houston is the best team in the NFL at this point in the season. There’s no reason they should be a four-point underdog. The correct line on this game is New England -2 or -2.5. I’d be stunned if this game isn’t decided by a field goal. For the most part this year, the Texans have beat the bad teams by a lot and the good teams by a little. You can’t ask for more than that. By my count both teams have played four games against teams that are likely going to the playoffs this year. Houston is 3-1 in those games; the Patriots are 2-2. Earlier this season I wrote that New England and Baltimore might be the two most evenly-matched teams in the NFL…or at least among all the playoff teams they were. But now I’m thinking the Patriots and Texans are the two that are so close together. Again, this all points to a close game, one that New England doesn’t win by more than a field goal.
Stats for Week 14:
-Road Favorites: 3
-Road Underdogs: 6
-Home Underdogs: 1