Surprise! AFC Reigns Supreme

Dalton (Andy Lyons - Getty)

Contrary to popular thinking at the start of the season, the NFC has not been the powerhouse conference. Of the NFC's playoff teams last year, only one of them has a winning record.

With the 49ers, Falcons, Seahawks, Packers, resurgent Saints and promising Redskins, the NFC looked to have it all over the AFC.

Three weeks into the season, it's the AFC that has been dominant.

AFC clubs have won 11 of 14 meetings with the NFC. Most confounding have been the early flops by five of the six NFC playoff teams from 2012; only Seattle has a winning record.

Meanwhile, all six AFC playoff qualifiers from last year are winners, while the Dolphins and Chiefs have been revelations. The Colts seem even stronger than they were in their turnaround 2012 season, and even the Jets and Titans look good.

Sure, it's early — and the Saints and Bears certainly look promising — but there's no question the NFC is struggling with abysmal 0-3 starts by the Redskins, Vikings and Giants and disappointing showings by the Packers and Falcons, both 1-2.

"I think a lot of it is personnel," says 2002 league MVP Rich Gannon, now an analyst for CBS Sports and SiriusXM. "Indianapolis went out and got new starters on defense after they got bullied in the running game last year, and added an intimidator at safety in LaRon Landry. So much of the talk is about Andrew Luck and getting Trent Richardson, but take a look at what they did to the 49ers in San Francisco. They are getting better.

"Look at Miami, and I think it goes back to last year. Joe Philbin has done an outstanding job with that program. The defense has gotten better on the back end. The quarterback (Ryan Tannehill) has really benefited from the coaching and matured."

Of the 14 interconference meetings, two NFC victories were by the unbeaten Bears, 24-21 over Cincinnati, 40-23 over reeling Pittsburgh. The other was Seattle's 45-17 rout of Jacksonville, the consensus worst team in the league in the AP Pro32 rankings.

Far more impressive: Indy's 27-7 victory at Candlestick Park; the Bengals' 34-30 decision against Green Bay; the Dolphins' beating Atlanta 27-23.

Kansas City, which has interconference wins over the Cowboys and Eagles — huge because Andy Reid returned to win in Philly — might be the biggest surprise. Shouldn't be, but maybe the Chiefs epitomize what's going on through three weeks.

The better AFC teams are protecting the ball and getting takeaways. They are rushing the passer successfully. And, in many cases — Chiefs over Cowboys, Bears over Bengals, Browns over Vikings — they are outcoaching the opposition.

"I believed that would be a quick fix in Kansas City," Gannon says. "I did some Chiefs games last year, knew there was talent there. You're looking at a team that turned it over 37 times last year. But Alex Smith might be the best quarterback at ball security. Look at his won-loss percentage recently. You can label him any way you want. He's a good leader, makes great decisions and takes care of the football.

"Combine that with a defense that can harass the quarterback and they now have some stability where they had not had it, at the two crucial positions of head coach and quarterback, that has made a world of difference."

Everything could change in the AFC-NFC series as early as, well, this week. There are seven interconference matchups and NFC teams are favored in four of them.

Then again, the Giants can't protect Eli Manning or run the ball, and the Chiefs' defense leads the league in sacks — and physicality. New England should never be counted out against anyone, and is 13-2 in its past 15 road games against the NFC.

Other than the Saints, not one of the NFC teams playing this week is close to peak efficiency. The Giants, Vikings and Redskins are a combined 0-9, the Eagles can't stop anybody on defense, and the Cowboys are inconsistent.

"Sometimes you fall into the trap as players and coaches, thinking, 'We are better than this, we will get this thing turned around,' " Gannon said. "Maybe you are not all that talented. Those teams all have major concerns and issues."


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