As the NFC Slips, the AFC Could be in the Midst of a Renaissance

The balance of power between pro football’s American and National conferences is shifting. The AFC’s stock is firmly up and the NFC’s reign as the strongest and most competitive conference in the NFL could be coming to end, writes James Shaw.

Since the AFL-NFL merger in 1966, the American Football Conference has often found itself playing catch-up to its older, and more storied, competitor turned partner. The NFC, which can trace its roots back to the 1920s, houses most of the NFL’s “Blue Blood” franchises, while containing a lesser number of the league’s perennial strugglers. Indeed, where parity has always been a characteristic of the NFC, the American conference has long been notable for possessing a small coterie of Super Bowl-calibre teams. Since 2000, only six AFC teams — the Patriots, Colts, Steelers, Ravens, Broncos, and Raiders — have made the final game of the year. And during the same period, the NFC has sent twice that number of teams.

The era of Tom Brady and Peyton Manning, which saw New England and the Colts (and then later the Broncos) dominate the AFC, solidified the widespread, and largely justified, perception that the conference was stacked at the very top, but soft in the middle and frankly dismal at the bottom. Sure, we had years in which other teams crashed the party (although only the Steelers were able to repeat this feat), but not since the 2010-11 season has the American conference produced four genuine Super Bowl contenders — something that has become almost routine in the NFC. The gulf between the top of the two conferences was arguably at its most cavernous last year: Where New England’s Super Bowl berth felt like something of a fait accompli by Week 17, the NFC served-up a legitimate four-way clash between Dallas, Green Bay, Atlanta, and Seattle. The murderers’ row of the National conference left us in no doubt as to which was the stronger half of the league. 

But as anyone who follows the league knows, flux is one of the few constants in the NFL — and as we now bed-in for the 2017 season, it seems that a shift in the balance of power between the two conferences may have occurred. This year, the AFC looks to be deeper than ever, replete with formidable rosters, elite quarterbacks, and emergent play-making talent. With a top-tier consisting of New England, Pittsburgh, Kansas City, Oakland, and Denver (and with Baltimore, Tennessee, and Miami knocking on the door), the conference is set-up to produce a highly-competitive playoff race in which small missteps could prove fatal. Three of the conference’s premier teams all come from the same division, and Pittsburgh’s attempt to win back-to-back division titles is no done-deal. With only two wildcard spots available, at least one strong team will miss out. The margin for error is slight.

The state of the AFC stands in stark contrast to that of NFC which, after two weeks of competitive football, has been found desperately lacking in the offensive department. Carolina, once the class of the National conference, looks unimproved after an abject campaign in 2016, and Seattle’s offense is in dire need of reinforcements. As things stand, the teams that represented the NFC in three of the last four Super Bowls seem set to fall way short of preseason expectations. The conference’s other big guns have also had rocky starts to the 2017 season. Dallas was given a wake-up call in Colorado, and Green Bay’s offense has yet to start really firing (admittedly, the Packers’ first two games are among the toughest they’ll face all year). Though most of us expect the Cowboys and Packers to join the Falcons in setting the pace in the NFC, only Atlanta can be considered formidable through two weeks of football.

The AFC hasn’t, however, merely improved relative to the National conference. Instead, the American appears to be genuinely loaded, thanks in large part to the quality of its West division, the strongest in the league. The Broncos — no one’s offseason Super Bowl pick — turned in a statement performance against the Cowboys in Week Two, reminding doubters that the defense in Denver is still elite — and that the offense isn’t bad too. Similarly, the Chiefs’ win over the Patriots on opening-night remains the highlight of the still-embryonic season, and there is no doubt that Kansas City is still in win-now mode despite using their first pick to take a project QB. And while the Raiders have yet to be seriously tested, a continuation of their 2016 form will put them squarely in the Super Bowl conversation.

The AFC’s other powerhouse division also looks strong — at least at the top. The improved Baltimore Ravens could be set to challenge Pittsburgh for supremacy in the North, and at the very least should displace a Cincinnati Bengals organization which has turned playoff mediocrity into a motif. If the Ravens are to make the playoffs (a longshot, I’ll admit), they could very well make some noise as they have done in the past.

Elsewhere, it should be said, the state of the AFC isn’t quite so rosy. The South division, which has an array of intriguing young quarterback talent, is far from elite this year, and should be won comfortably by the Titans. That said, when Andrew Luck returns, and Marcus Mariota and DeShaun Watson develop, it could very well grow into one of the NFL’s premier groupings. And lastly, the AFC East might be worse than ever, but the case remains that Patriots are still the top contender for the Super Bowl, and the Dolphins could yet be a team to keep an eye on this year.

That the AFC is in the midst of a renaissance isn’t just the opinion of this columnist. The upswing in the conference has been reflected by some wild swings in the NFL futures markets — swings that have seen the NFC’s stock dip sharply. Below is a table containing the Super Bowl futures prices (from the Betfair exchange market) for this year’s contenders.

 Team Opening Now
 New England 5.5 5.4
 Green Bay 9 11
 Seattle 11 12
 Dallas 11 17
 Pittsburgh 12 11
 Atlanta 12 12.5
 Oakland 20 14.5
 Kansas City 30 18
 Denver 30 24
 New York 15 75

The trends are clear. The odds for NFC teams have all gotten longer, whereas the prices for the AFC have moved in — and in some cases considerably. It’s still early days, but the markets are clearly suggesting both that the AFC was undervalued going into the season, and that it possesses its own pool of elite teams capable of vying for a Super Bowl. The AFC might not have “blue blood” franchises in the same numbers as the NFC, but don’t be surprised if it finishes the year with the best collection of top teams.

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