Halfway through season, NFC is dominant
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By BARRY WILNER
AP Pro Football Writer
Halfway through the season, something's missing -- mostly -- on a list of the league's elite teams.
It's difficult to make a case for including any team from the conference other than Houston among the league's best, while unbeaten Atlanta, San Francisco, Chicago, Green Bay and the New York Giants could be considered in that category from the NFC.
Coming off three straight Super Bowl wins and four out of the last five, the NFC is playing some dominant football on both sides of the line.
In interconference play, it's up 23-13 on the AFC, led by the Falcons sweeping the AFC West, and the Bears going 3-0 against the AFC South -- with Chicago meeting the Texans on Sunday in the biggest matchup of the season so far. The Bears are slight favorites in the showdown of 7-1 teams.
That's not too much of a surprise, really. Chicago is home and only Pittsburgh, 3-0 against the suddenly vulnerable NFC East, has showed strength among AFC teams when crossing over.
The NFC has outscored the AFC 1,012-767 in head-to-head matchups, and has a plus-30 turnover margin in those games.
"The quarterbacks as a group are deeper in the NFC," says former NFL executive Pat Kirwan, who has looked extensively at the differences in the conferences. "The bottom teams in the NFL are all in the AFC: Jacksonville, Kansas City and Cleveland."
Just as pronounced are the statistical rankings, with six of the top eight defensive teams coming from the NFC. In a league where just about everyone can play offense -- sorry Jacksonville, your 117 points wouldn't cut it in the ACC -- the efficient defenses tend to swing the pendulum of power.
But if you want offense, something the league is providing plenty of once again this year, note that seven of the 11 highest-rated passers are from the NFC, as are eight of the top 11 receivers. The ground game? Try the top four, led by Minnesota star Adrian Peterson, and six of the first 10 are NFCers.
There's far more balance to NFC attacks.
"I think the balance has to be more maybe not weekly but over the course of the season," said Buccaneers coach Greg Schiano, whose team has averaged 36 points in winning three of the last four, two of those victories against -- you guessed it -- the AFC.
"You have to take what the defense gives you. Different weeks the defense is going to afford you different opportunities. I think that's the hardest thing, coaches being able to recognize it and if it's different than what they've shown, being able to adjust. And for your players being able to get that communicated to them and having a system that is flexible enough to change the game plan because of the way they are playing the offense."
Back to defense, consider that seven of the top 10 players in sacks, and 11 of the first 15, are from the NFC. Six of the eight best sacks teams are from the conference.
Of the 19 players with at least three interceptions, 13 are from the NFC.
Get the picture? Well, half the picture considering we have eight more weeks left in the regular-season.
Kirwan cautions that the AFC, which had the edge in interconference play from 1996-2010 (the NFC edged it 33-31 last season) could turn it around before January.
Defenses have not closed the gap in what every year becomes more of an offense-oriented league. Games are averaging 705 yards gained, nearly 12 ahead of the record pace of last season. Yards through the air is rising to the stratosphere, more than 17 yards a game higher than the 2011 record.
The Bears' defense is adding significantly to the points totals, which are not quite on a record pace and might slow down as cold weather hits in many NFL cities. Chicago has seven interception returns for touchdowns and eight scores on defense already.
"At any given time on Sunday, anyone on this defense can score," said star linebacker Brian Urlacher, who did just that last Sunday. "We didn't have that back in the day."
Here's another wrinkle. Consider that the NFC has been dominant even though three teams usually among the contenders -- New Orleans, Dallas and Philadelphia -- have fallen into mediocrity. Or worse.
The Saints, of course, have been damaged by the bounties scandal that cost them coach Sean Payton for the season. Having a sieve of a defense has exacerbated their fall to 3-5, leaving them on the very outer fringe of the playoff race.
That's also where the Cowboys and Eagles have plummeted to through eight games. Dallas has issues with fundamentals such as receivers running the right routes and actually holding onto passes. Philly's defense can't tackle anyone and the offense, specifically Michael Vick, keeps turning over the ball.
Still, they tend to keep games close, as do most teams except the Titans, who have allowed a ludicrous 308 points in going 3-6. Already, 31 games have had the winning points scored in the final two minutes or in overtime. Eleven of those were decided in the last 10 seconds of the fourth quarter and 10 went to OT.
Among the players producing the heroics in those games have been a bunch of rookies in what might be the strongest freshman class in years. Five first-year quarterbacks have started and, generally, made an impact, with the Colts' Andrew Luck -- top overall pick last April -- noteworthy for his success. He's lifted Indianapolis into the playoff push after the team won two games last season.
Robert Griffin III in Washington and Russell Wilson in Seattle have provided all kinds of excitement at the position, but don't think only young QBs are making headlines. From running backs Doug Martin in Tampa and Trent Richardson in Cleveland to Bucs safety Mark Barron and Patriots DE Chandler Jones, it's been a rocking half-season for rookies.
"I don't really know if there's something in the water or what. The rookies are definitely making a huge impact this year," Dolphins running back Reggie Bush said.
So are Manning and Peterson in their comebacks from major injuries and surgery. Now that Manning is approaching full health and a symbiotic relationship with his receivers, the Broncos have started looking like Super Bowl material. Peterson, coming off left knee surgery, returned to the lineup in less than nine months and has been, well, as sensational as ever.
For all the NFC superiority, the great comebacks, the offensive explosions and the remarkable rookies, the first half of the 2012 season might be most remembered for the opening three weeks of replacement officials. Indeed, if the Packers miss the postseason and the Seahawks make it, Seattle's 14-12 victory in Week 3 on a last-second desperation pass that sparked the end of the lockout of the regular officials will be revisited endlessly.
Thankfully, there's nearly two months of action left to dim the memories of those blown calls and indecisive noncalls. Eight weeks of points galore, perhaps. Of record-setting performances, for sure.
Maybe even an AFC revival.
Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press
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