A perception exists that the NFC has overtaken the AFC as the more powerful conference in the league. A Super Bowl win by the New York Giants may have signaled the shift, and a season-ending injury to New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady made it more of a reality.
On Sunday, the NFC will send its best team to Pittsburgh for what should be an excellent measuring-stick game. It also could be a Super Bowl preview.
1. The Tom Coughlin factor: Some teams run from adversity, but the Giants embrace it and use it as motivation. When Michael Strahan retired and Pro Bowl defensive end Osi Umenyiora went down with a season-ending knee injury, we downgraded the Giants to "questionable" as a playoff team. But Giants coach Tom Coughlin reached into his bag of motivational T-shirts and came up with another winner: "Team First. Team Last. Team Always." As hokey as that sounds, his players eat it up. They admired Coughlin for suspending wide receiver Plaxico Burress for a game after he didn't show up for practice a couple of weeks ago. Even when the Giants were blown out in Cleveland, Coughlin didn't overreact. This team oozes character, and it starts with its coach.
3. Who needs Strahan and Umenyiora? It's hard to understand why we were so quick to doubt this team. Because Umenyiora and Strahan received most of the attention, it was easy to overlook the other defensive linemen. Defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo has the luxury of being able to generate pressure with his front four. And former general manager Ernie Accorsi and his replacement, Jerry Reese, have assembled a talented group of no-names. Defensive end Justin Tuck had 10 sacks last season and easily could've been the Super Bowl MVP if not for Manning's heroics. He has emerged as a team leader. After the loss to the Browns, he immediately told reporters that it might not have been a bad thing. He came back and had two sacks and two forced fumbles against the San Francisco 49ers.
But 31-year-old defensive tackle Fred Robbins has stepped up his game the most. The 317-pounder got in the best shape of his career in the offseason and keeps his weight down by constantly running on the treadmill. He already reached a career high in sacks twice and should achieve another career high any game now. So far this season, Robbins has five sacks, a half-sack less than his career high. With Strahan and Umenyiora out, Robbins had doubled his efforts with conditioning, and he's making a strong case for a Pro Bowl bid.
"If you ask me," Tuck recently said, "Fred Robbins is our best lineman. I really believe that."
4. Stacking victories: The Giants have done what a team has to do. They've won games against inferior opponents -- with one notable exception. They beat the Washington Redskins before the Jim Zorn magic materialized. But they'll play five of their next seven games against NFC East opponents. This team has been remarkable on the road for the past couple of seasons, but now it's winning at home. The Giants also should catch the Cowboys without Tony Romo on Nov. 2.
There's a good chance the Giants will be 7-1 at the midway point of the season. They had to win three games on the road to advance to the Super Bowl. At the Giants' current pace, they could take off the first weekend, then host a divisional game. It also helps that the Eagles and Cowboys are trying to salvage seasons. Right now, the Giants and Redskins are the elite teams in the NFC East.
5. The Giants have the most underrated offensive line in the league and an excellent running game: There's something to be said for continuity, and the Giants rarely have an offensive lineman miss a game. The Giants lead the league in rushing, averaging 169.7 yards a game. Playing in cold-weather locales in the Northeast makes it paramount to run the ball. Brandon Jacobs has run for 516 yards and six touchdowns, but the most important number might be his 16 attempts a game. For a punishing back like Jacobs, it's important to monitor his carries. Backup Derrick Ward has averaged almost eight carries a game, and he has been remarkably productive with 7.2 yards per carry. And the talented Ahmad Bradshaw is waiting in the wings in case there's an injury. Manning has been sacked only six times this season, a pretty solid number for a guy who throws the ball 31 times per game.
Matt Mosley covers the NFL for ESPN.com.