1999 NFL Preview
Weekly lineup

 Tuesday, September 7
AFC on a real power trip
By Tom Oates
Special to ESPN.com

 For much of its existence, the NFL was like Congress.

 Terrell Davis
When the Broncos beat the Packers in Super Bowl XXXII, the AFC began to flex its muscles.

Nothing happened quickly. Change took place gradually, if at all. The balance of power shifted at a glacial pace.

Not so in the NFL of the 1990s.

In this era of free agency for players and coaches, the NFL is more like rock music. Everything is here today, gone tomorrow.

So fluid is the current NFL that it's possible to pinpoint the exact moment the AFC quit playing the Washington Generals to the NFC's Harlem Globetrotters.

It occurred in San Diego, Calif., on Jan. 25, 1998 at about 8:15 p.m., local time. That's when Packers coach Mike Holmgren instructed his defense to let the Broncos' Terrell Davis score a touchdown, a final, desperate gamble by Holmgren to put the football in Brett Favre's hands and win Super Bowl XXXII.

It didn't work, of course. The Broncos stuffed the Packers' final drive and snapped the NFC's 13-game Super Bowl winning streak, an outcome from which the NFC has never recovered.

The Broncos then repeated their NFL title, and their back-to-back Super Bowl victories shifted the balance of power back to the AFC so suddenly and decisively that the once unbeatable NFC was caught with its mouth guard down. On the eve of the 1999 season, four of the league's best five teams are from the AFC.

The Vikings, coming off a 15-1 season marred only by a colossal letdown in the NFC playoffs, are the oddsmakers' choice to win Super Bowl XXXIV in Atlanta. However, the teams lined up just behind the Vikings on the big boards in Las Vegas aren't the usual NFC suspects -- the Packers, 49ers and Cowboys.

Instead, the teams that follow the Vikings all come from the AFC, which suddenly is loaded with powerhouses. The Broncos, Jaguars, Jets and Dolphins are all considered more viable Super Bowl contenders than the Falcons, who represented the NFC in pro football's ultimate game last season.

The AFC's resurgence isn't limited to the Broncos. It has the league's strongest division -- the four-deep AFC East -- and has at least one Super Bowl contender in each of its three divisions.

Meanwhile, the once great NFC East, the league's premier division through the 1980s and early '90s, is now the only division in football without a legitimate Super Bowl team.

There is some historical precedent for this sudden shift in power. Ever since the NFL and AFL joined hands and created the Super Bowl, the league's balance of power has been reflected in the championship game's four distinct phases.

In phase one, Vince Lombardi's Packers, representing the more established NFL, won the first two Super Bowls handily.

Starting with the Jets' shocking upset of the Colts in 1969, the AFC dominated phase two, winning 11 of the next 13 Super Bowls. Six teams participated in the free-for-all -- the Jets, Chiefs, Colts (after switching conferences), Dolphins, Steelers and Raiders.

Phase three belonged to the NFC. Beginning with the 1981 season, when Bill Walsh's 49ers won their first NFL title, the conference won 15 of 16 Super Bowls, including those 13 in a row from 1984 through '96. Five teams jumped on that bandwagon -- the 49ers, Redskins, Giants, Cowboys and Packers.

Finally, in phase four, Mike Shanahan's Broncos have won the last two Super Bowls.

But does Denver's recent success automatically signal yet another run of domination by the AFC?

As volatile as the NFL is these days, the answer is probably no. The league's traditional ebb and flow has been speeded up by economic forces that will probably prevent one conference from ever dominating the other like in the past. However, it's still worth a look to see why the seat of power has been handed back and forth like a hefty dinner tab.

A commonly held belief is that the conference with the best quarterbacks and running backs will be the dominant conference. However, that doesn't appear to be the case.

While it is true that a good running attack helps pave the way for Super Bowl success -- Davis with the Broncos and Emmitt Smith with the Cowboys, for instance -- the 49ers and Packers have shown that a dominant running back isn't necessary to win a Super Bowl.

Nor does having a great quarterback guarantee a title. While Joe Montana, Troy Aikman, Steve Young and Favre were winning Super Bowls over a 16-year period for the NFC, John Elway, Dan Marino and Jim Kelly were putting up similar or better regular-season numbers in the AFC. Only they weren't wearing championship rings.

It wasn't until Shanahan put a quality team around Elway that he was able to break his Super Bowl jinx, which points out the biggest reason for success in the NFL.

A team still needs a great quarterback, and a top-of-the-line running back helps too, but it is the performance of the players around them that determines a team's ultimate success. That's directly attributable to the coach.

Indeed, the Super Bowl has always been dominated by great coaches. Lombardi won the first two, Shanahan the last two. During the AFC's early period of dominance, Chuck Noll won four titles and Don Shula two. In the NFC's time on top, Walsh and Joe Gibbs won three titles apiece, and Bill Parcells, Jimmy Johnson and George Seifert took two each.

It seems the conference with the deepest roster of great coaches at the time is the conference that dominates and, right now, that's the AFC. Of the coaches currently active in the NFL, only six have won Super Bowls. Four of them are in the AFC, and Mike Ditka and George Seifert are the NFC representatives.

Early in this decade, all four of those AFC coaches -- Parcells, Johnson, Holmgren and Shanahan -- were in the NFC. But after getting their start in the NFL's dominant conference, they were lured by promises of money and power to the conference that was more desperate to win. All four will field contending teams this year.

That should come as no surprise. Desperate and embarrassed over their repeated Super Bowl failures, the AFC's power brokers conducted a '90s-style corporate raid that has changed the balance of power in the NFL.

Tom Oates of the Wisconsin State Journal writes a weekly NFC column that appears every Thursday during the regular season.


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