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NYT Fifth Down: Post-week 5

This week at the New York Times, I took a look at the large shift in the NFL’s conference wars:

Consider that from 2002 to 2010, the A.F.C. won 56 percent of games against the National Football Conference, with an average score of 23.0 to 20.2. The percentage in favor of the A.F.C. from 2004 to 2010  was 57, an edge that is equivalent to what you would expect for a home team in a game against evenly matched squads.

The dominance of the A.F.C. was also obvious when examining the elite teams. According to Pro-Football-Reference.com’s Simple Rating System, the top six teams in the A.F.C. in each year from 2002 to 2010 had an average rating of +7.7, indicating that they were 7.7 points above average. The top N.F.C. teams were only 4.6 points better than average. This difference became particularly glaring in the Super Bowl;  the A.F.C. champion has been the favorite in 9 of the 10 Super Bowls since realignment.

But things have changed. Last year was the first since 2002 that the N.F.C. won the interconference battle, albeit by the razor-thin margin of 33-31. That was just the appetizer. Entering last weekend, the N.F.C. was 10-4 against the A.F.C.

Then, in seven interconference games in Week 5, the N.F.C. won five more games. The Vikings beat the Titans, the Giants handled Cleveland, the Bears overpowered the Jaguars, the Saints defeated the Chargers, and the 49ers crushed the Bills. If not for last-minute comeback wins in Pittsburgh and Indianapolis, it would have been a horrific football weekend for the A.F.C.

The N.F.C.’s record this year is now a sparkling 15-6 in interconference games, with the average game margin being over 10 points.

The N.F.C. has also won the last three Super Bowls, although the Saints and the Giants were underdogs entering Super Bowls XLIV and XLVI. So why has the balance of power shifted in the N.F.L.?

As you might suspect, the league’s most important position provides a clue. In the East, North and South divisions, all 12 N.F.C. teams have found their answers at quarterback, or at least are no longer searching for their quarterback of the future.

Last year, Detroit’s Matthew Stafford was the third player to  throw for 40 touchdowns and 5,000 yards in a season, and he wasn’t even selected to fill one of the conference’s three Pro Bowl quarterback slots — or chosen as an alternate, thanks to great seasons by Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees, Eli Manning and Cam Newton.

And while the N.F.C. West is short on talented quarterbacks (Alex Smith-excluded, as he leads the league in passer rating and is second in Adjusted Net Yards per Attempt), it is very long on great defense, and is 4-0 against the A.F.C this year.

Meanwhile, the Bills, the Jets, the Dolphins, the Browns, the Titans, the Jaguars, the Raiders and the Chiefs all have question marks at quarterback. Uncertainty at quarterback is a sure way to shift the balance of power.

You can read the rest of the article here.

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