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The NFC is stronger than the AFC, as expected

The expectation entering this year was that the NFC was the deeper and stronger conference than the AFC. That was certainly my expectation as well. Last year in the AFC, every team that had a winning record made the postseason. The NFC went 39-25 against the AFC teams, and the middle class of the AFC had plenty of questions.

That was the introductory paragraph to this article by Jason Lisk after week three of the season. Lisk was not alone in favoring the NFC — most observers felt the same way, and I said as much in my thoughts from the gut on NFC and AFC teams back in April. But when Lisk wrote that article, the AFC had gone an incredible 11-3 against the NFC. Here is how they did it:

WkDateWinnerH/RLoserPFPAWin CLos C
109/08Chicago BearsCincinnati Bengals2421NFCAFC
109/08New York JetsTampa Bay Buccaneers1817AFCNFC
209/15Denver Broncos@New York Giants4123AFCNFC
209/15San Diego Chargers@Philadelphia Eagles3330AFCNFC
209/15Buffalo BillsCarolina Panthers2423AFCNFC
209/15Kansas City ChiefsDallas Cowboys1716AFCNFC
309/22Seattle SeahawksJacksonville Jaguars4517NFCAFC
309/22Chicago Bears@Pittsburgh Steelers4023NFCAFC
309/22Cincinnati BengalsGreen Bay Packers3430AFCNFC
309/22Cleveland Browns@Minnesota Vikings3127AFCNFC
309/22Indianapolis Colts@San Francisco 49ers277AFCNFC
309/22Miami DolphinsAtlanta Falcons2723AFCNFC
309/19Kansas City Chiefs@Philadelphia Eagles2616AFCNFC
309/22New England PatriotsTampa Bay Buccaneers233AFCNFC

The interesting part is that those schedules were not overly favorable to the AFC — it wasn’t a lot of Denver vs. Tampa Bay type of games — but the strong record was the product of a few upsets and some close wins. In retrospect, Buffalo beating Carolina was a huge upset, and even Indianapolis winning in San Francisco was unlikely, but the real reason for the 11-3 record was that most of the toss ups simply went the way of the AFC (as Jason noted in his article).

Since then, as Aaron Schatz highlighted this week, things have changed. The NFC is 20-12, and that even includes three close losses from the Seahawks and Saints, right now the two teams in line for byes in the NFC.

WkDateWinnerH/RLoserPFPAWin CLos C
409/29Denver BroncosPhiladelphia Eagles5220AFCNFC
409/29Minnesota VikingsNPittsburgh Steelers3427NFCAFC
409/29Kansas City ChiefsNew York Giants317AFCNFC
409/29San Diego ChargersDallas Cowboys3021AFCNFC
409/29New England Patriots@Atlanta Falcons3023AFCNFC
409/29Washington Redskins@Oakland Raiders2414NFCAFC
409/29Seattle Seahawks@Houston Texans2320NFCAFC
409/30New Orleans SaintsMiami Dolphins3817NFCAFC
510/06Denver Broncos@Dallas Cowboys5148AFCNFC
510/06St. Louis RamsJacksonville Jaguars3420NFCAFC
510/06San Francisco 49ersHouston Texans343NFCAFC
510/06Indianapolis ColtsSeattle Seahawks3428AFCNFC
510/07New York Jets@Atlanta Falcons3028AFCNFC
610/13St. Louis Rams@Houston Texans3813NFCAFC
610/13Detroit Lions@Cleveland Browns3117NFCAFC
610/13New England PatriotsNew Orleans Saints3027AFCNFC
610/13Seattle SeahawksTennessee Titans2013NFCAFC
610/13Green Bay Packers@Baltimore Ravens1917NFCAFC
710/20Green Bay PackersCleveland Browns3113NFCAFC
710/20San Francisco 49ers@Tennessee Titans3117NFCAFC
710/20Cincinnati Bengals@Detroit Lions2724AFCNFC
810/27Denver BroncosWashington Redskins4521AFCNFC
810/27San Francisco 49ersNJacksonville Jaguars4210NFCAFC
810/27New Orleans SaintsBuffalo Bills3517NFCAFC
911/03Philadelphia Eagles@Oakland Raiders4920NFCAFC
911/03Washington RedskinsSan Diego Chargers3024NFCAFC
911/03Tennessee Titans@St. Louis Rams2821AFCNFC
911/03New York JetsNew Orleans Saints2620AFCNFC
1011/10St. Louis Rams@Indianapolis Colts388NFCAFC
1011/10Arizona CardinalsHouston Texans2724NFCAFC
1011/10New York GiantsOakland Raiders2420NFCAFC
1011/11Tampa Bay BuccaneersMiami Dolphins2219NFCAFC

That brings the conferences to an even 23-23 record, but just five of the top 16 teams in Football Outsiders’ DVOA rankings are in the AFC. At the top, you could argue that things are close to even, but there’s little denying that the NFC appears to be the much stronger conference. Football Outsiders has NFC teams holding down 5 of the top 6, and 9 of the top 13 slots, too.

What about the rest of the way? With 18 games left, the NFC is favored in the SRS in two thirds of games. The table below shows each of those games, with the projected margin of victory (based on SRS) from the perspective of the NFC team.

WeekDayVisitorH/RHomeVConfHConfV_SRSH_SRSProj MOV
11SunArizona Cardinals@Jacksonville JaguarsNFCAFC1.4-1614.4
11SunDetroit Lions@Pittsburgh SteelersNFCAFC2.6-6.15.7
11SunBaltimore Ravens@Chicago BearsAFCNFC-
11MonNew England Patriots@Carolina PanthersAFCNFC3.910.59.6
12SunCarolina Panthers@Miami DolphinsNFCAFC10.5-18.5
12SunIndianapolis Colts@Arizona CardinalsAFCNFC2.91.41.5
13ThuOakland Raiders@Dallas CowboysAFCNFC-8.12.713.8
13SunAtlanta Falcons@Buffalo BillsNFCAFC-5-4.2-3.8
14SunBuffalo Bills@Tampa Bay BuccaneersAFCNFC-4.2-4.72.5
14SunKansas City Chiefs@Washington RedskinsAFCNFC6.8-5.4-9.2
14SunMinnesota Vikings@Baltimore RavensNFCAFC-6.9-0.1-9.8
14SunNew York Giants@San Diego ChargersNFCAFC-6.4-0.7-8.7
15SunChicago Bears@Cleveland BrownsNFCAFC0.8-2.50.3
15SunArizona Cardinals@Tennessee TitansNFCAFC1.4-1.1-0.5
15SunNew York Jets@Carolina PanthersAFCNFC-7.110.520.6
15MonBaltimore Ravens@Detroit LionsAFCNFC-
16SunMinnesota Vikings@Cincinnati BengalsNFCAFC-6.94.3-14.2
16SunPittsburgh Steelers@Green Bay PackersAFCNFC-6.13.612.7

Four of those games occur in week eleven, with the NFC the favorite in each game. The biggest mismatch of the slate appears to be this weekend in Jacksonville, where the are expected to run their record to a surprising 6-4 mark. The Cardinals have an excellent defense, and are the only team to rank in the top quarter of the league in turnovers, net yards per pass allowed, and yards per carry allowed. That’s a tough matchup for the worst offense in the league.

The other NFC road team is Detroit, and it’s a rare Lions/Steelers matchup where Detroit is the favorite. The Lions are listed as one-point favorites in Vegas, just the second time since 1978 Detroit is favored over Pittsburgh. This will be the tenth meeting between the two teams over that time frame; the Lions were favored by 2.5 points in 1989, with the Steelers being favored by an average of 7.8 points in the other eight games. Detroit is 2-7 in those games, with one of those wins coming in the famous Phil Luckett Thanksgiving coin toss game.

The other two interconference games in week 11 are at the site of the NFC team. The Bears, without Jay Cutler and Charles Tillman, are still favored by 2.5 points over the Ravens. That’s a huge game for both teams: the Bears will likely need 10 or even 11 wins, as the only way Chicago makes the playoffs is to finish with a better record than at least one of Detroit, San Francisco, Seattle, Carolina, or New Orleans. 1 The Bears have the worst record of the bunch, so a home loss to Baltimore would be devastating to Chicago’s playoff hopes. Baltimore is only 1.5 games back of Cincinnati, but a loss here would mean a not very good Ravens team would probably have to win 5 of their final 6 to win the division. A Jets win in Buffalo combined with a Ravens loss would also put Baltimore two games behind New York for the 6 seed, although Baltimore can cut that in half as the two teams play in week twelve.

Finally, in one of the best Monday Night games of the year, Tom Brady and the Patriots are one-point underdogs in Carolina and Cam Newton and the Panthers. New England remains a favorite to grab one of the two byes in the AFC, but a loss here would open the door for the Colts or Bengals to steal the #2 seed. New England gets Denver in week 12, so the Patriots could be 7-4 seven days from now.

The NFC teams may not be as good as the SRS seems to think, but a 3-1 outcome in week 11 is still pretty likely. The NFC won’t match last year’s 39-25 mark, but they wind up winning at the same clip for the final 14 weeks of this season.

  1. Technically, the Bears could finish with the same record as one of those teams and hold the tiebreaker, but that seems unlikely. Chicago already has lost the tiebreaker to Detroit and New Orleans, making that point moot. The tiebreaker with Seattle, San Francisco, or Carolina would come down to conference record, and all of Chicago’s losses to date have come in the NFC. And, of course, the Bears also need to finish with a better record than Green Bay, too. []
  • I won’t dispute your point that the NFC is stronger than the AFC. In fact, I have already backed the NFC to win the Super Bowl and expect Seattle to be a small favorite over New England in New York, but I digress. So far this season there have been 7 games where teams currently slotted to receive a playoff spot have played a team from the other conference currently slated to make the playoffs. In those 7 games the AFC has swept. Right now the only NFC playoff team remaining who has a chance to change that is Carolina, who has home games against NE and NYJ remaining. Of course, the playoff standings are subject to change, but there is a slim chance the AFC playoff teams finish the season undefeated against their NFC counterparts, which would be a weird talking point in the face of the evidence that the NFC is stronger.

    • Chase Stuart

      That is an interesting stat.

      The NE/NO game was pretty crazy.
      Denver and KC will both have beaten whoever wins the NFC East
      The Bengals beat Detroit on a 54-yard field goal at the end of the game
      I still don’t know how the Colts beat the 49ers and Seahawks.
      And I really don’t know how the Jets beat the Saints.

  • It’s pretty much a fluke. The AFC could easily be 3-4 in those games, and the H2H results won’t be predictive come February. However, the talking heads have a ton of airtime to fill, so it’s up to Carolina to make this happen.

    As for the Jets beating the Saints, the Jets defense is pretty good, and the Saints offense outside of the dome is merely “strong” as opposed to “bullshit”. Bad luck for the Saints that their two toughest out-of-conference games were on the road. Lucky break for Carolina, although as you noted, they found a way to lose to Buffalo, a feat I expect the Jets to match.