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:
|1||09/08||Chicago Bears||Cincinnati Bengals||24||21||NFC||AFC|
|1||09/08||New York Jets||Tampa Bay Buccaneers||18||17||AFC||NFC|
|2||09/15||Denver Broncos||@||New York Giants||41||23||AFC||NFC|
|2||09/15||San Diego Chargers||@||Philadelphia Eagles||33||30||AFC||NFC|
|2||09/15||Buffalo Bills||Carolina Panthers||24||23||AFC||NFC|
|2||09/15||Kansas City Chiefs||Dallas Cowboys||17||16||AFC||NFC|
|3||09/22||Seattle Seahawks||Jacksonville Jaguars||45||17||NFC||AFC|
|3||09/22||Chicago Bears||@||Pittsburgh Steelers||40||23||NFC||AFC|
|3||09/22||Cincinnati Bengals||Green Bay Packers||34||30||AFC||NFC|
|3||09/22||Cleveland Browns||@||Minnesota Vikings||31||27||AFC||NFC|
|3||09/22||Indianapolis Colts||@||San Francisco 49ers||27||7||AFC||NFC|
|3||09/22||Miami Dolphins||Atlanta Falcons||27||23||AFC||NFC|
|3||09/19||Kansas City Chiefs||@||Philadelphia Eagles||26||16||AFC||NFC|
|3||09/22||New England Patriots||Tampa Bay Buccaneers||23||3||AFC||NFC|
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.
|4||09/29||Denver Broncos||Philadelphia Eagles||52||20||AFC||NFC|
|4||09/29||Minnesota Vikings||N||Pittsburgh Steelers||34||27||NFC||AFC|
|4||09/29||Kansas City Chiefs||New York Giants||31||7||AFC||NFC|
|4||09/29||San Diego Chargers||Dallas Cowboys||30||21||AFC||NFC|
|4||09/29||New England Patriots||@||Atlanta Falcons||30||23||AFC||NFC|
|4||09/29||Washington Redskins||@||Oakland Raiders||24||14||NFC||AFC|
|4||09/29||Seattle Seahawks||@||Houston Texans||23||20||NFC||AFC|
|4||09/30||New Orleans Saints||Miami Dolphins||38||17||NFC||AFC|
|5||10/06||Denver Broncos||@||Dallas Cowboys||51||48||AFC||NFC|
|5||10/06||St. Louis Rams||Jacksonville Jaguars||34||20||NFC||AFC|
|5||10/06||San Francisco 49ers||Houston Texans||34||3||NFC||AFC|
|5||10/06||Indianapolis Colts||Seattle Seahawks||34||28||AFC||NFC|
|5||10/07||New York Jets||@||Atlanta Falcons||30||28||AFC||NFC|
|6||10/13||St. Louis Rams||@||Houston Texans||38||13||NFC||AFC|
|6||10/13||Detroit Lions||@||Cleveland Browns||31||17||NFC||AFC|
|6||10/13||New England Patriots||New Orleans Saints||30||27||AFC||NFC|
|6||10/13||Seattle Seahawks||Tennessee Titans||20||13||NFC||AFC|
|6||10/13||Green Bay Packers||@||Baltimore Ravens||19||17||NFC||AFC|
|7||10/20||Green Bay Packers||Cleveland Browns||31||13||NFC||AFC|
|7||10/20||San Francisco 49ers||@||Tennessee Titans||31||17||NFC||AFC|
|7||10/20||Cincinnati Bengals||@||Detroit Lions||27||24||AFC||NFC|
|8||10/27||Denver Broncos||Washington Redskins||45||21||AFC||NFC|
|8||10/27||San Francisco 49ers||N||Jacksonville Jaguars||42||10||NFC||AFC|
|8||10/27||New Orleans Saints||Buffalo Bills||35||17||NFC||AFC|
|9||11/03||Philadelphia Eagles||@||Oakland Raiders||49||20||NFC||AFC|
|9||11/03||Washington Redskins||San Diego Chargers||30||24||NFC||AFC|
|9||11/03||Tennessee Titans||@||St. Louis Rams||28||21||AFC||NFC|
|9||11/03||New York Jets||New Orleans Saints||26||20||AFC||NFC|
|10||11/10||St. Louis Rams||@||Indianapolis Colts||38||8||NFC||AFC|
|10||11/10||Arizona Cardinals||Houston Texans||27||24||NFC||AFC|
|10||11/10||New York Giants||Oakland Raiders||24||20||NFC||AFC|
|10||11/11||Tampa Bay Buccaneers||Miami Dolphins||22||19||NFC||AFC|
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.
|11||Sun||Arizona Cardinals||@||Jacksonville Jaguars||NFC||AFC||1.4||-16||14.4|
|11||Sun||Detroit Lions||@||Pittsburgh Steelers||NFC||AFC||2.6||-6.1||5.7|
|11||Sun||Baltimore Ravens||@||Chicago Bears||AFC||NFC||-0.1||0.8||3.9|
|11||Mon||New England Patriots||@||Carolina Panthers||AFC||NFC||3.9||10.5||9.6|
|12||Sun||Carolina Panthers||@||Miami Dolphins||NFC||AFC||10.5||-1||8.5|
|12||Sun||Indianapolis Colts||@||Arizona Cardinals||AFC||NFC||2.9||1.4||1.5|
|13||Thu||Oakland Raiders||@||Dallas Cowboys||AFC||NFC||-8.1||2.7||13.8|
|13||Sun||Atlanta Falcons||@||Buffalo Bills||NFC||AFC||-5||-4.2||-3.8|
|14||Sun||Buffalo Bills||@||Tampa Bay Buccaneers||AFC||NFC||-4.2||-4.7||2.5|
|14||Sun||Kansas City Chiefs||@||Washington Redskins||AFC||NFC||6.8||-5.4||-9.2|
|14||Sun||Minnesota Vikings||@||Baltimore Ravens||NFC||AFC||-6.9||-0.1||-9.8|
|14||Sun||New York Giants||@||San Diego Chargers||NFC||AFC||-6.4||-0.7||-8.7|
|15||Sun||Chicago Bears||@||Cleveland Browns||NFC||AFC||0.8||-2.5||0.3|
|15||Sun||Arizona Cardinals||@||Tennessee Titans||NFC||AFC||1.4||-1.1||-0.5|
|15||Sun||New York Jets||@||Carolina Panthers||AFC||NFC||-7.1||10.5||20.6|
|15||Mon||Baltimore Ravens||@||Detroit Lions||AFC||NFC||-0.1||2.6||5.7|
|16||Sun||Minnesota Vikings||@||Cincinnati Bengals||NFC||AFC||-6.9||4.3||-14.2|
|16||Sun||Pittsburgh Steelers||@||Green Bay Packers||AFC||NFC||-6.1||3.6||12.7|
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.
- 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. [↩]