- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 9, 2004

Sunday’s two headline games pretty well summed up the first half of the NFL season. In one, the Steelers took apart the Eagles, the last of the league’s unbeatens, 27-3. And in the other, the cornerback-depleted Patriots slammed the Rams in St. Louis, 40-22.

It’s only a snapshot, sure, one week out of 17, but it makes you wonder whether the best teams in the AFC aren’t better, substantially better, than the best in the NFC.

Should that turn out to be the case — we’ll know definitively on Super Bowl Sunday — it will probably have as much to do with quarterbacking as anything else. The QB pool in the AFC isn’t just deeper, it’s younger, too, which suggests this might be the dominant conference for years to come.

It’s amazing how many 25-and-under quarterbacks have emerged in the AFC this season. For starters, you’ve got Ben Roethlisberger, who’s having a rookie year in Pittsburgh that Terry Bradshaw could only dream of. Then there are David Carr in Houston, Byron Leftwich in Jacksonville, Drew Brees in San Diego and redshirt freshman Carson Palmer in Cincinnati. Throw in Tom Brady, Peyton Manning and Chad Pennington, all of whom are 28 or younger, and … wow. Can you imagine the numbers a QB is going to have to put up to make the Pro Bowl in the AFC in the next decade?

(And let’s not forget, Philip Rivers hasn’t even thrown a pass yet for the Chargers.)

The NFC isn’t nearly as well endowed. Michael Vick is the only 25-and-under quarterback who appears to be on the launching pad. The Redskins’ Patrick Ramsey is calcifying on the bench behind Mark Brunell, and the Giants’ Eli Manning, the No.1 pick in the draft, is in the same situation as Rivers. Among the older twentysomethings, Daunte Culpepper, Donovan McNabb, Matt Hasselbeck and Marc Bulger have talent — and Joey Harrington has shown flashes — but would you take this group over the AFC group? If so, I’ve got an obstructed-view seat I’d like to sell you.

A few other first half themes:

• Old coaches CAN learn new tricks. Yes, that’s Marty Schottenheimer, scorned by Dan Snyder for having an offense out of the ‘60s, presiding over the 29-points-per game Chargers. Who would have thought Marty, at this late stage, had such capacity for growth? But then, this team has been full of surprises — Brees (he of the 108.7 passer rating), tight end Antonio Gates (54 catches, 602 yards, eight touchdowns), trading deadline pickup Keenan McCardell (instant impact, despite sitting out training camp).

Gates, like Chiefs stud Tony Gonzalez, played major-college basketball, leading Kent State to the Elite Eight two years ago. If I were an NFL owner, I’d have my scouts take in as many college hoops games as they could. There’s gotta be another Gonzalez or Gates out there.

• Philly is flawed. The Eagles remain formidable, don’t get me wrong, but you have to wonder about their rushing defense. Opposing ball carriers are averaging 4.7 yards per attempt, and 99-year-old Jerome Bettis racked up 149 against them Sunday. In a Super Bowl matchup against the Patriots — assuming it comes to that — how are they going to stop Corey Dillon?

• There was never really an “open” competition for the Redskins’ quarterback job. Brunell, it’s now clear, was going to play no matter what. I mean, look at his performance in the first eight games. That’s all the proof you need. He’s thrown for less than 100 yards four times. He’s completed 36.8 percent of his passes on third down. He’s got one of the lowest passer ratings in the league. And he’s still starting.

With Brunell at QB, the offense hasn’t just been bad, it’s been historically bad. Even the 0-14 Bucs of ‘76, who had one of the worst offenses ever, managed to score 20 points at least once in their first eight games. So did the ‘91 Colts, who had the dubious distinction of being outscored by an individual player (Redskins kicker Chip Lohmiller, 149 points to 143). Near as I can tell, the ‘92 Seahawks were the last club to go this far into the season without breaking the 20 barrier. Their quarterback? Former Maryland Terp Stan Gelbaugh (who didn’t exactly rewrite the school record book).

That’s the turf the Brunell-led offense has staked out for itself. And with tougher foes on the horizon, the offense may not have hit bottom yet. But I’ve banged on this drum long enough. Here’s hoping the second half of the season gives us something else — anything else — to talk about.

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