- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 30, 2006

In a wacky season in which quality teams like Denver, Cincinnati and the New York Giants blow huge fourth quarter leads as if they were on a Black Friday shopping spree, the AFC’s dominance over the NFC remains unchanged.

Just last week, New England — the AFC’s fourth-best team — beat Chicago — the NFC’s best — while AFC leader Indianapolis whipped Philadelphia, middling Miami dispensed with Detroit and lowly Tennessee rallied to stun the Giants.

The 4-0 week improved the AFC’s margin over the NFC to 32-20, pretty well assuring a fifth straight triumph in the season series. Include the deadlocks in 2000 and 2001 — which could be considered broken by the AFC’s Super Bowl victories to finish those seasons — and the NFC hasn’t taken the series since 1995.

And after losing the big game every January from 1985 to 1997, the AFC has won seven of the past nine Super Bowls, too.

If the season ended today, three teams with 6-5 records — Cincinnati, the New York Jets and Jacksonville — would be spectators for the AFC playoffs. However, that same record would make the Giants the fifth seed in the NFC playoffs. And the 8-3 Patriots, fourth in the AFC behind the Colts, Baltimore and San Diego, would rank behind only the Bears in the NFC.

Even though Dallas (Tony Romo replacing Drew Bledsoe), Washington (Jason Campbell taking over for Mark Brunell) and Arizona (Matt Leinart supplanting Kurt Warner) of the NFC have gone significantly younger at quarterback this season, the AFC still has more starting quarterbacks under 30 (11-10) after Denver coach Mike Shanahan’s decision this week to bench the struggling Jake Plummer in favor of rookie Jay Cutler.

Jolted in J’ville — No team has been more maddening than Jacksonville. The Jaguars rank 13th in scoring despite a switch to David Garrard at quarterback after six games because of an injury to Byron Leftwich and have allowed the fourth-fewest points, but they’re in ninth place in the AFC because of a 3-4 conference record. The other four teams in the top 13 in both scoring categories — Chicago, Baltimore, Dallas and New England — lead their divisions.

Jacksonville and Dallas are the only teams in the top five in both rushing and rushing defense, and the Jaguars have a plus-3 turnover ratio. They whipped the Giants and Jets and beat the Cowboys, but they were swept by Houston (1-8 against the rest of the league) and lost to Buffalo. With road games yet to play at Miami, Kansas City and Tennessee and home dates with the Colts and Patriots, a winning record — let alone a second straight playoff berth — could be a tall order.

While the defense remains stout and running back Fred Taylor has rebounded from a subpar 2005 season to play well at 30, Jacksonville’s passing game is still seriously deficient four years into coach Jack Del Rio’s tenure. Leftwich and Del Rio squabbled over the seriousness of his ankle injury. The quarterback could be traded this offseason, but Garrard actually has played slightly worse. Receivers Reggie Williams and Matt Jones and tight end Marcedes Lewis, the Jaguars’ first-round draft choices since they took Leftwich seventh overall in 2003, have combined for just 61 catches and six touchdowns. And Williams screamed obscenities at the home fans during the fourth quarter of the home loss to Houston three weeks ago.

Tough Texan — It’s too bad Andre Johnson plays for 3-8 Houston. The standout receiver has 84 catches, 16 more than anyone else, and hardly anyone knows about it. Only three receivers have posted bigger margins in leading the league since the 1970 merger: Washington’s Art Monk by 17 over Cleveland’s Ozzie Newsome in 1984; San Francisco’s Jerry Rice over Atlanta’s Andre Rison in 1990; and Indianapolis’ Marvin Harrison by an astounding 31 over Pittsburgh’s Hines Ward in 2002.

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