- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 29, 2007

Enjoying the bye week, Redskins fans?

Probably not.

Without a game tomorrow, Redskins fans are still squirming over last week’s collapse against the New York Giants, still replaying the goal line madness in the final minute, still wondering why Eli Manning suddenly looked like Peyton Manning and why Clinton Portis was standing on the sideline.

Get over it. Life is good. The Redskins are 2-1 and their throwback uniforms are better than Philadelphia’s (whose aren’t?).

But mainly, the Redskins play in the NFC.

Sure, it’s early, but there is no such thing as early in the NFL. Conclusions are drawn, judgements are made during the first quarter in Week 1. Now it’s Week 4, time enough to realize that the NFC, a paragon of parity, that melange of mediocrity, is again wide open.

This is nothing new. The NFC is a strange and average place and has been for some time. It is a place where 8-8 means a playoff ticket (the Giants last season), where Rex Grossman can start in the Super Bowl. This season, it’s where the Green Bay Packers, a team with no running game and a soon-to-be-38-year-old quarterback who almost retired, can start 3-0, where the Detroit Lions can roll up 432 yards and lose by 35 points, where its two best teams from 2006 — Chicago and New Orleans — are 1-5.

The Dallas Cowboys appear to be good, the class of the conference. They are 3-0 with a high-powered offense, a young and potentially decent defense and no distractions from Terrell Owens. Yet. But as John Madden wondered aloud while watching Dallas destroy the defending NFC champion Bears on NBC last Sunday, who’s No. 2?

Who indeed?

Is it Chicago who, now that they have sacked Grossman for Brian Griese, will return to last year’s form? Check the injury report. It looks like a recurrence of that thing about Super Bowl runners-up not making the playoffs the next year.

Is it the Philadelphia Eagles who, led by resurgent quarterback Donovan McNabb, put up 56 points and more than 500 yards last week? Against Detroit and their phony 2-0 record. Never mind. How about Seattle, which needed 59 minutes and a fumbled kickoff to beat Cincinnati at home? Tampa Bay? Next.

Is it the Packers and their aging quarterback Brett Favre (38 on Oct. 10), who stepped away from the brink of retirement? This is the feel-good story of the year so far. The Pack is back. Favre, who has fought off endless personal tragedy the last few years, has looked great. The defense is pretty good. But that cheesy running game. Green Bay is dead last, 32nd out of 32 teams, in rushing. Everyone knows that teams cannot sustain success without being able to run.

But the Packers might hang around because this is the NFC, where its best teams don’t come close to matching the AFC’s best. The six NFC playoff teams last year went a combined 10-14 against AFC opponents. Go ahead, guess the record of the six AFC playoff teams against the NFC. We’ll wait. …

Correct. 21-3.

It looks like more of the same this year. New England, Indianapolis and Pittsburgh all from the AFC, are generally regarded as the top three teams in the NFL. Put Dallas next, then it’s back to the AFC with Baltimore, despite a perennially struggling offense but a killer defense. Houston and Tennessee, which embarrassed New Orleans on “Monday Night Football,” look a lot better. Cincinnati will score. Jacksonville will usually play defense and run. Denver is lagging, but the Broncos have won at least nine games a season since 2002.

Imagine how good the AFC would be this year if not for the league’s mystery team, San Diego, which went 14-2 a year ago under Marty Schottenheimer, who was then fired. The Chargers currently are 1-2 (the lone win was against the Bears) and suffering from the Norv Effect, as many predicted might happen. Norv Turner replaced Schottenheimer, and it was a curious hire.

Turner was a brilliant offensive assistant coach and a less-than-brilliant head coach (58-82 with Washington and Oakland). He has done nothing to dispel the latter, working himself into the punch line of a new version of the old Dean Smith-Michael Jordan joke. Now it’s “Who is the only one who can hold LaDainian Tomlinson to under 100 yards?”

After losing to the Packers, Turner has been taking a lot of heat, although not as much as the U.S. women’s soccer coach. But being such a brilliant offensive mind, he has to eventually figure things out, right? Right?

AFC superiority is not an aberration. The combined record of AFC playoff teams against the NFC during the last three seasons is 62-10, a crisp .861 percentage. NFC playoff teams were 33-39 against the AFC. In the last four seasons, the totals are 79-17 and 49-47. The last time NFC playoff teams managed to go .500 against the AFC was in 2002.

“If you look at the top AFC teams and the top NFC teams, there seems to be a little bit of a disparity,” an NFC front-office type grudgingly said.

Interconference records are only part of it. As Kansas City Chiefs president Carl Peterson noted, AFC dominance becomes more evident “if you look at the Super Bowl champions the last five, six, seven years.”

Here they are: Indianapolis, Pittsburgh, New England, New England, Tampa Bay (whoops), New England, Baltimore. That’s six out of seven. St. Louis won the Super Bowl after the 1999 season but before that it was Denver twice, making it eight out of the last 10 for the AFC.

“It’s a pendulum that seems to swing back and forth,” said Peterson, a former Eagles executive, noting that for most of the 1980s and 1990s, the NFC was the better conference.

“The last few years, the only two [NFC] teams you really would have mentioned as the best teams in the league were Seattle and Carolina,” CBS analyst and former NFL lineman Randy Cross said. “What makes the AFC so tough to handicap and so tough to knock is that so many teams have consistently won over the last few years.”

The phenomenon is not restricted to football. The World Series victory of the 83-win St. Louis Cardinals last year notwithstanding, the American League has been much stronger than the National League for several years. This season, any of the four AL playoff teams — Boston, New York, Cleveland and Los Angeles, are better than any National League team. Still, as the Cardinals proved, in a short series, anything can happen.

It’s the same thing in the NBA, where the Western Conference for years has been better, not to mention more esthetically pleasing, than the Eastern Conference. In seven of the last nine seasons, the NBA champion (Los Angeles and San Antonio) has come from the West.

Is this simply coincidence or the inevitable cycles playing themselves out? Yes and yes, but there might be more to it than that. The NFL’s top three quarterbacks — Peyton Manning, Tom Brady and Carson Palmer — play in the AFC. Pittsburgh’s Ben Roethlisberger already has won a Super Bowl. And, some of the more successful AFC coaches — Bill Belichick, Tony Dungy, Mike Shanahan, Jeff Fisher, Brian Billick — worked in the NFC when that conference dominated.

“The guys that have NFC roots have led the [AFC’s] comeback,” Cross said.

Meanwhile, the Steelers have had unprecedented coaching stability. Mike Tomlin is Pittsburgh’s third head coach in 38 years. Which summons another plus for the AFC.

“If you look at the organizations in each division, New England is as good as it gets,” Cross said. “Pittsburgh’s as solid as it gets. Indianapolis, Baltimore, Denver, these are organizations that, when you talk about good teams, they have really good foundations. You used to say that about the Redskins.”

Ouch.

Enjoy the rest of the bye week.

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