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AFC teams would be in the hunt in the NFC

Posted: Tuesday, November 30, 2004

After his Jaguars lost in Minnesota on Sunday, Jack Del Rio sounded like a coach who knows his team is in the wrong conference.

''The window is closing,'' he said, meaning the playoff window for a 6-5 team that is fourth in an AFC wild-card chase in which only two teams will succeed. Too bad they're not in the NFC: 6-5 would put the Jaguars just about at the top of the wild-card race in a conference where an 8-8 team or worse could make the playoffs.

That is the NFL in a nutshell this year. The NFC has one substantial team, the Eagles. The AFC has at least a half-dozen, from the Patriots and Steelers at the top through the Colts, Chargers, Jets and Broncos.

In fact, the Jaguars' 27-16 loss in Minnesota was a perfect indicator of the current makeup. Up-and-coming Jacksonville was within 19 yards of the go-ahead touchdown late in the fourth quarter when Kenechi Udeze sacked Byron Leftwich and forced a fumble that was returned 77 yards by Kevin Williams for the clinching TD.

In other words, a middle-of-the-pack AFC team on the road scared one of the NFC's top four.

Don't necessarily go by the record in interconference games who cares that Miami beat San Francisco? although the AFC leads 32-18. Still, history says that can be deceptive: When NFC teams won 13 straight Super Bowls from 1984-1996, the AFC won the season series six times and three other times the conferences tied.

But in that era, most of it before free agency and the salary cap, the top NFC teams were perennial powers.

The 49ers won four titles in that run; the Cowboys three; the Redskins and Giants two each; and the Bears and Packers one.

San Francisco, Washington, New York and Chicago in particular were consistent winners. The Cowboys, after sliding in the late '80s, were a team good enough to win the 1995 title under Barry Switzer, a very average (or worse) NFL coach who inherited Jimmy Johnson's talent.

All those teams were clearly better than the best in the AFC.

Buffalo lost four straight Super Bowls from 1990-93 and Denver three in 1986, 1987 and 1989. The Broncos finally ended the NFC's run by beating the Packers after the 1997 season and the Falcons the next year, a late retirement present for John Elway, who packed it in after the second win.

So yes, these things run in cycles.

And yes, an NFC team could win the Super Bowl this year if the Eagles survive the demons that have caused them to lose three straight conference championship games. They are on a level with the top AFC teams, even if they were run over 27-3 in Pittsburgh on Nov. 7, their only loss this season.

Still, the standings after 11 weeks demonstrate the disparity.

All four AFC division leaders are 8-3 or better: New England and Pittsburgh (10-1); San Diego and Indianapolis (8-3). In the NFC, only Philadelphia and Atlanta (9-2) are in that category and the Falcons really aren't a complete team yet think back to their 56-10 loss to Kansas City, a 3-8 AFC team, when they allowed the Chiefs to rush for eight touchdowns.

If the season ended now, the wild-card entries in the AFC would be the Jets (8-3) and either the Broncos or Ravens (each 7-4). No need to get into tiebreakers yet; with five games left, those scenarios can get very complicated.

The way the NFC is breaking down, the wild cards are likely to be the team that doesn't win the North, where the Vikings and Packers are battling for first place, and the West, either Seattle or St. Louis. And one or both could be 8-8; the NFC West winner might even be .500.

Think about the Seahawks, who were routed 38-9 by Buffalo at home Sunday, but still lead the NFC West at 6-5.

It was the first road win in five tries this season for the Bills, who are 2-6 against AFC teams, 3-0 against the NFC.

Here's the good thing. We're still in first place,'' Seattle's Shaun Alexander said after the game.

That's by default: If their division isn't the NFL's worst, then it's the NFC East where, minus the Eagles, who clinched the division Sunday and are 4-0 against the other three division teams, with a combined victory margin of 135-50.

In fact, the East is the home of the poster boys for the NFC's incompetence: the Giants.

They have lost four straight, five of six and when Michael Strahan was lost for the season with a torn pectoral muscle, they basically decided to tank this season by giving Eli Manning a seven-game break-in period at quarterback. Manning was every bit the rookie against the Eagles on Sunday, going 6-of-21, throwing two interceptions, taking five sacks and finishing with an anemic passer rating of 16.9.

Yet at 5-6, the Giants remain very much in the wild-card race.

Del Rio's Jaguars?

If they were in the NFC, they'd be on their way to the postseason.



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