Since 2001, eight of the 13 Super Bowl winners have come from the AFC. Throughout most of those years, the question was whether Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, or Ben Roethlisberger would guide his team to a championship. After all, the three men advanced the Patriots, Colts, and Steelers to a combined 10 of those games.
Over the last few years, though, there’s been a gradual changing of the guard.
Dating back to 2010, Brady, Manning, and Roethlisberger have all made it to title games – and lost.
The conversation in New England has revolved around whether Brady’s injury-riddled Patriots have enough fight, talent, and late-game pizzazz to get by Manning’s new team from Denver if they meet again.
Perhaps there’s a different question we should be asking: Does it matter?
In other words, can a team from the AFC beat the eventual NFC representative?
Entering the season, many pundits picked Pete Carroll's Seahawks to reach the Super Bowl and, to this point, it’s hard to doubt they will. At 12-2 and fresh off a shutout in chilly New York, the Russell Wilson-led offense is explosive, has overcome a number of key injuries to score the fifth-most points in the league, should have Percy Harvin back for the playoffs, and they run the ball as well as anyone. The sophomore Wilson is accurate, efficient, and mobile (he has half as many yards on the ground as star back Marshawn Lynch). Defensively, thanks largely to Brady’s best buddy Richard Sherman, Seattle has allowed the fewest number of points at 14.6 per game, and it has beaten fellow contenders from Carolina, New Orleans, and San Francisco. The ‘Hawks are the best team in the NFL at defending the pass, obviously the strengths for the Patriots and Broncos, and you probably don’t want to be reminded that they’re the top defensive squad in the red zone to the tune of a 61 percent success rate. They also have the second-best turnover-differential in the game at plus-16.
The 10-4 Niners, winners of four straight, have been rejuvenated by the Week 13 return of stud receiver Michael Crabtree, who’s proven to be fully recovered from his Achilles injury and a dynamic complement to Anquan Boldin and Vernon Davis. Colin Kaepernick looks like a new man and he’s scrambling more reliably than he has all season. Along with Frank Gore, they run with great frequency and success. On the other side of the ball, San Francisco boasts the third-best scoring defense in the league. It’s been nearly impenetrable since Week 4 with an average of just 13 points given up per game, aided by immense QB pressure. In that time, however, the Niners have suffered setbacks to the Panthers and Saints (by just a total of four points), though they escaped the Seahawks two weeks ago. On top of it all, San Fran did make it to the big game last year and very nearly won. Kaepernick and crew know what it takes to get there, and won’t be intimidated if they do.
The Saints, at 10-4, are playing like their old Super Bowl-winning selves with coach Sean Payton back at the helm. Drew Brees’ passing offense (4,500 yards, 34 touchdowns) is second only to Manning’s Broncos, but they don’t run the ball particularly well or often. New Orleans does possess the league’s fifth-best defense. The club was thumped by the Seahawks in Week 13, but has managed wins over the Niners and Panthers. Yes, the Saints did lose to the Patriots, but we all remember it took a miracle from New England and remarkably bad play-calling by New Orleans to bring that outcome to fruition. Their Achilles' heel could prove to be playing away from home (3-4) and outdoors (2-4), both areas where they’ve struggled this season. And, much like the Pats, they’ve also had their battles with health. Star wideout Jimmy Graham, while he’s still over 1,000 yards receiving, has a partially torn plantar fascia and he’s been held under 60 yards in seven of his last nine games.
The well-disciplined Panthers – despite my doubts in their hype earlier this season – have the second-best overall defense next to the ‘Hawks, they get to the quarterback at an obnoxiously effective rate (45 sacks, second in NFL), they thrive against the run, and Cam Newton is a revelation when consistent. Carolina is 8-1 over the last nine weeks to improve to 10-4 and rise to contention for the NFC South title, which may be decided by this weekend’s home meeting with co-leader New Orleans – the only team it has lost to in the last two-plus months. Along the way, the Panthers edged the Niners in San Fran and, as we all know, outlasted the Pats in a controversial ending. Carolina’s offensive weapons, except for Newton with his versatility, aren’t overly intimidating, but the team is balanced both in the air and on the ground. The only real concern defensively is the secondary, which will likely get them in trouble before reaching the Meadowlands, anyhow.
Whichever of the aforementioned teams qualifies for the Super Bowl, and it will likely be one of the four, should be able to handle the Patriots, Broncos, or any other surprise entrant. All have the offensive ability and, perhaps more important, the defensive depth, an area that most AFC favorites (the Chiefs and Bengals, aside) lack. But Kansas City and Cincinnati fail to generally measure up offensively, all due respect to Jamaal Charles.
None of this is to suggest the Patriots are a bad team. If healthy, they’re arguably the best and most balanced squad in the NFL. Problem is, they’re not healthy – not even close, and they won’t be for the duration of the year. Without Rob Gronkowski, they’ve struggled in the red zone and their running game has not been as effective. Without several of their defensive anchors, they’ve been unable to make key stops, can’t halt the run, and have allowed 26.8 points per game since Week 6. Merge those two realities and you have a team that’s trailed in 12 of 14 games, relied far too often on late-game heroics, and is a lousy 3-4 on the road – with wins over teams that are a combined 11-31.
In spite of that, all of it, perhaps the Patriots could maintain possession of a first-round playoff bye, win a home division game, march into Mile High and upset a powerhouse Broncos offense that also falters frequently on the defensive end. The AFC is that wide open.
From there … In Bill We Trust? Sure. Any given Sunday? Of course. But, if you’re playing the odds? It’s tough to argue with the facts. They may just be lining up for second-place.
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About this blog
Adam Kaufman is a writer and broadcaster who can also be heard regularly on 98.5 The Sports Hub, WBZ NewsRadio 1030, the national CBS Sports Radio Network, and broadcasting Boston College hockey games. The Massachusetts native is a Syracuse grad and a pop culture fanatic who offers a unique and entertaining look at your favorite Boston sports teams. Please don't hold his love for Jean-Claude Van Damme movies against him.
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