AFC not as dominant in recent years
Headed toward an historically inept season, the Kansas City Chiefs, who have not led in any of their games for even a minute, will drag their 1-7 record into Heinz Field on Monday night to play the Steelers.
“That's been a surprise,” said former NFL general manager Charley Casserly, an analyst for CBS and the NFL Network. “Everyone looked at them to be a playoff contender. But they've had an inordinate number of turnovers (29), and their quarterback play hasn't been very good.”
The quarterback play in Cleveland, Tennessee, Oakland, Jacksonville and Buffalo hasn't been so hot, either. In some cases, it's been downright awful and so have other facets of the game, like playing defense. Including the Chiefs, these six teams are a combined 13-38.
Not far away are a few more AFC clubs, including the Jets, who know something about poor quarterback play and who visit tough Seattle on Sunday. A loss would put them at 3-6. A turnaround is possible (or guaranteed, according to cornerback Antonio Cromartie), and the same goes for Cincinnati, which has lost four in a row, and the always mystifying Chargers. But they can go the other way, too.
So what's happened to the AFC? Since the twilight of the last century it could be argued that it was the stronger of the two conferences. But now that's a flimsy case.
“There are not a lot of very good football teams (in the AFC) right now,” said former Ravens coach Brian Billick, an analyst with Fox and the NFL Network.
Or, as ESPN analyst and former NFL offensive line Mark Schlereth put it, “There are a lot of bad teams.”
The eyeball test is one way to check. (Did you catch Jacksonville the other night?)
Another is polls or statistical rankings of all 32 teams. In ESPN's poll this week, seven of the bottom eight teams and eight of the last 10 reside in the AFC.
In Football Outsiders' efficiency ratings, which uses the type of complicated math popularized by advanced baseball statistics, nine of the bottom 10 this week are AFC teams (last week the bottom nine was entirely AFC). Pro Football Reference, which has its own mathematical formula, ranks eight AFC clubs lower than any NFC team.
“Half a season doesn't make a trend,” Casserly said.
No, but it does make for some lousy football.
Point differentials do not entirely reflect a team's performance; a one-point win counts as much as a blowout. Still, it might not be coincidence that five AFC teams have been outscored by more than 50 points compared to none in the NFC. Three of those teams — the Jaguars, Chiefs and Titans — have been outscored by more than 100 points.
In head-to-head competition, the NFC leads, 23-13. Last year the NFC beat the AFC, 33-31. And before that? You have to go back to 1995 for the last time the NFC won most of its games against the AFC. In 2006, the AFC had a 16-game advantage. That also was the season in which Indianapolis beat Chicago for the AFC's eighth Super Bowl win in 10 years. NFC teams have won the past three and four of the past five.
The Steelers, overcoming a 2-3 start and the widespread panic that resulted, are likely to benefit from the sorry state of affairs in the AFC. Beating the Chiefs would be a fourth consecutive win.
“This is a very confident Steelers team, and that was before they won in New York,” said Billick, who worked the telecast of their win over Giants last week. “And I mean this in a good way, there's an athletic arrogance about them.”
Of the Steelers' eight remaining games, seven are against AFC foes, including two with their big rivals, Baltimore, and two against the Browns. They also play the Chargers and Bengals. Dallas is the lone NFC opponent.
Baltimore, in fact, might be another indicator of the AFC's weakness despite their 6-2 record. The Ravens, who lead the Steelers by one game in the AFC North, have underperformed for a month. They trailed Cleveland in the fourth quarter before scoring 10 unanswered points, lost to Houston, 43-13, yielded almost 500 yards in a close win over Dallas, 31-29, and barely beat the sorry Chiefs, 9-6.
The Ravens and Steelers meet twice in three weeks, and if one team can pull off a sweep, it might decide the division race. Billick, who is very familiar with the rivalry, warned against putting much stock in the teams' recent play whenever they get together. But he acknowledged that the Ravens' defense “is the most vulnerable it's been in years.”
Minus injured linebacker Ray Lewis and cornerback Ladarius Webb, it isn't what it used to be. Neither is the AFC.
Bob Cohn is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-320-7810.