The expectation entering this year was that the NFC was the deeper and stronger conference than the AFC. That was certainly my expectation as well. Last year in the AFC, every team that had a winning record made the postseason. The NFC went 39-25 against the AFC teams, and the middle class of the AFC had plenty of questions.
Meanwhile, the middle class of the NFC from a year ago featured a team getting its coach back (Saints), one that just missed playoffs and brought in an offensive coach (Bears), America’s Team, and two other teams from the NFC South that added key pieces in Carolina and Tampa Bay. Oh, and Detroit was certainly due for a rebound after all the close losses, as well.
That is not how it has worked out after three weeks. If you look at the standings, you will see that only five teams in the NFC have a winning record. That’s right – if you have one win in the NFC, you are still right in the middle of the playoff picture despite a slow start. Meanwhile, 3-0 is not even good enough to be sitting alone in first place in two AFC divisions, and 2-1 means you are behind in the wildcard standings.
The reason is that the AFC has been beating the NFC through the first three weeks, winning 11 of 14 matchups. The more amazing thing, though, is that the AFC team has been the betting underdog in 10 of those matchups, and has won seven of them.
I looked back (with point spread data at pro-football-reference.com going to 1978) to see if there were any other years where one conference so underperformed relative to expectations early in the year.
The answer is no. There were only two years where a conference was a net -3 in wins relative to being the favorite. In 2002, the NFC was favored in 6 of the 11 games played in the first three weeks, but only went 3-8. In 1994, the NFC was favored in 7 of 10, but went 4-6.
The reasons are many. The primary one is close game performance, as the AFC has won 7 of the 8 games decided late in the game, often with key plays, and sometimes extremely unlikely ones. The Jets needed a hit out of bounds to beat Tampa Bay with a field goal. Buffalo marched the length of the field and got a chance with a defensive penalty to beat Carolina. Cincinnati got the fumble return on a 4th and 1 play to take the lead. Those kind of events are generally not going to repeat. Even without them, though, the AFC teams have been better than expected.
Kansas City and Miami will be in contention all year, both relying on defenses that should rank among the ten best in the league, and offenses that have made timely drives. Indianapolis is better, and should again be in contention. Even a team like the Titans has an aggressive young defense, and is just one play away from also being 3-0. The AFC appears to have the middle and upper middle class it lacked a year ago.
The NFC, meanwhile, has a lot of the most successful recent franchises sitting with losing records. Five of the six teams that were in the postseason a year ago are under .500 after three games, with only the Seahawks living up to expectations.
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[photo via USA Today Sports Images]
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