NFL Week 8: Not so fast, AFC
What we learned
It was just a week ago that much was written in football circles that there was a trio of AFC teams better than any one NFC squad so far this season.
There was nothing even controversial about those claims, which held that the New York Jets, New England, Pittsburgh and possibly Baltimore would be favourites against anyone in the other conference.
The Jets have developed a balanced attack this season under a much more sure-footed quarterback.
Hot seat power rankings
Not necessarily whose job is rumoured to be vulnerable, but our picks based on a combination of Sunday's results and previous body of work.
The Patriots have no distractions without Randy Moss and are developing a promising young back eight on defence, with contributions from rookies Brandon Spikes and Patrick Chung.
The Steelers more than survived Ben Roethlisberger's four-game suspension, and have seen a decent improvement in their ground game compared to last season.
And consider the top teams in the NFC.
Despite their quarterback-damaging defence, the Giants have only intermittently looked like titans on the other side of the ball. Eli Manning throws two picks for every three majors, and Brandon Jacobs has added to the turnover parade.
Atlanta shared the NFC lead heading into Sunday, but they've nearly squandered home games against San Fran and Cincy. Even before Dunta Robinson launched himself headlong like a missile in a loss to Philadelphia in Week 6, the Falcons secondary has looked vulnerable.
But Sunday showed that in a one-game scenario, it's usually anybody's ballgame.
While Jacksonville beat Dallas, eveybody's been beating Dallas these days. New England defeated Minnesota, but everybody's been beating Minnesota except Dallas these days.
The other two marquee AFC-NFC matchups saw Green Bay stifle the Jets despite injury woes on defence, with New Orleans carving out a much deserved win over the Steelers. In a bottom-dweller clash, San Francisco topped Denver.
The AFC holds a 19-15 edge this season in interconference games overall, the result of a Week 2 in which they took five of six games. But in every other week the results have been fairly split, with the large majority of games decided by single-digits.
NFC's changing face
All that said, the NFC playoffs could have a very different complexion compared to last year, and you only need to look at the premier position in the game to help explain the changes.
There's a slim chance that all four division winners last season will finish out of the playoffs, and a good chance that three will be on the outside come January. Those three, not coincidentally, are beset by quarterback problems.
Arizona is amazingly still in the playoff hunt but probably won't be for long if Derek Anderson and/or Max Hall have a say in the things. The pair have thrown one less touchdown than Carolina's motley QB tandem and rank in the bottom five in pretty much every statistical indicator (boy, Matt Leinart must have been extremely unlikable within the locker-room).
Dallas was down even with the normally durable Tony Romo at the helm, and now they're without his presence. Jon Kitna, 38, wasn't to blame for most of the interceptions in Sunday's woeful loss to Jacksonville, but at some point you'd figure the Cowboys will want to see how Stephen McGee fares in regular-season action.
As for the third team, you certainly don't need a lengthy rehash of Minnesota's melodrama.
Drew Brees and New Orleans are the exception, even though he's uncharacteristically averaged two interceptions per game in the face of the team's injury woes. The Saints are currently the sixth NFC seed, although they are only a half-game out of their division's top spot.
On the whole, the AFC is probably stronger than the NFC, but the beauty of the league's draft system is the opportunity to redistribute the wealth. With the majority of AFC quarterbacks of the established variety, Week 8 action showed emphatically where the future is brightest.
The under-25 quarterback power base clearly lies in the NFC.
We say 25 so as to include Atlanta's Matt Ryan, who could be headed to a second playoff berth already in his career. But in actual fact, Sunday saw a trio of impressive performances from NFC guys 23 and younger.
Detroit pivot Matthew Stafford came back from six weeks of inactivity to throw four TDs against Washington. It was an impressive performance given that the Redskins in the previous week had made Jay Cutler look silly (well, sillier than usual).
St. Louis, at four wins, is just two victories away from matching what the Rams managed in their previous three seasons combined. They are already etching Sam Bradford's name on the rookie trophy. Bradford has not thrown an interception in the last three games as the Rams have developed a game plan that doesn't have him throwing 40 passes per game, as happened in the first month of the season.
Most impressive is sophomore quarterback Josh Freeman. The Tampa Bay pivot is completing 60 per cent of his passes and has thrown just three interceptions this season, with none in the last three weeks.
To hear their post-game press conferences, it's as if all three were incubated to be quarterbacks. They are mature beyond their years.
Yes, the 'Skins, Panthers and Cardinals are not the imposing teams, but consider the younger crop of AFC QBs.
Mark Sanchez appears to be legit despite Sunday's woes against the Pack. But the jury's still out on Joe Flacco and Chad Henne, who turn 26 in a matter of months.
As for the younger AFC set, it's not clear yet if Colt McCoy will continue to get a chance to start in Cleveland as their veterans get healthier, while Tim Tebow is thus far mostly a red-zone running specialist with Denver.
Here are four matchups that stand out on the Week 9 schedule:
Tampa Bay (5-2) at Atlanta (5-2): As everyone predicted in the summer, the winner of this contest will either hold a share of the NFC lead or sole possession of top spot at the end of Week 9, in addition to the South Division lead.
Miami (4-3) at Baltimore (5-2): Speaking of Flacco and Henne, something's gotta give: Miami's undefeated on the road and Baltimore hasn't lost at home. The Ravens have a good AFC record so far; the Dolphins not as much. This game and the following week's contest against Tennessee will basically determine if Miami are legitimately in the playoff hunt.
Kansas City (5-2) at Oakland (4-4): Should the Raiders win, they'll be within a half-game of the AFC West lead. They haven't been this relevant this late in the season since their 2003 Super Bowl appearance. Adding food for thought, Tom Cable says Bruce Gradkowski will still be Oakland's QB when he returns from injury. If Jason Campbell leads the team over the Chiefs after the offence averaged 45 points against Denver and Seattle, can Cable possibly maintain that stance?
Chicago (4-3) at Buffalo (0-7) in Toronto: With renewed focus on offence without three running backs and two quarterbacks to debate about, the Bills have at least been fighting hard as of late. Given their performance the past two weeks against Baltimore and Kansas City, coupled with Chicago's dreadful work the past few games, Buffalo has a legitimate shot to end its winless ways. But it won't be easy — Chicago's still in the NFC North hunt, and the Bills have yet to win in two regular-season games at Rogers Centre.