There was a time for the better part of two different decades that the NFC was dominant. In the mid- to late-1980s, the 49ers and Giants were the dominant teams. In the 1990s, the Cowboys, Packers and 49ers alternated the mantle of being the class of the NFC, but played one another twice a year – once in the obligatory meetings of defending division champions and once again in the playoffs. By the time many of those Super Bowl champions reached the big game, they had already faced stiffer competition in their own conference playoffs.
You get much the same feeling that the worm has turned and that the AFC is now the dominant conference. In the NFC last year, there were only two teams that had more than 10 wins – Dallas and Green Bay. In 2006, there was only one – the Bears at 13-3. Contrast that to the AFC. In 2007, there were four teams with more than 10 wins – New England, Indianapolis, San Diego and Jacksonville. The year before that, there were four teams with 12 or more wins – the Patriots, Chargers, Colts and Ravens.
While both teams with 13-3 records to lead their respective conferences in 2006 (Chicago and Baltimore) failed to have winning records in 2007, the turnover was much less pronounced in the AFC.
The Patriots will enter 2008 coming off the first 16-0 regular season in NFL history. In the last five seasons, New England has a record of 66-14. Over the last five years, Indianapolis has had win totals of 12, 12, 14, 12 and 13 – a combined record of 63-17 in that span. Over the last four years, San Diego has amassed a 48-18 record. Pittsburgh is 44-22 in that same span. Jacksonville has 31 wins over the last three years, but no division title. Denver has won 49 games over the last five years and don't even have a playoff win to show for it.
The implication of those numbers is self-explanatory. For the past several years, teams in the AFC have come into seasons knowing the Patriots, Colts, Chargers and Steelers will be the teams to beat. If you post a good enough record, you can knock them off. But they're the standard-bearers of their divisions and three of them have Super Bowl titles to back it up.
In the meantime, the NFC has been a hodgepodge of good teams taking turns at single seasons of dominance, but far less accomplished in the way of consistency. Dallas is viewed as the top team in the NFC, but their 13 wins in 2007 marked the first time since 2003 that they managed double-digit wins – even with the proclaimed genius Bill Parcells at the helm. Over the last five years, the Giants have a record of 39-41 and, with just 10 wins in the regular season last year, may not have even made the playoffs in the AFC. Since their Super Bowl appearance, the Eagles have a record of 24-24 over the last three years. For all their improvement in 2007, the Packers are just 25-23 over the last three years. Everyone loves the Bears and seems convinced that they've been a dominant team, but over the last five years, Chicago has a record of just 43-37 (only slightly better than the Vikings' 40-40). Tampa Bay has made the playoffs two of the last three years, but still manage to have a 24-24 record in that span. The best record of any team in the NFC South and the only one above .500 is Carolina at 26-22.
If there has been a dominant team in the NFC over the last three years simply going by the numbers, it would be Seattle at 32-16, but few people view the Seahawks as dominant and, if they were still in the AFC, they likely would have been forced to be a wild card at best if still in the same division with the Chargers.
The NFL has become almost like the two different brands of baseball in the Major Leagues. If you were to do power rankings of the teams based on talent, depth and projecting their fate in 2008, the Cowboys might be the only NFC team in the top five or six overall. All the rest would be in the AFC. The AFC has the best teams in the league, but also the worst – four of the top six picks in this year's draft went to AFC teams. The NFC is far more wide open. Three of the four division champions from 2006 didn't even make the playoffs in 2007. It could be argued that only Atlanta doesn't have a chance of being a playoff team in the NFC. Can the same be said about the Raiders? Or the Chiefs? Or the Texans? Or the Ravens? Or the Dolphins?
There is considerably more parity in the NFC, which has to be seen as good news for the Vikings. Making the climb to the top happens much quicker in the NFC. When the playoffs roll around in January, you can pretty much bet that the Patriots, Colts and Chargers will be there. But in the NFC, who knows? Since the 2001 season, seven of the NFC's 16 teams have played in the Super Bowl – New York, Chicago, Seattle, Philadelphia, Carolina, Tampa Bay and St. Louis. Some could argue that the favorites to represent the NFC this year could be Dallas, New Orleans or the Vikings – three of the nine teams that haven't represented the conference since 2001.
In the end, it would seem that parity is in the eye of the beholder. The top-end teams are stronger in the AFC, but teams rise up from a pool of talent in the NFC. So which conference is tougher top to bottom? That's hard to say. In 64 interconference games played last year, each conference won 32 of them. Perhaps the league knows what it's doing and parity in some form does exist.