Strong-arming the competition

Jason Cole

Jacksonville Jaguars running back Fred Taylor beams a playful smile when asked why the AFC is so much better than the NFC.

"This is the real Black and Blue, baby," Taylor said, making fun of the nickname of the old NFC Central division. "Yeah, the NFC has some teams over there that are pretty good, but they can't play with the teams (in) the AFC."

Taylor may be talkin' some noise, but the stats back him up, big time.


The AFC has won eight of the past 10 Super Bowls. Even more, the AFC's best have dominated interconference foes the past three years while the NFC's best aren't even mediocre.

Since the start of 2004, AFC playoff teams are a combined 62-10 in regular season games against NFC opponents. By contrast, NFC playoff teams during that stretch are 33-39 and have not finished above .500 against AFC foes.

That obvious question – why – is easy to answer on some level, but harder on another.

"With the Super Bowl, I can see some trends, but when you talk about the overall numbers you have there, I don't have a really good explanation for that," San Diego Chargers general manager A.J. Smith said. "It has to come down to players, but I don't necessarily know all the trends there."

It starts with quarterback play. While 1999 No. 1 overall pick Tim Couch flamed out and 2002's top pick, David Carr, was known more for getting sacked than winning games with the Houston Texans, some of the game's marquee signal callers have helped the AFC dominate in recent years.

"Follow the quarterbacks. The conference, the divisions, the teams with the best quarterbacks win," said Baltimore Ravens coach Brian Billick, who guided his team to victory in Super Bowl XXXV. "Right now the AFC starts out with Peyton (Manning), (Tom) Brady and (Carson) Palmer – and that's before you get to Big Ben (Roethlisberger) who was the quarterback on the Super Bowl winner not very many months ago. Philip Rivers and Vince Young look pretty good coming out of the gate, and our guy wins every year."

Conversely, when the NFC won 13 straight Super Bowl from the 1984-96 seasons, household names such as Joe Montana, Troy Aikman, Steve Young and Brett Favre guided their teams to victory.

Year Matchup Record
2004 AFC playoff teams vs. NFC 21-3
2004 NFC playoff teams vs. AFC 11-13
2005 AFC playoff teams vs. NFC 20-4
2005 NFC playoff teams vs. AFC 12-12
2006 AFC playoff teams vs. NFC 21-3
2006 NFC playoff teams vs. AFC 10-14

Of the 41 Super Bowls, 28 have been won by 14 quarterbacks who are either in the Hall of Fame (Montana, Terry Bradshaw and John Elway, to name a few) or well on their way (Brady, Manning and Favre). Of those 28 games, eight quarterbacks won multiple Super Bowls, combining to win 22 overall.

"Now, in any given year, one team can get a roll, like we did when I was in Baltimore and we had Trent Dilfer at quarterback or what Tampa Bay did that year with their defense and Brad Johnson," said Jaguars coach Jack Del Rio, the Ravens' former linebackers coach. "But when you have (quarterbacks) like that, you have a chance every year to win. They impact the game that much. That's why everyone is looking for those guys all the time and that's why they get paid so much money."

Not only have the AFC teams had the better quarterbacks of late, but they have been extremely successful in the draft. For example, over a nine-year stretch starting in 1996, Indianapolis selected wide receiver Marin Harrison, left tackle Tarik Glenn, Manning, running back Edgerrin James, linebacker Rob Morris, wide receiver Reggie Wayne, defensive end Dwight Freeney, tight end Dallas Clark and safety Bob Sanders.

Eight of those nine started in the Super Bowl. James was the exception, having signed as a free agent with the Arizona Cardinals the previous offseason. Furthermore, Harrison and Manning are well on their way to Hall of Fame careers while Glenn, Wayne and Freeney have been Pro Bowlers.

"That storyline is pretty evident when you consider that Bill Polian is there," said Smith, who worked under Polian in Buffalo when the Bills made four consecutive Super Bowl appearances. "Whether it was in Buffalo or when Bill went to Carolina, I think his draft record and ability to build teams speaks for itself."

The draft success has been similar in New England, San Diego, Baltimore and Pittsburgh. All but the Chargers, who had the league's best record last season at 14-2, have won a Super Bowl during the AFC's current run. By contrast, NFC drafts have not been as bountiful. One exception has been New Orleans, which may explain why the team made such a staggering improvement last season.

Since 2000, the Saints have selected Darren Howard, Deuce McAllister, Charles Grant, Will Smith, Jammal Brown and Reggie Bush, laying the foundation for last season's run. Similarly, the early 1990s Dallas Cowboys laid the foundation for their three Super Bowls by drafting first-rounders Aikman, Michael Irvin, Emmitt Smith, Russell Maryland, Kevin Smith, Alvin Harper and Robert Jones.

To many, that type of draft success is paramount.

"When you miss in the first round, it really hurts your team overall," Billick said. "It's not just about the money, although that has a huge impact on the salary cap. But it's also about the time and energy you expend on trying to make sure that player is successful. When you don't get performance, you're turning to somebody who in all likelihood is not just less gifted physically, but it's someone you haven't invested the same time in."

Smith took it a step further: "It's not just in the first round, but it's the entire first day of the draft where you have to make hay. Those are guys you're going to spend five or six years with, … longer if you can extend them, and you have to make sure they're productive for you."

The AFC has done that over the past several years, leading to the shift in power.