The NFC's return to dominance
Sorry, Cowboys, Eagles and Bears fans. If your teams played in the AFC, reaching the playoffs would be a far easier scenario.
That’s because the NFC is the deeper, more competitive conference with stronger teams — just as it was during the mid-1980s through the mid-1990s.
Aside from the Broncos, the AFC lacks teams as talented as their NFC brethren.
The NFC powers
The NFC West contains two Super Bowl favorites, the 49ers and the Seahawks. Despite losing key players to injury like WR Percy Harvin, WR Michael Crabtree and CB Chris Culliver, both teams remain loaded on defense.
The 49ers, whose defense ranked third in the NFL last year, return all of their defensive starters from Super Bowl XLVII except S Dashon Goldson and NT Isaac Sopoaga. They have a matchup nightmare in QB Colin Kaepernick and a stacked running game with Kendall Hunter, LaMichael James and Frank Gore operating behind a mauling offensive line, featuring three former first-round picks in LT Joe Staley, LG Mike Iupati and RT Anthony Davis.
The Seahawks’ physical “Legion of Boom” secondary is the best in the league, and Seattle added DEs Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril to a defense that ranked fourth in the NFL last year. That duo combined for 18.5 sacks in 2012. Offensively, it has QB Russell Wilson, who completed 64.1 percent of his passes for 3,118 yards, 26 touchdowns and 10 interceptions in his rookie year.
Russell Wilson and the Seahawks figure to be a tough out at home once again in 2013.
With the best home-field advantage in football at raucous CenturyLink Field, the Seahawks could go 8-0 at home.
Forgotten in the offseason arms race between the two West Coast rivals, the Rams are an ascending team. They tied for the most sacks (52) in the NFL last year and had the NFC West’s best record (4-1-1) within the division.
The Falcons tied for the best record (13-3) in the NFL in 2012. The team that was four points away from reaching the Super Bowl last year addressed their two major holes — lack of a pass rush (just 29 sacks last year) and a running game (3.7 yards-per-carry) with the offseason additions of DE Osi Umenyiora and RB Steven Jackson.
The Packers have retained the core of their roster from their 2010 Super Bowl-winning campaign. That includes LB Clay Matthews, DL B.J. Raji , WR Jordy Nelson and most notably the league’s best quarterback, Aaron Rodgers, who should have to carry less of an offensive burden this year.
After the Packers’ drafting of RBs Eddie Lacy and Johnathan Franklin, Rodgers should have the most potent running game he’s had since arriving in Green Bay and one that should break the spell of a 100-yard-game by a Packers rusher, which last occurred on Oct. 10, 2010.
And don’t forget about the Giants. New York may have missed the playoffs at 9-7 last year, but it impressively crushed Green Bay at home (38-10) and San Francisco on the road (26-3).
The Giants can throw the ball and rush the passer. Though they sometimes exude a wake-me-up-when-the-playoffs-are-here attitude, they are the only team with two Super Bowl victories in the last six years.
The Saints, the 2009 Super Bowl champions, finished 7-9 in 2012, partly a result of the consequences of Bountygate. With Sean Payton back on board, the Saints could return to the playing level it showed while going 13-3, 11-5 and 13-3 in successive seasons from 2009-2011.
New Orleans shares a division with not only the Falcons but also the Buccaneers. Tampa finished 7-9 last season despite owning the worst pass defense in the NFL, which allowed 4,758 yards. The DB additions of Goldson and CB Darrelle Revis should drastically improve the Bucs.
The AFC powers
Though I think many have exaggerated the demise of the Ravens, they have lost an unprecedented seven starters from Super Bowl XLVII. Before this season, no defending NFL champion ever had lost more than five.
Big Ben and the Steelers are getting long in the tooth.
The Steelers have one of the NFL’s best quarterbacks in Ben Roethlisberger, but their aging defense is slated to start five players (DE Brett Keisel, LB Larry Foote, S Troy Polamalu, S Ryan Clark and CB Ike Taylor) who are 32 or older.
And the starting LB corps of Foote, LaMarr Woodley, Lawrence Timmons and Jason Worilds sounds much less imposing than the units that have previously anchored Pittsburgh’s 3-4 D.
The Bengals might be one of the AFC’s best teams, but come on. They’re the Bengals. And they last won a playoff game on Jan. 6, 1991, and that winless postseason drought is the longest in the NFL.
The Texans are clearly the AFC South’s most talented team, but would you trust QB Matt Schaub and that passing game to lead your franchise deep into the playoffs?
Last year Schaub and the Texans lost to the Patriots, who will always be contenders as long as QB Tom Brady is around, in the divisional round of the playoffs. But in part because of the injuries to TE Rob Gronkowski, murder allegations against TE Aaron Hernandez and the offseason defection of WR Wes Welker, Brady is without his top five receiving targets from last year.
Compounding the problem in New England is that coach Bill Belichick has not been able to acquire a reliable pass rusher or shutdown cornerback on the defensive side.
Welker’s current team, the Broncos, is the class of the AFC West and the AFC. Despite the loss of Elvis Dumervil and the potential suspension to LB Von Miller, Denver, which finished 13-3 last year, bolstered its weaknesses in the secondary and running game. Both inadequacies presented themselves when the Broncos could not finish off Baltimore last season in the Divisional Round of the playoffs.
Denver brought in CBs Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Quentin Jammer, and it drafted RB Montee Ball to help QB Peyton Manning, who could be even better after another year of recovery from neck surgery and another year in the Broncos’ system.
That makes the Broncos the heavy favorite to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl.
Prior to that franchise’s Super Bowl victory in 1998, the NFC won the previous 13 Super Bowls — often in dominating fashion.
That trend could start to resurface in 2013.
Follow Jeff on Twitter: @JFedotin
Jeff Fedotin has written for Packers.com, Pro Football Weekly, ESPN The Magazine, the Lawrence (Kan.) Journal-World and Rivals.com. After graduating from Northwestern University, he interned for the Buffalo Bills. During his football playing days at Pembroke Hill (Mo.) School, Fedotin was known for his bad knees and even worse blocking.