As a longtime fan of teams belonging to the NFC and a season ticket holder of 5 years for the Seattle Seahawks, I bristle at the notion that the NFC is the "JV league". Analysts, columnists, and sports personalities in print, radio, and on television love to put down the NFC. As do fans of AFC teams. Sure, the AFC has won the majority of recent Super Bowls and I do believe New England, Indianapolis, and Jacksonville are the three best teams in the NFL, but I also believe the AFC is chock full of very, very bad teams that do more than pull down their conference's average.
I'm here to say the two conferences, as wholes, are equal. And I can prove it.
If you look at the final Power Rankings, as done by ESPN.com's team of experts, you'll see that the the top of the list is dominated by AFC teams. As is the bottom of the list. I've looked at a lot of Power Rankings throughout the season from different media outlets and I do believe this is probably the best. Sure, it's opinion, but after an entire season, it's a lot more right than it is wrong.
So, what I did was divvy up the list by Conference and Division to see first of all, which divisions were in fact the toughest. Yes, this is because I'm tired of people discounting the Seahawks run of 4 straight division titles on account of "the division they play in". One of my friends recently said the Jets would win the division each year if they played in the NFC West, implying the AFC East was the much tougher division.
The following table shows the Power Ranking for each team in each of the eight divisions and an average Power Ranking for that division (the total for the teams in the division divided by the number of teams). I'm not entering the team names for brevity's sake, so refer back to the link above if you're curious. And remember, the lower the number the better.
East - 1, 19, 30, 32 = 20.5 AVG
North - 8, 13, 22, 25 = 17.0 AVG
South - 2, 4, 11, 16 = 8.25 AVG
West - 6, 21, 27, 28 = 20.5
East - 3, 9, 10, 14 = 9.0 AVG
North - 5, 15, 20, 24 = 16.0 AVG
South - 12, 18, 23, 31 = 21.0 AVG
West - 7, 17, 26, 29 = 19.75 AVG
Divisional Power Rankings
1) AFC South - 8.25
2) NFC East - 9.0
3) NFC North - 16.0
4) AFC North - 17.0
5) NFC West - 19.75
6) AFC East - 20.5 (tie)
7) AFC West - 20.5 (tie)
8) NFC South - 21.0
Well lookee there! Apparently having the "greatest team of all time" does not make a division very formidable. In fact, despite the ribbing of my Jets-fan friends, if you look at the divisions as a whole instead of being wowed by the glow of the Patriots, the NFC West is actually the tougher division than the AFC East, albeit not by much.
The AFC South and NFC East are both sending 3 teams each to the playoffs and figured to be the two highest rated divisions. But what I found interesting in doing this is just how much the various divisions match up with one another across Conference boundaries.
The AFC South and NFC East have comparable scores; 8.25 and 9.0, respectively.
The NFC North and AFC North are practically equal; 16.0 and 17.0, respectively.
And the other four divisions are, essentially, equal in their mediocrity. The NFC West & South and AFC East & West each have one good team and three teams that would struggle to win the Fiesta Bowl. Sure, the AFC East may be home to the first team in my lifetime to go 16-0, but it's also home to two of the three worst ranked teams in the ESPN Power Rankings. That balances things out, to say the least.
So what about the Conferences as a whole? Is the AFC dominant, or not?
If you take the average Divisional Power Rankings from above, the answer is no.
In fact, the average Power Ranking for the two Conferences, based on their divisions, are equal. The both have an average score of 4.5.
But what's really interesting is that if you average out the Power Rankings based on the 16 individual teams in each Conference and not on their Divisional averages, drumroll please... the NFC actually has a slightly better ranking, besting the AFC with a score of 16.43 to 16.56.
Of course, these findings are all based on the ESPN Power Rankings, but it's worth noting that their list is made up by John Clayton and Len Pasquarelli and 6 other guys of their ilk. These aren't hot-heads. They're long-time professionals whose opinions I feel are worth listening closely to. These are guys who really do seem to know their stuff. So while the numbers may not be completely indisputable, they are pretty damn good.
And when used with a touch of math, they show that the idea of the AFC being the superior conference is not only an exaggeration, but flat-out wrong.