The NFL has long been a league of streaks, ebbs and flows, and dominance whether that dominance be from a team, individual player, or division. Another interesting theme is the dominance by a certain conference over the other. From 1968-80, the AFL/AFC were dominant, with alot of help from the Steelers. From the early 80’s through ’97, the NFC was the superior conference with the Joe Montana and Steve Young led 49ers and the dynastic Dallas Cowboys. When the Broncos beat Brett Favre’s Packers in January 1998, it marked more than just the first Super Bowl title for the city of Denver. It marked what history shows us is the beginning of AFC dominance. Denver would win another (unfortunately for Falcons fans) alongside Baltimore, Indianapolis, a pair for Pittsburgh, and of course the New England Patriots dynasty.
Sure, there were three NFC teams with victories in the time period of 1998-2009, but it was generally a time of dominance by the AFC teams. The tremendous defense of Pittsburgh and Baltimore, and great offenses of New England and Indianapolis were enough to strike fear in the hearts of those loyal to NFC teams. But as anyone can tell you, times change. I believe that time is now.
First, look around the AFC. The Steelers defense is no longer the cream of the crop. They have done a good job keeping their team intact and are very veteran, but it is inevitable that they will be able to play at a high level for much longer. Same thing with Baltimore. Their two best defensive players, Ed Reed and Ray Lewis are not going to play forever, and their window is closing. With an offense as unpredictable and suspect desicionmaking by Flacco, I dont believe this is a fantastic team. Indianapolis was always dangerous with Peyton Manning, because he excelled in come from behind wins and putting ungodly numbers up on the board. You can see how poorly the Colts are playing without him. The Patriots are still execuiting at a very high level, but thier defense is very questionable, and eventually Tom Brady will slow down moving the Pats out of serious championship contention. Numerous key players or units are aged or on the wrong end of their careers. While still dangerous, they will undoubtedly not continue forever.
Not only is the AFC down or on the downward swing, but the NFC appears to be young and rising. Teams are just hitting the prime of their careers and are playing great as teams. The Falcons are a great example of this. Matt Ryan is still young, but improving while getting to know his offensive weapons well and running a no-huddle offense by calling his own plays at the line of scrimmage. Roddy White is in the prime of his career, and it appears that Douglas and Jones will be great receivers for a long time down the road. The offensive line is veteran but not old. On defense many parts are very young (with the notable exception of John Abraham). The line has many young pieces. The linebacking core is great, and also very young. The defensive secondary has been built through the draft and while not spectacular, they are getting the job done.
While I only focused on the Falcons specifically, there are a number of teams with young improving quarterbacks or young teams missing only one piece who can be very good for the next ten years. Along with Atlanta we can add Green Bay, Chicago, Detriot, New York, Carolina and perhaps Philadelphia and Tampa if they can turn things around. If you look at each of these teams they have alot of talent on both sides of the ball, many young stars, and key players on the right side of 30. There are other teams, like New Orleans and Dallas, who are very good teams and can contend for the next couple years, but probably can’t sustain Super Bowl level success for the next ten years.
The point is that the competition level in the NFC is at a level that we have not seen in years. As Falcons fans, we can look at this as a huge positive, as we have Ryan and other good young playmakers. There are several other NFC teams out there in the same position with the same positive outlook that we have. Obviously the NFC has won the last two Super Bowls, but I think this streak could go on for a very long time. Given the high level of competition in our conference, the NFC could dominate for many years to come.