The post-free agency era of the NFL has given us a tale of two conferences when it comes to championship games and Super Bowl appearances. 1993 signaled the first real phase of free agency around the league where players could easily change teams when their contracts expired. If you allow for a few years for market corrections and the effects to take hold, many have blamed free agency with slowly ending the Dallas Cowboys dynasty of the 1990's, and ushering in an era of parity around the league.
The two conferences, though, appear to have gone in drastically different directions for parity since that time.
In the AFC, since Dallas and Pittsburgh met in Super Bowl XXX to conclude the 1995 season, there have been 15 Super Bowls played and the AFC has been represented by only 7 different teams (43% of the conference). New England has gone 5 times, Pittsburgh has added 3 more, the Colts and Broncos have gone twice, and the Titans, Ravens, and Raiders have all gone once each.
This is in stark contrast to the NFC, where in 15 Super Bowls since the Cowboys have last attended, there have been 11 different NFC teams (69% of the conference), with only one team, Green Bay having gone more than twice (3). Beyond that, the Giants have gone twice, the Rams went twice, and 8 other clubs have gone once each - The Falcons, Buccaneers, Panthers, Eagles, Seahawks, Bears, Cardinals, and Saints.
But, it gets even more shocking when you zoom in a bit on the results since the year 2000, when free agency had totally cycled through the NFL feeding system for nearly an entire decade.
Since then, in the AFC, only 9 teams have played in the AFC Championship game and just 5 have gone to a Super Bowl since the 2000 season. Basically, the last dozen seasons in the AFC have been about 3 teams dominance, the Patriots, the Steelers, and the Colts.
Meanwhile, in the NFC, 13 different teams have played in a NFC Championship game in the last decade. 13 of 16 teams accounts for 81% of the teams in the entire conference and has put almost every single team within 60 minutes of a Super Bowl in the last 10 seasons. Only Detroit, Washington, and Dallas have not played in a NFC Championship game since the turn of the millennium. It is almost impossible to ponder.
And here is the most staggering number of all. If the San Francisco 49ers win on Sunday afternoon, that will put 11 different NFC teams in the Super Bowl in the last 11 years! Starting with St Louis in the 2001 season, the NFC has sent in order, Tampa Bay, Carolina, Philadelphia, Seattle, Chicago, New York, Arizona, New Orleans, and Green Bay.
Pending a 49ers win this weekend, the only teams in the NFC to have not been represented in the Super Bowl since Bill Clinton left the White House are the Lions, Redskins, Cowboys, Vikings, and Falcons.
The odds of 11 different teams representing the NFC in 11 years are monstrous. And yet, it is difficult to draw any conclusions due to the fact that the AFC has not dealt with this parity or mediocrity. Once again, this year, the AFC will have a match-up of two teams that have 7 AFC Championship Games in this decade. While the 49ers are headed to their first NFC Championship Game since 1998.
Are the franchise QBs of the AFC that far superior to anything the NFC has thrown out there? Is the AFC simply top heavy and therefore the depth of the conference makes it easier for the better teams to return to the late rounds of the playoffs again and again? Or, does the NFC just not have any teams that separate themselves from the competition? Since 2000, only Philadelphia (5 times) and New York (3) have been to more than two conference title games.
Regardless, it is an interesting study in parity. It does exist. The teams are closer together than ever before, however, to suggest it is random and even would be to ignore the Steelers and Patriots, in particular.
Meanwhile, the Cowboys, whose 14 NFC Championship Game appearances lead the conference still (SF will play in #13 this weekend), now face a drought from this weekend that is only surpassed by Washington and Detroit who played each other in 1991 at RFK Stadium, and have not returned.
Here are my picks for the weekend's conference title games:
Baltimore at New England: This looks to be an excellent matchup of the strengths as the Patriots offense takes on the Ravens defense. Certainly, the Ravens will not be over-run, but the environment that they walk into will be one where the New England offense looks unstoppable. There was a time, earlier in the season, where the Patriots were beatable at home, but as the season has gone on, it is back to believing that a team would need to approach 30-35 points if they are to take down Tom Brady. And that is what Baltimore will have to deal with. They figured it out in January of 2010 in Foxboro, but I have a hard time believing this Ravens offense, which struggled for large swaths of the game against Houston last week, will be able to go score for score with New England. Further, Ed Reed is gimpy, and Joe Flacco's numbers on the road are extremely pedestrian. One hopes for an exciting game, but when you consider a number of elements, I arrive at a game which I think is in full control in the 4th Quarter. Patriots win this one and return to the Super Bowl, in Indianapolis of all places. Patriots 28, Ravens 17
New York at San Francisco: I am quite excited about this battle. One thing that has made both teams successful this season has been their play along the line of scrimmage. But, now, they play each other, which most believe will be each team's best attribute squaring off. Will NY's Defensive line be able to bully the sizable OL from San Francisco? I don't believe so. Will NY be able to run on the San Francisco front? I doubt it. Also, will Eli Manning have all day, like he did in Green Bay, to wait for openings in the secondary? The key for San Francisco will be to figure out how to get off the field on those 3rd Down situations where Eli has been so good recently. Also, there is obviously a question about how Vernon Davis will be covered (hopefully, the Saints taught New York that man-to-man isn't really an option) and an even bigger question about Alex Smith continuing his play that is defying most of his critics. My pick in this game is quite difficult and certainly doesn't hold a ton of confidence, but I am going to believe that the 49ers will be able to run the ball a bit and the belief that the Candlestick crowd will get them over the top. This should be a classic bloodbath starring Justin Smith, Patrick Willis, Justin Tuck, and Jason Pierre-Paul, and a can't miss afternoon of football. 49ers 24, Giants 21
Enjoy it while you can. Football season is almost over.