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Advantage, AFC: It's big

THE BALTIMORE SUN

With the exception of the Philadelphia Eagles, the difference between the AFC and NFC this season is the same as the difference between baseball's major leagues and Triple-A. One's the real deal; the other's a training ground.

That widening chasm between NFL conferences is essentially a cyclical event. In general, bad teams draft early, getting the better players and best quarterbacks. The best teams draft late, getting good players and, often, marginal quarterbacks.

This year, the gap is most glaring in two areas that breed Super Bowl champions -- quarterbacks and defense. The AFC easily has the best of both worlds.

Consider the AFC's burgeoning stable of quarterbacks. Tom Brady is 27, Peyton Manning and Chad Pennington are 28. David Carr and Drew Brees are 25. Carson Palmer, Byron Leftwich and Ben Roethlisberger all are under 25.

Contrast that to the NFC's best quarterbacks. Brett Favre is 35, Donovan McNabb 28 and Daunte Culpepper 27. Two others -- Marc Bulger (27) and Michael Vick (24) -- are at another level, but hold promise. Eli Manning (23) is the hope of the future, if he survives his New York Giants present.

On defense, the difference is more dramatic. In total yards allowed, the AFC has seven top 10 defenses. None of the NFC's three is going to the playoffs.

There is the same domination in scoring defense, which is an even better indicator of playoff mettle. The AFC holds a 7-3 edge in the top 10. In the NFC, only the Eagles, with the No. 3 defense, are bound for the postseason.

Yes, Philadelphia has its best chance yet to win a Super Bowl. But there is this foreshadowing of the much-anticipated trip to Jacksonville:

The Eagles have swept all 10 games against NFC opponents this season. They have scored an average of 30.5 points in those games, allowing 12.7. In three games against the AFC North, they've scored 17.3 points a game and given up 22.7.

The last comparison to make is coaching. The NFC has some of the league's best offensive coaches -- Andy Reid, Mike Holmgren, Mike Martz and Mike Sherman. But the AFC counters with some of the best defensive minds -- Bill Belichick, Bill Cowher, Marty Schottenheimer, Marvin Lewis, Dom Capers, Jeff Fisher and Tony Dungy.

So it's not surprising the AFC led the interconference series by a whopping 16 games coming into Week 15. And it won't be surprising if the AFC takes home the Vince Lombardi Trophy in February, for the sixth time in eight years.

AROUND THE LEAGUE

Behavior out of bounds for kicker, mascot It didn't make any of the highlight tapes last week, but a brief altercation between New Orleans Saints punter-kicker Mitch Berger and the Dallas Cowboys mascot moments before last week's kickoff was a harbinger of things to come.

In a surreal scene, the mascot, known as "Rowdy," attempted to block one of Berger's warm-up kickoffs and knocked him to the ground at Texas Stadium. Berger landed awkwardly atop the mascot, and, with referee Tony Corrente watching, began to pummel him. Berger picks it up from there:

"I started smacking the guy in the head and screaming at him. I yelled a few expletives at him, and he's screaming back at me under his [costume]. I tried to rip his head off and throw it, but I couldn't get it off. The referee saw it all, but what's he going to do -- throw a flag?"

Soon after, Berger shanked the opening kickoff out of bounds, something he hadn't done in two years. He continued:

"I'm not making excuses. That wasn't his fault. I should have composed myself, but it was crazy. It's really funny as hell when you think about it -- here I am beating up this mascot before the game -- but he could have injured me."

The Saints upset the Cowboys, 27-13, and the mascot, Ted Ovletrea, had no comment.

Futile points

The Kansas City Chiefs are second in the league to the Indianapolis Colts in scoring with 390 points. They may become the first team in NFL history to score 450 points in a season and finish with a losing record. They are 5-8 now.

Since the league went to a 16-game schedule in 1978, only 26 teams have scored 450 points or more in a season. Eleven went to the Super Bowl and 21 won their division.

Fantasy yards

When the Cincinnati Bengals ran up 478 total yards against the New England Patriots last week, it marked the first time in their history they had 450 yards or more in three straight games. They rolled up 453 against the Ravens and 504 against the Cleveland Browns.

The surge coincides with the improved play of quarterback Carson Palmer. In his past six games, Palmer has a passer rating of 96.9 with 13 touchdowns and eight interceptions.

Fickle finger

Denver Broncos quarterback Jake Plummer issued the appropriate apologies (owner, coach, fans) after he flipped a finger at one of his loud detractors last week at home. But it wasn't the first time he expressed his pointed displeasure with fans.

In 2002, when he was with the Arizona Cardinals, he flipped off the crowd during a home game against the Seattle Seahawks after he was booed continuously. That was his last season in Arizona.

Heavy lifting

Considering the defensive might of his opponents, it's hardly surprising that New York Giants rookie quarterback Eli Manning has struggled this season. In his past three starts, including yesterday's game against Pittsburgh, Manning has faced the No. 1 (Steelers), No. 2 (Washington Redskins) and No. 6 (Ravens) defenses.

His first two starts were against the Atlanta Falcons (No. 13) and Philadelphia Eagles (No. 12), both big-blitz teams.

High road

Fired after the Green Bay Packers blew a fourth-and-26 pass in the playoffs in Philadelphia, defensive coordinator Ed Donatell landed on his feet in Atlanta with the same title. His Falcons defense is considerably better than the Packers' (No. 26) under Bob Slowik and has inspired the team's resurgence. Interestingly, Donatell harbors no ill will against the Packers.

"I'm not bitter about that situation," he said. "I can savor the good stuff. I see it as an honor to have coached there."

Audibles

Tennessee Titans wide receiver Drew Bennett's sensational game against Kansas City last week (12 catches, 233 yards, three touchdowns) made him just the fourth NFL player since 1970 to catch three touchdown passes in consecutive games. Eight of the Titans' 15 pass plays over 30 yards this year have gone to Bennett. ... When the Buffalo Bills' Troy Vincent returned from an injury-induced nine-week absence against Cleveland, he played free safety, not his normal cornerback. The shift allowed promising young corner Terrence McGee to stay in the lineup. ... Bears running back Anthony Thomas, who lost his starting job to Thomas Jones, has put his Chicago home up for sale in the expectation he will leave in free agency this offseason. ... A four-game suspension for failing a steroids test will cost injured Miami Dolphins wide receiver David Boston approximately $1.34 million in salary. ... Chiefs running back Larry Johnson, who delivered 100-yard rushing games off the bench the past two weeks, has the two longest runs (46, 41 yards) of the year for a team that features the now-injured Priest Holmes. ... Carolina Panthers linebackers coach Sam Mills received the George Halas Award from the Professional Football Writers of America. The award is given to the player or coach who has overcome injury or personal obstacles in the previous year. Mills has been battling cancer of the small intestine since August 2003. ... Detroit quarterback Joey Harrington has thrown just three touchdown passes in the past six games and the Lions have not scored a second-half offensive touchdown for five games.

Final word

Saints coaches and players erupted in laughter at the sight of their punter fighting with the aforementioned Cowboys mascot last week.

"I saw it, and I couldn't help but laugh," said Saints long snapper Kevin Houser. "I was laughing all the way through the national anthem. I had the church giggles."

Compiled from interviews, wire services and reports from other newspapers.

TODAY'S GAMES

GAME OF THE WEEK

Seahawks (7-6) at Jets (9-4)

Line: Jets by 6 1/2

Lowdown: Jets are 4-4 in their past eight games and only 2-4 vs. winning teams. Remarkably, Seattle qualifies as a winning team. Devastated on defense by injuries, the Seahawks make their second straight long road trip after winning in Minnesota. Jets are tougher mentally and physically.

The pick: Jets

WORTH SEEING

Bills (7-6) at Bengals (6-7)

Line: Bills by 2 1/2

Lowdown: Bengals offense will take a hit without QB Carson Palmer (knee), but Jon Kitna is capable if he doesn't throw interceptions. Coming off a laugher against Cleveland, the Bills will want to control the game with defense and RB Willis McGahee.

The pick: Bills

Jaguars (7-6) at Packers (8-5)

Line: Packers by 3 1/2

Lowdown: A QB duel looms between precocious newcomer Byron Leftwich of the Jaguars and crafty veteran Brett Favre. Favre can't afford another cold start like the 4-for-18 one he had against Detroit. This is the Packers' time and the Packers' weather.

The pick: Packers

Cowboys (5-8) at Eagles (12-1)

Line: Eagles by 11 1/2

Lowdown: The best thing the Cowboys have going for them is that the Eagles already have locked up the division title and a first-round bye. An upset is a possibility. With the Eagles' defensive line hurting, the Cowboys will run Julius Jones a lot.

The pick: Eagles

Broncos (8-5) at Chiefs (5-8)

Line: Broncos by 2 1/2

Lowdown: Broncos are in the must-win mode and a wild-card battle with the Ravens. Kansas City won't be an easy place to play. Denver QB Jake Plummer is feeling the heat for his weekly gaffes. He'll probably give the Chiefs a chance. It's up to them to capitalize.

The pick: Chiefs

Vikings (7-6) at Lions (5-8)

Line: Vikings by 3

Lowdown: Vikings look vulnerable against Lions RB Kevin Jones, who has rushed for 352 yards and averaged 6.0 per carry the past two weeks. But if this is decided by the quarterbacks, Minnesota's Daunte Culpepper has a huge advantage over Joey Harrington.

The pick: Vikings

HIT SNOOZE ALARM

Chargers (10-3) at Browns (3-10)

Line: Chargers by 10

Lowdown: Browns are in the surrender mode with seven straight losses. Chargers have won seven in a row. Both streaks will continue.

The pick: Chargers

Rams (6-7) at Cardinals (4-9)

Line: Rams by 3

Lowdown: Rams have only won two of their past seven, and last week QB Chris Chandler threw a pick-six at Carolina. Anything is possible in the milquetoast NFC West.

The pick: Cardinals

Texans (5-8) at Bears (5-8)

Line: Bears by 1

Lowdown: Texans held the Peyton Manning express to two TDs last week. Beating Bears QB Chad Hutchinson doesn't look so hard by comparison.

The pick: Texans

Saints (5-8) at Buccaneers (5-8)

Line: Bucs by 8

Lowdown: Saints haven't rolled over yet; ask Dallas. But they will after the Bucs' Brian Griese hits a few big plays.

The pick: Bucs

Titans (4-9) at Raiders (4-9)

Line: Raiders by 3

Lowdown: Titans are accepting volunteers in the secondary after giving up 100 points combined in their past two games.

The pick: Raiders

TEAM RANKINGS

Rankings are a compilation of opinions of eight NFL writers from Tribune Publishing newspapers across the country (last week's ranking in parentheses):

1. Steelers (1) Winning streak at 12 after scare at the Meadowlands.

2. Patriots (2) Time for an old-fashioned butt-kicking in Miami.

3. Eagles (3) Redskins almost did it; now the Cowboys come to town.

4. Colts (4) Peyton Manning has a record 13 straight games with multiple TD passes.

5. Chargers (5) Last time Chargers won 10, they made it to Super Bowl.

6. Falcons (7) Trying to clinch a first-round bye.

7. Jets (6) Chad Pennington doesn't look like Joe Montana anymore.

8. Ravens (9) Don't think defense can limit Indy to 55 yards in three quarters.

9. Packers (8) Brett Favre gets Jaguars at home. You can taste the frozen tundra.

10. Broncos (11) Get to feed off the bottom-feeding Chiefs defense.

11. Bills (13) Willis McGahee can will this team into the playoffs.

12. Jaguars (12) Byron Leftwich gets to throw in the crisp air of Lambeau.

13. Panthers (16) John Fox's recovery from adversity has paid off so far.

14. Seahawks (17) Shaun Alexander is tramping into Curtis Martin's house.

15. Vikings (10) Woeful 2-5 in their past seven games.

16. Bengals (14) Get a chance to derail the Drew Bledsoe Revival Show.

17. Rams (15) 2-5 on the road heading into Valley of the Sun.

18. Buccaneers (18) Only thing in January for Bucs fans will be Gasparilla Parade.

19. Texans (20) David Carr needs a couple of studs at receiver.

20. Chiefs (22) Did Larry Johnson finally take the diapers off?

21. Cowboys (21) They're serving Tuna cheese- steaks at Geno's this week.

22. Lions (23) Roy Williams gets chance to compare stats with Randy Moss.

23. Redskins (26) Defense has delivered all season.

24. Titans (24) Billy Volek doesn't look like the answer to replace Steve McNair.

25. Bears (21) Injury list looks more like a 53-man roster.

26. Saints (28) Deuce McAllister and Joe Horn and still only five wins?

27. Giants (25) Do you think Tom Coughlin is really trying to win games?

28. Raiders (27) Somewhere, Pete Rozelle is smiling.

29. Cardinals (29) December in the desert is still cold and bitter.

30. Dolphins (31) It's not like David Boston is the Barry Bonds of receivers.

31. Browns (30) The Dawg Pound certainly has enough dogs in the house.

32. 49ers (32) They're on the clock.

Comments by Gary Blockus, Allentown Morning Call

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