The Conferences

The Baltimore Sun

The NFL has gone to great lengths to promote parity and, in most instances, has achieved its goal.

Only one glitch in former commissioner Paul Tagliabue's grand vision of the cream, as well as the crud, rising to the top: The AFC in general - and the New England Patriots in particular - is messing with this mandate.

By winning the Super Bowl six times in the past seven years and eight in the past 10, including three titles in a four-year stretch by the Patriots, the AFC has clearly distanced itself from what once was the more dominant half of the league.

While this current run includes the Ravens, a team clearly built around its defense, the other teams that have hoisted the hardware at season's end either had a great quarterback or a great coach. In several cases, they had both.

From the back-to-back titles of the Denver Broncos' John Elway that capped his Hall of Fame career, to the Joe Montana imitation done by the Patriots' Tom Brady, and finally to Peyton Manning ending years of frustration by leading the Indianapolis Colts to the franchise's first championship since leaving Baltimore, this is the NFL's golden thread.

Considering that the four strongest teams going into the 2007 season might be from the AFC - the Patriots, Colts, San Diego Chargers and possibly the Ravens - there seems little doubt that the trend will continue through the Super Bowl in Glendale, Ariz., in February.

"It tends to go back and forth," Ravens coach Brian Billick said. "And right now we're on a pretty strong AFC cycle."

Last season, the AFC had a 40-24 record against the NFC during the regular season, the eighth time in the past 10 years that the AFC has held the edge. The best the NFC could muster during that stretch were 30-30 records in 2000 and 2001. The AFC's decade of dominance follows an even longer reign by the NFC.

Between the 1982 season, when the San Francisco 49ers won the first of four Super Bowls with Montana and Steve Young at quarterback, and the 1997 season, when Brett Favre led the Green Bay Packers to their first Super Bowl win in nearly 30 years, the NFC lifted the Lombardi Trophy every year but one.

The NFC had great quarterbacks - including Troy Aikman, who won three times with the Dallas Cowboys, and Phil Simms, who was on two championship teams with the New York Giants - and great coaches in San Francisco's Bill Walsh, New York's Bill Parcells and the Washington Redskins' Joe Gibbs, who won with three different quarterbacks.

Former NFL quarterback turned analyst Boomer Esiason said recently that the AFC has evolved into a much stronger group of teams than the NFC because of the combination of quarterbacks and coaches, duos such as Brady and Bill Belichick in New England, Manning and Tony Dungy in Indianapolis, and previously Elway and Mike Shanahan in Denver.

"I've always felt that [to succeed] you need somebody like Belichick or Dungy or [Mike] Holmgren or Shanahan, or even Brian Billick, who has become a stabilizing force in the franchise," Esiason said.

"And then when you want to get to the upper echelon of the NFL, you want a quarterback who sets the tone for everyone else. When you have in your conference Tom Brady, Peyton Manning and Carson Palmer - and I'm not ready to throw Philip Rivers in there yet - you have the top three quarterbacks in the entire NFL."

Can a coach and a quarterback make that big a difference on a team of 53 players and a dozen or more coaches?

Esiason points to his career, in which he went to the Super Bowl once in 14 years, with the Cincinnati Bengals during the 1988 season.

"I played in the Bermuda Triangle of the NFL - the Bengals, the Jets and the Cardinals - and I think I had seven or eight different head coaches. I was at my best when a team was at its most stable, and that was when Sam Wyche was the head coach of the Bengals," Esiason said. "Stability is so important from the coaching staff."

Ron Wolf, who was the Packers' general manager of the when they beat the Patriots (coached by Parcells) in the Super Bowl in January 1997, said that the adage of defense winning championships has an addendum.

"Defense might win you championships, but I would rather try with a quarterback than a defense," Wolf said. "I'll take Brady and Manning and you can take the defense."

Not that a suffocating defense doesn't play a major factor in a team winning a Super Bowl. The 2000 Ravens and the 1985 Chicago Bears are certainly prime examples, as are the Pittsburgh Steelers of the 1970s, who won as much, if not more, with their famed "Steel Curtain" defense as they did with a well-balanced offense.

Wolf said that the current formula goes back nearly to the roots of the modern-day NFL. For 10 straight years starting in 1946, quarterback Otto Graham led the Cleveland Browns to a league championship game - four in the All-America Football Conference and then six in the NFL - winning seven times.

"That's the best example," Wolf said. "I think Len Ford was the only defensive player on that team in the Hall of Fame."

The modern-day NFL dynasties all had Hall of Fame quarterbacks: from Bart Starr in Green Bay, to Roger Staubach in Dallas, to Terry Bradshaw in Pittsburgh, to Montana and Young in San Francisco, and now Brady and possibly Manning are poised to join that list.

The NFC is not without its outstanding quarterbacks and coaches, but many of its potential Super Bowl teams are considered inexperienced in one or both of those areas.

The Bears, who lost to the Colts in the Super Bowl last season, have much-maligned Rex Grossman at quarterback. The New Orleans Saints have Drew Brees at quarterback, but a second-year coach in Sean Payton. The Seattle Seahawks have Holmgren as coach, but their offense doesn't revolve around quarterback Matt Hasselbeck.

"Things go in cycles with certain players, particularly the quarterbacks," Billick said. "In the NFC you had Aikman and Young and Montana and that group for a while; now it's kind of swung the other way in the AFC. You've got some pretty good quarterbacks, and that's a pretty good indicator."

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