Advantage, AFC: It's big

Week Fifteen

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December 19, 2004|By KEN MURRAY | KEN MURRAY,SUN STAFF

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.

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