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Inside the NFL: NFC basking in superiority

Perhaps no game illustrated the NFC's vast superiority over the AFC this season better than the one played at New Era Field last Sunday.

The New Orleans Saints' 47-10 mugging of the Buffalo Bills was a display of physical dominance not often seen in the NFL. When you're able to run with the authority the Saints did in producing 298 yards and six touchdowns — especially at the other team's home — you're taking humiliation to whole new level.

But the numbers that tell the story of the NFC's pronounced upper hand don't end with the Saints' margin of victory or rushing yards or those 24 consecutive run plays in the second half of one game against an AFC opponent.

Try these:

Nine. That, according to NFL Network's Kevin Patra, is the number of NFC teams with a positive point differential after Week 10, which was four more than in the AFC. According to Will Brinson of CBS Sports, all four NFC divisions had a positive point differential after Week 10, while all four AFC divisions had a negative one.

Six. That's how many NFC teams have losing records, four fewer than in the AFC.

Five. That's the number of NFC teams with seven or more victories (the Saints,  Eagles, Vikings,  Rams, and Panthers) compared with only two in the AFC (the Steelers and New England).

You want more evidence that they're playing better football in the NFC?

Look at its 24-14 record against AFC teams this season. And check out the 10-1 mark the NFC has against AFC teams in the last three weeks, by a combined score of 371-206.

The bad news for NFC clubs, however, is that it appears as if it will be much tougher for some of them, including those above .500, to reach the postseason. At the moment, four NFC teams with winning records — Atlanta, Detroit, Green Bay and Dallas, all at 5-4 — would be out of the playoffs if the season ended today.

On the other hand, all of the six AFC teams with winning records — including the 5-4 Bills — are currently in the postseason picture. How bad is the AFC? It's conceivable the conference's final playoff spot will go to a team with an 8-8 record, if not a 7-9 mark. The last team to make it to the postseason with a losing record was the 2014 Carolina Panthers, who actually won the NFC South with a 7-8-1 mark.

The league's overall quality has clearly been impacted by the loss of numerous star players due to injury. Among the quarterbacks not playing are Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers, Houston's Deshaun Watson and Indianapolis' Andrew Luck.

Still, a couple of bright new faces in the NFC, taken with the top two picks of last year's draft, have assumed command of the QB spotlight: the Rams' Jared Goff and the Eagles' Carson Wentz.

Another quarterback who has emerged in the NFC is Case Keenum, who has done a remarkable job of helping the Vikings -- along with a top-five defense -- rank among the foremost Super Bowl contenders.

"There are no great teams," former NFL general manager and current ESPN analyst Bill Polian said by phone. "Minnesota, New England, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, I would say, are the teams that are really good."

After that, he is mostly unconvinced with what he has seen in both conferences.

"The jury's still out for me with New Orleans," Polian said. "I see the numbers and I see how they're playing, but I'm not on the New Orleans bandwagon just yet. I don't think the Rams have played anybody, but for the first time this season they're going up against a team on Sunday (Minnesota) that can bash the heck out of their offensive line."

Although it would seem there is far more mediocrity in the AFC, Polian doesn't think the NFC is necessarily loaded with higher-quality talent. As he points out, the forces of a hard salary cap and unrestricted free agency continue to have the influence the league intended by preventing any one club from stacking its roster.

That goes for the Eagles, who at 8-1 have the NFL's best record. And the 8-2 Steelers. And the 7-2 Patriots, Vikings, and Saints.

"There are no complete teams," Polian said. "You can look at every team that we talked about and they all have a flaw. But that's because of free agency and the salary cap.

"That's what it was designed to do."

Quick reads

  • To help acclimate his team for the altitude at Mexico City's Azteca Stadium (7,200 feet above sea level), site of Sunday's game against the Oakland Raiders, Patriots coach Bill Belichick chose to keep his team in Colorado after last Sunday night's victory against the Denver Broncos. The Patriots bused an hour south to the Air Force Academy, where they have trained at Falcon Stadium (6,621 feet above sea level).

"You can feel it for sure," tight end Rob Gronkowski told reporters. "A lot of people are getting their nose super dry, their mouth super dry. So, I'm just glad to be here to prepare for what Mexico City will be, at the same altitude."

  • Then there is Bills coach Sean McDermott, who decided to keep his team on the same schedule this week, as it would in preparing for a 1 p.m. Eastern Time kickoff, even though Sunday's game against the Chargers at Los Angeles is three hours later. The Bills are scheduled to fly to California Saturday, per their usual Sunday game itinerary, rather than departing a day early to help players adjust to the time change.

McDermott said the approach to his first West Coast trip as a head coach is based on what he learned from his primary mentor, Chiefs coach Andy Reid -- with whom McDermott broke into the NFL on the Eagles' staff -- and data he has gathered independently.

"The schedule emulates some of what Andy’s done in different trips, from a line-item standpoint, from an order standpoint," McDermott said. "Andy’s gone one day, two days (early). This is a lot of research by our staff and also trying to keep our guys in a routine, where they can sleep at home, sleep in their own beds. We’ll approach it as a normal game."

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