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NFL's balance of power tilts back toward AFC

There are merely 28 days left until the 45th Super Bowl, which has passed Groundhog Day and now has its sights trained on Lincoln's birthday as a midwinter distraction.

This season there are a number of teams that might constitute a memorable battle for the honor of being pro football's best, except that the strongest of them represent the same conference, the AFC.

There have been times when it happened that way. For instance, since the turn of the century AFC teams have won seven out of 10 Super Bowls with the New England Patriots leaving town with the Vince Lombardi Trophy three times and the Pittsburgh Steelers, another usual AFC power, accomplishing it twice.

Overall the Steelers have made a habit of decorating their offices with Lombardi trophies, winning six of them. The Green Bay Packers won the first two Super Bowls but not the famous trophy. Vince himself was then coaching the Packers, not posing for trophies. Green Bay did win the trophy once, in 1997, with a young Brett Favre playing quarterback.

The Super Bowl has been a matter of a streaking conference virtually owning the other for years. It's been that way almost from the start. After the Packers' two one-sided victories over the champions of what had been the American Football League, the men of the established league felt that the real championship was still determined by the NFC title game, with the Super Bowl a lesser, almost-exhibition game.

That changed when quarterback Joe Namath and his upstart New York Jets, 17 1/2 -point underdogs to Baltimore, stunned the sports world, 16-7. What transpired after that upset were Super Bowls that played out more like regional feuds than football games. The leagues may have signed a truce but the bitterness raged.

AFC teams, most of which were original AFL franchises, won 12 of the next 13 games. Four quarterbacks, Lenny Dawson of Kansas City, Bob Griese of Miami, Johnny Unitas of Baltimore and Terry Bradshaw of Pittsburgh, who steered those winning offenses, were later voted into the Hall of Fame. Four of the winning AFC coaches who directed those victories, Hank Stram of Kansas City, Don Shula of Miami, Chuck Noll of Pittsburgh and John Madden of Oakland, also were elected to the Hall. If the supporters of those losing NFC teams were chagrined, their players weren't. Led by San Francisco and Washington, they won 15 of the next 16 Super Bowls.

Like the winds, NFL football frequently changes directions. Two of the last three but only three of the past eight Supers have been won by the NFC.

So how does Game XLV look? Atlanta and Chicago are the NFC's top seeds. Atlanta is a colossus when playing at home but not so invincible on the road. The Bears have an outstanding defense but a quarterback, Jay Cutler, who is guilty of immaturity at unpleasant times. This is the era of quarterbacks in the NFL. Matt Ryan made a winner out of the Falcons as soon as he arrived from Boston College. Their coach, Mike Smith, has been successful in his three years on the job but he's still a mystery man to many in the league. Lovie Smith steered the Bears into the Super Bowl five years ago but then ran into Peyton Manning. The second seed may amount to little unless Cutler plays above his usual level.

There is no doubt the AFC's top seeds, New England and Pittsburgh, are its best teams, nor is there any doubt Bill Belichick of the Pats is the game's best coach and Tom Brady has moved ahead of Indy's Manning as the best quarterback.

Unless something startling happens between now and February, the pick here is New England.

Larry Felser, former News columnist, appears in Sunday's editions.

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