The AFC has Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs, Joe Burrow and the Bengals, Josh Allen and the Bills, as well as Lamar Jackson and the Ravens, Justin Herbert and the Chargers, and possibly with time and care Trevor Lawrence and the Jaguars. That’s a long-winded way of saying the AFC is loaded up with terrific teams with star quarterbacks, potentially with more on the way.
The two conferences do not feel particularly balanced in that regard at the moment. The NFC now has the oldest quarterbacks in football, with Matt Ryan (soon to be 37), Aaron Rodgers (38), and Matthew Stafford (34), Kirk Cousins (33), and Russell Wilson (33) all leading teams. A recent spate of retirements and conference jumping wiped out most of the old guys in the AFC, leaving Ryan Tannehill (33) and Derek Carr (30) as the only locked-in starters over 30 in the entire conference.
It’s more than just quarterbacks, though, because the AFC also seems to be the better conference at the moment in general. Last year, 10 AFC teams had winning records versus eight NFC teams, and a couple of those teams (the Buccaneers, who lost Tom Brady, and the Saints, who lost Sean Payton) are probably due for significant regression this coming season. If you look at the NFC’s top teams, only the Cowboys and 49ers figure to get better in 2022, with Dallas having a pretty complete roster (though they’re deep in a hole from a cap perspective) and San Francisco taking a potentially massive leap forward if Trey Lance is as good as we think he can be.
The Rams are currently in the red on cap space and don’t have a lot of draft capital to improve the roster, and there’s some small question of whether Aaron Donald will retire. The Packers are deep in a hole from a cap perspective and don’t have Aaron Rodgers locked onto the roster just yet, while the Buccaneers lost Tom Brady and figure to lose a few more key pieces. The Vikings and Saints have new coaching staffs on the way, the Cardinals have a weird thing going with a possibly unhappy Kyler Murray, and the Seahawks just haven’t drafted well enough for years now to think they’ll suddenly put all the pieces together. You can make a strong argument for Dallas, Los Angeles and San Francisco being great teams in 2022, but there are at least small question marks for them, and very big ones for everyone else.
That’s not to suggest that there will be no great teams in the NFC, because inevitably there will be. Even if Sean McVay and Aaron Donald packed up and left, the Rams would still be formidable. The 49ers are obviously very good. The Cowboys are held back by Mike McCarthy being one of the doofiest situational coaches in football but are also loaded up with talent, the Packers are going to try to bring the gang back together for one last run despite their currently shaky cap picture, and the Buccaneers can still ride to the playoffs if they can settle their quarterback situation. There are plenty of good teams, but nearly all of them have major question marks over their heads that some of those AFC juggernauts do not thanks in large part to their incredible quarterback situations, or in the case of the Bengals, quality quarterback and cap situations.
The Falcons, I think, are far more aware of the state of the rest of the conference than they’d ever admit in comments to the press, when Terry Fontenot is likely to pretend he can’t even name five other NFC teams. One of the big, interesting questions of the offseason is whether the team’s timetable will move up and the front office will be more aggressive with some of the perceived weaknesses of the division and the conference more generally, but the reality is that the Packers and Rams are likely to be weaker in 2023 than they will be in 2022, and the same may be true of the Buccaneers if they manage to stave off attrition and get a decent quarterback this year. I can’t see the team abandoning their plan, which seems to be pointing toward really pushing to be great in 2023, based on the current state of the NFC.
Unless the NFC starts righting the ship as a conference, though, we may be heading back toward an era of AFC dominance that Tampa Bay and Los Angeles staved off the past two years, as the AFC had triumphed in five of the last six Super Bowls before the Buccaneers won. It’ll be interesting to see how a conference full of aging quarterbacks and also-ran teams uses the 2022 offseason, and whether there’s a couple of titans around the corner we just haven’t seen coming. May one of them, improbably, be our Falcons.