The Tampa Bay Buccaneers entered the 2022 N.F.L. season among the shortlist of contenders to win the N.F.C. The Jacksonville Jaguars, on the other hand, entered the year as perennial A.F.C. doormats still recovering from the brief coaching tenure of Urban Meyer, who managed the team in 2021 the way a bored child manages a pile of plastic soldiers.
The Jaguars are currently outperforming the Buccaneers. Both teams are 2-1, but the Jaguars have outscored their opponents by 46 points, while the Buccaneers have outscored theirs by just 24. The Jaguars’ offense, led by the second-year quarterback Trevor Lawrence, has outscored the Tom Brady-led Buccaneer offense 84 to 51.
The Buccaneers are not the only traditional N.F.C. favorites off to a sluggish start, nor are the Jaguars the A.F.C.’s only surprise. Those teams are just examples of the wide disparity in quality between the N.F.L.’s conferences right now. In college football terms, the A.F.C. looks like the Big Ten Conference or the Southeastern Conference, while the N.F.C. looks more like the Tumbleweed Valley Affiliation.
Signs of the gap between the two N.F.L. conferences can be found everywhere. A.F.C. teams occupy six of the top eight spots in net point differential — the measure of points scored against points allowed — including first place (Buffalo Bills +53) and second (Jaguars +46).
Advanced metrics tell a similar story: The A.F.C.’s Bills, Jaguars and Baltimore Ravens occupy the top three spots in Football Outsiders’ rankings for Defense-adjusted Value Over Average, an efficiency statistic, with the N.F.C.’s 3-0 Philadelphia Eagles in fourth.
Even the sportsbooks agree. The Bills remain the Super Bowl favorites with 4-to-1 odds, despite a divisional loss on Sunday to the undefeated Miami Dolphins. Kansas City, which also lost in Week 3, is the oddsmakers’ runners-up, at 15-to-2. The Eagles lead all N.F.C. teams with 8-to-1 odds. Of course, N.F.C. teams are helped by the fact that weaker competition means better odds for the front-runners.
By any standard, the Eagles are the only N.F.C. team that is truly exceeding expectations, except perhaps for the 2-1 Giants, who had none. The Buccaneers and the Green Bay Packers are struggling to muster a few points per game. The defending Super Bowl champion Los Angeles Rams, though leading the N.F.C. West at 2-1, were blown out by the Bills in the season opener and may be buckling beneath their roster model of four superstars supported by 48 unknowns working for minimum wage plus tips.
The difference between the conferences may best be exemplified by the Denver Broncos. Like the Buccaneers and the Packers, the Broncos are led by a Hall of Fame-caliber quarterback (the new arrival Russell Wilson) and are off to a sputtering offensive start. But the team is also 2-1 thanks to tight defense and narrow victories. The Broncos play in the A.F.C. however, so their slow start is perceived as nearly catastrophic, while the Buccaneers and Packers are still expected to cruise to preordained division titles.
The A.F.C.’s strength lies in large part with its exciting young quarterbacks: Josh Allen, Joe Burrow, Justin Herbert, Lamar Jackson, Patrick Mahomes, the rapidly rising Lawrence and others.
The N.F.C. is home to Brady and Aaron Rodgers, future Hall of Famers grouchily fortifying their positions among the league’s all-time pantheon, followed by a crowd of familiar veterans with well-established limitations. Jalen Hurts of the Eagles is the only young N.F.C. quarterback playing well right now, though Kyler Murray of the Cardinals keeps things interesting.
Most A.F.C. teams also aggressively improved themselves in the off-season: playoff hopefuls like the Dolphins and Broncos through daring trades, weaklings like the Jaguars, Jets and Houston Texans through multiple first-round draft picks. As a result, the A.F.C. boasts a deep, intriguing pool of second-tier contenders and upstarts. The N.F.C. is downright feudal by comparison.
Look past the Buccaneers, Packers, Rams and Eagles and you’ll find:
The 2-1 Dallas Cowboys, whose familiar foibles make them impossible to take seriously;
The 2-1 Minnesota Vikings, the pre-owned late-model sedan of N.F.L. teams;
The 1-2 San Francisco 49ers, whose best offensive player so far this season has been punter Mitch Wishnowsky;
The 1-2 Arizona Cardinals, a parking-lot pickup team with a playbook of stapled-together cocktail napkins;
The 2-1 Chicago Bears, whose games look like colorized footage from the Great Depression;
The 1-2 Atlanta Falcons, whose salary-cap situation is a ghost story told by accountants around the campfire;
The 1-2 New Orleans Saints, a 2018 fantasy football roster brought to life through the miracle of ill-advised spending;
The 1-2 Detroit Lions, the league’s menacing-but-bumbling Saturday morning supervillains: Coach Dan Campbell is basically Skeletor in camo gear;
And finally, various teams with quarterbacks like Geno Smith, Carson Wentz and Daniel Jones.
The gap between the conferences ultimately points to a wider trend. A.F.C. franchises saw traditional conference powerhouses like the New England Patriots and the Pittsburgh Steelers starting to crumble a few years ago, sensed a power vacuum and began making their moves.
Many N.F.C. teams, by contrast, appear to just be biding their time until Brady retires, Rodgers fades and the Rams go bankrupt.
There’s also a narrative disparity at work: Young quarterbacks and explosive playmakers simply make A.F.C. teams more fun to watch. Thursday night’s Bengals-Dolphins matchup promises to be a touchdown-a-minute showcase for the likes of Burrow, Tua Tagovailoa, Tyreek Hill and Ja’Marr Chase, while Sunday’s London game between Kirk Cousins’s Vikings and Jameis Winston’s Saints sounds more like a cavalcade of turnovers and disappointment.
All of that said, the gap between the A.F.C. and N.F.C. may narrow quickly. The Buccaneers’ top three receivers have all been injured or suspended in the last three weeks, and Brady may snap back into form when his supporting cast returns.
Rodgers and the Packers also have a history of solving their problems on the fly. Dak Prescott may return to the Cowboys’ lineup soon and Dallas’s troubles usually don’t culminate until the postseason.
Meanwhile, the A.F.C.’s Los Angeles Chargers, a popular preseason “sleeper” pick, are now coping with some severe injuries. History also suggests that the Jaguars won’t sustain their early-season success. By November, the spotlight may be back on the old familiar faces.
Even if the N.F.C. remains the dreary conference of yesteryear, it’s still guaranteed to send one participant to the Super Bowl. And if that participant is led by Tom Brady, the differences in quality between the conferences are unlikely to matter much.