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AFC no longer appears vastly superior to NFC

Through most of the first half-dozen weeks of the season, the commonly held opinion was that the AFC ruled the NFL.

It wasn't a case of some elite teams in the league residing there. The AFC was where they ALL could be found: The Pittsburgh Steelers, Baltimore Ravens, New York Jets, New England Patriots and even the battered Indianapolis Colts.

The NFC? Good luck finding a club that was worthy of defending that Super Bowl crown the New Orleans Saints won last February. Even the Saints didn't look like a serious contender anymore.

However, the results of the last few weeks have caused the discussion to change.

The Green Bay Packers beat the Jets, 9-0, in Week 8. The Philadelphia Eagles beat the Colts, 26-24, in Week 9. The New York Giants pounded the Seattle Seahawks, 41-7, on the same day to improve to 6-2 and make a convincing case to be widely recognized as the top team in the league.

The Saints knocked off the Steelers in Week 8, and followed that up with a 31-point win against the Carolina Panthers. And those were the Falcons that defeated the Ravens, 26-21, Thursday night.

"I think the balance of power has evened out," former Tampa Bay Buccaneers linebacker and current ESPN analyst Derrick Brooks said. "I thought early on, the AFC was getting too much of the credit, and the NFC, rightfully so, was being looked at as an inferior conference. But the past three weeks, heading into the second half of the season, I definitely see more of a shift in terms of balance between the AFC and the NFC."

Even the so-called surprise teams are evenly distributed between the conferences. The AFC has the Kansas City Chiefs, Oakland Raiders and Cleveland Browns. The NFC has the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Chicago Bears and St. Louis Rams.

Former Patriots linebacker and current ESPN analyst Tedy Bruschi doesn't expect either conference to gain much, if any, ground on the other through the balance of the season.

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In his mind, nothing really separates the AFC or NFC teams beyond their conference logos.

"What the league is to me now is a bunch of teams that have similar talent levels all getting together and playing on Sundays and (most of the games) being decided in the fourth quarter," Bruschi said. "The best teams in the NFL are (determined by) the quality of the coaching they're going to receive and the play at the quarterback position. So instead of looking at it as the AFC and the NFC, you look at guys like (Tom) Coughlin and Andy Reid, two quality coaches in the NFC, and (Bill) Belichick, (Mike) Tomlin, and the (AFC) quarterbacks are (Tom) Brady and (Ben) Roethlisberger) and (Peyton) Manning and the other Manning (Eli in the NFC)."

Is it possible that a lot of us were guilty of overhyping the AFC?

Sure. It was easy to get caught up in the mystique of the Steelers' dominant defense, and it seemed logical to assume, after their 3-1 start while Roethlisberger served a suspension, they would be much better once he returned. It was easy to get carried away with all of the preseason conversation about the Jets' abundance of talent, their overpowering defense, and the brashness of coach Rex Ryan. It was easy to assume that Peyton Manning would be able to will the Colts on another Super Bowl run.

Is it possible that that a lot of us overlooked the NFC?

Absolutely. The NFC certainly doesn't have the level of star power found in the AFC. Yes, Drew Brees became much more of a high-profile figure after the Super Bowl, but he and his Saints teammates were mostly admired for their Cinderella story, rather than great talent. Yes, Minnesota's Brett Favre is virtually a franchise onto himself, but much of that has been driven by negativity this season.

With the Giants struggling early and the Vikings stumbling through most of the first half of the season and the Packers losing so many key players to injury and the NFC West offering top-to-bottom mediocrity, it was natural for the NFC's stock to plummet.

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As is usually the case, however, a whole new perspective is created by what happens on the field.

"Now I think people are starting to look at the Giants and the Eagles and the Falcons," said Browns general manager Tom Heckert, who previously held the same job in Philadelphia. "There are some teams in the NFC that you'd better be careful about."

Most league observers aren't expecting any team, or a cluster from either conference, to run away from the competition.

"We're going to get a lot of fun football in the second half of the season," Brooks said. "It's going to be more unpredictable than ever, in my opinion."

Said Kevin Colbert, the Steelers' director of football operations: "I don't think there's any sure walk-throughs. Look at what Cleveland's done over the last couple of weeks, knocking off New Orleans and New England. Are they a 3-5 team? I don't know. It seems like they're getting better. Detroit beat Washington and damn near beat the Jets. Even at 0-8, Buffalo has taken three teams in a row to the wire. There are no easy games."

Follow Vic Carucci on Twitter @viccarucci.

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