NEW YORK — Maybe they should put two AFC teams in the Super Bowl this season.
The search for someone worthy of playing for the NFL title sure looks easy in that conference, where the Patriots, Jets, Steelers, Ravens, Colts, Texans and Titans are dangerous, and sometimes dominant. Over in the NFC, even the losing teams still talk bravely about making the playoffs.
When head coach Mike Singletary claims his 49ers (1-6) still have a shot at the postseason, it would be heresy in the AFC. In the NFC, well, who knows?
“There’s no doubt in my mind that somehow, some way, we will regroup and keep fighting,” Singletary said. “We’re going to make a season of it, and I still believe we can go to the playoffs. I still believe we can get those things done.”
It will take a long string of wins, but nothing crazier than getting to 9-7, perhaps even 8-8 in the mediocre NFC West. Fortunately for the 49ers, their two remaining AFC opponents are underachieving San Diego and Denver, both 2-5.
NFC teams are 12-17 against the AFC so far and have not beaten a first-place AFC opponent yet. The conference’s supposed best squads — the Cowboys, Giants, Saints, Packers and Vikings — are 3-7 against the AFC.
Of course, they are not competing for spots in the playoffs with AFC teams. And while the prospect of the first division winner with a losing record remains remote, it’s possible a .500 record could take the NFC North or NFC West.
The NFC has not measured up in the Super Bowl for more than a decade, losing seven of the past 10. Yet, just a year ago, the Saints, Vikings, Cowboys, Eagles and Packers all won at least 11 times — only the Colts and Chargers managed that many wins in the AFC.
So what’s gone wrong in the NFC?
No defending division champion is alone in first place in either conference, but at least the Patriots (5-1) are tied with the Jets atop the AFC East, and the Colts (4-2) are a half-game in back of Tennessee in the AFC South. Combined, the 2009 NFC division winners are 10-15.
Turnovers have been particularly damaging, with the Cardinals at minus-7, the Vikings at minus-6, the Saints at minus-5 and the Cowboys at minus-2.
Minnesota’s usually strong passing game ranks 24th even with the addition of wide receiver Randy Moss. Brett Favre’s physical woes at 41, plus his off-field problems, have exacerbated the Vikings’ collapse.
Drew Brees, who threw just 11 interceptions in leading New Orleans to its first NFL title last season, already has 10 and the Saints have no running game. Arizona is using an undrafted rookie quarterback and has been outscored 160-98.
No team has established itself because no team is whole. Sure, AFC clubs haven’t been perfectly healthy, but the most damaging injuries have occurred in the NFC.
Washington’s starting running back, Ryan Torain, began the season on the practice squad. The Giants, probably the conference’s top team so far, have seen key starters Mathias Kiwanuka, Keith Bulluck and Aaron Ross hobbled on their defense, center Shaun O’Hara and tight end Kevin Boss on offense. And they have lost to the Colts and Titans.
Philadelphia has shuffled quarterbacks as neither Kevin Kolb nor Michael Vick has steadily been available.
That’s just in the NFC East.
Half of Green Bay’s regular defense has been hurt at times. Minnesota still hasn’t had top receiver Sidney Rice. New Orleans is missing running backs Pierre Thomas and Reggie Bush.
Carolina is ready to part with John Fox despite his 76-60 record, one NFC title and another loss in the conference championship game heading into 2010. So the Panthers allowed him to become a lame duck in the final year of his contract.
Singletary already has fired his offensive coordinator, and communication is better between the league and the players association than it is among 49ers coaches.
Chicago, while tied atop the NFC North with Green Bay (4-3), can’t protect QB Jay Cutler in new offensive coordinator Mike Martz’s offense and coach Lovie Smith and his staff are clueless about how to use replay challenges. The Bears have lost 12 of their past 15 replay challenges.
Brad Childress and Favre aren’t getting along. Jerry Jones and Wade Phillips might be getting along too well.
Not surprisingly, there’s still plenty of optimism from just about everyone in the inferior conference.
“The scary thing is I don’t think we’ve ever played on all cylinders in regards to offense, defense and special teams,” Packers linebacker Clay Matthews said. “But you see little flashes here and there.”
And maybe more than flashes. Or maybe Buccaneers coach Raheem Morris is overly optimistic about his 4-2 team.
“We’re the best team in the NFC,” Morris said after a last-minute 18-17 win over St. Louis — a week after the Bucs lost 31-6 at home to New Orleans. “Yeah, I said it. We’re the best team in the NFC.”
Even if, like their brethren, they aren’t quite Super Bowl worthy.