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Eisenberg: Where Are The Tough Guys In The AFC?

Posted Feb 4, 2014

For the AFC to produce a champion, it needs a team that plays hardball, like the Ravens and Steelers of old.

With the Seattle Seahawks’ big win over the Denver Broncos Sunday night, the NFC has captured four of the past five Super Bowls and five of the past seven. The only AFC teams to go all the way in the past seven years are the 2012 Ravens and 2008 Pittsburgh Steelers, coming out of the rugged AFC North. 

I found myself thinking about that Sunday night as the Seahawks physically manhandled the Broncos. I expected the Broncos to put up a better fight because of their offense, but this year’s AFC champions were physically outmatched. They looked old and slow. They got pushed around. The NFC champions were much tougher. 

It’s a situation the AFC has often faced since the end of New England’s dynasty almost a decade ago. If the AFC North doesn’t provide the conference’s Super Bowl representative, ruggedness, or the lack of it, becomes an issue, and the NFC usually prevails. 

Here are the numbers: AFC North teams are 3-1 in the Super Bowl since 2005. The rest of the AFC is 1-4 against such formidable opponents as the New York Giants and this year’s Seahawks. 

The lesson is you can win a Super Bowl all sorts of ways – with offense, with defense, with a late-season surge, with a year of dominance – but no matter what style you play or how you get there, you’d better be physically tough. 

The Seahawks are. Pittsburgh’s winning teams certainly were. Last year’s Ravens weren’t quite as dominating as several of their earlier squads, but with Ray Lewis, Bernard Pollard, Anquan Boldin and others, they were hardly soft. 

This year’s Broncos came out of a watered-down AFC. Neither the Ravens nor the Steelers had enough right stuff to make the playoffs, dealing a blow to the overall quality of the conference’s playoff field, especially physically. To reach the Super Bowl, the Broncos only had to beat a middling San Diego team and a flawed Patriots squad, far from Bill Belichick’s best. 

Who were the tough guys in the AFC playoffs? There really weren’t any. 

Meanwhile, in the NFC, the Seahawks and San Francisco 49ers practically took each other’s heads off in the conference title game. That was this year’s incarnation of a Ravens-Steelers classic. 

The end result was a Super Bowl pitting one team that was much more rugged than the other, as everyone saw Sunday night. 

There’s no doubt what the AFC needs to get back in the win column. It needs to produce a champion that plays hardball, like the Ravens and Steelers. 

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It’s impressive that the Seahawks won so decisively with one of the youngest squads in Super Bowl history. Toward the end of Sunday night’s telecast, Fox ran a graphic comparing them to the game’s other young winners such as the 1974 Steelers and 1981 49ers. Those teams started dynasties for their franchises. 

The Seahawks are also positioned to keep going for several more years. But those earlier teams won multiple Super Bowls before the NFL instituted a salary cap. With the cap in place since 1994, forcing hurtful personnel cuts, sustaining championship runs has become much tougher. 

The Ravens could teach a class in what happens after you win, i.e., the impact of the cap on your chances of repeating. They had to make deep whacks into their roster. 

The Seahawks aren’t facing as many decisions, but receivers Golden Tate and Doug Baldwin are free agents, as is defensive end Michael Bennett, the team leader in sacks. 

They were so dominant Sunday that it’s hard to imagine them falling from their pinnacle. But I was recently reading a book about the 1985 Chicago Bears and came across this quote from Mike Ditka, who coached that team: “Maybe winning is the greatest thing that can happen to a team and also the biggest disaster. It’s never the same after you win.” 

With the cap in place, that is especially true. 

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If you thought Seattle linebacker Malcolm Smith looked dazed about becoming a Super Bowl MVP, well, he was the team’s seventh-round pick three years ago. That’s hardly a typical springboard to fame. The Ravens took running back Anthony Allen in that round of that draft. 

But like the Ravens, the Seahawks have uncovered numerous nuggets in the middle and lower reaches of the draft. Russell Wilson was a third-round pick. Richard Sherman was a fifth-round pick. Kam Chancellor was a fifth-round pick. I could go on. 

It’s the Ravens’ modus operandi. Now it‘s Seattle’s, too.

 


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