NFC teams have won two of the past three Super Bowls. They had a combined .504 winning percentage to the AFC teams' .496 last season. The NFC had a better record against the AFC in non-conference games, not counting the Super Bowl.
So why does it feel as if the AFC is way ahead of its counterpart conference right now? The answer: The quarterbacks. It's a function of the haves and the have nots.
In colleague Marc Sessler's end-of-season QB rankings for the 2022 season, six of the top seven quarterbacks resided in the AFC. And since the start of the offseason, the NFC hasn't received much help with the retirement of Tom Brady and the possible trade of Aaron Rodgers out of the conference. So far, Derek Carr to the Saints has been the biggest QB upgrade in the NFC, possibly by a country mile, and he's coming off one of his toughest seasons.
Right now, it feels like there are a handful of true contenders on this side of the ledger prior to the draft (including one without QB clarity), plus a few clubs that could rise up a tier or two from where we last saw them. Let's take stock of how the conference's teams stack up prior to the 2023 NFL Draft (April 27-29 in Kansas City, Missouri).
The top dogs
Philadelphia Eagles, San Francisco 49ers, Dallas Cowboys
The Eagles deserve hearty praise for the way they've kept a championship roster relatively intact following the narrow Super Bowl loss to the Chiefs. They'll continue to build around MVP runner-up Jalen Hurts -- and they've continued to build behind him, too, with the addition of Marcus Mariota.
Oh, and they have two first-round picks, including one at No. 10 overall. How does Howie Roseman do it? He might be the most resourceful GM in the league today, and he is a master at manipulating the draft, most often to the Eagles' good fortune.
Did Philly benefit from the absence of a devastating injury last season? Absolutely. But it's hard to make the case for them not having one of the three best rosters in the NFC -- and arguably the NFL as a whole -- right now.
The 49ers could also offer a pretty good debate on that subject. Unlike the Eagles, they were smacked hard by the injury bug last season, losing all three starting quarterbacks to season-ending injuries, plus other key contributors along the way.
There is, admittedly, a strange situation happening at QB, with Brock Purdy set to start based on his rookie heroics and Trey Lance left to wait for his chance. It's nice to have options, and Sam Darnold also has hopped the magic bus, as if things weren't strange and crowded enough already. But based on how last year went, with Purdy and Lance both still working back to full health, all three had better be ready.
Even still, this is a defense -- despite the loss of coordinator DeMeco Ryans -- that should keep the Niners in almost every game by itself. Adding DT Javon Hargrave offsets some of the personnel losses on that side of the ball. And when you factor in a quality group of skill-position talent here, it's easy to see why the 49ers belong in this category, even with some real questions.
Dallas has gone 24-10 the past two seasons and absolutely belongs in this tier. Say what you will about the Cowboys, but they've done everything needed this offseason to hang with the big boys: RB Tony Pollard is locked up for another year, Dan Quinn is back to run the defense, and WR Brandin Cooks and CB Stephon Gilmore were targeted, thoughtful additions. Even without RB Ezekiel Elliott and TE Dalton Schultz, the foundation is established.
There are still questions about Dak Prescott that cropped up last season when he led the NFL in interceptions. But his five-TD postseason performance against the Bucs was a reminder that Prescott still can play at an elite level.
Playoffs should be the goal
Detroit Lions, Minnesota Vikings, Seattle Seahawks, New York Giants
These four teams improved last season by an average of 4.5 victories over their 2021 win totals, with each of them experiencing a noticeable bump in offensive output. Three of the four made the playoffs, too, but it's the one team that did not that's likely to be many folks' darling for the 2023 season.
The Lions captured America's attention with their torrid streak down the stretch, winning eight of their final 10 games following a 1-6 start. And if the noise for them was loud last winter, imagine what it'll be for a team that has its core back in place -- along with a few big add-ons.
There have been some tough locker room losses this offseason, such as RB Jamaal Williams, S DeShon Elliott and special teams ace Chris Board. But the Lions arguably upgraded talent-wise over the first two, adding David Montgomery (from the rival Bears) and C.J. Gardner-Johnson, and addressed a huge need at corner with Cameron Sutton.
And yes, they have two first-round picks upcoming, along with two more second-rounders; that's four selections in the top 55 picks overall. If GM Brad Holmes does as well in this draft as he did in last year's, the Lions might be in terrific shape for the long haul. Lovable losers no longer? We shall see. Remember: This franchise has one playoff win since 1957.
The Vikings earned some cred with a 13-win season, but how good were they really? All four regular-season losses were by double digits, and they were outscored on the season. They also let the hapless Colts build a 33-zip lead on them and lost at home in the playoff opener. Eleven of the 13 wins were by one score, too.
Most of their big offseason additions have come on defense, where they were in the bottom five in points and yards allowed. But are Marcus Davenport, Byron Murphy and Dean Lowry going to fix this thing? Likely not, especially with Minnesota losing some defensive pieces, too. Perhaps the biggest add wasn't a player but rather new defensive coordinator Brian Flores, who should be able to make this group more well-rounded and less dependent on turnovers.
The Seahawks and Giants saw career years from Geno Smith and Daniel Jones, respectively, with each QB earning a lucrative extension this offseason. Are we sold on either? On both? Jones has the youth edge, as "Danny Dimes" is only set to turn 26 in May (whereas Smith will turn 33 during next season). But Smith had the stronger statistical season and -- at least right now -- has the more established weapons to throw to.
There will be some natural suspicion with the Seahawks and Giants, especially given their big turnarounds last year. Both also play in tough divisions. Yet both clubs overcame major adversity a year ago to post impressive, nine-win seasons, each doing so despite a slew of injuries and lineup changes along the way.
We give the Seahawks a slight edge between the two teams right now, given they are even more loaded with draft assets than the Lions are, with four picks in the top 52 overall, including a pair of first-rounders (Nos. 5 and 20). The Giants made a big splash trading for Darren Waller, but the Seahawks' front-seven additions might collectively have just a shade more impact overall.
Green Bay Packers, Carolina Panthers, Washington Commanders, New Orleans Saints, Los Angeles Rams, Chicago Bears
Any one of these six clubs could make a surprise playoff run in 2023. All of them also could reprise their 2022 struggles.
The Packers are hard to peg for one obvious reason: The Aaron Rodgers trade hasn't happened yet. We've been operating for some time that this will happen -- that it's Jordan Love's team now -- but the longer it drags out, the harder we shrug. So far, they've lost more than they've brought in this offseason, and Love remains a virtual unknown. Green Bay's a decent football team, but how decent?
Are the Rams closer to the championship team we saw in 2021 or the one that bottomed out hard in 2022? They've let some talent walk and brought very little in, unless you're just a massive fan of Hunter Long. Matthew Stafford, Cooper Kupp and Aaron Donald are back, which is huge. But we can't just assume, especially with Stafford, that they're all going to pick up where they left off pre-injury. Then again, Sean McVay is back -- arguably their biggest victory of the offseason -- and has no designs on a rebuild.
The Bears are the ultimate wild card here, as the offseason has already seen wholesale changes -- and lots more are likely coming. They've made additions up and down the roster, especially in terms of upgrading the front seven and adding a true WR1 (D.J. Moore). The offensive line and pass rush must come at some point, and Chicago's strong draft capital can be used to that end. But are Justin Fields and Co. ready to compete? We're not quite there yet.
The Panthers, Commanders and Saints all will have new quarterbacks next season, but their situations couldn't be more different. Carolina will draft its starter with the first overall pick. The Commanders will see what a Sam Howell-Jacoby Brissett combo can do with good receivers. And Derek Carr is now the Saints' best hope, asked to pull together a team that was pretty solid defensively but a mess offensively last season.
The guess is that there is a contender or two in this lot. The draft could help us figure out which one(s) will reach that level.
A lot of work left to do
Atlanta Falcons, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Arizona Cardinals
It's going to be very difficult to make hard-and-fast judgments on these teams, given the uncertainty at quarterback for all three. Desmond Ridder certainly could be a solid-to-good option in Atlanta. Perhaps a Tampa reboot is exactly what Baker Mayfield needs. And with Kyler Murray, it's surely too early to bail on him now, right?
Well, those are the rosy views of those situations. But there's potential that all three could implode, too.
Ridder has a good O-line and offensive-minded coaches, and he appeared to grow with each start late last season. But there are limited weapons at his disposal, and the Falcons' biggest additions this offseason have come on defense. Is Jessie Bates III going to change this team's vector? Unlikely. Of course, in that division, someone has to win.
The Buccaneers' approach this offseason has been pretty interesting. They've shed some salary but are still crippled by dead money against their cap. Yet this isn't some teardown; the Bucs have kept some pieces in place that many thought might be gone, including re-signing Jamel Dean and Lavonte David and bringing back $20M APY guys such as Shaq Barrett and Mike Evans. Perhaps they view themselves as contenders in the NFC South, even with Mayfield a potentially big drop from Tom Brady.
The Cardinals feel like a big job for first-year head coach Jonathan Gannon and two first-year coordinators. Murray is coming off a torn ACL and butted heads with the last head man. J.J. Watt is gone, and DeAndre Hopkins might be on the move. The Cards won four games (against bad teams) and lost nine of 10 to close out last season. And they've made very few notable improvements so far this offseason.