If there was ever a time for the NFL to experiment with the idea of reshuffling the conferences or a promotion and relegation system, now is the time. The AFC and the NFC appear to be playing two different sports this season, with the AFC home to a robust collection of playoff-caliber teams with a handful of franchise quarterbacks vying for the postseason, while the NFC … doesn’t have anything close to that.
Even though the quality of the conferences vastly differs, the rules still state that seven teams from each will make the postseason. Perhaps the writer of this article will decide to start a petition for the best 14 teams to make the playoffs every year, but for now, the NFC as an entity still has sway — and even worse, the NFC South.
As the playoffs inch closer and closer, stay aware of this fact: The NFC South still has a chance to put multiple teams into the playoff. The division leader is currently the 5-5 New Orleans Saints, who lost to Josh Dobbs and the Minnesota Vikings on Sunday and need to have a heart-to-heart with themselves on their quarterback situation. Derek Carr has not been getting the job done this season and backup Jameis Winston at least gives the Saints a chance to make some plays down the field. That team is slated to host a playoff game right now! The Falcons, meanwhile, are on a three-game losing streak after dropping games to the Titans (in Will Levis’ first career start), Vikings (in Dobbs’ first start with the team) and Cardinals (Kyler Murray’s first start after an ACL injury). The Buccaneers are also in play for the NFC South and the seventh seed with a firmly mediocre team. If Dobbs and the current Vikings setup is just a flash in the pan, then there’s a real possibility that two of the Saints, Falcons and Buccaneers make the playoffs. That’s blasphemous in theory, let alone in practice.
Outside of the NFC South and Dobbs roller coaster, the NFC playoff teams appear to be set barring any catastrophic injuries to close the season. The Eagles, Lions, 49ers, Seahawks and Cowboys should have no problem making the playoffs. The top-end teams at the NFC are still strong, but in totality, the conference is much weaker than where the AFC is.
Just look at the quarterback talent on the fringe teams in the NFC. Carr and Winston, Sam Howell, Baker Mayfield, Desmond Ridder and Taylor Heinicke. The AFC fringe teams are quarterbacked by C.J. Stroud, Joe Burrow and Josh Allen. It’s OK to be honest and say the latter three are the quarterback and player talents you want in the playoffs. And that’s just the teams on the fringe of the AFC postseason. Lamar Jackson, Patrick Mahomes, Trevor Lawrence and Tua Tagovailoa are currently entrenched in the AFC race, with the Steelers and Browns capable of receiving scrappy play from their quarterbacks in big moments.
Another way to look at the discrepancy between the AFC and NFC is the projected draft order. According to Tankathon, seven of the teams that reside in the current top 10 of the 2024 draft order are in the NFC. So far, only the Titans, Patriots and Broncos have been on par with the worst that the NFC has to offer, and the stark difference in quality of the conferences is showing up with the current playoff order. The tough part about the AFC being so loaded that a handful of the best young quarterbacks in the league are going to be on the outside looking in of the postseason. Even Justin Herbert is on the outside as the 12th seed as the Chargers try to find some semblance of a defensive identity.
Rules are rules, but it’s hard not to get a good laugh out of what the NFC has going on at the bottom of their playoff picture and the bottom of their conference in general. Maybe Roger Goodell can step in and disrupt the playoff structure this year to make sure the top quarterbacks get into the playoffs, or at least bar the NFC South from hosting a playoff game this season. It’s the fair thing to do.