Seattle, the defending NFC champion, has lost two straight and has San Diego coming to town Sunday. The Seahawks could finish 8-8 and still win the NFC West.

The New York Giants, once 6-2, are now 7-7. Yet if the playoffs started this week, they’d be in.

And Carolina, one of the preseason favorites in the NFC, is 6-8, coming off a 37-3 loss to Pittsburgh and … still alive.

The NFC is not just bad this season. It’s awful.

“There were times when we played like we were a team full of rookies,” said Tiki Barber, whose Giants lost a showdown with the Eagles on Sunday. “We have done that to ourselves. We have no one to blame other than to look at each other. I think we were an underachieving team.”

“We were half asleep,” New Orleans coach Sean Payton said after his team lost to Washington (5-9), at home no less, clinching the NFC South because Atlanta and Carolina also lost but falling back in its effort to get a first-round bye.

Underachieving team, underachieving conference.

Sleeping team, sleeping conference.

Just look at the figures.

AFC teams are 38-22 against the NFC. And even that’s deceptive – take away Houston (0-4 against NFC teams) and Oakland (1-3) and it’s 37-15. That kind of superiority is rare.

In the NFC, only seven of the 16 teams are .500 (7-7) or better. In the AFC, it’s 12, one reason why the Giants would be in the playoffs today and defending league champion Pittsburgh, with the same record, has almost no chance of making it.

It’s also reflected in the top teams in each conference, San Diego and Chicago, which share the league’s best records at 12-2.

The Chargers are as complete as you can get in the salary-cap era, a tribute to a disjointed command structure featuring two guys who don’t get along – general manager A.J. Smith and coach Marty Schottenheimer.

Yes, LaDainian Tomlinson is having the best season that any running back has ever had, but it was the defense that beat Kansas City on Sunday night. It’s a young unit featuring second-year linebacker Shawne Merriman, linemen Luis Castillo (second year) and Igor Olshansky (third), and linebacker Shaun Phillips, another third-year guy.

Merriman, who may be the NFL’s most feared defender, was taken with the 2005 first-round pick the Chargers got for trading Eli Manning to the Giants in 2004. That deal also brought the Chargers Philip Rivers, who may be as good or better than Manning in any case.

That was the second draft-day coup pulled off by San Diego. In 2001, Smith’s predecessor, the late John Butler, relinquished the No. 1 overall pick (and the rights to Michael Vick) to Atlanta. In return, they got the fourth overall pick, which they used to take Tomlinson and used the first pick of the second round for Drew Brees.

Brees is now with the Saints but that’s a benefit to the Chargers, too. With Rivers aboard, the Chargers could afford to let Brees go and save cap room for other players. Cap space is valuable these days when used right.

Brees, meanwhile, is the NFC’s top quarterback this season, another commentary on the strength of the AFC.

Go to the NFC’s top team, Chicago.

Despite their record, achieved against a soft schedule, the Bears are suspect. Their losses? To AFC teams – Miami (6-8) and New England.

Rex Grossman threw for 339 yards in the 34-31 overtime win over Tampa Bay on Sunday and has had two good games in a row. But he’s been consistently inconsistent this season and has turned the ball over under pressure.

Beyond that is the once stalwart defense, which has managed to replace strong safety Mike Brown, its leader, with rookie Danieal Manning. But it had trouble without the two starting tackles – Tommie Harris, out for the season with a torn hamstring and Tank Johnson, inactive on Sunday following his third arrest in 18 months, this one on misdemeanor weapons charges.

On the other hand, the Bears will play at home in the postseason against what shape up as mostly suspect teams. The Cowboys looked like a legitimate challenger until they lost to the Saints. Then the Saints lost to the Redskins, putting Dallas back on top (perhaps) as the most legitimate challenger.

The AFC?

Despite San Diego’s clear supremacy, the Chargers won’t be clear favorites. In fact, one more loss (to the NFC’s Seahawks this week?) and Baltimore could seize home-field advantage for the playoffs.

That’s because the Chargers lost to the Ravens in Baltimore early in the season when Schottenheimer played “Martyball” – a prevent offense. That kind of conservatism is one reason his playoff record is 5-12.

Beyond the Chargers and Ravens come New England, which has won three Super Bowls in five seasons. Plus Cincinnati and Indianapolis, which despite its recent troubles still has Peyton Manning and his receiving corps.

Down at the bottom of the “not yet eliminated, is Pittsburgh, lurking at 7-7. The Steelers won’t make the playoffs.

If they were in the NFC, they might make it to the Super Bowl.


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