Conspicuously absent from the NFL in 1980 is that 10-year old argument about which conference, American or National, dominates. AFC superiority has become, at least for those of us who grew up in NFC cities, a bitter fact of life. No longer do sportswriters wonder if the AFC is better. They speculate on how much better.
For good reason, perhaps. AFC representatives have won nine of the 10 Super Bowl games since the 1970 merger. They became masters in every phase. They had better players at the skilled positions, better line play, better coaches, better offensive philosophies, better special teams, better everything.
Nobody who admits any allegiance to the NFC needs to be reminded of the National's dismal record against the AFC. Last year, the NFC won only 16 times in 52 chances.
And 1980 isn't going well, either. After 11 weeks, the AFC leads, 24-10, including three out of four last weekend.
But if the record does not lie, it does mislead. Before the AFC gets to huffing and puffing about its 1980 dominance, somebody should note that the NFC is about to blow the American's house down.
Eighteen of the AFC'S triumphs in 1980 have been produced by perennial playoff contenders: Pittsburg (four), Miami (four), Denver (three), Cleveland (three), Houston (two) and one each by San Diego and Oakland.
And nine NFC losses have been contributed by the National's designated sacrifices: Washington (three), New Orleans (two), the New York Giants (two) and Green Bay (two).
And though the AFC has been getting fat against some lean competition, the NFC has nearly reversed the AFC's record in the column bettors look for first. Against the spread, and despite inequitable matchups, the NFC leads this autumn's competition, 21-13.
Professional football, the experts remind us, is a game of cycles. In the early '70s, dynasties were built around defenses.
In the late 70s, Pete Rozelle spruced up the passing game, and today the league finds itself in the midst of an offensive surge.
Likewise, the AFC has been in a high cycle ever since the Green Bay Packers faded. Not because the Americans played better defense -- though they probably did -- but because they have dominated virtually every offensive statistical category for the last decade.
Though the NFC continues to flounder against the top AFC teams, the quality of the National's play the last four years has improved so much that virtual equality seems likely sooner than anyone expected.
A survey of offensive statistics since 1977 indicates that the AFC no longer retains its commanding superiority.
In 1977, the AFC recorded 338 more first downs than the NFC. By 1979, the edge was 158. And at the halfway point in 1980, the difference was 62, which projects to 124 for the season.
When the first-down statistics are combined with midseason figures on rushing and passing -- which have also been reduced from the levels of the last three seasons -- we see evidence that the quality of play in the conference is rapidly approaching the commissioner's dream of parity.
Though AFC teams surprisingly run the ball more often than those in the NFC, the Nationals do it more effectively, netting a larger gain per attempt.
Just the opposite is true when it comes to passing, NFC quarterbacks throw more, but their AFC counterparts are slightly more efficient.
AFC teams continue to move the ball better. But the mere accumulation of yardage does not win games, and the AFC's margin of total points has eroded significantly.
In 1977, 1978 and 1979, the AFC scored 627, 569 and 577 more points than its conservative competition. This year, the AFC leads by only 116 points (projected to 232) -- a decrease of more than 50 percent.
When it comes to scoring touchdowns, the NFC's gradual resurgence is even more evident. Last year, AFC teams crossed the goal line 69 more times than NFC teams. In 1980, it's almost a dead heat so far -- the AFC by three.
AFC quarterbacks threw 62 more touchdown passes in 1977 than NFC passers. Last year, the Terry Bradshaws, Brian Sipes and Steve Grogans were only 26 touchdowns better, and 1980's projected figure is 22.
The NFC, in the last three seasons, was not even been able to score more touchdowns on the ground, its supposed strength. The difference in the last two years was 48 and 37 in favor of the AFC. But the NFC has finally turned it around: it is up by 10 after eight weeks.
Ever since the NFL merger in 1970, the National Conference has struggled with the burdens of its illustrious but stodgy past. Content with Stone Age offensive theories, the NFC stood numbly by as the AFC drafted young, strong quarterbacks good enough to build franchises around -- Bradshaw, Boc Griese Kenny Stabler, Bert Jones, Sipe, Dan Fouts, Ken Anderson, Dan Pastorini, Jim Plunkett and Joe Ferguson.
It took the NFC a decade to enter the modern age of football, and now the National has the quarterbacks to compete with the AFC stars.
Ron Jaworski, Vince Ferragamo, Danny White, Gary Danielson, Phil Simms, Steve Bartkowski, Tommy Kramer, Doug Williams, Steve DeBerg, Joe Montana, Vince Evans -- all are under 30, with their most productive years ahead.
Through eight games in 1980, six of the 10 top-rated quarterbacks work in the NFC, including four of the first five -- Ferrragamo, White, Jaworski and Montana. Only Sipe, No. 4, breaks into the upper echelon.
So far in 1980 a quarterback has passed for more than 300 yards in a game 24 times, 11 times in the AFC, 13 in the NFC.
If the cyclical nature of the game persists, it seems that the AFC's ship is sinking while the NFC's is setting sail. The 70s belonged to the AFC. The NFC may have something to say about the '80s.