If there were any lingering doubts about the superiority of the old National Football League over the old—but not as old—American Football League, they must have been quelled after the first Pro Bowl game matching All-Star squads from the two leagues—or, rather, the two conferences. Most of the old NFL now makes up the National Conference; the American Conference is the old AFL plus Baltimore, Cleveland and Pittsburgh. Last weekend the NFC beat the AFC 27-6 in Los Angeles, and although two fourth-quarter punt returns do not exactly add up to a shellacking, even the most rabid AFC rooter would be hard put to claim parity for his league—or conference—after this game.
The result underlined a superiority that has been evident all season as the two leagues met each other for the first time in games that count in the standings. If you regard Baltimore, Cleveland and Pittsburgh as NFL teams, which you should since they've been in the AFC only one year and were formed and matured in the NFL, the two leagues met in 62 games, including postseason playoffs. Of these 62, the NFL won 41, lost 19 and tied two. Seven NFL teams went undefeated against AFL rivals and no AFL team was better than even against NFL competition. Only four AFL clubs managed to bat .500—Denver, Miami, Oakland and Kansas City.
Ten of the NFL losses were accounted for by Pittsburgh, Atlanta and New Orleans. Pittsburgh is the only old club in the NFL that has never won so much as a division championship, and Atlanta and New Orleans are expansion teams and therefore even newer than most of the teams in the AFL. So AFL clubs actually won just nine games against the strength of the NFL.
Only the three above teams were under .500 against AFL competition, while 12 NFL teams won more than they lost and two were even. No AFL team shut out an NFL team, while the NFL shut out the AFL eight times and prevented AFL teams from scoring a touchdown in 15 games.
Al Davis, Oakland's managing general partner, expressed the feeling of most AFLers. "You can't judge the comparative quality of the leagues on the basis of only one season," he said before the Pro Bowl. "You'll have to watch them over a period of years."
Over the next few years the teams will even out, since they now take part in a common draft. The NFL built its superiority in head-on competition with the AFL when the leagues were at war. Only a few of the AFL clubs were serious competition for the NFL recruiters and they are the ones that now dominate the conference.
"You must consider one other factor," says an NFL coach. "The AFL teams played only two or three really tough games a season. Now they must play six or seven and they aren't geared mentally or physically for it. The NFL teams are used to playing tough opponents nearly every Sunday."
This is not to say that the better AFL teams aren't as good as any NFL club, as the New York Jets and Kansas City demonstrated in the 1969 and 1970 Super Bowls. Some idea of how the talent is concentrated in the AFC was shown in the distribution of the players on its Pro Bowl squad. Two teams—Kansas City with 10 and Oakland with eight—provided nearly half the 41-man squad. Two teams—Buffalo and Boston—had only one player each on the team. Six other teams provided two players apiece. In the NFC, only three teams had as few as two players. The Minnesota Vikings had the most—seven.
In previous years, when the Pro Bowl matched All-Star teams from the Eastern and Western Conferences of the NFL, the players approached the game with notable nonchalance. The week before the game was usually one of revelry, punctuated by undemanding practice sessions, and in the game itself the players let it all hang over, not out.
But this year both squads approached the game seriously. "In other years I would use up three big bottles of Alka-Seltzer," said George Menefee, the Los Angeles Rams' trainer who has worked with Pro Bowl teams for years. "I'd hand out about 500 aspirin tablets, too. They needed help before they could work out. This year I've used up only about a third of a bottle of Alka-Seltzer and 50 aspirin tablets."