The NFL has never quite seen a conference like this year’s AFC.
Heading into December, only four teams in the conference have losing records, with the 12 teams at .500 or better the most for a conference through 12 weeks since the merger.
There have been three seasons when 11 teams in a conference didn’t have losing records at this juncture, having happened previously in the AFC in 2014 and 1980, and the NFC in 2008.
The AFC West is leading the way with all four teams holding winning records with Kansas City (7-4) one game up on a trio of 6-5 teams in the Chargers, Raiders and Broncos.
This marked the fourth time since the current eight-division format started in 2002 that all teams in a division had winning records after 12 weeks. It also happened in the 2014 AFC North and the 2008 AFC East and NFC South.
The AFC North also has provided four of the teams at .500 or better.
It’s a far different story in the NFC where, for the second straight season, only six teams are at .500 or better through 12 weeks. The last time a conference had fewer at this point in the season came in 2013, in the AFC.
It’s a jumbled mess in the middle of the NFC with four teams — Washington, Minnesota, Atlanta and New Orleans — currently tied for seventh at 5-6, a half-game ahead of Philadelphia and Carolina at 5-7.
That leaves open the possibility that a team with a losing record could make the playoffs for a second straight year after Washington won the NFC East last season with a 7-9 mark. In all, 14 of the 16 NFC teams are within one game of a playoff spot, with only Seattle (3-8) and Detroit (0-10-1) seemingly out of contention.
The dichotomy between the conferences is less about AFC dominance than it is about the lack of a dominant team in the AFC. While the NFC has three teams with three or fewer losses — Arizona, Green Bay and Tampa Bay — only Baltimore can say that in the AFC.
The AFC does have a slight edge in the interconference play with a 31-27-1 record.
Deebo Samuel has emerged as one of the NFL’s top receivers in his third season. He’s also been a pretty effective runner of late as a unique dual threat for the San Francisco 49ers.
Samuel has rushed for 181 yards and four TDs on 19 carries the past three games when lining up as a running back. Samuel is the first receiver since the merger to run for a TD in three straight games in the same season.
His five TD runs are the most for a receiver in a single season in the Super Bowl era, surpassing Tavon Austin’s four in 2015.
Samuel also joined Roger Craig (1985) and Marshall Faulk (1999) as the only players to score five TDs running and receiving and have 1,000 yards receiving in a single season.
Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford is in the midst of a forgettable streak. Stafford has thrown a pick-six in three straight games.
Stafford is the first QB to throw pick-sixes in three straight games since 2013, when Matt Schaub had a record four-game streak and Blaine Gabbert did it three games in a row.
The only other players since 1991 to do it in three straight games are Peyton Manning (2001), Ty Detmer (1996) and John Elway (1994).
TAKE IT AWAY
New England’s J.C. Jackson has a knack for taking the ball away.
Jackson had his seventh interception of the season this past week against Tennessee, giving him 24 in his career. That’s tied with Richard Sherman for the third-most for a player in his first four seasons since the merger, one behind Lester Hayes and Everson Walls.
Jackson, who had nine interceptions last season, is the first player since Sherman in 2012-13 to have back-to-back seasons with at least seven interceptions.
With two more interceptions, Jackson will be the second player in the Super Bowl era with at least nine interceptions in consecutive seasons, joining Bill Bradley of the Eagles in 1971-72.
The combination of big-legged kickers and moving the kickoff spot to the 35 has severely reduced the impact of kick returners across the NFL.
That’s why it was so surprising to see two taken back for touchdowns this past week with Dallas’ Tony Pollard doing it on Thanksgiving against the Raiders and Minnesota’s Kene Nwangwu on Sunday against the 49ers.
The last time there was a week with two kick return TDs, excluding onside kicks, came in Week 7 of 2012 when Devin McCourty and Brad Smith did it.
Nwangwu has two already this season, becoming the first player to do that since Cordarrelle Patterson did it for Minnesota in 2015.