After the NFL and the old AFL split the first four Super Bowls, the merger took hold in 1970 with its two conferences on equal footing. But the footing has never remained equal.
The 1970s belonged to the AFC, which won nine of the first 11 Super Bowls following the merger. Those were the days of dynasty in Pittsburgh and Miami. Their foils from across the league were Dallas and Minnesota, though the Cowboys broke through and won the two Super Bowls for the NFC.
Starting with the 1981 season, the NFC took over pro football with 15 Super Bowl wins in the next 16 years. San Francisco, Washington and the New York Giants each won multiple titles from the 1981 through 1990 seasons, with the 49ers taking home four of those trophies. Their most frequent foils were the Bengals, Miami and Denver.
When that constellation diffused, Dallas dominated the NFC and the Buffalo Bills dominated the AFC, but the Cowboys dominated the Bills and the NFC maintained its grip on the Super Bowl through the 1996 season. The late 1990s belonged to John Elway and Brett Favre, who won three Super Bowls between them, including one in which Elway beat Favre.
There followed a transition of two years when St. Louis won a Super Bowl for the NFC with the most wide-open offense anyone has seen, then Baltimore won one for the AFC with the most dominant defense in memory.
Today we're clearly in a new phase of AFC dominance. The age is still young — beginning only with New England's first Super Bowl win after the 2001 season — but it's pretty hard to miss. Now that the Indianapolis Colts have defeated the Chicago Bears 29-17 in Super Bowl XLI, three different AFC teams have won the last three Super Bowls.
The Colts broke through in a big way that underlined and reinforced the AFC's superiority. New England won three Super Bowls during this century by a field goal each. The Pittsburgh Steelers won 21-10 last year with help from the referees. The Colts, by contrast, dominated the last 59 minutes on Feb. 4, spotting the Bears an opening kick return for a touchdown and proceeding to outgain them nearly two-to-one.
In victory, the Colts completed everyone involved with their operation. Peyton Manning, of course, will never again have to hear that he can't win The Big One. The general manager, Bill Polian, lost three Super Bowls in Buffalo and came up short often with the Colts before this year's team broke through.
The head coach, Tony Dungy, basically built the NFC's only Super Bowl winner of this century in Tampa and his successor, Jon Gruden, made sure to credit him after that victory. Now Dungy has won a Super Bowl truly his own.
Inevitably, the African-American coach issue coursed through the commentaries of the last couple weeks. One now suspects we've heard the end of such talk in American team sports.
African-American coaches have won in the NBA, going back to Bill Russell in the late 1960s. An African-American manager, Cito Gaston, won the World Series a couple times with Toronto in the early 1990s. An African-American general manager, Kenny Williams, won the World Series with the Chicago White Sox in 2005. An African-American quarterback, Doug Williams, won a Super Bowl with Washington after the 1987 season.
Now that racist arguments saying African-Americans can't do this or that have been refuted across the athletic board with real counter-examples in history, we can concentrate on opportunity, which still seems to be in short supply. Meanwhile, it's fine to say the issue is overblown and that the world is a better place when it's no longer news, but that still shouldn't stop us from recognizing pioneers when they're present.
That aside, the competitive message from Super Bowl XLI points squarely at the dominance of the American Football Conference, which happens to be the path between the Bengals and the Vince Lombardi Trophy.
The Colts are emboldened by winning the Super Bowl. Now that they've done it once, they can certainly do it again. The Patriots remain the NFL's most admired and respected franchise.
Though it remains to be seen how the Steelers will fare under new coach Mike Tomlin, they've maintained a contending organization for most of the last 35 years. The Broncos appear to have begun a new phase with Jay Cutler at quarterback, raising their ceiling from the last couple years. The San Diego Chargers are a regular season dynamo with the league's best running back in LaDainian Tomlinson as well as a hardened defense and an emerging quarterback in Phillip Rivers. The Ravens bring their stiff defense and made a big move this year with the addition of a veteran quarterback.
The Patriots, Chargers and Ravens probably would have beaten the Bears in this year's Super Bowl. The other AFC contenders are close.
And the Bears, by a wide margin, are the NFC's best team this year, winning 13 games. No other NFC team won more than 10. In addition to the Colts' comfortable Super Bowl win, the AFC also showed its superiority with a 40-24 record this year in interconference games.
Where does this leave the Bengals? Well, the path to glory doesn't lie in proving oneself the fourth or fifth best team in the dominant conference over a period of years. Unless you fondly remember the Detroit Lions of the 1970s.
Again, the Bengals have come a long way, all the way from the worst team in the lesser conference to knocking on the door of the top five in the better conference. But the NFL is built to help teams make that move. In order to make the next move, the Bengals will have to do it themselves.
Can they? For Marvin Lewis, that move is the difference between being a competent NFL coach and being a championship coach. In the NFL, of course, it's saying a lot to roll out a consistently competitive team, which Lewis had done. But a true winner? It's still a long way to the top.
Already, the road to the top looked long as the Bengals lost games they could have won this year while the names of their players suggested a lack of focus as they appeared in the local crime news. With the Colts' victory, Cincinnati's road to the Super Bowl looks even longer.