AFC: Eleven of Sixteen QBs Effective

AS THE QUARTERBACKS keep making big plays this year, large numbers of pro games are being decided in the fourth quarter. Many games go down to the wire, to be won and lost on the final few plays, often on the last play of the game. For this, the NFL's balance of quarterback strength provides one clear explanation.

In the younger conference:

• The AFC West has three excellent quarterbacks, Jake Plummer, Trent Green and Rich Gannon — plus another one, Drew Brees, acceptable now, who would be much better than that if surrounded by the kind of help the leaders have.

• Of the 11 AFC quarterbacks who play effectively (in a 16-team conference), two are in the AFC South, Peyton Manning and Steve McNair, who both approach greatness. At expansion Houston, David Carr seems acceptable. At rebuilding Jacksonville, the acceptable veteran is Mark Brunell, backed by a seemingly promising rookie Byron Leftwich.

• The AFC North is still looking for a few good quarterbacks.

• But the AFC East has three with Super Bowl quality, present, past or future, Tom Brady, Drew Bledsoe and Chad Pennington.

NFC: Thirteen of Sixteen Clubs OK at QB

IN THE SENIOR conference, 13 of the 16 teams have proved, to the satisfaction of most NFL scouts, that they've hired or developed quality quarterbacks:

• In the NFC West, there are four on three clubs, Marc Bulger, Kurt Warner, Jeff Garcia and Matt Hasselbeck.

• The NFC South has produced three past or potential Super Bowl quarterbacks, Brad Johnson, Michael Vick and Aaron Brooks.

• In the NFC North, there are three more, Brett Favre, Daunte Culpepper and, at Detroit, Joey Harrington, when and if he gets more help.

• The NFC East seems as well off at quarterback as any division in football with Donovan McNabb, Kerry Collins, and the two new ones, Quincy Carter and Patrick Ramsey — the two who have lucked onto teams with coaches (Bill Parcells and Steve Spurrier) that Jeff Blake, Kordell Stewart and many other NFL quarterbacks would die for.

More Class Defensive Acts Than Ever

NFL DEFENSIVE TEAMS are also stronger and faster than ever this season.

The explanation for the league's defensive excellence also starts with college football: If, demonstrably, the colleges are turning out more good quarterbacks than ever, it's likely that they're doing the same for defensive people.

For, after attending a spread of U.S. colleges and universities, large and small, the NFL's defensive as well as offensive players are 1) products of the same extraordinary modern college football system and 2) the best of the best.

Today's NFL defensive clubs have become so powerful that pro football's critics and other observers would be seeking rule changes penalizing defenses again — as they did in the low-scoring days of the 1970s and at other times — if the quarterbacks weren't so dominant in the close, big games.

College teams in the 1970s weren't producing many great pro quarterbacks. They didn't have to. The most successful college coaches were winning with wishbone-formation running plays and other option running plays.

The passing revolution that began at San Francisco in the early 1980s with Coach Bill Walsh's 49er teams — which won an unprecedented five Super Bowls with short ball-control passes by Joe Montana and Steve Young — was embraced in time at most colleges.