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Perfect time to compare

Donté Stallworth has tasted both flavors, yet they might as well be the same to him.

The speedy wide receiver spent four years with the Saints and one with the Eagles, becoming familiar with NFC football. Now he's with the Patriots and getting a crash course in AFC-style play.

His thoughts?

"People ask that question a lot," Stallworth said. "The only thing I can say is that it's all football to me. The only difference is that one is American, the other is National."

With the Patriots (5-0) set to visit the Cowboys (5-0) Sunday, one hard-to-miss subplot is that it's a contest between one of the best teams the AFC has to offer and the team currently atop the NFC heap.

And although Stallworth said he doesn't notice a significant difference between the worlds, others see a world of difference, pointing specifically to the AFC winning eight of the last 10 Super Bowls.

So while the Cowboys might be considered one of the NFL's top teams right now, some, such as former Giants coach Jim Fassel, aren't ready to put them on the same level as the Patriots and Colts.

It's an NFC thing.

"I don't think they're ready for the elite," said Fas sel, who will provide radio analysis on Westwood One's broadcast of the game. "If you were to divide it up, I'd feel comfortable saying they're one of the elite teams in the NFC, with the best potential to emerge beyond that."

The gap between the conferences was sizable last year, with the AFC posting a 40-24 record in interconference games. The AFC's superiority traces back further than that; since the conferences split, 30-30, in each of the 2000 and 2001 seasons, the AFC has annually posted a wining record, with a total mark of 198-143 through this past weekend's action.

The Patriots, in particular, have enjoyed nonconference play over the last six seasons, putting together a 23-4 record (including playoffs), with seven straight victories. Last year, the Patriots outscored AFC North opponents, 111-41.

"If you look at the record of the AFC over the last half-decade, it indicates that the conference has been stronger, and I don't know how you can dispute that," said guard Pete Kendall, the Archbishop Williams product who has played in both conferences over his 12-year NFL career with the Seahawks, Cardinals, Jets, and now Redskins.

"The most common reason I've heard, and one I wouldn't dispute, is that it's the quarterbacks. When you talk about the best in the game, the first two names that come out of people's mouths are [Tom] Brady and [Peyton] Manning, and those are AFC quarterbacks. I think it's the most critical position in all of sports, especially in our game."

Fassel agrees, but takes it one step further.

"It used to be that the best teams in this league were power run teams, going back 10-15 years, but now that is not the case," he said. "When you talk about the teams that are the good ones, they're throwing. The Patriots, Colts, Cowboys - it's become the way to win. The passing percentage vs. the run has gone way up."

Indeed, the Cowboys (1), Patriots (2), and Colts (3) top the league in passing yards per game.

Growing up in Massachusetts, the 34-year-old Kendall remembers catching the tail end of the Steelers dynasty in the late 1970s, a time when the AFC was wrapping up an extended stretch atop the NFL's mountaintop.

"But after '83, when the Raiders beat the Redskins [in Super Bowl XVIII], there wasn't a lot to root for if you were an AFC fan back then," he said.

It was 13 straight Super Bowl championships for the NFC after that one - four for the 49ers, three for the Cowboys, and the Giants (2), Redskins (2), Bears (1), and Packers (1) all cleaning up.

"It was a different era back then, with no free agency, so once you built a team, it was there for good," Fassel said. "The game has changed, too. The quarterback's importance is even greater now."

So as the Patriots and Cowboys prepare to clash in a battle of unbeaten clubs, the conferences in which they play provide an important backdrop to the buildup.

When the Cowboys struggle to escape from one-win AFC entry Buffalo, it makes one wonder if the NFC is even in the same league as its counterpart. Then again, through five weeks of the season, the AFC holds only a 12-10 edge over NFC foes.

"I haven't noticed a difference between the conferences in terms of style of play," said Stallworth. "I've never really analyzed it, and maybe some of the statistics might show some differences, but it all seems the same to me."

Perhaps Sunday's matchup will change his mind. It's one of the class outfits of the AFC against the NFC's best team.

May the best club, and conference, prevail.

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