The NFL realigned its divisions in 2002, placing four divisions of four teams each in each conference. Some divisions have been top-heavy, with the most obvious example being the 2007 AFC East. The Patriots won 16 games, while the Jets, Dolphins, and Bills combined to win just twelve games (with six of those twelve wins by the Bills or Jets against the Dolphins or Jets). That means New England was responsible for 57% of all wins by AFC East teams in 2007, easily the highest percentage of any team in a division since realignment.
Having an easy division brings some advantages: being the best team in a bad division makes it easier to get the best record in the conference, which leads to a bye week and home field advantage. It also could allow a team to rest its starters at the end of the year. Conversely, there’s the notion that teams in tough divisions “beat up on each other,” so presumably that’s another benefit to being the best team in a bad division.
But New England, of course, didn’t win the Super Bowl in ’07. That year, the title went to the NFC East, which was not a top-heavy division; the Cowboys had just 33% of NFC East wins that year, placing it as the 3rd least top-heavy division in the NFL. The last three years, things have been even more stark:
- The NFC West was one of the strongest divisions in NFL history last year; but while the Seahawks may have been beaten up by the 49ers, Cardinals, and Rams, that didn’t stop Seattle from winning the Super Bowl. Seattle won “just” 31% of the games won by the NFC West last year — only the NFC North (Green Bay, 29%) was less top-heavy.
- The least top-heavy division in football in 2012 was the AFC North. Baltimore won 10 games, but so did Cincinnati, and the Steelers (8) and Browns (5) were not pushovers, either. The Ravens won just 30% of all games won by AFC North teams in 2012, but finished the year by hoisting the Lombardi Trophy.
- In 2011, the Giants won a competitive NFC East with a 9-7 record; Philadelphia and Dallas were just one game behind, and New York won only 30% of all games won by NFC East teams that year. Only the Tim Tebow-infected AFC West was less top-heavy (Denver won 26% of all AFC West games, just barely above the minimum threshold for a division champ) that year.
The graph below displays all eight divisions for each year since 2002. The Y-axis shows the percentage of games won by the top team in the division as a percentage of the total wins by that division. The X-axis represents the year; the red dot represents the division with the eventual Super Bowl champ, with the blue dot for all other divisions.
I’m not suggesting that much can be gleaned from this graph, but I do think it’s interesting to look at. The eventual Super Bowl champ has never come from the most top-heavy division, and that includes great teams like the ’07 Patriots and ’12 Broncos. Half of the Super Bowl champs came from one of the three least top-heavy divisions in the NFL.
Some notable exceptions include the 2003 Patriots (2nd most top-heavy division) and the 2009 Saints (39% of all NFC South wins). A David Tyree bounce here, a Rahim Moore fall there, and perhaps this graph looks quite a bit different. What do you think of this data?1
- I’ll note that as a general matter, being in a “good” division gives teams more bites at the apple: the NFC West had a better chance of winning the Super Bowl than the AFC East, because the Seahawks and 49ers were both in the playoffs. On the other hand, the last three Super Bowl champs were all division champions from tough divisions, which is why I’ve relegated this idea to the footnotes. [↩]