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Super Bowl Champions and Top-Heavy Divisions

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.

nfl div strength

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

  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. []
  • I think top-heavyness also correlates to tams being overrated a bit? Winning a division against bad competition will make a team look better than it is, since it’s beating up on it’s divisional foes, so it’s no surprise that the most top-heavy divisonal winners regurlarly get exposed in the playoffs.

    That might play into the fact why the winner of the most top-heavy div has such a hard time winning the Super Bowl.

    • I’d agree with you about preying on a weak division potentially inflating their wins as a % of division wins. I’m still working on the SRS view of the topic since that factors in strength of schedule and should lower the impact of beating weak teams.

      • Chase Stuart

        Yes, I’d love to read an SRS view on the topic.

    • Chase Stuart

      That’s certainly one interpretation. We could use other methods that adjust for SOS to see how often these teams tend to actually be overrated, but I would assume that their records are at least slightly inflated. Of course, you can also win a bad division with just 8 wins, like the Packers last year.

  • Great article and it makes sense, especially when you consider wiesengrund’s point about having a potentially inflated record from being in a weak division. But I also think it’s hard to draw too many conclusions, like you said, but the graph is interesting.

    Have you thought of doing the same study but instead of win% along the Y-axis how about SRS. So you’d take the percentage of SRS of the top team in the division as a percentage difference between the top team and division average. SRS is tricky thought since it can get negative so you can’t use the same method. So for example while the AFCW are close in terms of win % (minus the Raiders) they actually have a fairly big difference between the Broncos SRS and the divisions average.

    I’ll try and do the work myself for 2013 so I can better present my data later today if I get the chance but I just wanted to hear your opinion on the idea of using SRS difference rather % of the total wins. It’s still early for me to be doing any form of math so the idea may not work, just was wondering.

    Thanks and great article.

    • Chase Stuart

      I suppose one could look at the delta between the top team in SRS and the average of the other three in SRS. Would be interesting to see.

      • Having a pregnant wife slows research time I’m finding but I’ll let you know when I finish.

  • H

    Aren’t top heavy divisions the ones that are least likely to have wild card teams? So each division with lower %s are likely to have 2 teams in the playoffs, so if all teams were to be considered equal at that stage (obviously not true) then these divisions would be much more likely to produce the eventual Superbowl winner as they have 2 teams in it.