≡ Menu

Longtime commenter Jason Winter has chimed in with today’s guest post. Jason is a part-time video game journalist and full-time sports fan. You can follow him on twitter at @winterinformal.

As always, we thank Jason for contributing. Note that this was written before last night’s game.

If you’re making predictions as to who will win each division on the eve of this 2017 NFL season, you’ve probably got New England to once again win the AFC East. I mean, look at the rest of that division. Seriously.

As for the other seven divisions, how many teams do you have repeating as champions? Or, let me put it to you this way: Suppose I bet you that at least half of the divisions in the NFL – the AFC East included – will have new winners in 2017. So if there are four or more new division winners, I win; if there are fewer, you win. Would you take that bet?

If we’d done that bet every year since the NFL went to its current eight-division format, I’d have won 12 out of 14 times. So you definitely shouldn’t take that bet.

But sure, that gives me an advantage: You win if 0, 1, 2, or 3 divisions have new winners (four outcomes), and I win if 4, 5, 6, 7, or 8 do (five outcomes). So fine, I’ll give you an extra chance. I only win if more divisions (5+) have new winners in 2017, so you’ll win if exactly half (4) or fewer divisions have new champions. Now what chance do I have to win?

If we did this every year since 2003, I’d still be ahead in the money, with 9 out of 14 wins. Always bet on chaos.

It’s usually hard, in any sport, to imagine that the standings will be radically different from year to year. In general, we expect good teams to remain good and bad teams to remain bad. Sure, we grant that changes, such as a new quarterback (or injury to an established one) can change things, but when there’s no such obvious change – or unknown variables that we don’t know the outcome to – we tend to go with the status quo.

I don’t follow and check up on season predictions with the same vigor that I do draft predictions, but the few times I do, the pundits are usually extremely conservative. Here’s the first “expert prediction” I found when doing a simple Google search. He predicts three of eight divisions to have new winners. For what it’s worth, there has never been a season in the eight-division era where exactly three divisions had new winners.

Lots of folks might make the “easy” prediction, like betting against Houston repeating in 2017. Even if you weren’t aware of the Texans’ bizarre mismanagement of the quarterback position (not to mention any on field impact caused by Hurricane Harvey), it’s hardly going out on a limb to think that a 9-7 team might not repeat as division champions.

However, the same pundits rarely believe that a strong team could fall all the way down to second (or worse) place. But it happens all the time. Just look at the 15-1 Carolina Panthers of 2015, the 15-1 Pittsburgh Steelers of 2004, or – most famously – the 16-0 New England Patriots of 2007. None of those teams won their divisions the next year.

Here are the numbers: On average, 4.8 divisions have new champions every year, and the average wins in year N of a team that wins its division that year but doesn’t in year N+1 is 11.5.

Here’s another way to look at it: If five of last year’s divisional winners had records of 9-7, 11-5, 11-4-1, 12-4, and 14-2, and none of them repeated as division winners … that would be right about average, even though it might be hard to wrap your head around the notion that those last two would stumble.

Overall, divisions have been successfully defended just 45 of 112 times, or 40% of the time, since 2002. The AFC East has been the most stable division, with just three new winners in 14 seasons, while the NFC South has been the most chaotic, with 12 new winners in 14 seasons. If not for the improbable 7-8-1 2014 NFC South champion Carolina Panthers, the division would have had a new winner every year!

In truth, this makes sense. Four teams are vying for divisional crowns every year. If everything were equal, we’d expect teams to repeat 25% of the time. The fact that it’s actually 40% shows that – obviously – that some teams are better than others, but even so, having three “contenders” for your crown still means you’ll lose more often than you win. It’s the same reason the “on paper” best team in the playoffs doesn’t always win the Super Bowl; there are 11 other teams vying for the title.

As for me? I’m officially picking just New England, Pittsburgh, and Seattle to repeat as divisional champions in 2017. That would be right about average, and I can come up with arguments as to why the other five won’t repeat. I won’t bore you with my half-baked reasons, but feel free to leave yours in the comments!

  • Mark Growcott

    While the 2011 season saw us with 7 different Division winners from the season before with only the Patriots repeating, a rather unique ocurrence happened in the AFC East that season. Not only did the Patriots repeat their 1st place finish for the 3rd straight season but so did the Jets, Dolphins and Bills repeat their places for the 3rd straight season. The only other time a Division finished in the same order over 3 consecutive seasons was the NFC West 1992-1994.

  • Fun study! Out of interest, I looked at the numbers from 1988-2001 (same number of years) with the old 6 team alignment to see if the bigger divisions made a difference and, as you might expect, it was even more volatile. With just 6 divisions, they still averaged 4.36 new champions per year despite two fewer divisions.


    Oddly enough though, despite having more competition, division titles were more egalitarian in larger divisions than they are now. Buffalo, Cleveland, Jacksonville, and Detroit have yet to win a division since the 2002 Realignment. The Ravens (despite winning a Super Bowl), and the St Louis/Phoenix/Arizona Cardinals were the only teams not to win a title in the last 16 years of the old format.

    Lastly, I always love any opportunity to draw attention to the last years of the old alignment. The additions of the 29th, 30th, and especially 31st franchises seemed to send the NFL into a frenzy, with 6/6, 5/6, 6/6, and 5/6 different winners those last 4 years (1998-2001). Most of those 1st place teams would follow up their wins with very disappointing finishes the following year. That would be a great companion piece: are last place teams more “stable” than first place teams from year to year.

  • I sent this article in on Monday, and when Chase told me he’d be getting it up on Friday, I almost considered replying with, “If the Patriots get crushed on Thursday, I retain the right to edit that first paragraph.”

    • Too late!!1111

    • Richie

      Would you actually change your pick for me New England to repeat?

      I have to believe they are still heavy favorites to win the East.

      • Nah. Even if they only go 11-5, I think they’ve got it. Unless Tom Brady is decapitated in week two. Then they might only go 10-6.

        I might be rethinking KC not repeating, though…

        • I swear I have been picking KC to go to at least the AFCCG for the last 4-5 years. This is the first time people are not laughing at me, and they were three days ago!