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The Toughest Divisions in the NFL (Part 2)


Last week I wrote about the four toughest divisions in the NFL.  This week I’ll look at the divisions ranked 5-8.   Please read the beginning of last week’s piece for a detailed explanation of the methodology for my calculations.  Also, a quick reminder, just because a division has a good team or two in it, does not signify the strength of a division as a whole.

Now, without further ado, here is the weaker half of the NFL:

5. First place in the last half, also known as fifth, goes to the NFC South.  The NFC South sent two teams to the playoffs (Atlanta and New Orleans), but only came in at an “average composite rank” (ACR) of 17.  There was a four-win separation between second and third place in the division that lowered its potential upside deviation which came out to only 0.31.   It didn’t help that the NFC South had an “opponent’s win percentage” (OWP) of .496 with two of the teams playing very easy schedules relative to other teams (Falcons with the 25th toughest schedule and the Bucs with the 27th).  The fact that the Bucs did so terrible with a comparatively easy schedule did not auger well for the division as a whole.  As a division, the NFC South just didn’t perform in the areas it needed to.  Nobody wanted to see the Saints on their schedule in 2011, but Atlanta just squeaked by some teams they probably should have beat soundly (Seattle being one of them).  Similar to how the AFC West was the third toughest by doing nothing remarkable outside of playing difficult schedules and winning games that were expected to be won, the NFC South played a slightly less than average strength of schedule and lost many games (as a whole division) that should have been won.

6. The next division is one that everyone probably expected to see in the top two. The NFC North came in at sixth with an ACR of 20.  I started out trying to show the NFC East as overrated. I expected the NFC North to come in second, but I was wrong.  In deviations, the NFC North had the best team in the NFL, the Packers, and a very solid team from Motor City behind them, but was ultimately held back by the miserable Vikings and enigmatic Bears.  Green Bay’s very high-positive deviation of 2.14 helped wipe out Minnesota’s -1.53 deviation with some upside still left over, but they played a relatively easy schedule with an OWP of .491.  In fact, the team in the NFC North with the hardest schedule was Minnesota, coming in at 9th in the NFL.  Green Bay actually had the second easiest schedule in the NFL in 2011, while Detroit and Chicago were 22nd and 23rd, respectively.  This would indicate that these teams should be winning a lot of games, which they did, but it wasn’t enough.  Essentially, Green Bay both helped and held back the division by having such a positive win-loss deviation but also such a soft schedule.  While it might seem counterintuitive, the placement of the NFC North has given credence to the belief that quality wins mean more than easy wins.  There just weren’t very many quality wins in the division as a whole, and when there were, they were washed out by ridiculous losses.

7.   According to the ACR, seventh and eighth place are technically tied at 25, however I made the executive decision to put the AFC East in seventh place overall.  The AFC East (or AFC Easy, as I just accidentally typed it) is essentially a one-trick pony.  That trick, of course, is the New England Patriots.  The fact that the Patriots play the Jets, Bills, and ‘Phins twice a year each brings us back to the quality over ease issue.  Nevertheless, the Pats had a large enough positive win-loss deviation, 1.53, ensuring an overall positive division deviation.  The Patriots’ deviation was probably aided by playing the easiest schedule in the NFL with an OWP of only .453. The AFC East, as a whole, also had the weakest schedule of all divisions with an OWP of only .479.  It may sound strange, but when you look at the numbers you can see why this division isn’t that tough.  It has only one really remarkable team, but they played an easy schedule.  Every team in the division had OWPs of less than .500, yet only one had a winning record.  I’m trying to find a case to make for the AFC East, but there really just isn’t one there.  I guess that’s why they’re in seventh.

8.  Finally, in last place, the easiest division in football in 2011, the AFC South.  With an ACR of 25, but the lowest deviation (-1.83) and second lowest OWP (.488) the AFC South really has nothing to say for it.  The world realized that the emperor actually had no clothes by watching a Peyton-less Colts get the worst record in the NFL.  Meanwhile, Houston earned its first playoff spot with a 10-6 record while playing the 27th hardest schedule.   The AFC narrowly missed sending two teams to the playoffs, but the Titans lost the head-to-head tie-break with Cincy.  Houston also ended the season with losses to Carolina, Indianapolis, and Tennessee.  That doesn’t speak well for the division or the best team in it.  The most illustrative element to me, after looking at the relatively weak deviation and OWP numbers, is that the conference records were 4-2, 3-3, 3-3, and 2-4.  In some divisions that might show parity and toughness, but when factoring in the other elements in for the AFC South it indicates a figurative pillow-fight in my mind.

That wraps up the division rankings for the 2011 season.   As promised, here is the link to all my data.  I apologize for any formatting quirks due to uploading from Excel to Google Docs.  If you have any questions or comments let me know.  It will be interesting to look at the changes after the 2012 season and compare them year by year.  I hope you find the analysis useful and informative.  Now you can tell other fans that the NFC West is in fact, not the NFC Worst, and unfortunately concede that the NFC East actually is a very tough division.