NFL Reality Check: The Best, Worst and Most Mediocre Divisions in the Game
After Denver's narrow escape in Dallas, Kansas City's decisive road win at Tennessee and the Raiders' late-night romp of the Chargers on Sunday, it's abundantly clear that while we still may disagree on the best team in the NFL, we sure as heck know the best division, top to bottom.
Despite a valiant effort from the Dallas Cowboys to knock the Broncos down from the ranks of the unbeaten on Sunday, it's pretty clear which division is the worst as well.
The AFC West is a combined 14-6 (.700) through five weeks of the NFL season, 12-4 (.750) when not factoring games within the division. The NFC East, by comparison, is 5-14 (.263), with a less-than-stellar mark of 2-11 (.154) outside the division.
How bad has the NFC East been so far this season? The Eagles and Cowboys are leading the NFC East with identical records of 2-3—Philly holds the current tiebreaker with a 2-0 division record—the same record as the worst teams in three other divisions.
One division's trash is another division's eventual champion.
(Note: Dallas is 2-3 in actual games, but at least 3-2 when factoring in moral victories.)
As bad as it has been for the NFC East and as good as it's been for the AFC West, things could change over the next five weeks.
The Eagles, for example, have a much easier schedule through the middle part of the season than they had in the first four games, starting against the top three teams in the AFC West and the reigning division champions in the NFC East—going 1-3 in those contests—before squaring off against the woebegone Giants this past Sunday.
As for those Giants, well, they're pretty much the reason the NFC East is so terrible, as they've not only lost every game this season, but they've lost in historic fashion. The Giants have given up 30 or more points in all five games, losing four of the five by more than two touchdowns.
The Giants are so bad that they lost 38-0 to the one-win Carolina Panthers, who just lost 22-6 to an Arizona Cardinals team that lost in the season opener, 27-24, to the St. Louis Rams, who lost 31-7 in Week 3 to a Dallas team that is 0-3 against the AFC West this season, including a 30-21 loss to the Chargers…who just lost 27-17 to the Raiders on Sunday night.
Phew. By my math, that means the Giants should lose 148-12 when they face Oakland in Week 10.
That's how bad the NFC East has been.
(Did that sound dramatic enough?)
In truth, some of the teams in the NFC East, while epically terrible through five weeks, shouldn't be all that concerned that their poor overall records are a harbinger of things to come.
The division has just two wins in 13 games against non-division foes, but nine of those games have come against the AFC West, and the only win against that division came in the only game the NFC East has played against the Raiders.
The NFC East is collectively 0-8 against the Broncos, Chiefs and Chargers, having played just three games against any other division in football through the first five weeks. The other divisions can't be as good as the AFC West, can they?
For the NFC East's sake, they better hope not.
Despite losing for the first time this season—on the road against another division leader—the Seattle Seahawks still sit atop the NFL's second-best division. The NFC West is a combined 12-8 (.600) on the season through five weeks, a record that improves to 9-5 (.642) against non-division opponents.
And yet, maybe it's not so great. Seattle is 4-1 on the season, but other than the division victory over San Francisco, the record of teams Seattle has beaten is 2-9 in games not against the Seahawks, and it lost to the only non-division foe it faced that has a winning record.
The Arizona Cardinals are 3-2, but two of those victories have come against NFC South teams with a combined 1-5 record in other games.
On the flip side, the 49ers are 3-2, but the combined record of the non-division teams they've beaten is 4-3 in all other games, a record with the Packers and Texans that is likely to rise. In all games, including the division matchups, the 49ers are 3-0 against teams with a combined 5-6 record and 0-2 against two teams with a combined 6-2 record in other games.
That's not so bad, despite being just one game over .500. If only someone in the NFC West could beat the pesky Colts.
Heading into the Monday Night Football game between the Jets and Falcons, the AFC East has been somewhat surprisingly tough this season, with an overall record of 11-8 (.579), bettered to 8-5 (.615) outside the division. Even a loss by the Jets would leave the AFC East as one of just three divisions with a wining record against the other divisions through five weeks.
Now, let's see what happens in a month.
Even before whatever happens to the Jets on Monday night, Week 5 was a bust for the AFC East. The Patriots were undefeated before going into hostile Cincinnati on Sunday and failing to score a touchdown in a sloppy 13-6 loss to the Bengals.
The Dolphins started the season 3-0 before losing two straight games, including a back-and-forth home loss to the defending champion Baltimore Ravens.
The Bills lost on Thursday night to the surprisingly resurgent Cleveland Browns, giving the division very little to show for its week from start to almost finish. And yet, one week should not make any team in the division panic much. Even the Bills have a winning record against non-division foes. The AFC East, as a whole, has been better than people expected.
The Patriots started the season with two division games before waxing Tampa Bay and edging Atlanta on the road. The Patriots are 1-2 outside the division, and the teams they beat are a combined 1-5 in all other games, while the team that beat them is just 2-2 in its other matchups.
The Bengals loss took a lot of the shine off the Patriots' start, especially with New England hosting 5-0 New Orleans next week. People were surprised at New England's strong early start given all the team's preseason issues and roster deficiencies. This week may be the start of it coming back to Earth.
Speaking of back down to Earth, Miami has come crashing back with two straight losses.
Having said that, the three victories for the Dolphins have come against teams that are 8-3 in all other games, while their two losses have come against teams that are 6-2 in theirs. Miami has weathered one heck of an early schedule and could be for real. Come to think of it, with an out-of-division schedule that looks like one of the easiest in football the rest of the way—including non-division games against the Buccaneers, Panthers and Steelers—the Dolphins may not have to be all that real to stay in contention.
The Packers are probably the NFL's best two-win team after beating a depleted Detroit Lions team to get back to .500 after four games. The Packers have lost two games, both on the road against winning teams, by an average of five points. Their two home wins, one against a division leader in Detroit and the other against last year's NFC East champions in Washington, were by an average of more than two touchdowns.
On paper, the NFC North feels like a better division than the AFC East, but the collective 9-9 record (5-5 outside the division) indicates an up-and-down opening five weeks.
The Bears went out like gangbusters, winning their first three games before a tough loss to division rival Detroit and a fairly disappointing home loss to New Orleans, despite the best efforts of Jay Cutler and his 358 yards passing, most of which went to second-year star Alshon Jeffery on Sunday.
Still, the 3-0 start for Chicago does not look as spectacular anymore, as the Bears' three wins came over teams with a collective 4-6 record in all other games, two of which have one or zero wins to this point in the season.
The Bears beat two bad teams and lost to two good teams, along with a good opening-day win over the Bengals. If they continue this pattern—beating the bad teams, losing to the good and splitting with the mediocre—they'll be right in the thick of things come playoff time.
That's really how the entire division looks. The Lions are 3-2 after losing to the Packers on the road without Calvin Johnson. The Lions' other loss was at Arizona, which is 2-2 in all other games. The three Lions wins came over teams with a collective 5-5 record, and that includes two teams with just one win in three other games.
And let's not forget about the Vikings, who currently land somewhere between competitive and complete disarray. Minnesota is 1-3, with its only win coming against a team without any victories and three losses to teams with a combined record of 6-6. Now, two of the Vikings' losses came on the final drive of the game, and a victory in either of those would have changed everything, including an utterly arbitrary ranking of the best divisions, like this.
The NFC North is going to pummel itself into 8-8 submission this season, with the worst team having just as much chance as anyone to win the division, if it can figure out its quarterback situation.
There was a time not too long ago when the AFC North was the class division of the entire NFL. This year is not that year, as the entire division seems to fall into the category of mediocre…or worse, if you wear black and yellow.
The Ravens are 3-2 after surviving in Miami on Sunday, and the teams they've beaten this season are 8-4 in all other games. The two teams they've lost to are 5-3 collectively in other games, buoyed by Denver's undefeated mark. Really, if the Ravens hadn't laid a complete egg in Buffalo last week, people would still be looking at them as a Super Bowl favorite with Denver in the AFC. Instead, that loss helped contribute to a 6-7 record for the AFC North against all other divisions.
And yet, really it's not Baltimore's fault. Nor is it Cleveland's, which has gone from 0-2 to 3-2 in the blink of an eye, including a victory over Buffalo on Thursday night to bring its out-of-division record to 2-1 on the young season.
It's not Cincinnati's fault either, as it has defeated both the Packers and the Patriots while only losing one game—to the Bears—outside the division.
Really, it's the Steelers, who are not only 0-4, but their opponents' collective record in other games is 6-9, thanks to the otherwise winless Vikings beating Pittsburgh in London last week.
Indianapolis is for real. The rest of the AFC South…not so much.
The Colts have beaten the top two teams in the NFC West in two of the last three weeks, sandwiching in a decisive victory over their own division's cellar-dwelling Jacksonville Jaguars. Were it not for the Colts, the NFC West would likely be considered the best division in football—remember how many games the AFC West has played against the NFC East—while the Colts are almost single-handedly keeping the AFC South out of the running for one of the worst divisions in the league.
The Colts are 4-1 on the season, and the combined record of non-division teams they've beaten this year is 9-3 in all other games. The Colts' only loss is to a 3-2 Miami Dolphins team that started the year 3-0 before falling in consecutive weeks to playoff-contending teams.
The Colts have two signature wins through five weeks without a bad loss, something no other team in the AFC South seems to have.
The Texans were thought of as a Super Bowl contender heading into the season. They now sit at 2-3 after five games, thanks in large part to horrendous quarterback play by Matt Schaub. Still, with a net point total of minus-46, there are more problems in Houston than who is throwing the ball. Well, to be fair, a lot of that is who he is throwing the ball to—the other team. A lot.
The Texans have given up 139 points on the season, and at least 35 have come directly from the offense or special teams, with Schaub personally throwing four pick-sixes in five weeks.
The Texans aren't in as horrible shape as Schaub has made them look, however. Despite three straight losses to go from 2-0 to 0-3, the Texans have lost to Baltimore, Seattle and San Francisco, with two games on the road, in the last three weeks. Those three teams have a combined record in all other games of 7-5, despite their own difficult early schedules.
The Tennessee Titans are an interesting team, as it's difficult to tell anything about them from looking at the teams they've played. The Titans are 3-2, with two losses coming to teams with a combined record of 5-3. Their only loss out of the division is to the undefeated Kansas City Chiefs.
Of the three wins, none have come against a team with a winning record (note: that could change if the Jets win on Monday Night Football.) As of games played on Sunday, the Titans' three wins have come against teams that are a combined 4-6 on the season in all other games.
With upcoming games at Seattle and home to San Francisco, the Titans will get a better sense of how strong their team—and perhaps their division—will be this year.
After all, Jacksonville is a team that still exists, pulling this division down like an anchor.
Is it possible that the second-worst division in football also has the league's best team? The Saints are one of just three remaining undefeated teams in football, and unlike the Broncos and Chiefs, they didn't get to play almost the entire NFC East to start the year.
The Saints have won five games, two in the division, against teams with a combined record in other games of 10-8. If we take out the division games against the horrible Tampa Bay Bucs and the incredibly disappointing Atlanta Falcons, the Saints' opponents are 9-3 in all other games.
Granted, the Saints got two of those games at home, but New Orleans has played much stiffer competition than either the Chiefs, whose opponents are 7-13 in all other games, or the Broncos, whose opponents are 9-11 in all other games and 7-9 when looking at Denver's non-division foes to this point in the season.
So the Saints are great. We all agree on that. The rest of the division, however, is horrible.
Even with Atlanta still to play Monday Night Football against the Jets—a game it should be expected to win at home—the rest of the division would be a collective 3-10 this season, 3-8 out of division. If the Falcons lose, those numbers obviously fall to 2-11 and 2-9, which are as terrible as the moribund NFC East.
If not for the Saints, the NFC South would be the butt of every "they'd lose to the SEC" joke you could think of.
And yet, maybe it's not that bad…?
Atlanta has lost three games to teams with a combined record in other games of 9-3.
Carolina has its only win over a winless Giants team, but its three losses are against teams with a combined record of 6-6 in all other games, including that heartbreaker to the Bills in Week 2.
The Buccaneers should be 2-2 but instead sit at 0-4 on the bye week in total disarray. Having said that, the Bucs lost four games to teams—heading into the Jets' game on Monday night—with a collective record of 10-5 in all other games.
It could be worse for the Bucs. They could be the Giants. They could be in the NFC East.
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