AFC North: Toughest Division in the NFL?

Donna CavanaghCorrespondent INovember 11, 2009

PITTSBURGH - OCTOBER 25:  Mewelde Moore #21 of the Pittsburgh Steelers runs with the ball during the NFL game against the Minnesota Vikings at Heinz Field on October 25, 2009 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The Steelers defeated the Vikings 27-17. (Photo by Rick Stewart/Getty Images)
Rick Stewart/Getty Images

Get a group of football fans together talking about their favorite teams, comparing records and schedules, and sooner or later, someone will throw out a phrase along the lines of “Well, they play in a tougher division.”

We, at , confess we love this discussion. We write about it as often as we can. We address this issue in the preseason , regular season, postseason, and offseason.

In past discussions, we have used our “Relative Performance Measure” (RPM) as the main talking point in the discussion. If you have been following some of our “schedule analysis ” articles this season, you know we have been looking at teams’ records vs. winning and losing teams.

So, we are going to throw some new definitions and tables at you so you are better armed with more talking points when you get into one of those “who has the toughest division” talks.

Some people will always fall back to win-loss records and that will be their sole basis for which division they believe to be the toughest. By this measure, the AFC South has the best win–loss percentage right now. But in six of the eight divisions all teams are at or above .500, and the chart below does not really make the AFC South stand out to us.

This season, we have been looking at teams’ schedules and measuring what we dub “quality wins” and “bad losses.” By our definition, a quality win is a win over an opponent with a .500 or better record, and a bad loss is a loss to a team with a sub-.500 record.

When we look at how divisions have performed by this measure, it paints quite a different picture.

The AFC North has a remarkable 10-0 record by this measure. Even though the division has the Browns with a 1-7 overall record, the Browns still do not have a “bad loss” by our definition. Here is their season record to demonstrate the point. They have no quality wins or bad losses. All seven losses came against teams with .500 or better records while their lone win was over a team with a sub-.500 record.


What we found even more remarkable than the AFC North’s 10-0 record was seeing the AFC West with the second-best Quality Win percentage. This division, with a combined record four games under .500 at 14-18, only has one bad loss and six quality wins, which is quite remarkable.

Granted, most of the quality wins belong to the Broncos (4), but it is still pretty impressive that the Broncos on their own have as many quality wins as the entire NFC East, a division frequently touted as the toughest in football.

There has been a great deal of talk about how weak some of the schedules have been so far for teams in the NFC East, but a look at our charts drove the point home. We love digging into numbers to get insights that traditional win-loss records do not provide.  In fact, that is why we still look at teams and divisions with our RPM stat which provides a different angle than traditional win-loss record stats.

The RPM measure gives yet another view of which division is the toughest, and this view, quite frankly, is the one that probably agrees more with conventional wisdom. By the RPM measure, the AFC East is the strongest division by a pretty good margin, followed by the NFC East.

After these two divisions, there is a sizable drop in RPM to the three next divisions: the AFC North, the AFC South, and the NFC South, whose RPM measures are somewhat close to each other. 

(These charts and others related to our 2009 schedule analysis work are available here on our site. More information on the PossessionPoints Relative Performance Measure RPM can be found in the BleacherReport Article NFL Week 2 Performance Rankings)