If a comatose football fan awoke today and saw the NFL standings, he wouldn’t understand what a North or South division was. And he wouldn’t know who or what Houston Texans were. Then again, even conscious people make that mistake.
It wasn’t too long ago that the NFL had three divisions in each conference, with three division winners, and three wild card teams going to the playoffs. However, in ensuing years, expansion teams were added which made the divisions uneven.
The AFC Central fielded as many as six teams from 1999-2001. So when the Texans joined the league in 2002, it was decided to even things up in the divisions…number of teams wise, not necessarily competition.
It was also a chance to correct some of those geographical errors such as the Atlanta Falcons and Carolina Panthers in the NFC West and the Arizona Cardinals and Dallas Cowboys in the NFC East. However, old objections that plagued attempted realignment still surfaced, such as sustaining old rivalries.
That’s why those Cowboys remained in the NFC East. After all, what kind of a league would it be if fans in Philadelphia, Washington, and New York weren’t guaranteed a chance to boo them endlessly once a year?
Inevitably though, at least one team from each division would have to be moved for it to work. But to keep up those rivalries, the East and West basically stayed the same and the Central divisions became the Northern divisions with the less desired teams being exiled to the South division. How else can you explain how Miami plays in the AFC East and Indianapolis plays in the AFC South?
So now, here are the five teams who have benefited most from realignment…
The Packers clinched the first three NFC North titles and have had only one losing season. They also have had the benefit of playing the Vikings, Bears, and Lions twice a year. The Bears are the only team other than the Pack to clinch the division, but other than that, they have been inconsistent.
The Vikings have qualified for the playoffs once in that span and Detroit is the alpha-omega answer to its hockey team. Also, let’s not forget that because of realignment, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers went to the NFC South. When they were in the division, the battle of the Bays became a heated rivalry between Brett Favre and Warren Sapp. Ironically they both retired the same year…well, kind of.
Someone in the AFC North had to be named and because they’re the only team from that division who’s won the Super Bowl, it’s the Steelers. Why does an AFC North team have to be on this list? Remember, it used to have six teams. And those two teams that were contracted were the Jacksonville Jaguars and the Tennessee Titans, both of whom made the playoffs last year.
The Steelers haven’t clinched it every year, but the other two that have; Baltimore and Cincinnati both plummeted the seasons afterwards. Also, neither of those two teams were able to win a playoff game in those years.
3. The Entire NFC South
The NFC South is the only division to have a new winner every year. Not one division winner has even made the playoffs the next season. Tampa Bay has won it the most times with three, while the others have each captured it once, all after having missed the playoffs the season before. When picking a team to win the NFC South, it really is anyone’s division. Anyone’s except the one that was the division winner the year prior.
It seems so long ago but the Pats and Colts used to be in the same division and play each other twice a year. Of course, that was before Peyton Manning and Tom Brady became the two best quarterbacks in the league and became the biggest rivalry in football.
Since 2003, both have clinched their divisions every year. So why are the Patriots on this list and not the Colts? That’s because the division Indy was "sent" to has produced some challenging teams, while New England has remained in the AFC East, which has become one of if not the weakest division in the league. It’s so weak, that the Patriots, coming off a 16-0 season, have one of the league’s easiest schedules due to getting to play their divisional foes twice this year.
Of course, had the NFL been able to foresee the future of these teams they probably would have sent the Dolphins to the AFC South. Who wouldn’t want to see the Colts and Patriots play twice a year (which coincidentally usually happens since they often meet in the playoffs)?
Seattle used to be a laughing stock, playing in the cellar or near the cellar every season in the AFC West. They just seemed not able to compete with the Chiefs, Chargers, Broncos, and yes, even the Raiders. Then they switched not only divisions but conferences and have made the playoffs every season since 2003, including a Super Bowl appearance.
Not bad for a team that went 11 years without a playoff appearance in the AFC. Now, Seattle is a model of consistency, having the longest active playoff streak in the NFC and having won at least one playoff game every year the past three seasons. And that is thanks in large part of getting to play Arizona, San Francisco, and St. Louis twice a year.