The divisions in sports are usually geographic, and sometimes arbitrary. But there is no doubt that divisional opponents are oftentimes the key to victory. Living in a weak division can lead to unobstructed trips to the playoffs. Just ask the Arizona Cardinals or San Diego Chargers. However, get stuck in a death trap of talent and you may flounder in unimportance for a decade. Orioles fans know what this feels like.
So what is truly the best division in sports? The past few years it was probably the NFL's NFC East. All four teams were talented and solid. Three of the four could and would challenge for the conference title each year. The Redskins, meanwhile, were a good team stuck in a bad place, a la the Toronto Bluejays. Yet this seems to have passed, at least by what the first few weeks of the 2010 NFL season have shown us. I know, it is way too early to make season judgments but judging the strength of a division may be clear after three games. The NFC East is a bit down.
Who is even the best team here? The Eagles are looking good with Michael Vick under center but, since people are not counting mop-up duty against the Packers, he has yet to play against a good defense. Also, will the old Vick show up and ruin things? (passing accuracy-wise, not killing dogs-wise.) The other thing to consider is this Eagles defense is not as good as it has been in years past.
The Redskins are off to a poor start. Their lone win was an ugly, ugly performance. The best game they have played is an overtime loss to Houston. Washington's offensive skill players are all old and their defense is shoddy. I don't see a playoff birth in their future.
The Giants, it could be argued, are the worst team here. Their win came against what might be the worst team in football, the Carolina Panthers. Their two losses were awful: one blowout and one mistake-fest.
That leaves the 1-2 Cowboys. Are they even very good this year? Man, the whole division is down and it's only week 4.
So if the answer to our question is no longer the NFC East, what is it? A real important factor is what determines the best. Some people argue that top to bottom strength is key. A division is only as good as its worst team, the weakest link argument. If your worst team is very good, that says how good the division is as a whole. Others will argue that being top heavy is more important. If a division contains two or three of the best teams in the sport, that overshadows if the bottom couple teams are terrible. The top strength is key. The best division in sports is probably the one with a slight mixture of each side: a bunch of powerhouses with, perhaps, only one bad team.
The AFC East is certainly a possibility.
They may very well have three playoff teams. The Patriots' offense has clearly looked good week after week. The only question will be how far their defense can take them. Giving up 30 points to Buffalo is not a good sign for the future.
And yet, the Bills have played both the Patriots and Dolphins tough. I lean towards thinking that is because they are divisional rivals and know each other so well. Maybe it means Buffalo isn't as awful as people think. With a new quarterback breathing some life into their offense, who knows?
The Miami Dolphins have played three close games, coming out victorious in two. Perhaps Chad Henne and Brandon Marshall are building a rapport, as their most recent outing was their best. That is a good sign for the hopes of this team going forward.
The Jets are 2-1 as well, with both their wins coming against other AFC East teams. This is the problem we have critiquing this division: they have all played each other too much. We can't tell how they match up with the rest of the league. It seems like a division of three good teams, but perhaps it will only have one and they will beat up on each other in the process.
The other NFL division up for debate is the AFC South.
This is a good example of 'only as strong as your weakest link.' The Jaguars are clearly the worst team here. The Jags will probably be solid this season. Average to below average is what I would expect. The problem with naming the South as sports' best division is I'm not sure how above average anyone else will be.
The Titans looked unstoppable against the Raiders, beneficial against the Giants and then took a loss to what might be the AFC's best team, Pittsburgh. They showed they cannot count on a passing game, and when someone manages to slow down Chris Johnson (the Pittsburgh game), look what happens.
The Texans and Colts can both put up tons of offense. But the best division can't be run by teams that have no reliable defense. Houston gave up chunks of yardage in all of their games, even the victories. Meanwhile, Indianapolis only thrives when they have a nice lead and their d-line knows the other team is passing. Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis then tee off on the other team's QB. But otherwise, in a tight game, the defense is nothing to write home about.
I see the AFC South as football's new top dog, but not top enough to beat the other sports.
The NHL has their own 'weakest link' contender in form of the Pacific Division.
San Jose was the top seed in the conference for two years running. The Pacific also was home to two other playoff teams in the Coyotes and the Kings. What puts this division in the discussion however, is the strength of its bottom feeders. The "worst" team in the Pacific, the Dallas Stars, finished with 88 points. 88 points was good enough to make the playoffs in the Eastern Conference. With that much talent top to bottom, the Pacific has an argument. It would have helped their cause if one of their three playoff teams managed to win the Stanley Cup though.
The NBA's Northwest division had four separate teams win 50 games last year. The rest of the NBA combined only had eight. In addition, those four all made the playoffs, leaving only one of its five out. There is no question with how good the good teams in the Northwest can be.
Denver and Portland may have their best seasons behind them now, at least for the foreseeable future, and yet they should still both be in contention for 50 more wins next season. If Denver trades Carmelo Anthony prior to the '10-'11 campaign, that will change expectations, but for now, both these teams are very good.
Utah is even better and improving. With the addition of Al Jefferson, the Jazz should be one of the best teams in the West next year, along with their divisional foe, the Oklahoma City Thunder. The Thunder are very young and inexperienced, yet still made the playoffs last year and gave the Lakers all they could handle. After gaining valuable experience in the FIBA world championships, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook should come back even better, which is a scary thought considering Durant already won the scoring title last season. The Thunder will be a team to be reckoned with.
The problem, the Northwest's only problem, is Minnesota. This was the worst team in the West last year and will not be much better this year. Of course that will have something to do with playing those other four playoff squads, and yet, I don't see the Timberwolves being good in any division, at least for the next few years still.
The best division in sports shouldn't really contain the worst team in that conference. And yet, baseball's offer has a similar problem. MLB's AL East is a monster of a division with one flaw, but how bad is that flaw really? Let's start at the top.
Does the AL East have the best team in baseball? Check. In fact, for good measure, it also has the second best team in baseball. Does the AL East have the current world champion? Check. In fact, for even good(er?) measure is has the last three AL World Series participants. Does the AL East have depth? Check. Four of its five teams are above .500. The emergence of the Toronto Bluejays this season is really what puts the AL East above the rest. They were expected to be very, very bad this year. Yet, their offense is the best in the league and they have held their own, five games over .500 in late September.
Last question to clinch the title: Does the AL East not have the worst team in the AL? ...Check...Kind of. Here is where it gets sketchy. The Orioles are only a single game ahead of having the worst record in the league right now. And yet, since they switched managers, they have performed well in the AL, having a better record these past two months than any of their fellow East members. And are they really that bad or just stuck in the best division in sports? The Orioles are 62 and 95 right now. 48 of their 95 losses have come against AL East members though, roughly half their losses.
I am making a stand. The Baltimore Orioles are not as bad as their record indicates, and if they weren't in the AL East, they may actually compete on a regular basis. Therefore, after much examination, the best division in sports, taking the crown from the NFC East of the National Football League, is the AL East of Major League Baseball. Congratulations. But just a heads up, if the Timberwolves are good this season this may be up for debate again in 2011.