It’s been one of the most hotly contested questions of this ever-so-intriguing NFL season: Is the league’s best division the NFC East or the NFC South?
You’re about to find out.
What a season it’s been for the National Football League.
Following Tom Brady’s monumental season-ending injury in Week One, the downfall of the San Diego Chargers (a team that many prognosticators had winning it all this year – they must feel pretty stupid right about now), and the emergence of the Tennessee Titans (yes, the Tennessee Titans) as the team sporting the AFC’s best record with two weeks remaining, the NFC has suddenly became the NFL’s powerhouse conference.
What a dramatic role reversal from two or three years ago, when everyone just assumed that a Colts/Bears Super Bowl would be a lopsided affair (and how right they were!), or that the Patriots were a lock to be hoisting the Lombardi Trophy the first weekend of February.
That, my friends, is no longer the case.
The NFC now boasts the stronger teams and the marquee matchups, after years of being deemed the ugly, red-headed stepsister of its mighty counterpart, and its Super Bowl representative will likely come from one of two divisions: the NFC East or the NFC South (no offense Cardinals/Vikings fans), which leads us to the $64,000 Question.
Which is the best?
First of all, if we want to make this argument based solely on which division has the highest grand total of wins, the South wins by one (36-to-35), and that’s only because of the infamous Eagles tie with the lowly Cincinnati Bengals, a game that most view as a loss for the Eagles.
But, there’s a lot more to it than wins and losses.
When considering which division is the NFL’s elite, we should probably focus on the top three teams in each division, discounting the Washington Redskins and New Orleans Saints, both of which carry a subpar, disappointing record of 7-7.
The Redskins, after jumping out to a 6-2 start and looking like legit contenders in the NFC, have suddenly became the laughingstock of the NFL, coming off an embarrassing loss to the Bengals (a team that, despite its 2-11-1 record, has proven that it can hang tough with the big boys in the East, beating the ‘Skins, tying the Eagles, taking the Giants to OT, and losing to the Cowboys by single digits).
The ‘Skins have lost five of their last six, disappearing into irrelevance. This weekend, they’ll play the role of spoiler to the Eagles.
As for the Saints, they can’t seem to buy a win on the road. They have lost all but two of their eight games away from the Louisiana Superdome (one “away” game for the Saints was a game in London versus the Chargers, which they won 37-32).
Fortunately for them, they travel to the Motor City to face the Lions this weekend. On the flip side, the Saints are 5-1 at home. Nevertheless, like the ‘Skins (yet another team that they lost to on the road), the Saints’ playoff hopes are all but dead.
That leaves us with the Giants, Cowboys and Eagles in the Beastly East, and the Panthers, Bucs and Falcons in the Dirty South.
If we wanted to play the strength-of-schedule card, you would have to give that one to the East.
Their AFC opponents hail from the AFC North, a top-heavy division featuring two of the league’s elite defenses with the Steelers and Ravens, and a bottom-heavy one as well thanks to the Bengals and Browns.
The South got matched up with the AFC West this season, arguably the worst division in the NFL that is not the NFC West. Speaking of the NFC West, the South got paired up with those fine teams for interconference division play.
So, there’s really no question that the East teams have traveled a tougher road through 14 games.
Next, if we wanted to see which was the more competitive division, it would be hard to argue against the South.
The Carolina Panthers, the team that is poised to take this division crown, have a record of 3-2 within the division. If they lose to the Saints the final week of the season, they could end up winning the division with a .500 record versus their most intimate foes.
Another sign of how treacherous the South is: Home teams are a jaw-dropping 11-0 in interdivisional games. Translation: If you go play on the road in the NFC South, be prepared for a long flight back home.
The NFC East, despite having three really good teams, has not been as near as competitive.
For the greater part of the season, the Giants dominated divisional play, knocking out the Redskins, Cowboys and Eagles in convincing fashion. However, their last two losses have come to division foes in back-to-back weeks—the Eagles and then the Cowboys.
The Cowboys have also played extremely well within the division, losing only two games—one to the Redskins, a two-point game that they had a chance to win at the very end, and the other coming to the Giants, a game in which they were manhandled; however, they made up for that on Sunday night.
On the other end of the spectrum, the Eagles have not fared so well in division play. Their only win came two weeks ago versus the G-Men in the post-Plaxico Burress era.
With that being said, the Giants are the only East team that has clinched a winning interdivisional record, a major reason why they locked up the NFC East so early; the Cowboys have a shot at ending the season with a winning record inside of the Beastly East if they can beat the Eagles in the final week, while the Eagles could get to .500 if they win out by beating the Redskins (a likely 'W') and Cowboys (a fight for the final wild-card spot?).
The ultra-competitive NFC South, on the other hand, may not be clinched until the final week of the season.
So far, here’s what we have established: The South is the more cutthroat of the two divisions and has more wins, while the East teams have a much tougher strength of schedule. Another major factor the teams in the Beastly East have going for them: recognition.
Whether or not you want to admit it, the Cowboys, Eagles, and Giants get more media attention than just about any three teams in the National Football League. The Cowboys boast the title of “America’s Team,” and are ESPN’s favorite topic to discuss, week-in-and-week-out (hence Ed Werder residing at Texas Stadium!).
On a similar note, the Eagles seem to be a glutton for drama, and Sal Paolantonio seems to always be reporting live from Philly. Perhaps the Giants are the only team of the bunch that deserves this kind of recognition, by virtue of being the defending Super Bowl champs.
If the Cowboys, Eagles, or even Redskins won the Super Bowl, ESPN would have nothing else to talk about for an entire year!
Unlike the teams that make up the NFC South, all four teams in the East are BIG MARKET teams—New York City, Washington DC, Philadelphia, Dallas (or the whole state of Texas, whichever way you want to look at it).
All four are major, metropolitan areas and their teams are able to reach out and create huge fan bases. As a matter of fact, the quadruplet of teams in the NFC East have four of the largest fan bases in the NFL, along with the Steelers, Packers, and bandwagon Patriots fans. Ever wonder why there’s a prime-time, nationally televised matchup featuring two NFC East rivals every single week (or at least it seems like that)?
The South, on the contrary, doesn’t have teams from grand metropolises. None of the four cities representing this division—Charlotte, Tampa, Atlanta, New Orleans—can be found in the top 10 on the list of the most populated cities in the United States.
Charlotte’s the closest thing at No. 19. Sadly, these four teams often get overlooked because not a single one is a “big-market team.” After all, an NFC South team has made it to the NFC Championship Game five of the last six years (last season’s Giants/Packers matchup being the only exception).
On top of that, all four teams have been in the mix somewhere in that six-year stretch, and a team from the South is likely to go to the NFC title game again this season.
So, now the moment of truth: Exactly which division reigns supreme over all others? It’s already been established that the NFC’s Super Bowl candidate will probably hail from either the Beastly East or the Dirty South, and I would bet money that two teams from each division will end up making the playoffs (don’t ask me which four teams it will be—that is wide open for debate!).
The NFC has been no stranger to headline games in 2008, so why not let this argument be settled on the gridiron, under the bright lights on prime-time television with John Madden and Al Michaels calling the show?
That’s right–Sunday night’s matchup between the Giants and Panthers, the top teams in their respective divisions, is perhaps the most highly anticipated game of the season, and it’s only fitting that the winner gets home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs, as well as all the marbles in the head-scratching, brain-busting "which-is-the-best-division-in-the-NFL" sweepstakes.
Until then, let the debating rage on!