The NFL landscape changed in 2002; how the divisions stack up since then may surprise you
When the Houston Texans joined the NFL as an expansion franchise in 2002, the league took the opportunity to reshape the AFC and NFC into four divisions instead of three while keeping rivalries alive and some geographic integrity intact.
The league sent the Seahawks from the AFC West to NFC West, among other changes. Overall the realignment provided nice and even lines, allowing four division winners and two wild card teams in each conference into the playoffs. There’s a possibility that the NFL playoffs expand with another wild card team in the coming years, but we’re now in the 15th season since the realignment. There’s now a lot of history to reflect on to see how the divisions stack up.
(Note: If you’re not interested in the details of the methodology, just skip down to the rankings below, starting with 8 down to 1.)
The final rankings below reflect the order of finish in “Division Power Points.” I attempted to account for playoffs successes (and failures) and the regular season equally by tabulating the collective division record in the 2002-15 seasons (14 years), while leaving out 2016 records since the season is only partially completed.
In order to reflect the playoffs in the, a division earned 15 points when one of its teams won the Super Bowl, 10 points for a conference championship, 7 points for a divisional round win, 5 points for a wild card round win and 3 points for a team earning a wild card round berth.
Because 14 seasons times 15 points (the Super Bowl award) equals 210, that number was designated as the score given to the winningest regular season division since the realignment. The second winningest division earned 15 points fewer (195) and down the line to 120 for the division with the fewest combined wins. (Ties were omitted.)
The playoffs points grid (above) is more interesting than the regular-season grid, which you can view by clicking here. Before we get to the ranks and observations, thanks to Pro Football Reference for making all this information so accessible.
8. NFC North (DPP score: 228)
Regular-season record points: 120 (437-457 record) Playoff points: 108
We begin with a surprise. The NFC North finished second-to-last in regular-season scoring and dead last in playoffs scoring. The main drag on the regular-season scoring was the Detroit Lions, who’ve lost 10 games in all but four years and suffered through that famously horrific 0-16 campaign in 2008.
Overall the Packers have been strong since 2002, providing the division with its only Super Bowl title in 2010 (all divisions have won at least one Super Bowl), but the Pack has disappointed in the playoffs since then. The Bears and Vikings have seen ups and downs and combined for five playoff wins over the span, two of them coming just before Rex Grossman quarterbacked Chicago in a rainy Super Bowl against Peyton Manning and the Colts.
7. AFC West (DPP Score: 258)
Regular-season record points: 135 (442-454 record) Playoff points: 123
The Oakland Raiders have finally come back around after dragging down the division for a decade-plus after the Rich Gannon-led squad led the team to Super Bowl XXXVII. But it’s not just on the Raiders -- their division-mate Kansas City Chiefs and San Diego Chargers have had some very lean years since 2002, while the Denver Broncos have buoyed the AFC West, thanks in large part to the recent seasons with the now-retired Peyton Manning and pass rushing maestro Von Miller.
The AFC West was actually the last of the divisions to secure a championship with the Broncos’ victory over the Panthers in Super Bowl 50. After the NFC North, no division has performed worse in the playoffs than the AFC West; in fact in seven of the 14 seasons, no AFC West team won a single postseason game. Without the Broncos’ recent resurgence, the AFC West likely would have finished last.
6. AFC South (DPP Score: 286)
Regular-season record points: 150 (443-453 record) Playoff points: 136
Before diving into the numbers, I had assumed the AFC South would come up last but then recalled all those monster Colts seasons when The Sheriff ruled Indianapolis. Still, the Colts won only one championship as the Titans (12 wins in 2003 and 13 in 2008), Jaguars (12 wins in 2005) and Texans (12 wins in 2012) have mostly floundered in mediocrity with some successful seasons mixed in.
Also Andrew Luck helped deliver the Colts to the three 11-5 win seasons since his arrival in 2012 and three postseason appearances, plus three playoff victories. Basically, the Colts almost single-handedly lifted the AFC to sixth place, but mediocrity has again taken hold of the Colts and the division as a whole.
Getty ImagesGetty Images
5. NFC West (DPP Score: 294)
Regular-season record points: 105 (419-477) Playoffs points: 189
NFC West teams had by far the worst aggregate regular-season record, dragged down by some brutal Rams seasons and plenty of 7-9 bull****, rocky seasons in San Francisco and in Seattle and Arizona as well. The NFC West managed to leap into the middle of the pack thanks in large part to the Legion of Boom, Russell Wilson, Pete Carroll and Marshawn Lynch-led Seahawks and their shutdown defense from 2012 to present.
But remember the San Francisco 49ers had a nice run under Jim Harbaugh, contributing a big chunk of wins and playoff points when the lights went out at Super Bowl XLVII, plus the Cardinals took the Steelers to the brink in Super Bowl XLIII. So there’s been contributions across the board, except from the Rams, now of Los Angeles, who are still searching for their first playoff appearance since 2004 (and first winning season since 2003).
Getty ImagesGetty Images
4. NFC East (DPP Score: 329)
Regular-season record points: 165 (445-450 record) Playoff points: 164
The NFC East earned its spot in the upper half of divisions with a group effort -- a lot of strong Eagles seasons, division-wide avoidance of sustained dreadfulness and the New York Giants' two epic Super Bowl runs culminating with victories over the favored New England Patriots.
The first of the four consecutive Eagles NFC Championship game appearances precedes the realignment, but the sole Super Bowl appearance in XXXIX is included, as well as their more unexpected NFC Championship trip in 2008 when the Cardinals prevailed. Neither the Cowboys nor Redskins really helped or harmed the NFC East's standing much. The division's windfalls came courtesy the Giants in 2007 and 2011, when they racked up a combined 80 playoff points, with many of those victories coming on the road.
Getty ImagesGetty Images
3. NFC South: (DPP Score: 354)
Regular-season record points: 180 (453-431 record) Playoff points: 174
This one was the most surprising. The NFC South produced a new division winner every single season from 2002-13. Then the Panthers finally captured the division title in back-to-back years in 2014 and made it a trifecta in 2015. In other words, the division has seen a lot of parity within itself, with highs and lows from the Saints, Panthers, Falcons and also the Buccaneers -- mostly lows in Tampa Bay, but remember they claimed the first Super Bowl title post-realignment on the strength of a potent defense under head coach John Gruden.
The Sean Payton and Drew Brees-era Saints added a second Super Bowl title to the NFC South showcase with a commanding win over the Colts in 2009, while the Falcons have mostly been competitive throughout, owing to the Michael Vick and Matt Ryan years (a pair of 13-win seasons).
Rob Tringali/Sportschrome/Getty Images
2. AFC North (DPP Score: 417)
Regular-season record points: 195 (458-435 record) Playoff points: 222
Perhaps the final small surprise is that the AFC North didn’t finish first given the top-to-near-bottom strength of the division with the Steelers, Ravens and Bengals. The division did lead the way in playoff points, though, powered by the Steelers’ and Ravens’ Super Bowl runs in 2005, 2008 and 2012. And despite their five consecutive wild card round failures, the Bengals did contribute some points by earning playoff berths.
And then there’s the Browns. Each division has its ugly duckling(s) but Cleveland’s prolonged downturn put a heavy drag on the division’s regular-season record. The AFC North tied with the top division (we’re almost there) with three Super Bowl titles. On to the champion ...
Getty ImagesGetty Images
1. AFC East (DPP Score: 424)
Regular-season record points: 210 (462-434 record) Playoff points: 214
The dominance for the Bill Belichick-Tom Brady era of New England Patriots thrust the AFC East past the AFC North by a narrow margin. Also keep in mind the figures considered didn’t include the Patriots’ 2001 (January 2002) Super Bowl, which occurred just prior to realignment. The Patriots didn’t do it alone, though.
The Miami Dolphins and Buffalo Bills didn’t help much as the Bills are still mired in the longest postseason drought in the entire league, having failed to reach the dance since 1999. But the New York Jets have won at least one playoff game under three separate coaches (Herm Edwards, Eric Mangini, Rex Ryan) and twice made wild card runs to the AFC Championship game thanks to a strong defense and just enough offense with a young Mark Sanchez.
Still, the story here is the Patriots’ dominance. They have won the division 12 times out of 14 since the realignment, the exceptions coming in 2002 (Jets) and 2008 (Dolphins, when Brady tore his ACL in Week 1 but managed 11-5 with Matt Cassel). Five conference championships, three Super Bowl titles and a ton of regular-season wins (and counting), combined with some Jets successes, provided the decisive blow to the AFC North.