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In Defense of the AFC East

Don't besmirch my division.

"Did you hear someone say this division isn't tough?"
"Did you hear someone say this division isn't tough?"
Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

The strength of the wolf is in the pack.  Don't be messin' with my pack.

I've let my feelings be known for many years that I like a strong division.  As a martial artist, I look at division foes as sparring partners and the better THEY are, the better WE are.  It's as simple as that.  I know a couple guys that competed in sparring at nationals, and they always wanted to face the best guys they could to prepare them along the way.  You don't see Olympic athletes settle for fighting well at the any competitor event at the County Fair.  They want to face the best national and international competition they can to show that they truly are the best.  Football really is no different.  To be the best, you need to face the best, and the competition teams face most often is within their own divisions.

That's why when people say things like, "The Patriots have it easy with such a weak division.", or call us, "The AFC Least", it rankles my feathers a bit.  I mean it's true the Patriots win the division quite a bit (ten times since 2002), and even when they don't win, they lose on a tie breaker (twice since 2002).  Is it really due to a poor division that the Patriots win so much?  I decided to find out.  Now in deciding how far back to look, I opted to go back to the 2002 season which was the first season that the current division structure was in place.  We had finally kicked the Colts out of the division and the AFC East finally had teams that were just in the East.  The sun was shining, the birds were singing, and all was right once again in the universe.  Also in dealing with ties, I awarded a half win to a team that had a tie.  Not that it mattered as only 4 games out of 192 total ended in a tie.

Winning isn't everything, it's the ONLY thing.

Now the Patriots win a lot.  In business/marketing speak, you might call it one of their core competencies.  It is a stupid expression, and I hate business/marketing speak.  Just like thinking outside the box.  What idiot ever let himself get stuck thinking in a box?  Probably just the guy who thought of that stupid expression himself.  Anyway, the Patriots have won more than every other team over that period of time; 14 more wins than their next closest competition - a team that once was in the AFC East.  Coincidence?  I think not!

Team Total Wins Win %
Patriots 147 76.6%
Colts 133 69.3%
Steelers 121.5 63.3%
Packers 118.5 61.7%
Eagles 113.5 59.1%
Chargers 113 58.9%
Ravens 112 58.3%
Broncos 112 58.3%
Saints 108 56.3%
Seahawks 105 54.7%
Falcons 104.5 54.4%
Giants 104 54.2%
Cowboys 102 53.1%
Bears 100 52.1%
Titans 99 51.6%
Panthers 98 51.0%
Jets 94 49.0%
Bengals 92.5 48.2%
Vikings 92.5 48.2%
49ers 92.5 48.2%
Chiefs 87 45.3%
Dolphins 85 44.3%
Buccaneers 85 44.3%
Jaguars 82 42.7%
Cardinals 80 41.7%
Texans 79 41.1%
Redskins 78 40.6%
Bills 77 40.1%
Rams 70.5 36.7%
Browns 65 33.9%
Raiders 65 33.9%
Lions 58 30.2%

How do you define the strength of a division?

Now one nationally published talking head pointed out that if you remove the Patriots, the rest of the division, on average, doesn't have a winning percentage.  He checked.  Really, that was a brilliant piece of detective work, but it really lacked something, and that something is context.  How do the other divisions fair by comparison?  Does anyone care to know?  I found out, but there's a little more going on here.  It's pretty easy to pick on the Patriots because they DO win the AFC East so often.  Is that unusual?  Just look at this:

Division Division Leader Changes Teams Winning the Division

The Beast of the East

There are certainly divisions where the division is seemingly up for grabs every single season, like the NFC South and the NFC East, but does that make them a stronger division?  I mean the AFC and NFC West divisions changed constantly over that period of time, but they were largely pushovers as we'll see later.  To answer these questions, I'm going to show you first the win percentages of the different divisions over this 12 year period:

Division Win %
AFC EAST 52.5%
NFC EAST 51.8%
AFC WEST 49.1%
NFC WEST 45.3%

One thing of note here is how close the win percentage is.  All but two divisions are within two percentage points of 50% - the NFL's measure for parity.  The AFC East is slightly outside that at 2.5% above, and the NFC West is an appalling 4.7% below it.  With the current strength of the NFC West teams, it's sometimes easy to forget it wasn't always that way.  As far as the "any team can win it" thing that we just looked at, the NFC East and NFC South winning percentages indicate it might be a factor, but the AFC West and NFC West blow that idea out of the water.  So while it's true that the AFC East does win more than every other division, how much of that is "The Patriots Factor" and how can we find out?

We can simply remove the Patriots and check the rest of the teams in the division, but against what should we compare them?  What I chose to do is simply sum up the wins for each division year by year and subtract the team with the most wins (the division champion) from the discussion.  Keep in mind, the Patriots didn't always win the division, but they always had as many wins as the division winner, so it still effectively removes the Patriots and places the division on a level playing field with the rest of the divisions.  After all, we already showed that the Patriots win more than any other team over this time period.  So here is the winning percentage counting only the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th placed teams:

Division Win % of non-division winners
NFC EAST 45.92%
AFC EAST 44.44%
NFC SOUTH 44.36%
AFC NORTH 44.18%
AFC SOUTH 43.23%
AFC WEST 41.32%
NFC NORTH 40.36%
NFC WEST 38.45%

What we see here is almost the same order of the previous table.  The AFC East is in second place ahead of the NFC South by 0.08%, and behind a very strong NFC East.  The rest of the AFC is firmly sandwiched in the middle between the best and worst of the NFC.  Notice, too, that not a single division has a win percentage above 50% when you remove the division winner.  This is the context that a certain writer failed to provide.  Within that context, the AFC East is the strongest division within the conference, and second only to the strongest division in the NFC.  In both conferences, the East is the Beast!

My little brother can beat up your little brother!

One last thing, before I end this.  I decided to look at the weakest link in the division as well.  In some divisions, the division bully becomes the weak link the next year and then works his way back up to bully status.  In some divisions, the worst team usually stays the worst team.  I don't need to point them out as they've suffered enough, but I went through year by year and found the the worst team of each division and their average win percentages:

Division Win % of the worst team
AFC EAST 33.33%
NFC EAST 33.33%
NFC SOUTH 29.17%
AFC SOUTH 28.13%
AFC NORTH 27.08%
AFC WEST 26.56%
NFC NORTH 24.74%
NFC WEST 23.44%

So yeah, my little brother really COULD beat up your little brother.  Some years, he'd own your sorry little division if he wasn't stuck here in the AFC East with the big boys.  Notice anything about the table?  As in it is in the EXACT same order as the division win percentages?  Only two divisions have little siblings that won a third of their games, and we're one of them - along with the other East team - again!  This kind of points to my first analogy that you are only as strong as your competition and in this case, baby brothers learn to fight back against their older, stronger siblings.  In some divisions, they even overtake them.

I like it when my division is strong, as it strengthens my team.  As far as the NFL is concerned, my division is already stronger than yours, and I have the numbers to prove it.  The Beast is in the East, baby.