The Texans, Tennessee Titans, Indianapolis Colts and Jacksonville Jaguars have all struggled over the past few years, which begs the question: Is the AFC South the worst division in recent NFL history? Let's compare it to every division of the past 15 years, since the NFL adopted the format of eight four-team divisions in 2002.
It would be easy to just look at which divisions had the fewest total wins, but that opens the door for one team to drag a whole division down. It can also penalize whichever division drew the league's strongest teams in the rotating schedule. For example, the AFC North is on pace to average just 5.6 wins per team this season -- it doesn't help that the Cleveland Browns haven't won a game yet, or that collectively the teams drew this year's best division, the NFC East, in interconference play.
In order to go beyond wins and losses and adjust for strength of schedule, we measured every division from the past 15 years using Football Outsiders' DVOA ratings. DVOA is Football Outsiders' proprietary Defense-adjusted Value Over Average metric, which looks at a team's performance on every play and adjusts based on situation and opponent, explained further here.?Instead of using simple average, we looked at the harmonic mean?of each team's rank in DVOA. That prevents one horrible team from having too much influence on the rating of the division as a whole. Teams are listed below with win-loss record and DVOA rank.
When looking at the worst divisions in the NFL since 2002, one division clearly stands out. The AFC South has been bad, but one division was much worse ... until Pete Carroll and Jim Harbaugh came along.
10. 2015 NFC East
It has been quite a turnaround for the NFC East, from one of the worst divisions in recent memory to the best division in the NFL this season. Last year, an "average" NFC East team would've ranked 21st in the league. This year, it would rank seventh. The lowest NFC East team in our ratings this year, the Giants, ranks higher (14th) than the best team did last year.
This was the year of Tebow Time. The Broncos won six straight games, five of them by a touchdown or less, then lost three straight only to sneak into the playoffs on a "best record in common games" tiebreaker. The mediocre win-loss records hide the fact that Denver, Kansas City and Oakland were each outscored by at least 74 points. San Diego outscored its opponents by 29 points. In the regular season, AFC West teams combined to go 14-6 in out-of-division games decided by a touchdown or less. They tacked on a 15th win in the playoffs, when the Broncos upset the Steelers on the first play of overtime.
The Bears won this division with a rookie Kyle Orton completing just 51.6 percent of his passes, thanks to the stellar defense that would take them to the Super Bowl a year later. Minnesota won a few close games, but mixed in four different losses by 20 points or more.
One of only two divisions in NFL history in which every team had a losing record, but the teams were mediocre, not horrible. All four teams were outscored by opponents over the course of the season, although only Tampa Bay was outscored by more than 40 points. Carolina won four straight games at the end of the regular season to go from 3-8-1 to a division title.
Of course, 2016 is far from the first time we've seen a very weak AFC South. In fact, if we expanded this list to 15 teams, the AFC South would hold five spots -- one for every year since 2012.
As bad as the AFC South has been in recent years, four of the five bottom spots on this list belong to the NFC West. In 2004, the NFC West was the worst division in a markedly inferior conference. Ten of the top 11 teams in Football Outsiders' DVOA ratings were AFC squads. Philadelphia, which eventually went to the Super Bowl, was the only NFC team to break into the top 10. Only four teams in the NFC had winning records, so St. Louis ended up as a wild card despite six losses of 17 points or more. The 2004 Rams have the worst DVOA ever for a playoff team.
This division gets a little asterisk because the Cardinals got hot in the playoffs and came within 35 seconds of winning the Super Bowl. On the other hand, Arizona was 3-7 outside the division during the regular season. The Cardinals lost four games by three or more touchdowns, including a 47-7 loss to the Patriots -- and not Tom Brady and the Patriots, but Matt Cassel and the Patriots. San Francisco's turbulent season brought us Mike Singletary's famous "can't win with him" media conference, while the cellar-dwelling Rams were outscored by more than two touchdowns per game.
These teams have stumbled to enough close wins that it is unlikely the AFC South champion will have a losing record. It only happens in 3.1 percent of our season simulations this week.?However, there's still a good chance (34.9 percent) that the division champion is just 8-8.
Another bad year for the NFC West. The win-loss records are better than the DVOA ranks, in part because the teams played four of the six easiest schedules in the league. And yet, the four still combined to go 6-18 in non-division games decided by more than 10 points. Arizona added four more losses by five points or less -- their opponents were who they thought they were, but they let them off the hook.
The worst division of the past 15 years is the first division in NFL history when no team managed to go at least 8-8. In Pete Carroll's first year as head coach, the Seahawks went to the playoffs despite being outscored by 97 points on the season. At midseason, Seattle lost consecutive games by 33-3 and then 41-7. In December, the Seahawks lost three straight games by two touchdowns or more before winning a de facto play-in game against St. Louis in Week 17. San Francisco started the season 0-5 and went 2-8 outside the division. Arizona lost seven straight at midseason using three different quarterbacks, including Max Hall, an undrafted rookie from BYU who never played in the NFL again.