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The NFL’s Worst Divisions Since Realignment, Ranked

The futility of the NFC East got us thinking: Is it the worst division since the league went to its current structure in 2002?

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Welcome to The Ringer’s weekly NFL rankings, where we’ll break down the good, the bad, and the absurd of the 2019 season. Every Tuesday, we’ll have a ranking of the moments, players, or story lines that are driving the conversation around the league. This week, we’re exploring the 2019 NFC East’s place in the all-time futility discussion.

Washington is still alive for the NFL playoffs. Yes, this is an indictment of several news outlets, including us here at The Ringer, which mistakenly wrote them out of the postseason after they fell to 1-9 in Week 11. But it takes a special kind of terrible division to keep a nine-loss team alive for the playoffs this late in the season.

Since we published that exit interview, Washington has won two games in a row, essentially ending the Lions’ and Panthers’ seasons in consecutive weeks. The teams above Washington in the NFC East have not had the same luck: The Cowboys have lost two straight games and now narrowly sit atop the division at 6-6, while the Eagles have fallen to 5-7 after losing three consecutive games. No one wants to win this division, but someone has to.

The 2019 NFC East likely won’t end up as the worst division in recent memory. But it got us thinking: Which was the worst one we can recall? Below is a ranking of the 10 most terrible divisions dating back to realignment in 2002. Most were won by nine- and eight-win teams, while a few saw sub.-500 teams represent them in the postseason. But a quick word of warning about writing those lackluster division winners off: Most of these regular-season also-rans played like anything but also-rans once January hit.

10. 2004 NFC West

Seahawks, 9-7 (winner)
Rams, 8-8
Cardinals, 6-10
49ers, 2-14

This division sent two teams to the playoffs: the Seahawks and Rams. So why is it here? Well, the teams were absolutely dreadful when they weren’t playing against each other. The 2004 NFC West teams went 13-27 with a negative-306 point differential in out-of-division games. The 2-14 49ers lost all 10 non-divisional games and were outscored by 130 points in those contests.

Look at the records of division winners throughout the NFL that year. The Steelers won 15 games, the Patriots won 14, and three others won at least 12. Meanwhile, the Seahawks won just nine. Seattle lost its first playoff game to the 8-8 St. Louis Rams, who snuck in as a wild card thanks to a down year for the NFC. The Rams were then stomped the next week by the Atlanta Falcons, 47-17. The Seahawks made the Super Bowl the next season, but you’ll notice a trend on this list when it comes to the NFC West.

9. 2013 NFC North

Packers, 8-7-1 (winner)
Bears, 8-8
Lions, 7-9
Vikings, 5-10-1

A tie is considered the pinnacle of football ineptitude. We logically understand that a loss is worse than a tie, but there’s something so comical about a draw—it’s as if no one wanted to win—that we can’t help but laugh. So it’s fitting that the 2013 NFC North was essentially won on a tie.

The Green Bay Packers finished 8-7-1 that season, with the draw coming in Week 12 against the last-place Vikings. Normally, an 8-7-1 record won’t get you much besides a draft pick in the teens, but with the Bears finishing 8-8, that tie made all the difference in crowning a division champ. The Packers did have a decent excuse: They started Seneca Wallace, Matty Flynn, and Scott Tolzien at points that season as Aaron Rodgers dealt with a shoulder injury. The other teams in the NFC North had no such cover. Yes, the Bears started Josh McCown for five games, but they won three of those. The 7-9 Lions—the only team in the division to finish 2013 with a positive point differential—got a full season from Matthew Stafford, but lost six of their final seven games, including a Week 17 matchup against the Vikings. Meanwhile, Minnesota started Matt Cassel for six games—and as the 11-win 2008 Patriots proved, starting Cassel will automatically prevent a team from making the postseason, no matter the record.

8. 2019 NFC East

Cowboys, 6-6
Eagles, 5-7
Washington, 3-9
Giants, 2-10

Results TBD, but this year’s NFC East looks mediocre enough to easily claim a spot on this list. Through 13 weeks, the 6-6 Cowboys are the leaders; they haven’t beaten a team with a winning record this season. The 5-7 Eagles had a chance to seize control of the division on Sunday, but lost to the Dolphins. The hottest NFC East team is Washington, which has won two straight and is still technically alive for the postseason despite starting 1-9. (Again, sorry about that.) At least we don’t have to worry about the Giants anymore.

7. 2007 AFC East

Patriots, 16-0 (winner)
Bills, 7-9
Jets, 4-12
Dolphins, 1-15

If a team finishes 16-0 in the regular season, does it mean its division was good or bad? The Patriots have skewed the AFC East’s out-of-division record during the past two decades, which makes it hard to place any single season in this ranking. But not fitting the AFC East in here somewhere feels criminal.

It won’t surprise you, but the Patriots have had a positive point differential every year since 2001. The same can’t be said of their division mates—all three were outscored for the season in 2018, 2017, 2013, 2012, and 2007. The last season on the list, the one the Patriots tore through until running into the Giants’ pass rush in Super Bowl XLII, seems like a logical candidate for this exercise. The 2007 AFC East included the 7-9 Bills (outscored by 102 points), the 4-12 Jets (87), and the 1-15 Dolphins (170). The Patriots feasted, winning their six divisional matchups by an average of 25.5 points, highlighted by a 56-10 Week 11 stomping of Buffalo that was inexplicably flexed into Sunday Night Football. The division was so terrible that the Patriots could have gone winless against the Bills, Jets, and Dolphins and still won the AFC East title. The non–New England AFC East’s woes this century have been somewhat overstated (the Jets were legitimately good at the beginning of the decade, and the Dolphins have been competitive in spurts—particularly against the Pats), but when those three teams have all been bad, they’ve been manna from heaven for Brady and Belichick.

6. 2008 AFC West

Chargers, 8-8 (winner)
Broncos, 8-8
Raiders, 5-11
Chiefs, 2-14

This division was so bad that it changed how the NFL draft works. Before 2010, picks one through 30 were slotted based on regular-season record, and postseason results mattered for only the two Super Bowl teams. So you ended up with a situation like the Chargers, winners of the 2008 AFC West title at 8-8, picking at no. 16 in April 2009 while the team they beat in wild-card round, the 12-4 Colts, picked at no. 27. This also meant the Chargers had better draft position than several teams that missed the playoffs altogether, like the 11-5 Patriots and 9-7 Bears. The NFL changed the rules that offseason, and now the first 20 picks are held by non-playoff participants.

The Chargers—who won the division thanks to a tiebreaker against the 8-8 Broncos—became the first team since 1985 to win their division without a winning record. They started 4-8 and were never above .500 at any point in the season until after that January win against the Colts. Sounds like a typical Chargers season to me.

5. 2016 AFC South

Texans, 9-7 (winner)
Titans, 9-7
Colts, 8-8
Jaguars, 3-13

The final standings—two 9-7 teams and one 8-8 squad—don’t make this one look as bad, but at that time, the AFC South was the subject of much ridicule. After Week 13, no team in this division had a winning record. The ultimate winner, Houston, was outscored by 49 points on the season, finished 29th in Football Outsiders DVOA, and started Brock Osweiler for 14 games. (To be fair, the alternative was Tom Savage, who started two.)

4. 2011 AFC West

Broncos, 8-8 (winner)
Chargers, 8-8
Raiders, 8-8
Chiefs, 7-9

Ah, yes, the Tim Tebow year. Just look at the passing yardage totals starting after the team’s Week 6 bye, when Tebow took over from Kyle Orton’s neckbeard. That’s a 69-yard performance (a figure Tebow certainly wouldn’t find nice) in a win against the Chiefs. The Broncos ranked second to last in passing yards that season, had a negative-81 point differential, and lost their final three regular-season games by a combined 48 points.

Of course, the 2011 Broncos beat the Steelers in one of the most shocking playoff wins of the century. But how did this 8-8 team running a prehistoric offense even get there? Well, it’s because the rest of its division seemed to want nothing to do with the postseason. The Raiders also finished 8-8 in what constitutes one of their best seasons of the decade, but lost four of their final five. The Chargers—also, you guessed it, 8-8—won four of their final five, but that was after losing six consecutive games in the middle of the season. The Chiefs finished 7-9 and beat the Broncos in Week 17, but they started Cassel as QB for nine games, and we’ve already established the football gods don’t take too kindly to that.

3. 2014 NFC South

Panthers, 7-8-1
Saints, 7-9
Falcons, 6-10
Buccaneers, 2-14

Up until 2014, the NFC South never had the same team win the division title in back-to-back years. So it makes complete sense that the team that would break that streak would have a losing record. The 7-8-1 Panthers won a division that’s in the discussion for worst ever. They couldn’t win much outside of it: Carolina went 3-6-1 against non–NFC South opponents that year. That’s slightly worse than the Saints, who went 4-6 outside of the division but much better than the Falcons (1-9) and Bucs (2-8). Every team in the division had a negative point differential for the year. The Panthers got into the playoffs only because they got (relatively) hot and won their last four regular-season games after losing their previous six.

Carolina embarrassed a Ryan Lindley–led Arizona team in the wild-card round. The next year, the Panthers went 15-1 and made the Super Bowl as Cam Newton won MVP. If you want proof that the past is not an indicator of future performance in the NFL, look no further than this team, which scaled a mountain of shit when no other NFC South team could.

2. 2008 NFC West

Cardinals, 9-7
49ers, 7-9
Seahawks, 4-12
Rams, 2-14

Yes, another one from 2008. This miserable division sent a team to the Super Bowl, but even that’s not enough to keep it off this list. The Arizona Cardinals—excuse me, the Buzzsaw Arizona Cardinals—won the NFC West that year with a 9-7 record. That’s not as bad as some of the other division winners here, but consider this: The Kurt Warner–led Cardinals went 6-0 against the Seahawks, 49ers, and Rams, which meant they went 3-7 against the rest of the league. As a whole, the four NFC West teams had a .250 winning percentage outside of the division.

The Cardinals outscored their regular-season opponents by one point—not on average, cumulatively—and gave up the fifth-most points in the league. In Week 16, they lost to the Cassel-led Pats by 40 points. (It somehow makes sense that Matt’s name keeps appearing here, doesn’t it?) That December blowout was the Cardinals’ fourth loss of at least 20 points on the season, which included a 56-35 shellacking at the hands of Brett Favre and the Jets. So naturally, this team almost won the Super Bowl. The Cardinals looked like a different team in January and rattled off wins against the Falcons, Panthers, and Eagles before losing to the Steelers in one of the great forgotten championship games of this century. That postseason birthed the legend of Larry Fitzgerald and solidified that of Warner, the perpetual castoff who dragged two otherwise downtrodden teams to contender status.

The Cardinals went 10-6 the next season, won an OT classic against the Packers, and lost to the eventual champion Saints. Kurt Warner retired after that season and was enshrined in the Hall of Fame a few years later, but it’s likely he never makes his way to Canton without the magically mediocre run of 2008.

1. 2010 NFC West

Seahawks, 7-9
Rams, 7-9
49ers, 6-10
Cardinals, 5-11

This division takes top billing for doing what was previously unthinkable: sending a team with a losing record to the playoffs. With a Week 17 win against the Rams, the 7-9 Seahawks became the first sub.-500 team to play in the postseason (not counting strike-shortened years). This was made possible thanks to the ineptitude of their fellow NFC West teams. Not a single team finished with a point differential better than negative-39, and the division went 13-27 against teams outside of it. Of course, this was nothing new for the division: In each season between 2004 and 2010, the NFC West had either the worst cumulative out-of-division record or was tied for it.

Things, of course, changed rather quickly for the division, starting with the Seahawks’ first playoff game that postseason. (You probably remember it.) The NFC West soon morphed into something much different than it was in the previous decade: a juggernaut. Seattle would go on to field the most dominant defense of the decade a few years later, win one Super Bowl, and narrowly lose another. (You probably remember that one, too.) Jim Harbaugh revived the 49ers and brought them to the brink of a Super Bowl. Bruce Arians and the Cardinals had a mostly respectable early decade, which peaked with an NFC championship game appearance after the 2015 season. While it took the Rams a little bit longer, they eventually made a Super Bowl last season. I guess all those mediocre seasons are a great way to stockpile talent for your next great contender.