THE MYTH OF THE EASY AFC EAST: THE DEFINITIVE GUIDE

Andrew Brown
31 December 2018
dumpster fire

Since Bill Belichick took over as coach of the New England Patriots, the team has gone on an incredible run. As it stands right now they don't have a losing record against any team in the NFL. In fact outside of the Panthers (3-3), they have a winning record against every other team.

Now, one of the main arguments for this has been that the Patriots have benefited from playing in a weak division/conference. Being able to beat up on the lowly Bills, Dolphins and Jets has "padded" their record. Or "they wouldn't be as good if they were in the NFC." As someone who (obviously) loves the Patriots and (obviously) has too much time on their hands, I realized I was in the perfect position to research these claims. So I did. And I'm about to show you why the "Easy AFC East" narrative is a myth.


Patriots Win Percentage

The Patriots are a staggering 269 - 96 against the NFL since 2000, which equates to a 0.737 win percentage. So as a whole, the NFL has not done particularly well against the Pats. In fact, if the NFL vs the Patriots was an actual team, their win percentage (0.263) would be worse than the Cleveland Browns over the same time period (0.309 since 2000). Yes, the same Browns that won a combined 4 games over 3 entire seasons.

If we break it down by conference, it looks like this:

Conference Win - Loss Win Percentage
AFC 202 - 73 0.735
NFC 67 - 23 0.744

Even with a smaller sample size in the NFC the conference breakdowns are surprisingly close. So it's not like familiarity (or the lack thereof) creates any sort of advantage either way. Let's break it down even further, and look at the Patriots win percentage against each individual division.

Division W - L - T Win Percentage
AFC South 41 - 12 0.774
NFC South 17 - 5 0.773
NFC East 18 - 6 0.750
AFC East 92 - 31 0.748
AFC North 35 - 12 0.745
NFC North 17 - 6 0.739
NFC West 15 - 6 0.714
AFC West 34 - 18 0.654

A few things stand out.

  1. The AFC South has performed dismally against the Patriots, which even includes the Peyton Manning era Colts.
  2. The Patriots difficulty with the Broncos (10-9) is the main reason the AFC West is at the bottom of this list.
  3. The AFC East is smack dab in the middle of this list. Not nearly the cakewalk that the AFC South provides.
  4. The Patriots have more losses against AFC East teams than the entire NFC.

AFC East vs Everybody

This really only proves that the AFC East is just as bad as everyone else against the Patriots. But let's take it one step further. How has the rest of the AFC East performed vs other divisions since 2000?

Division W - L - T Win Percentage
NFC Central * 85 - 75 - 0 0.531
AFC East 689 - 627 - 0 0.524
AFC Central * 97 - 95 - 0 0.505
NFC East 658 - 652 - 2 0.502
AFC North 575 - 571 - 6 0.499
NFC South 606 - 608 - 2 0.498
AFC West 650 - 662 - 0 0.495
NFC North 567 - 580 - 5 0.492
AFC South 566 - 586 - 0 0.491
NFC West 603 - 640 - 5 0.483
* The Central divisions were only around for 2000 & 2001, before the NFL realignment.

Ok, this isn't really fair since we're including the Patriots in this and they've been otherworldly as we've already established. On the other hand, if we remove the Patriots from the results the AFC will plummet:

Division W - L - T Win Percentage
NFC Central * 85 - 75 - 0 0.531
AFC Central * 97 - 95 - 0 0.505
NFC East 658 - 652 - 2 0.502
AFC North 575 - 571 - 6 0.499
NFC South 606 - 608 - 2 0.498
AFC West 650 - 662 - 0 0.495
NFC North 567 - 580 - 5 0.492
AFC South 566 - 586 - 0 0.491
NFC West 603 - 640 - 5 0.483
AFC East 450 - 542 - 0 0.454
* The Central divisions were only around for 2000 & 2001, before the NFL realignment.

But again, this isn't fair to the AFC East. Of course you're going to look bad if you take away the best record from your division every year. And it just so happens that the Patriots have finished the season with the best record in the AFC East every year -- even when they don't win the division. So what happens when we remove every season's division winner from the equation?

Division W - L - T Win Percentage
NFC Central * 61 - 67 - 0 0.477
AFC East 450 - 542 - 0 0.454
AFC Central * 71 - 89 - 0 0.444
NFC East 436 - 554 - 2 0.440
NFC South 396 - 531 - 1 0.427
AFC North 368 - 491 - 5 0.426
AFC West 419 - 573 - 0 0.422
AFC South 362 - 502 - 0 0.419
NFC North 360 - 500 - 4 0.417
NFC West 381 - 544 - 3 0.411
* The Central divisions were only around for 2000 & 2001, before the NFL realignment.

Huh. The AFC East is back on top when you remove the best team from each division, which leads me to believe that the rest of the AFC East hasn't been "easy" by any stretch. What this shows is that in the 2nd - 4th spot in any division, the AFC East has the best record, regardless of who was in that spot.

But some claim that it's unfair to remove the division winner for each season, since that punishes teams that have a good year and win the division occasionally. They argue that the comparison should be removing the best teams from each division since 2000. So let's put that argument to the test and compare divisions when removing the best performing team.

Division W - L - T Win Percentage Best Team
NFC South 423 - 471 - 2 0.472 New Orleans Saints (183 - 137 - 0)
NFC East 468 - 523 - 1 0.472 Philadelphia Eagles (190 - 129 - 1)
AFC West 468 - 524 - 0 0.472 Denver Broncos (182 - 138 - 0)
NFC West 421 - 503 - 4 0.454 Seattle Seahawks (182 - 137 - 1)
AFC East 450 - 542 - 0 0.454 New England Patriots (239 - 85 - 0)
NFC North 370 - 459 - 3 0.445 Green Bay Packers (197 - 121 - 2)
AFC North 370 - 458 - 4 0.445 Pittsburgh Steelers (205 - 113 - 2)
AFC South 369 - 463 - 0 0.444 Indianapolis Colts (197 - 123 - 0)

So the AFC East isn't at the top anymore, but neither are they far and away the worst division in football in the Brady/Belichick era. Regardless how you run the numbers the AFC East is still not the easiest division, by a long shot.


Lack of Top Tier Quarterbacks

Yet another argument is that the best proof of a weak AFC East is that there haven't been any top tier Quarterbacks other than Brady in the division. This one is more subjective than some of the others, but I was still curious as to what the QB landscape has been since 2000, so I put together a basic comparison.

To make things as fair as possible I grabbed a list of the top 50 Quarterbacks ordered by Passer Rating, filtering by players who had played at least 16 games (to normalize the list a little bit for QBs who have played at least one full season of games). I realize that Passer Rating isn't a perfect system, but it gives us a baseline with which to judge each player, and there still hasn't been a clear successor to this rating yet. The results were... surprising, to say the least.

Here's the list grouped by division for the NFC. The number before each player is their overall rank in the top 50.

NFC
North (8) South (4) East (8) West (8)
2Aaron Rodgers 6Drew Brees 8Tony Romo 4Russell Wilson
28Matthew Stafford 12Matt Ryan 9Dak Prescott 13Jared Goff
31Daunte Culpepper 32Jameis Winston 11Kirk Cousins 17Kurt Warner
33Mitchell Trubisky 38Cam Newton 16Carson Wentz 23Colin Kaepernick
39Teddy Bridgewater 27Nick Foles 26Jeff Garcia
41Jay Cutler 29Robert Griffin 34Alex Smith
42Brett Favre 37Donovan McNabb 45Sam Bradford
44Shaun Hill 50Eli Manning 47Marc Bulger
32.5Average Position 22Average Position 23.375Average Position 26.125Average Position

And here's the list grouped by division for the AFC. Again, the number before each player is their overall rank in the top 50.

AFC
North (5) South (8) East (4) West (5)
14Ben Roethlisberger 3Deshaun Watson 7Tom Brady 1Patrick Mahomes
15Rich Gannon 5Peyton Manning 18Chad Pennington 10Philip Rivers
25Andy Dalton 20Andrew Luck 19Tyrod Taylor 24Derek Carr
30Carson Palmer 21Marcus Mariota 35Ryan Tannehill 36Trent Green
49Joe Flacco 22Matt Schaub 48Brian Griese
40David Garrard
43Steve McNair
46Case Keenum
26.6Average Position 25Average Position 19.75Average Position 23.8Average Position

Some takeaways:

  1. Divisions with future Hall of Fame class QBs (Brady, Roethlisberger, Brees) tend to have less representation in the list.
  2. For as bad as their numbers have been so far in this blog, the AFC South is well represented for some reason.
  3. The NFC East has had quite a few quality QBs.
  4. According to the numbers, out of the top 50 QBs the AFC East has the highest average QBs since 2000.

While I agree that this might not be the most comprehensive comparison, it still shows that the AFC East has had somewhat similar production from their top QBs than other divisions in the same situation. If you have any other research ideas for this, let me know.


Lack of Serious Challengers

The last argument (so far) about the myth is that the Patriots haven't had to worry about any serious challengers over the course of the dynasty years. The criticism boils down to the fact that because the other teams in the AFC East have been consistently mediocre, allowing the Patriots to coast to a first-round bye whenever they make the playoffs.

For this we'll have to make some baseline assumptions to be able to compare each division over the years. There seems to be some data supporting the idea that the cutoff for making the playoffs is a 10 win season. We can compare each division by how many times they've had multiple 10+ game winners in the division. This should give us a good idea of how many times the division winner has had "serious" competition from a division rival.

Division Count Seasons
AFC East 10 2000, 2001, 2003, 2004, 2006, 2008, 2010, 2015, 2016, 2019
NFC West 9 2000, 2001, 2003, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2018, 2019
NFC East 9 2000, 2002, 2003, 2005, 2007, 2009, 2010, 2014, 2016
AFC West 8 2000, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2013, 2015, 2016, 2018
AFC North 8 2005, 2007, 2008, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2014, 2015
NFC North 7 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2014, 2015, 2019
AFC South 7 2002, 2003, 2005, 2007, 2008, 2012, 2018
NFC South 6 2005, 2008, 2010, 2011, 2013, 2017
NFC Central * 2 2000, 2001
AFC Central * 2 2000, 2001
* The Central divisions were only around for 2000 & 2001, before the NFL realignment.

A few things stand out with this one:

  1. There isn't a whole lot of separation between the divisions in this comparison.
  2. The AFC East is once again not at the bottom of this list, showing that they're (still) not as bad as critics make them out to be.

Another thing to keep in mind is this: if the Patriots hadn't been the dominant force over the past 20ish years, would the rest of the AFC East teams look as mediocre? This is a bigger topic than this article can tackle, so I've written about that here: What Does the AFC East Look Like if the Patriots Weren't a Dynasty?

While I plan on continuing to update this post as more arguments arise, hopefully this puts to rest the myth of the "easy" AFC East.

  • 22 October 2019: Removed Giants from the list of teams who didn't have a losing record vs the Pats.
  • 5 July 2019: Added link to new related blog post: What Does the AFC East Look Like if the Patriots Weren't a Dynasty?
  • 5 May 2019: Division breakdowns now account for the divisional realignment that took place in the 2002 season. The numbers didn't change much, but things are more accurate now.