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) and the Giants (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 255 - 89 against the NFL since 2000, which equates to a 0.741 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 (0.259) would be worse than the Cleveland Browns over the same time period (0.306 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 192 - 67 0.741
NFC 63 - 22 0.741

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 - 10 0.804
NFC South 17 - 5 0.773
NFC West 15 - 5 0.750
AFC North 32 - 11 0.744
AFC East 86 - 30 0.741
NFC North 17 - 6 0.739
NFC East 14 - 6 0.700
AFC West 33 - 16 0.673

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 653 - 595 - 0 0.523
NFC East 634 - 612 - 2 0.508
AFC Central * 97 - 95 - 0 0.505
AFC North 545 - 537 - 6 0.501
NFC South 574 - 576 - 2 0.498
AFC West 619 - 629 - 0 0.496
AFC South 534 - 554 - 0 0.491
NFC North 533 - 551 - 4 0.490
NFC West 565 - 615 - 4 0.477
* 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
NFC East 634 - 612 - 2 0.508
AFC Central * 97 - 95 - 0 0.505
AFC North 545 - 537 - 6 0.501
NFC South 574 - 576 - 2 0.498
AFC West 619 - 629 - 0 0.496
AFC South 534 - 554 - 0 0.491
NFC North 533 - 551 - 4 0.490
NFC West 565 - 615 - 4 0.477
AFC East 428 - 516 - 0 0.453
* 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 428 - 516 - 0 0.453
NFC East 421 - 521 - 2 0.446
AFC Central * 71 - 89 - 0 0.444
AFC North 352 - 459 - 5 0.431
NFC South 377 - 502 - 1 0.428
AFC West 400 - 544 - 0 0.424
AFC South 340 - 476 - 0 0.417
NFC North 339 - 474 - 3 0.415
NFC West 356 - 522 - 2 0.405
* 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 East 453 - 490 - 1 0.480 Philadelphia Eagles (181 - 122 - 1)
NFC South 404 - 442 - 2 0.476 New Orleans Saints (170 - 134 - 0)
AFC West 444 - 500 - 0 0.470 Denver Broncos (175 - 129 - 0)
AFC East 428 - 516 - 0 0.453 New England Patriots (225 - 79 - 0)
NFC West 394 - 483 - 3 0.448 Seattle Seahawks (171 - 132 - 1)
NFC North 349 - 433 - 2 0.445 Green Bay Packers (184 - 118 - 2)
AFC North 348 - 432 - 4 0.444 Pittsburgh Steelers (197 - 105 - 2)
AFC South 344 - 440 - 0 0.439 Indianapolis Colts (190 - 114 - 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
NFC East 9 2000, 2002, 2003, 2005, 2007, 2009, 2010, 2014, 2016
AFC East 9 2000, 2001, 2003, 2004, 2006, 2008, 2010, 2015, 2016
NFC West 8 2000, 2001, 2003, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2018
AFC West 8 2000, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2013, 2015, 2016, 2018
AFC North 8 2005, 2007, 2008, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2014, 2015
AFC South 7 2002, 2003, 2005, 2007, 2008, 2012, 2018
NFC North 6 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2014, 2015
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.