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Sporting News Uses Formula to Decide Toughest Division in NFL


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When the Washington Redskins selected Heisman Trophy winner Robert Griffin III with the No. 2 overall pick of the 2012 NFL Draft, the buzz among insiders and fans alike was that the league's toughest division just got even tougher.


But is the NFC East truly the strongest of the league's eight divisions? We hoped an examination of the data would provide an answer, and we weren't disappointed.


The project


To determine the relative strength of the NFL's divisions, we first had to determine an appropriate time frame. We settled on five years, which for many studies would be too small of a sample size. However, if you go back much farther, you begin to dilute the findings with data from more and more players and coaches who are no longer with those teams.


Next, we decided on six different sets of data for our points of comparison:


• Winning percentage in non-divisional games


• Point differential in non-divisional games


• Number of playoff teams


• Playoff winning percentage


• Number of conference champions


• Number of Super Bowl champions


This data sample strikes a balance between regular season and postseason success while also giving credit to divisions with teams that won the NFL's ultimate prize, the Lombardi Trophy.


We then ranked the divisions in each of the six categories, giving eight points to the best division and one point to the worst division in each category. That yields a scale of 48 points as the best possible score and eight points as the worst possible score.


The findings


The data shows that the NFC East has been far and away the toughest division in the NFL over the past five years. The Dallas Cowboys, New York Football Giants, Philadelphia Eagles, and Washington Redskins combined to give the NFC East a cumulative score of 46 points (again, out of a possible 48), outpacing the AFC North (36) for first place. The AFC East (30.5) finished third, followed by the NFC North (26.5), NFC South (25.5), AFC South (23), NFC West (16.5) and AFC West (12). Here's a category-by-category breakdown:


Winning percentage in non-divisional games


The NFC East eked out a victory with a .573 winning percentage (114-85-1), a shade ahead of the AFC South's .570 winning percentage. The tiebreaker, so to speak, was a 2008 tie between the Eagles and Cincinnati Bengals, best remembered as the game that revealed Donovan McNabb’s unfamiliarity with the NFL's overtime rules.


Six of the eight divisions posted records above .500 in non-divisional games the last five years, which underscores the futility of the AFC West (.405) and NFC West (.335), a pattern that played out over most of the other categories as well.


Point differential in non-divisional games


Again, the NFC East came out on top with a plus-543 point differential, 54 points better than the second-place AFC East. And again, six of the eight divisions posted positive numbers, with the AFC West (minus-802) and NFC West (minus-1272) balancing out the rest of the competition.


Number of playoff teams


The AFC North — on the strength of four appearances each by the Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens - led the way with 10 playoff teams in the last five years. The NFC East had nine, followed by the NFC North, NFC South and AFC South with eight apiece. The NFC West and AFC West each had five playoff teams in that span versus five division champions and no wild card teams.


Playoff winning percentage


The NFC East did the most with its playoff appearances, winning 11 of 18 games (.611) to set the pace. The biggest outlier in the study was the second-best division in this category — the NFC West. Thanks to four playoff victories by the Arizona Cardinals in 2008 and '09, the division went 7-5 (.583) in the postseason. The AFC East (8-7, .533) and AFC North (10-9, .526) are the only other divisions above .500 in the playoffs over the past five years.


Number of conference champions


Three divisions had two conference champions apiece — the NFC East (Giants twice), AFC North (Steelers twice) and AFC East (New England Patriots twice). Each of the other divisions had one conference champion in their ranks except for the AFC West, which hasn't had a Super Bowl participant since the Raiders after the 2002 season.


Number of Super Bowl champions


Thanks to the Giants' two Super Bowl victories, the NFC East took this category as well. The AFC North (Steelers), NFC North (Packers) and NFC South (Saints) all had one Super Bowl winner among their ranks while the other four divisions were shut out.


Thus, the addition of RG3 — plus fellow rookies Morris Claiborne (Cowboys) and Fletcher Cox (Eagles), and free agents Brandon Carr (Cowboys), Pierre (Redskins), Shaun Rogers (Giants), Josh Morgan (Redskins) and Brandon Meriweather (Redskins) — really did make the NFL's toughest division that much tougher.


But also keep an eye on the bottom of the standings over the next few years to see if either the AFC West or NFC West can emerge from the basement and rejoin the ranks of respectability.

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