The NFL's Historically Bad Division Screwed Up The Playoffs Even Worse Than People Realise

The NFC South was the second-worst division in the history of sports this year.

The Saints, Panthers, Buccaneers, and Falcons went 10-29-1 against the rest of the NFL. The best team in the division (Panthers) went 7-8-1 and the worst team (Bucs) went 2-14 and got the No. 1 pick.

It’s bad enough that the Panthers made the playoffs with a losing record. But the historic ineptitude of the division also had a wide-ranging effect on which other teams made the playoffs.

The only two divisions with multiple playoff teams this year are the NFC North (Lions and Packers) and the AFC North (Steelers, Bengals, and Ravens). Not so coincidentally, those are also the two divisions that got to play all four NFC South teams in non-division play.

Five of the eight NFL teams that got to play the NFC South in non-division play made the playoffs. Those five teams went 15-4-1 against the NFC South. The three teams that clinched wild card spots in the playoffs (Bengals, Ravens, Lions) went 10-1-1 against the NFC South and 21-15 against all other teams.

The AFC North, which produced three of the six AFC playoff teams, had the added bonus of playing all four teams from the AFC South this year. According to FiveThirtyEight’s numbers, the 2014 AFC South was the 16th-worst division in sports history. The two worst NFL divisions since 2010 are this year’s NFC South and AFC South, and the Bengals, Steelers, and Ravens got to play eight games each against them.

It’s not just that the 7-8-1 Panthers took a playoff spot away from a more deserving team, it’s that the mere existence in the NFC South created a scheduling imbalance that affected who made and missed the playoffs. Would the Chiefs have made the playoffs if they got to play the Bucs, Panthers, Saints, and Falcons instead of the Seahawks, Cardinals, 49ers, and Rams?

NFL scheduling is inherently unfair.

In a perfect world, every team would play every other team twice (once at home and once on the road). It’s the only way to make schedules completely balanced. It’s also impossible — the regular season would be 62 games long and last 15 months. 

The NFL does a good job of working around this problem. It rotates which divisions play each other every year. The NFC East play the AFC East one year, the AFC North the next year, the AFC South the year after that, and finally the AFC West. Over a sample size of years, things balance out.

In addition, everything the NFL does — from the draft to the salary structure — is designed to ensure parity. The goal is for every team to have a chance to win the Super Bowl every year. As a result, there are very few really good teams and very few really bad teams. When all teams are of more or less the same quality, scheduling imbalances aren’t as important. Playing the 9-7 Bills isn’t much different from playing the 9-7 Chargers.

But once or twice a decade you’ll get something like the NFC South, which essentially gifts four wins to the lucky non-division teams that happen to be matched up with them that year.

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