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The Myth of the "Easy" AFC East

Written by Andrew Brown on Dec 31, 2018

In the 20 years since Bill Belichick took over as coach of the New England Patriots, the team has gone on an incredible run. From 2000-2019 they did not 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:

ConferenceWin - LossWin Percentage
AFC202 - 730.735
NFC67 - 230.744

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.

DivisionW - L - TWin Percentage
AFC South41 - 120.774
NFC South17 - 50.773
NFC East18 - 60.750
AFC East92 - 310.748
AFC North35 - 120.745
NFC North17 - 60.739
NFC West15 - 60.714
AFC West34 - 180.654

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?

DivisionW - L - TWin Percentage
NFC Central *85 - 75 - 00.531
AFC East689 - 627 - 00.524
AFC Central *97 - 95 - 00.505
NFC East658 - 652 - 20.502
AFC North575 - 571 - 60.499
NFC South606 - 608 - 20.498
AFC West650 - 662 - 00.495
NFC North567 - 580 - 50.492
AFC South566 - 586 - 00.491
NFC West603 - 640 - 50.483
* 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:

DivisionW - L - TWin Percentage
NFC Central *85 - 75 - 00.531
AFC Central *97 - 95 - 00.505
NFC East658 - 652 - 20.502
AFC North575 - 571 - 60.499
NFC South606 - 608 - 20.498
AFC West650 - 662 - 00.495
NFC North567 - 580 - 50.492
AFC South566 - 586 - 00.491
NFC West603 - 640 - 50.483
AFC East450 - 542 - 00.454
* 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?

DivisionW - L - TWin Percentage
NFC Central *61 - 67 - 00.477
AFC East450 - 542 - 00.454
AFC Central *71 - 89 - 00.444
NFC East436 - 554 - 20.440
NFC South396 - 531 - 10.427
AFC North368 - 491 - 50.426
AFC West419 - 573 - 00.422
AFC South362 - 502 - 00.419
NFC North360 - 500 - 40.417
NFC West381 - 544 - 30.411
* 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.

DivisionW - L - TWin PercentageBest Team
NFC South423 - 471 - 20.472New Orleans Saints (183 - 137 - 0)
NFC East468 - 523 - 10.472Philadelphia Eagles (190 - 129 - 1)
AFC West468 - 524 - 00.472Denver Broncos (182 - 138 - 0)
NFC West421 - 503 - 40.454Seattle Seahawks (182 - 137 - 1)
AFC East450 - 542 - 00.454New England Patriots (239 - 85 - 0)
NFC North370 - 459 - 30.445Green Bay Packers (197 - 121 - 2)
AFC North370 - 458 - 40.445Pittsburgh Steelers (205 - 113 - 2)
AFC South369 - 463 - 00.444Indianapolis 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)
2 Aaron Rodgers 6 Drew Brees 8 Tony Romo 4 Russell Wilson
28 Matthew Stafford 12 Matt Ryan 9 Dak Prescott 13 Jared Goff
31 Daunte Culpepper 32 Jameis Winston 11 Kirk Cousins 17 Kurt Warner
33 Mitchell Trubisky 38 Cam Newton 16 Carson Wentz 23 Colin Kaepernick
39 Teddy Bridgewater 27 Nick Foles 26 Jeff Garcia
41 Jay Cutler 29 Robert Griffin 34 Alex Smith
42 Brett Favre 37 Donovan McNabb 45 Sam Bradford
44 Shaun Hill 50 Eli Manning 47 Marc Bulger
32.5 Average Position 22 Average Position 23.375 Average Position 26.125 Average 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)
14 Ben Roethlisberger 3 Deshaun Watson 7 Tom Brady 1 Patrick Mahomes
15 Rich Gannon 5 Peyton Manning 18 Chad Pennington 10 Philip Rivers
25 Andy Dalton 20 Andrew Luck 19 Tyrod Taylor 24 Derek Carr
30 Carson Palmer 21 Marcus Mariota 35 Ryan Tannehill 36 Trent Green
49 Joe Flacco 22 Matt Schaub 48 Brian Griese
40 David Garrard
43 Steve McNair
46 Case Keenum
26.6 Average Position 25 Average Position 19.75 Average Position 23.8 Average 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.

DivisionCountSeasons
AFC East102000, 2001, 2003, 2004, 2006, 2008, 2010, 2015, 2016, 2019
NFC West92000, 2001, 2003, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2018, 2019
NFC East92000, 2002, 2003, 2005, 2007, 2009, 2010, 2014, 2016
AFC West82000, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2013, 2015, 2016, 2018
AFC North82005, 2007, 2008, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2014, 2015
NFC North72009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2014, 2015, 2019
AFC South72002, 2003, 2005, 2007, 2008, 2012, 2018
NFC South62005, 2008, 2010, 2011, 2013, 2017
NFC Central *22000, 2001
AFC Central *22000, 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.