Which Division is the Toughest in the NFL?
The topic always comes up before, during and after the NFL season as to which division is the toughest in football. The NFC West was the worst division in the NFL several years ago but become the premier division in the NFL in 2013. In 2013, every team finished at or above .500 and the Seattle Seahawks won the Super Bowl over the Denver Broncos in blowout fashion.
Heading into 2014, the NFC West appeared to be the best division once again but the division as a whole took a step back this season. While the Seattle Seahawks got to the Super Bowl, the San Francisco 49ers take a step back as its season was mired in controversy regarding Jim Harbaugh’s future with the team. The St. Louis Rams lost Sam Bradford to another season-ending injury and they ended the year 7-9. Finally, the Arizona Cardinals had a great record at 11-5 but due to injuries at the quarterback position, they limped into the playoffs and lost to the lowly Carolina Panthers during NFL Wild Card Weekend.
Which team now stakes claim to being the best in all of the NFL? For that, you have to go back west and look at the AFC North.
The AFC North had three playoff teams as the Pittsburgh Steelers won the division title while the Baltimore Ravens and Cincinnati Bengals each claimed wildcard spots in 2014. Moreover, the Cleveland Browns were in the wildcard hunt until they suffered a five-game losing streak to end the season.
Obviously, with three teams in the playoffs and a fourth in contention, the AFC North is a no-brainer for being the best division in the NFL.
The AFC North was a division that saw every team except for the Browns to finish the year with a positive point differential. The Steelers outscored their opponents by 68 points, the Bengals were 21 points better than their opponents and the Ravens held an advantage of 107 points over the opposition on the season. The Browns were outscored by 38 points by the teams of their schedule but a 30-point shutout to the Cincinnati Bengals in Week 15 of the season skews the results some.
In terms of playing each other, each team was pretty even as the Steelers had a division record of 4-2, the Ravens and Bengals went 3-3 and the Browns were 2-4. Additionally, when they faced NFC teams in 2014, every team in the division registered a record that was at or above .500. The Steelers went 2-2 against their NFC opponents, the Bengals went 3-0-1, the Ravens were 4-0 and the Browns were 3-1. While they did play the NFC South, the worst division in football, they were a combined 12-3-1 against the entire division.
When the AFC North faced other teams in the AFC, they had the best in-conference record out of all four division as they combined to go 26-22. For comparison, the AFC Eas was 24-24, the AFC South went 21-27 and the AFC West went 25-23.
While the NFC North (28-20) and NFC West (29-19) produced better records than the AFC North did, the NFC North was a combined 7-9 against AFC opponents while the NFC West was a combined 8-8. Meanwhile, the NFC South was 19-29 and NFC East was 20-28.
Furthermore, the AFC North as a whole produced three of the Top 15 scoring offenses and defenses in the entire league. Specifically, the Steelers, Ravens and Bengals ranked seventh, eighth and 15th in the NFL respectively on offense while the Ravens, Browns, and Bengals ranked sixth, ninth and 12th on defense. As for the other two units in the division, the Cleveland Browns ranked 27th in the league in points per game on offense while the Pittsburgh Steelers ranked 18th in points per game on defense.
With three of the Top 15 offenses hailing from the AFC North it comes as no surprise that those three offenses also featured some of the best running games in the NFL as they all had 1,000-yard running backs in their backfield. Steelers running back Le’Veon Bell, Ravens running back Justin Forsett and Cincinnati Bengals rookie running back Jeremy Hill all crossed the 1,000-yard threshold in 2014 while the Browns featured two 600-yard rushers, both of which happened to be rookies.
Finally, the AFC North proved their divisional strength in the playoffs as the Baltimore Ravens twice held leads of 14 points before ultimately falling to the eventual Super Bowl Champion New England Patriots while on the road. It could also be argued that the Bengals could’ve beaten the Colts during Wild Card Weekend had they had a healthy AJ Green as the Colts really struggled to solve the Bengals defense.
All in all, the AFC North takes over as the NFL’s best division heading into the 2015 season. However, just as 2014 showed us, the title for “Best Division in the NFL” can change in an instant.