The NFL hasn't seen a team with a losing record in the playoffs since 2010. The eventual winner of the NFC South—currently led by the four-win Falcons—could be next, which begs the question: is it the worst division in recent NFL history?
After the Bengals defeated the Saints on Sunday, both the Falcons and Panthers had a primo opportunity: Facing off against one another, the winner would take control of the NFC South with a domineering four wins on its résumé.
The Falcons currently lead this dismal division at 4-6, with the Saints in second at 4-6 based on a head-to-head tiebreaker. The Panthers, who have a bye this week, sit in third at 3-7-1. In last sits the Buccaneers, who are down but not out at 2-8.
Here are our current NFL playoff probabilities for the South:
New Orleans: 49.7%
Tampa Bay: 0.5%
But just how bad is the NFC South? Is this the worst division in this millennium? To evaluate teams, we look at their efficiency using our internal metric, Net Expected Points (NEP). A quick refresher on NEP:
NEP compares every single play over a season to how a league-average team should perform on that play. Every situation on a football field has an expected point value; that is, how many points an average team would be expected to score in that situation (given down, distance-to-go and yard line). For example, the Chiefs may be playing the Steelers, facing a third-and-two on the 50. That’s a ton of variables, but numberFire has data from the past dozen years of every single play, so most situations have come up at least once. According to our data, an average team may be “expected” to score 1.23 (estimated number) points on that drive. However, Jamaal Charles reels off a 32-yard run to bring the Chiefs into the red zone, increasing the “expected” point value of the next play to 4.23 (still an estimated number) points. Jamaal Charles then gets credit for the difference, in this case 2.96 points, as his NEP total. That’s Net Expected Points.
The NFC South is the worst division this season with an average team total NEP of -40.6. That means that in the division, on average, teams have already scored or allowed almost six touchdowns below expectation. The next worst division is the AFC South at -32.2, followed by the AFC West at 0.0 (both divisions are brought down by particularly bad teams in Jacksonville and Oakland).
Let’s pace out the South’s current performance and compare it to the worst of the worst.
2010 NFC West
Remember how bad the NFC West was in 2010? Seattle became the first playoff team in the modern era to make the playoffs with a sub-.500 record, going 7-9. While the West didn’t have one truly horrible team (all four teams notched at least five wins), their average total NEP across offense, defense, and special teams was -107.3, meaning that, on average, each team scored or allowed 15 more touchdowns versus expectation.
Due to the recent success of the NFC West, many people forget just how bad the division was—and for a long time. In fact, seven of the 13 worst divisions since 2000 came from the NFC West between 2004 and 2010 (including the three worst and five of the bottom seven).
Other notable poor divisions: 2012 and 2013 AFC South (headlined by brutal Jacksonville teams), 2011 AFC West (The Year of Tebow), 2002 NFC North (Three teams with six wins or fewer).
2014 NFC South
The Saints, Falcons, Panthers and Bucs have NEP totals of +2.5, -18.2, -48.0, and -98.7, respectively. The division’s current path puts them on pace to finish as the 10th-worst division since 2000.
Most notable, though, is just how terrible the division’s defense has been. If trends continue, the NFC South would allow +481.5 NEP defensively. That means that, on average, each team would allow 120 more points than a league-average defense—more than 17 touchdowns, or more than one additional touchdown given up per game.
Will we see another sub-.500 team make the playoffs? Here are our projections for the number of wins required to win the NFC South:
That leaves a 36.88% chance of the division winner totaling fewer than eight wins.
The NFC South is bad. Very bad. But are they the worst division in history? Not quite.
The Best Division
The antithesis to the NFC South, the AFC North currently features all four teams over .500. So, are they that much better than the NFC South? Each AFC North team is, on average, +52.5 NEP better than each NFC South team—between 7 and 8 touchdowns better. That puts the AFC North on pace to finish an estimated 12 touchdowns ahead of the NFC South.
The best division this season is the AFC East with a dominant Patriots squad, and surprisingly efficient Bills and Dolphins teams. The AFC North comes in at third overall.
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