Inside the Numbers of the NFL’s Newest Top Division

by Chris Murphy

 

As the NFL regular season enters its final stretch, with each team having only 4 games to play, now is the time the time to diagnose who’s good, who’s bad, and who’s somewhere in between. While for most of the year fans have suffered massive expectation failures and relative mediocrity throughout the league, one division is doing all they can to field quality teams and make the NFL’s playoffs as exciting as possible. Yes, I am talking about the NFC South.

Had I made such a claim in September, many would have been skeptical. Analysts on all of the big networks were quick to label the AFC West and NFC East as the divisions to watch this season, while very few labeled the NFC South as anything more than a “division that may surprise some people.” Fast forward 13 weeks later, and it is undeniable which division is the best in football. Before Seattle’s statement win on Sunday Night Football this past weekend, the NFC South had 3 teams in the playoff picture with 4 games to go, while some other divisions can barely field one playoff team (see: AFC West). As a New Orleans Saints fan myself, current NFC South fan bases – excluding Tampa Bay – are faced with this agonizing dilemma of pride (for being a contender in the best division of football) and frustration (for having to play some of the best teams in football twice each).

Just how dominant has the NFC South been this season? Let’s take a look inside the numbers.

 

Big Picture Standings: NFC South Chasing History

The NFC South currently has the opportunity to see 3 of its 4 teams play January football this season. As of the end of Week 13, New Orleans is sitting in the 4th seed at 9-3 (due to it’s head-to-head loss against the LA Rams), Carolina is currently 6th at 8-4 (due to a worse division record than Seattle), and Atlanta sits one game back at 7-5. If Atlanta were to overtake any of the non NFC South teams for that other wild card spot – a big “if” but not an entirely improbable scenario – then the 2017 NFC South would join the ranks of some of the other divisions to send 3 teams into the playoff in one year. Since the latest division realignment in 2002, only 5% of all divisions have accomplished this feat. Those divisions, along with the records of each team, are below, current as of Week 13.

Divisions to Send 3 Teams to Playoff in Single Season (2002 – present)[1]

Division

Team 1 Team 2 Team 3 Division Win % Best Playoff Result

2006 NFC East

Eagles
(10-6)
Cowboys
(9-7)
Giants
(8-8)
.50025 NFC Divisional Round

2007 AFC South

Colts
(13-3)
Jaguars
(11-5)
Titans
(10-6)
.6565

AFC Divisional Round

2007 NFC East Cowboys
(13-3)
Giants
(10-6)
Redskins
(9-7)
.62525

Won Super Bowl

2011 AFC North

Ravens
(12-4)
Steelers
(12-4)
Bengals
(9-7)
.57825 AFC Champion-ship
2013 AFC West Broncos
(13-3)
Chiefs
(11-5)
Chargers
(9-7)
.5785

Lost Super Bowl

2014 NFC North

Steelers
(11-5)
Bengals
(10-5-1)
Ravens
(10-6)

.52675

AFC Divisional Round

2017 NFC South Saints
(9-3)
Panthers
(8-4)
Falcons
(7-5)
.58325

????

If the NFC South continues playing at the same pace they have all season, they would be the first division since 2014 to have 3 teams in the playoff. Comparing them to the rest of the three team divisions since the realignment, they would rank as the third best, behind the 2007 NFC East and the 2007 AFC South. Now, the end of season round robin between the NFC South teams this season (beginning last weekend) will certainly hurt their overall winning percentage. If the NFC South won the rest of the games where they weren’t playing each other (Min @ Car, Det @ TB Week 14 & NYJ @ NO, GB @ Car Week 15), they would finish with a winning percentage of ~.593 (3rd best)[2]. Assuming they lose two of those games, the winning percentage would drop to ~.562, which would be 5th best[3]. Even if they lose all of the games, they would still remain the 5th best division on the table at ~.531 (though they probably wouldn’t have 3 playoff teams). Regardless of the outcome, they are on pace for one of the best single year performances by a division since 2002.

But it goes beyond comparison to the best divisions in history. After all, some of these divisions actually had a WORSE winning percentage than other divisions that season[4]. This season however, the NFC South is dominating all other divisions in the NFL. Let’s take a look at some head to head stats for this season:


NFC South Comparison to League – 2017 Season[5]

Division Winning Percentage Combined Conference Record Aggregate Strength of Schedule[6]
NFC South .58325 19-14 (.575) 8.75th hardest
AFC East .54175 20-13 (.606) 13th hardest
NFC North .52075 19-18 (.513) 6th hardest
NFC West .50025 17-21 (.447) 22.75th hardest
AFC South .47925 20-18 (.526) 24.5th hardest
NFC East .47925 17-19 (.472) 16th hardest
AFC North .45825 17-20 (.459) 22nd hardest
AFC West .4375 15-21 (.417) 19th hardest

The results show how triumphant the NFC South has been this season compared to everyone else. Not only do they have the highest winning percentage overall, they have a winning record in the conference and have the 2nd most difficult aggregate strength of schedule by conference in the entire NFL. The NFC South has been winning, and doing it against difficult opponents. By all accounts, they have been the class of the NFL this season.

 

Offensive Production: All About the QB’s?

When people attribute success to the NFC South, the first and only thing talked about are the QBs. Any given Sunday, an announcer references the NFC South and follows it up with discussing “3 MVP caliber quarterbacks” in the South. They aren’t wrong in their assessment; Brees statistically is one of the best quarterbacks of all time while Newton and Ryan have shown MVP capability and success. But is that the only thing that’s carrying the NFC South?

Below are the passing and rushing numbers per game each of the last three seasons for the currently competitive NFC South teams.


Season by Season Comparison – Passing and Rushing Yards Per Game[7]

 

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From the graphs above, we can tell that the quarterback play may not be the only thing carrying these teams to success. Each season where the team was playing their best (Carolina in 2015, Atlanta in 2016, New Orleans in 2017), their rushing yards per game was at the highest over the three year span. Even more surprising is this season where, as you can see, the passing numbers are the LOWEST for each team over the past three years. Overall, the total offensive numbers per game have not drastically changed over the 3 year span (no team has a margin greater than 土35 yards per game in any of the 3 seasons), meaning it’s the percentage of offense devoted to the run and its success that has changed. When Atlanta and Carolina made their Super Bowl runs, they relied on a more balanced attack, similar to what New Orleans is doing this season. Thus, the quarterbacks are not contributing to the success as many initially believe; rather, it is the success of the running game that is determining how the team is doing. Going a step further, let’s take a look at the percentage of rushing touchdowns for each team in terms of their total touchdowns over the past 3 seasons.


Breakdown of Total Offensive Touchdowns 2014 – 2017[8]

 

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In each of the team’s best seasons over the past 3 years, they have not only scored more touchdowns – which is to be expected – but they also have scored more rushing touchdowns. This season, all of the teams are running more than they have on average in the past, with New Orleans demonstrating dominance in the running game this year. Hence, the correlation of rushing success and winning percentage is direct; while the quarterbacks are undeniably a critical part of each team, the running games have done more to help these teams than the passing attacks.

 

Defensive Production: Dominating on D?

The age old saying is that defense wins championships. In the past, we have seen teams like the 2013 Broncos try to get away with an outstanding offense and lackluster defense, only to fall apart when it game against a solid defense (see, the Seahawks thrashing of Denver in Super Bowl XLVII). Here, we will take a look at the defensive comparison for each of the NFC South teams, and where that success comes from.[9]

Points

The trends clearly support the old saying, as the NFC South is having a career year while all of its defenses are allowing less points per game than in year’s past. The clearest example of this being the case in New Orleans, where Dennis Allen has turned the worst unit into the league into the 12th best scoring defense; the result has led to a winning record for the Saints for the first time in 4 years. While none of the defensive numbers are great – none of these NFC South teams rank in the top 10 in total defense or scoring defense – they are doing enough to allow these offenses to work without having to put up 30 points a week. That, in turn, has led to a more conscious effort to run the ball by these teams which has helped increase their success even more. So in a division where the offenses take up a majority of our discussion, the underrated defenses may be supplying the backbone to the recent success of the NFC South.

 

Conclusion: A Record Year for the NFC South

The NFC South is having a fantastic run at the top of the NFL. People seem to forget that the last 2 NFC Super Bowl teams have come from the South; unfortunately for the division, Carolina lost at the hands of a Denver defense carrying Manning over the finish line and Atlanta…well we all know what happened to the Falcons. But for the first time, 3 of the league’s 4 teams are putting it altogether in the same season. As a fan of any of these teams, you have to feel a little frustrated; “why couldn’t they be this good last season or next season” many probably curse under their breath. But no matter who you root for, you have to give credit to the NFC South for a job well done. In a season with extremely lofty expectations for teams like the Cowboys, Giants, Chiefs and others, it has been the NFC South that has come out and stolen the show. Who knows if they will actually finish with 3 teams in the hunt for the Super Bowl; maybe come this time next year they’ll be remembered as the division with really good teams, one of which was left out of a tough playoff race. But if the NFC South continues pace, we are witnessing one of the best single seasons by one division in NFL history. They’ll be one of only 8 divisions to accomplish this feat.

 


[1] Data from NFL.com archives

[2] Each team in the NFC South plays the others at least once more, meaning we know for certain the division will incur some losses over the next couple of weeks

[3] Most experts (USA today, CBS sports, ESPN, etc) predict that Detroit will defeat Tampa Bay week 14 and Carolina will fall to Minnesota that same week.

[4] The 2006 NFC East finished 4th in terms of overall division winning percentage behind the AFC East, AFC West and AFC South

[5] Data courtesy of profootballreference.com

[6] Strength of schedule is based off predictionmachine.com. The aggregate schedule strength is the average strength of schedule of the 4 teams in the division.

[7] Data courtesy of ESPN archives

[8] Data courtesy of ESPN archives

[9] Ibid.,

 

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