Fans look at the NFL standings constantly, and over the past 20 years, perhaps we take for granted the symmetry and balance of eight four-team groupings, remembering how long the league went with unevenly sized divisions.
This season presents a chance to look back on two decades of football since the NFL’s 2002 realignment, to appreciate the dominance in some divisions and the parity in others. Each NFL team plays 120 divisional games during a 20-year span, so a .500 record would yield a 60-60 record — only two teams, the Falcons and Titans, have that.
So we look at each division and where the balance of power has fallen during the past 20 years, remembering the current contenders like the Rams or Bucs are still last in their divisions over two long decades before this season. For each division, we’ll show the combined division wins, division titles and Super Bowl wins over the 20-year span.
AFC East: Patriots, Tom Brady dominate
Wins: Patriots 91, Bills 53, Dolphins 51, Jets 45.
Division titles: Patriots 16, Bills 2, Jets 1, Dolphins 1.
Super Bowl wins: Patriots 5.
To no surprise, the Patriots have been the NFL’s dominant franchise over the last 20 years. Their first Super Bowl came in 2001, right before realignment, but they’ve been to eight Super Bowls and won five in this span. They have two of the most lopsided division rivalries in the NFL, going 33-7 against the Bills and Jets. Their supremacy leads to the other three teams having a losing record in division — Buffalo has the consolation of going 26-14 against Miami, though the Dolphins had more wins against the Patriots (15) than the Jets and Bills combined. Largely from the Patriots’ success, the AFC East has the best combined non-division record of any NFL division since 2002, with a .534 winning percentage.
AFC North: Steelers in front, Browns way in the back
Wins: Steelers 83.5, Ravens 68, Bengals 55, Browns 33.5.
Division titles: Steelers 9, Ravens 6, Bengals 5, Browns 0.
Super Bowl wins: Steelers 2, Ravens 1.
The Steelers have the second-best division record in the NFL in the 32-team era, just edging the Colts and Packers behind the sustained success of Bill Cowher and Mike Tomlin. Pittsburgh’s 33-6-1 record against the Browns is the single most lopsided division rivalry in the NFL over this 20-year span, and the Browns have easily the fewest division wins, with 5.5 less than even the Lions. Baltimore, one of the league’s best division runner-ups, is 30-10 against the Browns and nip-and-tuck with the Steelers, who have a 21-19 advantage since 2002. It’s also worth noting that no division produced more wild cards (14) in 20 years than the AFC North.