Commentary

History working against Cardinals, Chargers

Teams from weak divisions generally fare poorly in the playoffs. That's bad news for the Cardinals and Chargers, writes KC Joyner.

Originally Published: December 30, 2008
By KC Joyner | Special to ESPN.com

One of the things I like to do at the end of every NFL regular season is compile the collective win/loss marks of every division. This type of analysis often yields some interesting numbers, and this season was no different:

Division Wins Losses Ties Win/Ties Win % Rank
NFC South 40 24 0 40 62.5 1
NFC East 38 25 1 38.5 60.2 2
AFC East 38 26 0 38 59.4 T3
AFC South 38 26 0 38 59.4 T3
AFC North 31 32 1 31.5 49.2 5
NFC North 25 39 0 25 39.1 6
AFC West 23 41 0 23 35.9 7
NFC West 22 42 0 22 34.4 8

(Win/ties are wins plus ties if ties are included as one-half a win, which is the NFL's method of classifying ties.)

The first notable item stemming from this analysis is that the NFC West's 34.4 percent win rate was the lowest of any division since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger. It wasn't the only historically subpar mark, however, as the AFC West's 35.9 percent win rate was nearly as bad, claiming the second-worst postmerger mark in this realm.

Because wins and losses are a zero sum game, it should come as no surprise that the top divisions were near record-setting territory. The NFC South's 62.5 percent win rate was the fourth-best of all time, and the NFC East's 60.2 percent mark was the ninth-best.

The most telling part of this type of division win percentage breakdown comes from what history tells us about how teams from strong and weak divisions have performed in the playoffs. I did a detailed study of this nature in my book "Blindsided" and found many conspicuous trends.

The most compelling of these is that 26 of the 37 Super Bowl winners since the merger came from divisions that placed in the top three in win percentage during that season. This trend gets even stronger if the start year is moved to 1977, as 25 of the 30 world champions in that time hailed from one of the top three divisions based on win percentage. This trend stretched beyond Super Bowl champs, as 42 of the 72 conference champions since the merger came from the top three divisions. (These numbers don't include the 1982 season because divisional play was not used that year.)

The historical evidence also shows strong indications for playoff teams that come from the bottom divisions. There were six divisions from 1970 through 2001, and only one time during that era did a team that came from the division with the worst win percentage win a Super Bowl (1999 St. Louis Rams). In fact, playoff teams from the sixth division during those years won only 24 playoff games, and seven of those were wild-card victories.

That trend has continued from 2002 to 2007 with playoff teams originating from the eighth-ranked division. Those teams have only one playoff win, when St. Louis beat in-division rival Seattle in the 2004 wild-card round. The teams from the No. 7 division haven't fared much better than those from the No. 8 division, as they have only 10 total wins, with six of those coming in the wild-card round.

So what does all this forebode for this season's playoffs? To begin with, let's look at the playoff teams as ranked by division win percentage:

No. 1 division, NFC South: Carolina and Atlanta
No. 2 division, NFC East: N.Y. Giants and Philadelphia
No. 3 division, tie between AFC East and AFC South: Miami, Tennessee and Indianapolis
No. 5 division, AFC North: Pittsburgh and Baltimore
No. 6 division, NFC North: Minnesota
No. 7 division, AFC West: San Diego
No. 8 division, NFC West: Arizona

If history is any indicator, Arizona almost certainly will bow out of the postseason in a hurry, and the odds are very long for either the Vikings or the Chargers to win it all. It also says Carolina, Atlanta, the Giants, Philadelphia, Miami, Tennessee or Indianapolis most likely will end up hoisting the Vince Lombardi Trophy at the end of the season.

KC Joyner, aka the Football Scientist, is a regular contributor to ESPN Insider. His core coverage metrics for all skill-position players and cornerbacks are available in the ESPN Fantasy Football Magazine. His new book "Blindsided: Why The Left Tackle is Overrated and Other Contrarian Football Thoughts," is available in bookstores and on Amazon.com. For more information, check out KC's Web site, www.thefootballscientist.com.