There is a plague upon the land.
AP Photo/Rick Havner
It's been a long year for Lions fans, and it doesn't figure to get any better.
Well, parts of the land, anyway -- mostly the West and the upper Midwest. It is there that exist entire cadres of NFL teams who appear to be conspiring to wring out the title of "Worst Division Ever." Based on what we've seen so far in 2008, this season could well produce a divisional poor effort of historic proportions. The NFC West, AFC West and NFC North have all, at least so far, played themselves into a position where challenging for the worst-ever division title is within their grasp.
As you know (although it might bear repeating, just to state the obvious), all divisions play .500 ball against themselves. The final intra-divisional record, barring the rare tie, is going to be 12-12. It is, then, in the games outside the confines of the division that the division's reputation is truly made. (A division could, under the most bizarre and unlikely of circumstances, produce four 3-13 teams who each lose all 10 of their non-division contests.) Consider this: Since the AFL/NFL merger in 1970, no division has won fewer than 30 percent of its inter-division games. Sure, that was very unlikely for divisions with more than four teams back when they existed -- but that's still a lot of four-team division seasons to consider. As you'll see below, three of the eight divisions this year are doing that very thing so far.
Before we get to the modern futile divisions, though, a couple of units from the days of yore bear mentioning.
THE MULTI-DIVISION, PRE-MERGER ERA (1933-69)
NFL East, 1934 to 1936:
For three seasons running, the New York Giants, Brooklyn Dodgers, Philadelphia Eagles, Boston (later Washington) Redskins and Pittsburgh Pirates (later Steelers) combined for three winning seasons. In other words, the only teams that finished over .500 in those three years were the division winners: New York in 1934 and '35, and Boston in 1936. The Giants did win the league title in 1934, but the East finished 37 games down in head-to-head contests with the West for the three seasons in question. Considering they only played five interdivisional games per season each back then, that's a very weighty margin.
AFL East, 1967 to 1969:
In the early days of the AFL, the balance of power was in the East. In both 1961 and '62, the second and third years of the league, the West was 11-21 against the East. By the end of the decade, things had shifted. In the final three seasons of American Football League autonomy, the New York Jets, Houston Oilers, Buffalo Bills, Boston Patriots and Miami Dolphins went 10-21-1, 9-21 and 7-20-3 when they played their West counterparts. All three interdivision records are among the worst ever, if a comparison with the NFL is allowed. The '68 season did produce the Super Bowl champion Jets, however.
NFL Century, 1969:
The Cleveland Browns, New York Giants, St. Louis Cardinals and Pittsburgh Steelers combined to post a .313 winning percentage (10-22 with a -244 point margin) against teams in the other three divisions. The Browns did go 6-2 against teams outside the division, but only managed a 15-point positive margin in those games, owing mostly to a 51-3 pasting at the hands of the Minnesota Vikings. In their defense, they also beat the Dallas Cowboys in the first round of the playoffs 38-14, before the Vikes took them down in the league championship game 27-7. The Giants went 2-6 in non-division games, and the Cards and Steelers were both 1-7. Pittsburgh's opening win over the Detroit Lions was its only victory that year, Hall of Famer Chuck Noll's first at the helm.
THE MERGER ERA (1970-2007)
2004 NFC West (record outside the division: 13-27/.325; -306 differential)
Tom Hauck/Getty Images
Hey 49ers fans, which was worse, the Tim Rattay era or the current one?
The teams: Seattle Seahawks (9-7 overall/6-4 outside division), St. Louis Rams (8-8/3-7), Arizona Cardinals (6-10/4-6), San Francisco 49ers (2-14/0-10)
On the surface, it might seem that the 2-14 San Francisco 49ers, who lost all 10 of their games outside the division, bear the brunt of the blame here. The truth is, though, it takes a group effort to get out-pointed by 306 in interdivisional play -- a truly staggering amount. All four teams were outscored when not playing one another. The Rams were outdone by 93 points outside the division -- not as many as the Niners' 130, but a serious amount nonetheless. Amazingly, two of these teams made the playoffs! Because the NFC was a dead zone in 2004, both of the conference's wild-card teams were 8-8, opening the door for the Rams to sneak their mediocre selves into the party. They beat the 9-7 Seahawks in what could be the worst matchup in playoff history. They were then crushed by the Falcons 47-17.
2002 NFC North (record outside the division: 13-27/.325; -225)
The teams: Green Bay Packers (12-4/7-3), Minnesota Vikings (6-10/2-8), Chicago Bears (4-12/2-8), Detroit Lions (3-13/2-8)
It might seem incongruous to include a division with a 12-4 team at its top, but the Black and Bluers of '02 pulled off the rare trifecta of having three teams lose in double figures to compensate for the Packers' efforts. Besides, the Pack was only +21 in games outside its division, and got a 27-7 beatdown courtesy of the Falcons in the first round of the playoffs. Three other divisions have had three teams in triple-figure losses, but played well enough outside the divisional confines to avoid inclusion on this list: the 2005 NFC West, the 2004 NFC East and the 1990 NFC Central, which actually had four teams lose 10 times.
1984 AFC Central (record outside the division: 13-27/.325; -167)
Warren Moon made his debut for the Oilers in 1984, but the team got off to a rough start.
The teams: Pittsburgh Steelers (9-7/6-4), Cincinnati Bengals (8-8/3-7), Cleveland Browns (5-11/2-8), Houston Oilers (3-13/2-8)
The Mark Malone/David Woodley-led Steelers were the cream of this division, as they acquitted themselves pretty well outside its boundaries. They laid the sole defeat on the 18-1 Super Bowl champion San Francisco 49ers that year, beating them 20-17 with a late comeback. They also beat the Denver Broncos in the divisional round of the playoffs before getting kicked down by the Dolphins 45-28 in the AFC Championship Game. As for the other three, though, they had a combined 7-24 showing when not lining up against their own.
1979 NFC West (record outside the division: 13-27/.325; -172)
The teams: Los Angeles Rams (9-7/4-6), New Orleans Saints (8-8/4-6), Atlanta Falcons (6-10/4-6), San Francisco 49ers (2-14/1-9)
All four teams had losing records outside the division, a feat that is unique on this list. And they were all outscored in their interdivisional action. On the other hand, the Rams made it all the way to the Super Bowl, pushing aside the Cowboys (21-19) and Tampa Bay Buccaneers (9-0) in the playoffs before the Steelers took them down in the big game 31-19. If you believe that producing a Super Bowl participant atones for a division's past sins, then consider the '79 NFC Westies forgiven.
THE 2008 CONTENDERS
2008 NFC North (record outside the division: 7-17/.292; -72)
The teams: Minnesota Vikings (5-5/3-3), Green Bay Packers (5-5/2-4), Chicago Bears (5-5/2-4), Detroit Lions (0-10/0-6)
The combination of no clear leader and the albatross that is Detroit Lions football in the 21st century keeps the NFC North in the mix for this most dubious of distinctions. The Lions host the undefeated Tennessee Titans on Thanksgiving Day, but they have to play the Bucs first. Add in a visit to Indy, and it looks like their only remote hope for a win outside the division would be against New Orleans. The Vikings host the Giants and have to visit the Cardinals. The rest of the schedule favors them getting out from under, however. None of the Bears' remaining opponents rank above 20th in the ESPN power rankings. Ditto for the Packers, aside from a visit from the Panthers.
2008 NFC West (record outside the division: 6-18/.250; -224)
The teams: Arizona Cardinals (7-3/3-3), San Francisco 49ers (3-7/1-4), Seattle Seahawks (2-8/0-6), St. Louis Rams (2-8/2-5)
Providence has delivered the Cardinals into a backyard filled with pushovers. They're 4-0 in the division, and have probably already clinched the division title, although to even suggest as much is to tempt the fate of a team whose total playoff appearances can be counted on two hands with enough fingers left over to throw up a sign. They are the best team by far in any of these three divisions, but their presence does not guarantee the NFC West can escape the "worst ever" designation. The NFC West has 16 games left outside the division (10 at home), the toughest of which occurs this Sunday when the 9-1 Giants visit the Cards. The 49ers and Seahawks both have to play the Jets and the resurgent Cowboys. None of their remaining non-divisional games are against the league's true lower orders.
2008 AFC West (record outside the division: 7-21/.250; -213)
AP Photo/Reed Hoffmann
Herm Edwards' Chiefs have made a solid contribution to the demise of the AFC West this season.
The teams: Denver Broncos (6-4/4-3), San Diego Chargers (4-6/2-5), Oakland Raiders (2-8/1-6), Kansas City Chiefs (1-9/0-7)
Only the Chargers have outscored their interdivision opponents. As a group, they have 12 games left outside the division, the toughest of which is probably Denver at Carolina, and the easiest of which is when Oakland hosts Houston. Both the Chargers and Raiders have to visit the Buccaneers, and the Broncos visit the Jets.
Which unit has the greatest chance of taking its place among the worst divisions ever? The NFC North has the easiest schedule from here on out, with the two West entries about even in that regard. The North also has three teams that might just be good enough to overcome the presence of the Lions. The AFC West has four fewer non-divisional games to go, meaning they don't have as much time to recover. Personally, I'd be hard-pressed to choose which of the two West divisions is more likely to maintain this particular level of excellence.
Jim Baker is a regular contributor to Page 2.