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The NFC East Could Produce A 6-10 Playoff Team

If there’s one thing that can unite a diverse group of NFL fans, it’s ridiculing awful divisions. I think it’s a kind of defense mechanism: We know divisions are at root arbitrary and buck at the notion of a sub-.500 squad making the playoffs (and hosting a game!) while the superior runners-up of other divisions sit at home (which is stupid).

That brings us to this year’s Division of Shame, the NFC East. No team in the division is over .500. None has an Elo rating1 better than the league average, and the division’s best team by Elo (Philadelphia) has only a 37 percent chance of winning the division, meaning that an even weaker team could very well represent it in the playoffs. Dallas would have to win Monday night’s game against Washington by 20 or more to reach a league-average Elo rating; Washington has no chance of hitting average, no matter their scoring margin tonight. The division is thoroughly devoid of excellence, and there’s a good chance that will hold true through the end of the regular season.

In our NFL predictions module, we use Elo ratings to simulate the remainder of the 2015 schedule 20,000 times, and we can track how often those simulations call for the winner of each division to end up with any given record. According to Elo, the eventual NFC East winner has a 77 percent probability of finishing 8-8 or worse, with a 29 percent chance of at best matching the 2010 Seattle Seahawks for the worst record by a playoff team in NFL history at 7-9:

PROBABILITY OF WINNER HAVING THIS RECORD OR WORSE
DIVISION AVERAGE WINS 9-7 8-8 7-9 6-10
NFC South 15.2 0% 0% 0% 0%
AFC East 13.1 0 0 0 0
AFC West 12.9 0 0 0 0
NFC West 12.7 0 0 0 0
AFC North 12.5 0 0 0 0
NFC North 10.9 2 0 0 0
AFC South 9.1 69 20 1 0
NFC East 7.9 98 77 29 2

And it could get worse. Before the season, USA Today’s Chris Chase speculated about the worst record a playoff team could ever realistically have, short of technically possible but practically impossible scenarios, such as no team in a division beating a non-divisional opponent and all intra-division games ending in ties. He settled on 6-10 as the most remote practical possibility. Fast forward nearly four months, and our Elo simulations say there’s roughly a 2 percent chance that the NFC East winner will end up with exactly that record, thereby setting a new — and perhaps unbreakable — achievement in the field of “getting in by default.”

Should that happen, the 2015 NFC East would be the subject of undying scorn. Yet there’s also evidence that it hasn’t been nearly as bad as some of the NFL’s other “worst division of all-time” candidates. The NFC East’s collective winning percentage in non-division games is 33 percent, which currently ranks 17th-worst in history, but its members have also gotten a bit unlucky in close games outside the division. The division’s Pythagorean winning percentage — i.e., the win rate we’d expect based on points scored and allowed, which is traditionally a better predictor of future outcomes than raw winning percentage — in those games is 42 percent, a mark that doesn’t even rank in the bottom fifth of all divisions since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger.

In fact, that number isn’t the worst of 2015 — the AFC South’s Pythagorean percentage outside the division is 37 percent. And the average NFC East team’s Elo rating isn’t the lowest of any division in football right now, either:

ELO RATING NON-DIVISION RECORD
DIVISION AVERAGE STANDARD DEVIATION WIN% PYTHAG%
AFC East 1536 116 63% 61%
AFC North 1515 143 47 55
NFC West 1554 145 53 54
NFC South 1497 133 62 53
AFC West 1532 145 53 52
NFC North 1520 87 53 46
NFC East 1471 32 33 42
AFC South 1414 111 35 37

What’s striking about the NFC East, though, is just how bunched together the teams are. Through 13 weeks of the season, the standard deviation of its teams’ Elo ratings is the fifth-lowest of any division since the NFL expanded to eight divisions in 2002. Translation: This year’s NFC East is unique in that every team is almost exactly the same amount of meh as the others. That parity in available talent is a major reason why every NFC East team is within a game of each other in terms of their records within the division.

If the NFC East champion does end up assuming a place alongside the worst division winners of all time, it will be an undeniably great thing for the NFL’s schadenfreudist fan base. But it’s also worth noting the unusual confluence of intra-divisional parity and plain bad luck outside the division that will have helped the NFC East make history.

Check out our NFL predictions for each team’s chances of advancing to the playoffs and winning Super Bowl 50.

Footnotes

  1. A measure of team strength that updates with the outcome of every game.

Neil Paine is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

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