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Where Bills-Jets Ranks Among The NFL’s Worst Division Rivalries

After kicking off the NFL season with a Super Bowl rematch, Thursday Night Football is a little less exciting in Week 2. First of all, it’s one of those annoying “color rush” games, the NFL’s excuse to sell a few extra jerseys by dressing teams up in garish monochrome duds. (But hey, at least people with red-green color blindness will actually be able to follow the action this year.) More importantly, it’s also Jets vs. Bills — the NFL’s fourth-worst division rivalry of the post-merger era.

At least, that’s according to our Elo ratings, which gauge the strength of each NFL team at any given moment in time. Since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger, 29 pairs of teams have played at least 85 games against each other while belonging to the same division,1 and the Jets and Bills are among the most frequent of those pairings, having played as division rivals in every season but one since the merger. (They didn’t face off in the strike-shortened 1982 campaign.) Unfortunately, they’re also both among the NFL’s losingest teams over that span; the Jets have the league’s sixth-worst winning percentage since 1970, and Buffalo has its 10th-worst.

Even when the Bills and Jets have actually been good, it’s seldom come at the same time. Neither team did especially well in the 1970s, and although the Jets had their moments in the early 1980s — they made the playoffs four times between 1981 and 1986 — they’d already faded by the time the Bills assembled their great AFC dynasty of the 1990s. Both teams made the playoffs in 1998, but the Bills started wandering through the wilderness shortly afterwards, while the Jets have been about a .500 ballclub in the 21st century.

So if we average together New York and Buffalo’s Elo ratings at the time of each matchup, they come out to 1475.7, the fourth-lowest average out of the 29 pairs of division rivals I mentioned above. (Only the Bears and Lions, Bengals and Browns,2 and Saints and Falcons were worse.) They’ve also simultaneously boasted pregame Elo ratings above 1500 — the mark of an average team — only 15.2 percent of the time, also fourth-worst since the merger.

GAMES PLAYED
RIVALRY PRIMARY DIVISION TOTAL SHARE WITH ABOVE-AVG. ELOS AVG. ELO
Cleveland v. Cincinnati AFC Central 85 14.1% 1470
New Orleans v. Atlanta NFC West 92 14.1 1474
Chicago v. Detroit NFC Central 91 11.0 1474
Buffalo v. NY Jets AFC East 92 15.2 1476
Detroit v. Green Bay NFC Central 94 16.0 1488
Detroit v. Minnesota NFC Central 91 22.0 1496
Chicago v. Green Bay NFC Central 91 22.0 1504
Buffalo v. New England AFC East 91 16.5 1505
NY Giants v. Philadelphia NFC East 96 36.5 1506
Kansas City v. San Diego AFC West 93 29.0 1506
The NFL’s worst division rivalries (1970-2016)

Includes all games through Week 2 of the 2016 NFL season.

Source: pro-football-reference.com

And perish the thought that both would be good at the same time — only two Bills-Jets matchups have ever seen each team come in with an Elo of 1550 or better (think a solid 9- to 10-win team).

All that said, Thursday night’s game does fall into the category of better-than-average Bills-Jets matchups, somehow. Although Buffalo and New York each dropped their Week 1 games, Elo still thinks they’re both decent teams, with ratings propped up by a pair of nonlosing seasons last year. In fact, 2015’s regular-season finale (which Buffalo won to spoil the Jets’ playoff hopes) also saw both teams enter the game with above-average Elo ratings, making Thursday’s matchup only the fifth time in the rivalry — and the first time since 2000 — that each was above the 1500 Elo mark in back-to-back games.

So if you find yourself watching a couple of teams dressed in kitschy uniforms fight over Rex Ryan’s pride Thursday night, remember that things could be so much worse. In the grand scheme of the Jets-Bills rivalry, this is just about as good as it gets.

Footnotes

  1. Why use 85 games as the cutoff? Because after those 29 pairs, the list of most frequent post-merger division rivals drops sharply from 85 matchups to 66, as we start to delve into pairings that haven’t happened since the NFL re-aligned in 2002.

  2. Treating the old Browns (before they became the Ravens) and the new Browns as one entity.

Neil Paine is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

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