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With NFL Playoff Spots Up For Grabs, Don’t Be Surprised If These Divisions Get Greedy

The Cleveland Browns just lost a crucial game they easily could have won, the Baltimore Ravens are a M.A.S.H. unit, the Cincinnati Bengals have been playing over their skis and the Pittsburgh Steelers might not make it to eight wins for the first time since 2003. Three of the AFC North’s four teams have taken turns as the oddsmakers’ division favorite since the season began — and the only one that hasn’t, Cincinnati, currently sits in second. It might feel like the division doesn’t have any good teams, but it certainly has four decent ones that are all remarkably evenly matched.

With Cincinnati and Baltimore tied for the division lead at 8-6, Pittsburgh in second place at 7-6-1, and basement-dwelling Cleveland at 7-7, the AFC’s Rust Belt division has an extremely high floor, at the very least. Though the Bengals are on top for now,1 the other three teams are all within one game — and still very much alive for the playoffs. With three games left to play for each team (and two of them head-to-head division matchups), NFL.com classifies the entire division as either “in the hunt” or “on the bubble” of the playoff picture.

On the other side of the league, we wondered back in October whether the NFC West could finish as the strongest division in NFL history. Between San Francisco’s up-and-down start and Russell Wilson’s finger surgery, the win-loss results since then haven’t been as impressive as it seemed like they could be. But the 49ers are on a 6-2 tear, and if the season ended today three NFC West teams would make the playoffs.

FiveThirtyEight’s Elo predictions give all four AFC North teams at least a 14 percent chance to make the postseason from this point, with the Ravens and Bengals leading the way at 60 percent and 48 percent, respectively.2 It’s as bunched a playoff situation as you’d expect from a division that has no sub-.500 teams and a collective record of 30-25-1, third-best among divisions. Every NFC West team’s playoff chances are alive as well, with the three top teams at 74 percent or better. Its combined record of 33-23 is the best of any division in football. In terms of wins and losses, both divisions (along with the AFC West) have been very competitive and successful this season.

An illustration of a football.

Related: Our 2021 NFL Predictions Read more. »

But we know wins and losses aren’t the only measures of NFL team strength. (Bad teams often post decent results, after all.) Our Elo power ratings are a more predictive metric. According to the classic version of Elo, Baltimore leads the AFC North with a 13th-ranked 1540; they’re the lowest-ranked first-place team. But just 69 points separate the Ravens from the Steelers. At 1504, Cleveland is the strongest last-place squad. That beats out the 116 points separating the NFC West’s best (the Rams) and worst (the Seahawks) for the closest division in football right now.

And it turns out the AFC North isn’t just the tightest division in the NFL this year, it’s the third-strongest overall despite its seeming mediocrity:

The NFC West and AFC North are competitive

Classic FiveThirtyEight Elo ratings by rank within each division and the division’s overall average Elo, 2021 season

Elo by Rank In Division
Division 1st 2nd 3rd 4th Range* Average
NFC West 1610 1555 1544 1508 102.5 1554.3
AFC West 1688 1534 1459 1451 236.8 1532.9
AFC North 1565 1508 1506 1496 69.4 1518.7
AFC East 1622 1620 1521 1292 330.3 1514.0
NFC South 1644 1576 1421 1395 249.1 1509.0
NFC East 1584 1519 1448 1392 192.5 1486.0
NFC North 1676 1535 1396 1336 339.9 1485.5
AFC South 1626 1556 1344 1233 392.4 1439.6

*The difference between the division’s highest- and lowest-rated teams.

Source: Pro-Football-Reference.com

The divisions stay notable even if we zoom out from this year. Using the complete Elo history of the NFL, we can stack up the 2021 AFC North and NFC West against every other division since 2002, when the NFL realigned to eight four-team divisions:

The 2013 NFC North was the only division in the 32-team era to finish more tightly than the 2021 AFC North sits right now, with a range of just 50 points separating first place from last. But that division was significantly weaker, with an average Elo rating of 1477 and a champion that finished 8-7-1 (the Green Bay Packers). Depending on how the last three weeks play out, it’s mathematically possible that all four AFC North teams finish with a better winning percentage than those 2013 Packers did.

And the NFC West is almost as tight as the AFC North is right now — while being significantly stronger.

With two teams in the Elo top 12, and Seattle ranking 19th despite their 5-9 record, the NFC West’s average Elo rating is 33 points higher than the AFC North’s, with a range that’s only 33.1 points bigger (and, so far, still the sixth-tightest ever). 79.7 percent of our model’s 50,000 simulations project the Cardinals, Rams, and 49ers all to qualify for the postseason — and incredibly, the Seahawks find a way to join the party in five (0.01 percent) of them.

At this point in the year, there’s no scenario in which all four AFC North teams make it into the playoffs in our model. But 539 (or 0.99 percent) of our model’s 50,000 simulations resulted in three getting in, and 38.9 percent resulted in two postseason entrants from the AFC North.

With three weeks left in the season, it’s unlikely the NFC West climbs much higher than its current 14th on the power rankings of 160 post-realignment divisions.3 But with plenty of head-to-head matchups to go, both of these divisions are in the conversation for the most competitive NFL division ever. Both divisions will factor heavily down the stretch run of the regular season — and, it’s very likely, down the road to the Super Bowl as well.

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Footnotes

  1. Thanks to a head-to-head tiebreaker over the Ravens; they play this Sunday.

  2. The Steelers sit at 19 percent, and the Browns are bringing up the rear at 14 percent.

  3. The AFC North ranks 63rd.

Ty Schalter is a husband, father and terrible bass player who uses words and numbers to analyze football. His work has been featured at VICE, SiriusXM and elsewhere.

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