Final NFL Division Report

In 2010, the NFL began its practice of having all games in the final week of the regular season be played within the same division.

The reviews have been decidedly mixed.

On the one hand, the new policy has — if only very slightly — reduced the number of meaningless games in Week 17 from 2010 through 2020, and in Week 18 since.

But on the other hand, it has produced a suffocating monotonousness that many have found troubling: in every year of the policy's existence except one — from 2020 to 2021 — the same Week 17/18 matchups have repeated in at least one division; and in 2013-2014 and 2019-2020 the same Week 17/18 matchups were repeated in four divisions. And the Buccaneers ended their 2018, 2019, and 2020 regular seasons at Atlanta — three years in a row.

There is no reason why the NFL can't rotate all season-ending matchups according to a six-year cycle, so that, for example, the Bears and the Packers (and thus also the Lions and the Vikings) will end the regular season with games against each other every three years — once at home and once away.

But getting to the main topic: Below are the final standings of the league's eight divisions, ranked by record in games played outside the division.

1. AFC North — 31-13
2. NFC North — 23-21*
3. NFC West — 23-21*
4. AFC South — 22-22
5. AFC East — 21-23+
6. NFC East — 21-23+
7. AFC West — 20-24
8. NFC South — 15-29

*NFC North was 3-1 vs. NFC West
+AFC East was 9-7 vs. NFC East

(The AFC won the interconference season series by a decisive 46 victories to 34 for the NFC, after the NFC had narrowly won it in both 2022 and 2021, going 41-39 and 40-39-1 against the AFC in those respective years.)

Except for the two outliers — the AFC North and the NFC South (which did even worse than last year's 17-27) — the rest of the divisions finished tightly bunched. And it just so happens that in 2024 the same two divisions — the AFC West and the NFC East — will be playing both the AFC North and the NFC South, with the result being that the differences in strength of schedule will be the smallest in recent memory.

The NFL did do this once before — in response to the first players' strike in 1982, which was originally going to wipe eight weeks off that season's schedule. They added a ninth week of games at the end of the season, with that week's 14 games constructed from bits and pieces of the eight canceled weeks (concomitantly dropping the totally useless idle week between the conference championship games and the Super Bowl), with all but two of the games being same-division affairs (in 1982, four of the NFL's six divisions had five teams and the other two had four teams).

It should be interesting to see what the NFL does if and when it expands beyond its present 32 teams, creating divisions with an odd number of teams once again — two in a 34-team league, or four in a 36-team league.

In that case, the practice of having all of the final week's games be within the same division will have to go — just like the practice of having the top four teams from each division in the previous season's standings having their byes in the same week ended when "Cleveland 2.0" entered the league in 1999. (It could have been brought back when the Houston Texans were admitted to the NFL in 2002, creating eight divisions of four teams each — but it was not proceeded with.)

What would be so terribly wrong with the Ravens playing the Chiefs in Week 18 next season, with a first-round bye and home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs on the line?

Such a game would be an easy choice for the Sunday night game — and would very likely set an all-time ratings record for a regular-season game.

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