This picture has no relevance to this story. - Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
One man's conversation over barbecue turns into a historical research mission. That's typically how it happens.
My life currently consists of three aspects: Working my minimum wage job at the local barbecue place, school, and weekend tomfoolery. The work part is the necessary evil that lets me support the weekend aspect of my current life. Some days I hang out in the kitchen and put potato salad on plates. Others I manage the cash register. Working the register I deal with a wide variety of creatures, help them with their orders and engage in the usual, "What's going on" sort of small talk.
The other day, while I was perched behind my throne, a customer asked, "So you are a Texans fan, eh?" He saw the bull's horns peeking out from the top of my dishwater soaked, rub covered blue apron like a shark's fin skimming the top of the Pacific Ocean.
"How do you feel about last season and the playoff loss?" he asked with a smile on his face. Most of the conversations I have at work involve how terrible a playcaller Jason Garrett is, it's not Tony Romo's fault Dallas is 4-6, and if DeMarco Murray could ever stay healthy for a season he would be an All-Pro; it's the usual Dallas Cowboys nonsense that I have grown accustomed to while being surrounded by Cowboys fans in the Hill Country. I was utterly surprised when someone asked me about the team from Houston.
"Oh, the 12-4 last season was a lot of fun. I am more upset over the last four weeks of the season than the playoffs. Houston does not match up well against New England. If they had gone 2-2 to end the season, they would have been the one seed. If that had happened, they would have played the winner of Baltimore and Indy (barring a Cincinnati upset of the Pats) and would have had the chance to play the Pats/Broncos at Reliant Stadium for the AFC Championship where anything could have happened. They have some holes at WR, NT, and ILB, but they should be fine for next season," I replied. I tend to talk people's ears off about sports during work as a way to ease the boredom of my job.
He stared at me with a dull look on his face. I could tell he was preparing what he was going to say next and waiting for his turn to talk rather than listening to my eloquent prose.
"Yeah, I'm a Cowboys fan and I am still pissed about the Week 17 game." He continued to talk, "You know what Houston's problem is-"
I felt like he was my 19-year-old brother who starts every sentence when we are in an argument as, "You know what your problem is, blah blah blah."
Whenever a fan of the Cowboys tries to talk about the Texans, my brain shuts off. It's a defense mechanism that has evolved due to the result of ridiculous inane conversation after conversation. All logic and reasoning is thrown out the window for emotion and pathos. Some of the following are statements I have heard from Cowboys fans during verbal bouts I have had with them:
- I would love for Watt to play for Dallas (every team in the NFL would love this), but I would still take DeMarcus Ware over him.
- Dez Bryant does not have problems off the field.
- Houston will get beat by 17 against Cincinnati.
- If Dallas were in the AFC South, they would go 14-2 and win the division easily.
- And my personal favorite: If Romo were quarterback of the Texans, y'all would have won the Super Bowl this year.
So before the customer finished his sentence, I was ready for the frothing garbage about to spew from his mouth.
"Houston never plays anyone good during the regular season because of their division and are never prepared to play great teams in the playoffs because of it. That's why the Ravens beat them last year and the Pats beat them this year," he said.
"That does not make any sense. Houston played Denver, New England, Baltimore, Green Bay and Indy twice. All of those teams made the playoffs this year. Yeah, Houston got to play the Jags twice, but Dallas got to play the abysmal 4-12 Eagles twice as well." I countered.
"I don't care. Your division is weak and that's why y'all lost."
"Division power is all cyclical. Also a team plays the three other teams in its conference that finish in the same place in their respective divisions."
He then snuck off after my last statement to fill up his Coke while I was left pondering in thought. Are divisions really cyclical? Or is it one of those commonly accepted facts that are actually wrong? Is it nothing more than one of those statements like blood is blue in your veins and the exposure to oxygen is what turns it red or that unemployment rate is actually a good measure of the economy (it isn't).
Luckily, we live in an age where you can find out whatever information you want if you put the time looking into it instead of sputtering nonsense like the customer who's always wrong.
After doing some research, when I should be studying (screw opportunity cost), I found the following.
At first glance, the NFC West is the worst division of all time. The 2008 teams went 22-42, and the Cardinals won the division by going 9-7 and then shocked the world with their improbable Super Bowl run. The NFC West is an argument for the idea that divisions are cyclical. The NFC West is now setting itself up to be the best division in the NFL with two young, dynamic quarterbacks, smart front offices, and the Rams will continue to get better under Jeff Fisher. Houston should have a fun time playing against that slaughterhouse this upcoming season.
Another thing that is noticeable is that the AFC South was 31-33 this past year, which is the same overall record as the NFC East. If any team feasted on a weak division, it was the Broncos. Denver's only losses came against the Texans, Falcons, and Patriots; the Broncos then murdered a division that boasted a pukeworthy record of 26-38.
The NFC is a better than the AFC right now, which was displayed in the Pro Bowl last year. The AFC has four great teams (Ravens 10-6, Texans 12-4, Pats 12-4, Broncos 13-3) and the bottom teams like the 2-14 Chiefs and 2-14 Jaguars sour the the rest of the conference. Every NFC division finished above .500. except for the NFC South, whose record consisted of a 13-3 Falcons team and three remaining teams that finished 7-9. The entire division should be tougher in 2013 with a year more of experience for Cam Newton and Josh Freeman, and the reunification of Drew Brees and Sean Payton. The NFC is a better conference overall, but the top teams in the AFC compare favorably with the NFC.
It seems that every division goes through either an up or down swing every five to eight years. The AFC North started off the first two years of division realignment at 38-35-1 and 29-35, only to knock out nine straight years of .500+ seasons (in 2008, they finished .492). The AFC South and AFC East remained very consistent, thanks to having Tom Brady and Peyton Manning leading their teams to division championship after division championship. Whenever Brady retires, the AFC East will drop down to AFC West levels unless Ryan Tannehill becomes everything the Dolphins dreamed of. For example, when Peyton Manning started his injury-riddled decline and then was out for 2011, the AFC South's wins dropped to 38, 30, 26 before getting bumped up to 31 this past year after the Colts drafted Andrew Luck.
The AFC West is the exact opposite of the AFC South and AFC East. Every year, they have a division winner that goes 13-3 and the rest of the division finishes 7-9, 5-11, and 3-13.
This eight-year trend can also be seen in the NFC West and the NFC North. The NFC West had nine of their ten overall division records below .500 only to bump up from 25-39 to 34-28-2 in the last two years. The NFC North went through the same phenomenon, but went through a much moderate six of seven under .500 and have not been a losing division since.
In conclusion, divisions do appear to be cyclical. This is mostly due to quarterbacks and how it takes around three years for them to enter their prime, which in turn lasts for about six years (unless you are Tom Brady or Peyton Manning). These top quarterbacks stay atop the division year after year, minus sum abbreviations, and the division keeps high win/loss records because of the changing of the guard for 10-6 second place teams. Or you can have a case like the AFC North that has had the Steelers and Ravens battling it out year after year; when one of them falters, the Bengals are their to pick up the slack. Due to this trend, Houston will have a rough next couple of years as the Colts, Jaguars, and Titans should keep getting better.