The Cowboys and Eagles' duel for disappointment supremacy in 2019 produced one of the worst divisions in NFL history. But there have been a few that surpass last year's NFC East for sheer futility. Here are the worst divisions since the AFL-NFL merger.
With it clear that the two-time reigning AFC champion Broncos had fallen off their usual pace, the AFC West became a mediocre yet entertaining competition. The Broncos, Raiders and Seahawks voyaged into Week 15 at 7-7. Behind a four-touchdown night from running back Curt Warner, Seattle blitzed past Denver in a Sunday night Kingdome outing before Dave Krieg's 410-yard, four-TD pass day bested the Raiders in the season finale. The Seahawks ended the season with a division-best plus-10 point differential and lost their first playoff game to the eventual AFC champion Bengals. Seattle did not return to the playoffs until 1999.
In five seasons since 2007, the Bills-Dolphins-Jets troika has each finished with a negative point differential, giving the high-powered Patriots consistent margins for error. The '18 Pats endured three blowouts but still comfortably won the division at 11-5. Buffalo, Miami and New York each ended the season being outscored by over 100 points — the only time this happened during New England's run. The Bills and Jets each deployed rookie QBs in rebuilding years, and the second-place Dolphins (7-9) soon launched an aggressive rebuild. This futility helped the Pats become the first 11-win AFCer to secure a bye since 2002.
In Chuck Noll's third year, the Steelers had not quite put it together. The future superpower finished 6-8 and second in the Central — ahead of the four-win Bengals and Oilers, the latter going through a brutal early-'70s stretch. This left the Browns (9-5, plus-12 differential) in the driver's seat. Nick Skorich's first season as Cleveland's coach doubled as ex-Pro Bowler Bill Nelsen's final year as Cleveland's full-time QB. Cleveland beat defending Super Bowl champion Baltimore in Week 2, but despite the Browns winning their final five regular-season games, the Colts beat them, 20-3, in Johnny Unitas' final playoff win.
Perhaps the most unbalanced NFL season, 1989 produced seven 10-plus-win NFC teams and just one in the AFC. The Bills won this division but went 9-7 — their only sub-10-win slate from 1988-93 — and earned the label the "Bickering Bills" for several disputes. Said arguments involved Jim Kelly, Thurman Thomas and a fight between assistant coaches. It didn't matter. The Colts and the defensively challenged Dolphins each went 8-8, missing one of the easiest AFC playoff brackets to enter. The Jets (minus-158) and Pats combined for nine wins. The on-the-cusp Bills lost a second-round playoff shootout in Cleveland.
Although the Rams won seven straight NFC West titles in the 1970s, this was their only Super Bowl appearance in that span. The NFC champs went 9-7 despite playing in a friendly division; its teams went 13-27 in non-division play. Never able to find a steady quarterback during this run after trading Roman Gabriel, the Rams outscored the opposition by only 14 points in 1979. Fortunately for them, the Falcons and 49ers — in Bill Walsh's first year — won eight combined games. In their best 1970s season, the Saints went 8-8. After two road playoff wins, the Rams couldn't hold a late lead over the favored Steelers in Super Bowl XIV.
The Vikings' hopes at stringing together a run of NFC Central titles and winning the Herschel Walker trade vanished in 1990. In his first full Vikings season, Walker played 16 games but rushed for just 770 yards. The Vikings finished 6-10. A not especially memorable Bears team (10-6) strolled to the division title because the Packers, Lions and Buccaneers also finished 6-10. Jim Harbaugh threw 10 touchdown passes in 14 starts in a run-oriented offense. The Bears beat the 8-8 Saints in Round 1 of the playoffs but, to the chagrin of their "SNL" backers, then suffered a blowout loss to the the eventual Super Bowl champion Giants.
This division's lack of quality allowed the Packers to stay afloat while Aaron Rodgers rehabbed a broken collarbone. Green Bay's all-world passer missed six games, and the Packers lost backup Seneca Wallace in his first start. They moved to Scott Tolzien then old friend Matt Flynn, still winning the division at 8-7-1 when Rodgers returned for a do-or-die regular-season finale in Chicago . The Bears (8-8) lost Jay Cutler for a time but saw Josh McCown deliver in relief. The third-place Lions (7-9) finished with the division's only plus point differential.
After John McKay's Buccaneers rose from an 0-14 expansion team to playing in the 1979 NFC championship game, Tampa Bay's 1981 edition claimed a division title. However, the Doug Williams-led team went 9-7, beat no winning teams and lost, 38-0, to the Cowboys in its playoff opportunity. The Bucs went 6-2 in a division that featured two 8-8 teams — the Lions and Packers — and the 7-9 Vikings and 6-10 Bears. Detroit's plus-75 point differential led the way, while Minnesota was in transition. This was Chicago's final season before the Mike Ditka-Jim McMahon partnership revived the franchise.
Eli Manning's first Super Bowl march began in Tampa; that 24-14 game is rarely mentioned. The Buccaneers went 9-7 but still won this division by two games, with high-level journeyman Jeff Garcia securing Jon Gruden's most recent playoff berth. The 37-year-old quarterback teamed up with Joey Galloway to steer the Bucs to a January home game. The issue during much of Drew Brees' New Orleans years, the Saints could not overcome a poor defense. They and the Panthers (minus-80) went 7-9. The Falcons (4-12) in 2007 saw their quarterback go to prison and coach Bobby Petrino desert them. This led to the 2008 Matt Ryan pick.
Preseason expectations and a loaded NFC add to the misery here. The Eagles drew numerous preseason Super Bowl picks, but injuries and rampant inconsistency have left them in tatters going into their Week 16 Cowboys rematch. Dallas is arguably more culpable for this division's reputation, having shelled out immense cash this offseason to produce a 7-7 team that's gone 1-6 against teams with winning records. The East couldn't be on this list without the Giants' nine-game losing streak and Washington's continued ineptitude, however. The three-win teams may be vying for Chase Young on Sunday.
The Texans in 2016 signed Brock Osweiler to a disastrous four-year, $72 million contract, benched him that season and traded him before the '17 season began. They lost J.J. Watt early in the year, had a minus-49 point differential and dropped their Week 17 game to the 9-7 Titans. Houston still won the AFC South. The Colts went 8-8, but Andrew Luck took 41 sacks and suffered a career-altering shoulder injury. Blake Bortles' first major letdown led to the Jags going 3-13. They soon passed on Patrick Mahomes and Deshaun Watson. The Texans shipped out Osweiler a month before landing Watson.
The Rams dominated this division for much of the 1970s; they rarely encountered much resistance. The Falcons and Saints struggled for most of the decade, and in 1976 the NFL placed the expansion Seahawks in the NFC West. After going 2-12, Seattle was shipped to the AFC West. New Orleans and Atlanta each went 4-10. Collectively those three teams were outscored by 433 points. While the 49ers went 8-6, their Jim Plunkett trade quickly veered off course. Seven of Los Angeles' 10 wins came in division games. The Rams started three QBs in 1976 but rode their defense to the NFC championship game.
The Cardinals went 9-7 and, at plus-1, were the only NFC West team to outscore their opponents. Kurt Warner's bunch lost four games by at least 19 points, including a 47-7 defeat to the Tom Brady-less Patriots, and were 20th in DVOA. But the 49ers (7-9 in Mike Singletary's "I want winners" season), Seahawks (4-12) and especially dreadful Rams (2-14, which began a franchise-worst stretch) were no threat. The division went 10-30 against non-NFC West foes. The Cards raised the division's profile in January, though, when Larry Fitzgerald's historic seven-touchdown playoffs nearly powered them to a championship.
Decades before the 8-8 division champion became an annual possibility, the 1985 Browns blazed a trail. Marty Schottenheimer and Bernie Kosar's first season together produced an 8-8 record and a minus-7 differential. The Browns did not even need to win their season finale to gain playoff access, thanks to the Steelers and Bengals going 7-9 and the rebuilding Oilers finishing 5-11. Earnest Byner and Kevin Mack became the third duo to each rush for 1,000 yards, and the backs' 200-plus-yard day in Miami staked Cleveland to a 21-3 second-round lead. The Browns lost that lead but were an AFC power for the rest of the decade.
Two years before Kurt Warner's renaissance season led the Cardinals to the Super Bowl, team brass viewed the Hall of Famer as a stopgap and drafted Matt Leinart 10th overall. Leinart took the reins in late September for a 5-11 Cards team that could not compete even in a dreadful division. As they usually did in this period, the Seahawks won this division, going 9-7. But every '06 NFC West team had a negative point differential. The 7-9 49ers led the way on that front, at minus-114, in Alex Smith's second year. Seattle managed to win a playoff game, but Tony Romo's infamous PAT bobble aided that effort.
Wild swings put the Broncos and Chargers on a collision course. Denver became the first team to blow a three-game division lead with three to play, losing that edge to San Diego. But it took a Dwayne Bowe botched onside kick recovery in Week 15 to even put the 5-8 Bolts in position to make this happen. Both teams went 8-8. Denver (minus-78) got there with Ed Hochuli's help in the first San Diego matchup. The Chiefs and Raiders combined for seven wins and a minus-274 differential. After the Bolts mauled the Broncos in Week 17, an electric Darren Sproles night enabled a team that started 4-8 to upset the 12-4 Colts in Round 1.
Every member of this quintet posted a point differential between minus-10 and minus-21. Fran Tarkenton's final season came for a declining Vikings team, but both they and the Packers went 8-7-1. Bart Star's team won just one of its final seven games, the pre-Lynn Dickey-era Packers enduring QB issues. The 7-9 Bears had those beat, with their passers restraining reigning MVP Walter Payton by combining for a staggering 7-28 TD-INT ratio. In their third season, the Bucs showed signs of life in going 5-11. Tarkenton's final game came in a 34-10 divisional-round loss to the Rams.
Competitive mediocrity existed in the Central between the Purple People Eaters years and Buddy Ryan's 46 defense. The last such gap year produced the Lions' only division title between 1957 and 1991. Detroit went 9-7 and gave San Francisco a divisional-round scare. But this season was an aberration, with the Lions struggling for most of the '80s. Their William Gay-Doug English defensive line tandem combined for 26.5 sacks in 1983. The Bears, Packers and Vikings went 8-8. Per their usual during this era, the Bucs dragged down the division. Their trade for ex-top-three QB pick Jack Thompson backfired in a 2-14 season.
Tim Tebow completed 46.5 percent of his passes but led the Broncos (8-8, minus-81) to a six-game win streak once Mike McCoy transformed the offense for the run-oriented QB. The popular southpaw's playoff, walk-off pass to Demaryius Thomas became a signature 21st-century play, but John Elway traded Tebow two months later. Denver needed consistently clutch defense and a few long Matt Prater field goals to enable "Tebowmania" and received help from a mediocre AFC West. The Chiefs lost Matt Cassel to injury for a spell and went 7-9, while the 8-8 Chargers ruined the 8-8 Raiders' division title hopes with a Week 17 knockout win.
Kirk Cousins' " You like that! " season produced a 9-7 record and some of Washington's passing marks falling, but the Redskins beat no winning teams and lost a one-sided wild-card game to the Packers. This season also featured unimposing Cowboys and Eagles squads, the former playing without an injured Tony Romo most of the way in a 4-12 effort and the latter ending its Chip Kelly experiment that December. The 7-9 Eagles did beat the 6-10 Giants in Tom Coughlin's finale, however. Washington's plus-9 differential led the way in a season that was in no way indicative of the division's future.
This division had J.J. Watt...and little else. Watt won his third Defensive Player of the Year award and helped a limited Texans team to 9-7, with Bill O'Brien toggling between QBs Brian Hoyer and Ryan Mallett. One of two teams to start 1-4 and make the AFC playoffs that year, Houston lost 30-0 to a surging Kansas City team in the playoffs. This season marked the beginning of Andrew Luck's injury woes, with the Colts losing their rising star after seven games. Blake Bortles threw a garbage time-fueled 35 touchdown passes; the Jags went 5-11. The Titans went 3-13 in Marcus Mariota's rookie year.
The 1984 Steelers enjoyed astonishing early-season circumstances. The Bengals started 0-5, the Browns 1-8 and the Oilers 0-10. Yet Pittsburgh stood 7-7 after a December Astrodome defeat. Terry Bradshaw retired after the '83 season, giving way to Mark Malone, who helped John Stallworth to a vintage year (1,395 yards). But the Steelers (9-7) barely held off a Bengals team that rallied back to 8-8. The Browns and Oilers combined for eight wins, the latter being outscored by 197 points. This group went 13-27 in non-division games. Pittsburgh advanced to the AFC title game, meeting a scorching-hot Dan Marino.
We return to the aughts NFC West, which sent two teams to the playoffs in 2004. Both were outscored over the course of the season, and Rams-Seahawks III received the undesired Saturday afternoon wild-card slot. The 8-8 Rams beat the 9-7 Seahawks for a third time, despite ranking 30th in DVOA. Michael Vick's Falcons routed the overmatched team in Round 2. The 49ers traded Terrell Owens and cut Jeff Garcia. Giving the keys to Tim Rattay and ex-Miami Hurricanes star Ken Dorsey produced a 2-14 record that led to 2005's Alex Smith-over-Aaron Rodgers decision. This division did, however, provide Jerry Rice's final games ( collector's item).
After the NFC West's teams spent years in plot development during the worst division run in NFL history, the climax did not disappoint. The 6-9 Seahawks beat the 7-8 Rams in a flexed "Sunday Night Football" spot to win the division, doing so with a minus-97 point differential. Matt Hasselbeck's four-touchdown pass night (and that run) showed how pivotal division titles are. Seven- or eight-win home teams are 4-1 in the playoffs since 2002. The 49ers went 6-10 in their last pre-Jim Harbaugh season, and the Cardinals went 5-11 following Kurt Warner's retirement. The Rams' mediocre 2010 came in between two-, one- and two-win seasons.
An upset, sure, but consider how this went down. In between a 12-win 2013 and 2015's Cam Newton-piloted Super Bowl run, the Panthers won this division despite not winning a game between Oct. 6 and Dec. 6. Their 7-8-1 record bettered the 2010 Seahawks' mark, with a better point differential (minus-35), but collectively, this NFC South quartet went 22-41-1. Tampa Bay's 2-14 season, which set up its Jameis Winston pick, seals this division's place. The Saints ranked 31st defensively in a 7-9 slate; the Falcons went 6-10. The Panthers did manage to win their wild-card game, but it involved Cardinals third-stringer Ryan Lindley.
Sam Robinson is a Kansas City, Mo.-based writer who mostly writes about the NFL. He has covered sports for nearly 10 years. Boxing, the Royals and Pandora stations featuring female rock protagonists are some of his go-tos. Occasionally interesting tweets @SRobinson25.