Before the season, the answer to this question was pretty cut and dry.
The NFC West came into 2020 with the defending conference champions (49ers), a team who was inches away from the top seed in the NFC in 2019 (Seahawks), the 2018 conference champions (Rams), and the most popular breakout pick in the league (Cardinals).
It was, and is, a stacked division. But through the first quarter of the 2020 NFL season, it looks like another is giving it a run for its money – the AFC North.
The Ravens were one of the league’s heaviest Super Bowl favorites, entering the season, so their 3-1 start is no surprise. The Steelers were also considered dark horse contenders, and became a popular pick in their own right to potentially upset Baltimore within the division.
It’s been the Ohio teams who have helped bring up the floor of the division, making it one of the NFL’s deepest, most exciting races just four weeks in. The Browns look completely revamped under a new regime, and the Bengals have received a jolt of energy thanks to future (and present?) star quarterback Joe Burrow.
With the division’s strong start, the question of who is the NFL’s best has begun circling around social media. So, let’s turn to a few numbers to try to answer that question.
Just four weeks into the season, only three divisions have a winning record outside their own division. Since winning is the ultimate goal, it’s probably safe to rule out divisions with a losing record right now. Sorry to the AFC East, AFC South, AFC West (the non-Chiefs teams are a combined 3-7), NFC East and NFC South.
We’re left with the NFC North, sitting at 6-4, the NFC West at an impressive 10-4, and the AFC North, with a league-best 8-2-1 record outside its division.
The AFC North is the only division with at least three teams with a winning percentage of at least .750, though the NFC West is the only group with no team below .500.
Here we find some more separation. Only four divisions have positive overall point differentials. The AFC West (+10) is one of them thanks to Kansas City’s heavy lifting, similar to the NFC North (+8) and Green Bay.
The AFC North (+69) and NFC West (+101) have huge leads here. The AFC North are helped immensely by Baltimore’s three wins coming by at least two touchdowns each, while the NFC West once again shows more depth. They are the only division with four teams in the positive, though the AFC North isn’t far behind – their worst mark is Cleveland’s -2.
With the AFC North and NFC West the last two divisions standing, let’s take a quick glance at their actual records.
Pittsburgh Steelers: 3-0
Baltimore Ravens: 3-1
Cleveland Browns: 3-1
Cincinnati Bengals: 1-2-1
Seattle Seahawks: 4-0
Los Angeles Rams: 3-1
Arizona Cardinals: 2-2
San Francisco 49ers: 2-2
What do the experts think? It’s easy for preseason biases to come into play just four weeks into the regular season, but it’s still interesting to see how the collective media views each division.
Once again, the AFC North and NFC West are far ahead of the pack here. Across six major outlets who put out weekly power rankings, the two divisions are neck and neck. The NFC West’s average team ranking is 10.8, while the AFC North’s teams average a ranking of 11.2.
For reference, the woeful NFC East’s average is 24.4, so numbers like 10.8 and 11.2 are remarkable.
Sometimes personal rankings are swayed by other factors than play on the field, so let’s wrap up with a look at team efficiency’s as ranked by Football Outsiders’ DVOA metric.
Unlike the experts’ opinion, the numbers here give the AFC North the edge. Their ranking is 10.5, while the NFC West falls slightly to 12.3.
By just about every metric, the Ravens, Steelers and Seahawks are top-six teams in the NFL right now. The Rams are typically near the bottom of the top 10, while the Browns, 49ers and Cardinals can be found in the 10-16 range.
It’s the Bengals who bring the AFC North slightly below the NFC West, though they appear to be a feisty team with a bright future thanks to Burrow. It’s likely they’ll continue to grow throughout the season, on offense at least.
It’s not clear which division is the definitive best. The NFC West is almost certainly deeper, but the AFC North likely has more true contenders. Ultimately, it comes down to what you value more when evaluating an overall division.
But if you’re a fan of a team in either the AFC North or NFC West, you are almost certainly in for an incredible ride throughout the rest of the 2020 NFL season. And considering the young talent and quality coaching in each division, it’s likely these two will find themselves atop the mountain for years to come.