Which division is the NFL's best?

The NFC North is arguably (in sports, what's inarguable, after all?) the best division in the NFL this year. There's a good chance both of the conference's wild card teams will come from it if Detroit is able to steal a big win against the Saints next week and Hanie is able to make things happen the way Cutler does. If the Packers are able to protect Rodgers against the Giant's front four in East Rutherford, it's not difficult to see Green Bay going 19-0. The 49ers have a soft enough schedule to conceivably finish the regular season 14-2, which will be enough to keep the Pack from making preseason games out of their last couple (although the Bears and especially the Lions could both benefit if the 49ers falter down the stretch--before one of them falls to their division foe in the divisional round and maybe the other in the conference championship).

For the NFC North to be so dominant feels unusual. As someone who learned the game while living in Dallas during the early and mid-nineties, I've seen "my" team (which I begrudgingly have to share with the rest of America!) take some tough breaks due to the strength of their division rivals over the years. Every division has its dog except for the two Easts. Talking to a friend last night who lives in the DC area, he suggested what I deem the Redskins (and Bills) "lost decade" was in large part due to the same (though it's hard not to argue that Dan Snyder's capriciousness deserves a lot of blame, too).

To give some relevance to the above, let's use it as a segue into the purpose of the post--creating an empirically determined ranking of the eight NFL divisions since the league tidily realigned itself in 2002 up through the end of last year. The following table shows regular season win percentage among the four teams in each respective division, after backing out all divisional play and excluding the handful of ties that have occurred over those nine seasons:

Win %
1. AFC South
2. NFC East
3. AFC East
4. NFC South
5. AFC North
6. AFC West
7. NFC North
8. NFC West

No surprises in the way the rankings shake out, except perhaps for how far down the list this year's top division falls and that the AFC South rather than the AFC East is king of the hill. Detroit has just been really, really bad for a really long time (they were 37-107 from 2002 to 2010). That, and to a lesser extent the mediocrity of the Vikings, is why. And the Colts have been as stellar as the Lions have been terrible over the same period of time. It's not absurdly hyperbolic to say that Peyton Manning, almost single-handedly, lifted the division to the top. Without him, we're witnessing the division come crashing down. But hey, at least the Texans will finally get that elusive playoff berth and rid the league of its last postseason virgin.

The NFC West's showing is awful. That the Seahawks won it last year despite a losing record typifies what has been unending ugliness since Kurt Warner, Tory Holt, and Marshall Faulk (remember the "greatest show on turf"?) were at their best.

It's worth noting that the geographic dominance of the SEC that shows up in college football (those guys are blacker faster!) also exists to a noticeable extent in the NFL. The South and East divisions are better than the North and West divisions are in both conferences (the AFC North is somewhat exceptional, with two regularly good and two regularly not-so-good teams). I don't follow college football closely enough to have a sense of how much of a role, if any, geographic proximity to where they played in college ends up influencing where the bulk of new professional players sign, though, so maybe this is just coincidental.