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Division formula: Passers, history, coaches equal NFC East

by | CBSSports.com Senior Writer
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I think we can all agree that the NFL is a passing league. I mean, when you have 10 quarterbacks throw for more than 4,000 yards each, six receivers crack 100 catches and Peyton Manning named league MVP for the fourth time the conclusion is inescapable.

But does that tell us anything we don't already know? I say it does. I say it helps point us to which divisions are the strongest -- meaning the best divisions should have the best quarterbacks, and I'm talking as a group, not individuals.

QBs like Eli Manning and Tony Romo set the NFC East apart. (Getty Images)  
QBs like Eli Manning and Tony Romo set the NFC East apart. (Getty Images)  
With rare exception that seems to be the case, which means you can start tabulating. On second thought, forget it. I already did the work, ranking divisions according to passer ratings, then combining that number with each division's average defensive ranking.

Result: One division was the runaway winner, and it was the NFC East.

Surprised? I'm not. Yeah, I know, New Orleans won the Super Bowl, and the NFC East didn't make it to the conference championship game. I don't care. I'm talking about the strongest division top to bottom, and the NFC East would be my choice even without the math. I mean, your last place team is Washington, yet the Redskins have Mike Shanahan and Donovan McNabb this year. Tell me which last-place team in another division beats them.

Tampa Bay? Nope. Buffalo? I don't think so. Kansas City. Uh-uh. Detroit? Please.

The NFC East is so balanced, one through four, I've heard some people this spring tout Philadelphia for last. I don't know about that one. Andy Reid has the second-best winning percentage among active coaches who've been around for 100 games, which is one reason to love this division. It has decorated coaches galore. Tom Coughlin won a Super Bowl. Mike Shanahan won two. Reid made it to one and reached five conference championship games in eight years. Wade Phillips won two of the last three division titles.

It also has history on its side, with the division sending at least two clubs to the playoffs in each of the last five years and seven of the past eight. What's more, in two of the last four seasons it qualified three teams for the postseason.

But it's the quarterbacks that sell me. You will not find a better group anywhere -- and I emphasize, group -- and that includes the inexperienced Kevin Kolb, who threw for over 300 yards in his only two career starts. You have McNabb, Tony Romo and Eli Manning, each of whom scored 92.9 or better in his passer rating a year ago and all of whom have playoff experience. Now add Kolb's 88.9 finish, and you have an aggregate of 94.11, the best of the league's eight divisions.

Its average defensive ranking is 11th, with all four clubs settling in between the number nine and 13 spots. That's what I call consistent. Combine it with passer ratings, and it's unbeatable.

The AFC North finished a distant second, largely on the strength of its defenses. It ranked sixth in passer ratings, with Cleveland bogging the division down, but was first in defense -– with three teams (OK, everyone but the Browns) among the league's top five defenses.

The AFC South and NFC North tied for third, and I have no problem there, but you might. That's because both divisions were slightly ahead of the AFC East, and there are a lot of people out there who think the East is among the strongest -– especially with the Jets poised to flex their muscles after last year's playoffs.

Maybe. But the AFC East still has Buffalo, a club that hasn't had a winning season since 2004 and hasn't reached the playoffs in 10 years. And while quarterbacks Mark Sanchez and Chad Henne are promising, each has one year of starting experience. Plus, the Bills still haven't settled on a starter, which is another way of saying that Trent Edwards must take a step forward.

Settling in at seventh is the AFC West, while dead last -- and I mean so far back it faded into last year -- is the NFC West, and I don't know many of you out there who'd a problem with either of those choices. The AFC West each year is little more than a game of solitaire for San Diego, with Denver failing to produce a winning season in three years, Kansas City losing 35 of its last 41 starts and the Oakland Raiders on a roll of seven straight seasons with at least 11 losses.

And the NFC West? Welcome to another one-team division. All you must do here is play winning football, and the division is yours. I'm serious. Look at the NFC West finishes the past six seasons, and tell me what stands out. I'll spare you the trouble: Only one team each year had a winning season.

A year ago it was Arizona. The year before that, Arizona. And the four seasons before that? Seattle, please step forward. The quarterback play has tailed off so badly that San Francisco's Alex Smith -- a guy the 49ers are still waiting on -- is the division's highest-rated returner, while the highest-ranked defense is the 49ers' 15th-ranked unit.

Anyway, that's a long way of saying the toughest division to win this season should be the NFC East. For years you could count on Washington playing hard but taking a seat at the back of the class. Not anymore. I don't know what to make of the Redskins, but I have to think that Shanahan and McNabb change some of those close defeats into victories, with Washington dropping six games by six or fewer points a year ago.

I don't know what to make of Philadelphia, either, other than I would never, ever, ever, underestimate Reid. Two years ago disgruntled fans and irate talk-radio hosts wanted to run him and McNabb out of town after a listless midseason tie with Cincinnati. But Reid and McNabb didn't go away, and neither did the Eagles, reaching the playoffs and making it to the conference championship game for the fifth time in eight seasons.

Patience, people. Your team plays in the toughest division in the NFL, and if you don't believe me wait a few months. Then you'll see for yourself.

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