Monday, September 13, 2010

Best division in sports

The divisions in sports are usually geographic, and sometimes arbitrary. But there is no doubt that divisional opponents are oftentimes the key to victory. Living in a weak division can lead to unobstructed trips to the playoffs. Just ask the Arizona Cardinals or San Diego Chargers. However, get stuck in a death trap of talent and you may flounder in unimportance for a decade. Orioles fans know what this feels like.

So what is truly the best division in sports? The past few years it was probably the NFL's NFC East. All four teams were talented and solid. Three of the four could and would challenge for the conference title each year. The Redskins, meanwhile, were a good team stuck in a bad place, a la the Toronto Bluejays. Yet this seems to have passed, at least by what the first week of the 2010 NFL season has shown us. I know, it is way too early to make season judgments but judging the strength of a division may be clear after one go around. The NFC East is a bit down.

The Eagles, after trading away their franchise quarterback, have some rebuilding to go through. Whether Kevin Kolb or Michael Vick is quarterback going forward (and let's hope it's the latter) this team will hit some bumps. Not to mention, the defense is not what it once was. The Redskins, after gaining Philadelphia's former franchise quarterback, should be better. And yet, they looked dreadful in a win last night. Their offense has no young skill players. Their defense has a few pieces but really benefited from opponent's mistakes and nothing more. Speaking of that opponent, the Dallas Cowboys made enough errors to lose a game that should have been won rather easily. Does this make them a good team on a bad night or are they just not as good as suspected? Either way, it does not bode well for the strength of the division. The same could be said of the Giants. They made a ton of mistakes, yet still won rather handily. This may be just a sense of how poor their week one opponent was. The jury is still out on New York.

So if the answer to our question is no longer the NFC East, what is it? A real important factor is what determines the best. Some people argue that top to bottom strength is key. A division is only as good as its worst team, the weakest link argument. If your worst team is very good, that says how good the division is as a whole. Others will argue that being top heavy is more important. If a division contains two or three of the best teams in the sport, that overshadows if the bottom couple teams are terrible. The top strength is key. The best division in sports is probably the one with a slight mixture of each side: a bunch of powerhouses with, perhaps, only one bad team.

There are two other NFL contenders for the crown now that the NFC East is out. The AFC East is certainly a possibility. They may very well have three playoff teams. The Patriots clearly looked good on Sunday, as many suspect the Jets will tonight. However, the Dolphins looked anything but against what was supposed to be a lowly Bills team. Perhaps this helps the AFC East's argument: the Bills are even better than we thought. But I have a feeling it may be the Dolphins' shortcomings instead. Again, one week is not enough time to make season judgments, but I am going to anyway.

The other NFL division up for debate is the AFC South. This is a good example of 'only as strong as your weakest link.' The Jaguars are probably the worst team here (even though the Colts currently have the worst record!). The Jags will probably be solid this season. Average to below average is what I would expect. The problem with naming the South as sports' best division is I'm not sure how above average anyone else will be. The Titans looked unstoppable but that was against the Raiders. They still showed they cannot count on a passing game, and if someone ever manages to slow down Chris Johnson, which may not happen, but if it does, can the Titans compete? The Texans and Colts can both put up tons of offense. But the best division can't be run by teams that have no reliable defense. I see the AFC South as football's new top dog, but not top enough to beat the other sports.

The NHL has their own 'weakest link' contender in form of the Pacific Division. San Jose was the top seed in the conference for two years running. The Pacific also was home to two other playoff teams in the Coyotes and the Kings. What puts this division in the discussion however, is the strength of its bottom feeders. The "worst" team in the Pacific, the Dallas Stars, finished with 88 points. 88 points was good enough to make the playoffs in the Eastern Conference. With that much talent top to bottom, the Pacific has an argument. It would have helped their cause if one of their three playoff teams managed to win the Stanley Cup though.

That leaves only the NBA and MLB. Each has only one contender for best of the best. And each of those has a nice mixture of top to (near)bottom talent with powerhouses at the top. The deciding factor may be which division's weak link is strongest.

The NBA's Northwest division had four separate teams win 50 games last year. The rest of the NBA combined only had eight. In addition, those four all made the playoffs, leaving only one of its five out. There is no question with how good the good teams in the Northwest can be. Denver and Portland may have their best seasons behind them now, at least for the foreseeable future, and yet they should still both be in contention for 50 more wins next season. If Denver trades Carmelo Anthony prior to the '10-'11 campaign, that will change expectations, but for now, both these teams are very good. Utah is even better and improving. With the addition of Al Jefferson, the Jazz should be one of the best teams in the West next year, along with their divisional foe, the Oklahoma City Thunder. The Thunder are very young and inexperienced, yet still made the playoffs last year and gave the Lakers all they could handle. After gaining valuable experience in the FIBA world championships, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook should come back even better, which is a scary thought considering Durant already won the scoring title last season. The Thunder will be a team to be reckoned with. The problem, the Northwest's only problem, is Minnesota. This was the worst team in the West last year and will not be much better this year. Of course that will have something to do with playing those other four playoff squads, and yet, I don't see the Timberwolves being good in any division, at least for the next few years still.

The best division in sports shouldn't really contain the worst team in that conference. And yet, baseball's offer has a similar problem. MLB's AL East is a monster of a division with one flaw, but how bad is that flaw really? Let's start at the top. Does the AL East have the best team in baseball? Check. In fact, for good measure, it also has the second best team in baseball. Does the AL East have the current world champion? Check. In fact, for even good(er) measure is has the last three AL World Series participants. Does the AL East have depth? Check. Four of its five teams are above .500. The emergence of the Toronto Bluejays this season is really what puts the AL East above the rest. They were expected to be very, very bad this year. Yet, their offense is the best in the league and they have held their own, three games over .500 in mid-September. Last question to clinch the title: Does the AL East not have the worst team in the AL? ...Check...Kind of. Here is where it gets sketchy. The Orioles are tied for the worst record in the league right now. And yet, since they switched managers, they have the second best record in all the AL, better than any of their fellow East members. And are they really that bad or just stuck in the best division in sports? The Orioles are 55 and 88 right now. 41 of their 88 losses have come against AL East members though, roughly half their losses.

I am making a stand. The Baltimore Orioles are not as bad as their record indicates, and if they weren't in the AL East, they may actually compete on a regular basis. Therefore, after much examination, the best division in sports, taking the crown from the NFC East of the National Football League, is the AL East of Major League Baseball. Congratulations. But just a heads up, if the Timberwolves are good this season this may be up for debate again in 2011.

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