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If you follow hockey, you probably know that the NHL is examining realignment of its conferences and divisions. This got me thinking about the NFL. The last time we saw realignment in the NFL was right before the 2002 season. The addition of the Houston Texans gave the league an even 32 teams, perfect for 8 divisions of 4 teams apiece.
The NFL aligned itself in the format you see today. There were plenty of other ways for the league to go, though. The NFL could have realigned along geographic lines like you see in the NBA and the NHL. Instead of the format you see in baseball and football where teams are broken into leagues and conferences with teams all across the country, you see hockey and basketball teams broken into Eastern and Western Conferences and their teams thrown into geographic divisions. What if the NFL tried this? The league would look something like you see below.
A few things to note before we start:
- As is the case with any kind of realignment, there are winners and losers. Some teams come out better, while others come out worse.
- Realignment always brings greater meaning to some rivalries and less meaning to others.
- There are an infinite number of ways you can break it down. Depending on how you do it you can always say, "Atlanta flipping with Tennessee," or "Denver switching with New Orleans," makes more sense to you. You could even argue there should be six or four divisions instead of eight. This is simply a rough outline of how things might look.
New England Patriots
New York Jets
New York Giants
Breakdown: This division brings together the Northeast sports axis of Boston-New York-Philadelphia. We get the Giants and Jets as division rivals. Many Jets fans are also Mets fans disposed to hate Philadelphia teams. Now they get to hate Philadelphia in the NFL. Many Giants fans are also Yankees fans disposed to hate Boston teams. Now they get to play the Patriots twice a year and compete for a division title instead of waiting for a Super Bowl every four years. This division also brings the Boston-Philadelphia rivalry dynamic to the NFL.
Mid Atlantic Division
Breakdown: We get a pair of Beltway showdowns between Baltimore and Washington each year as well as creating an interesting Southern rivalry, the Music City against Tobacco Road. Also of interest is how the Redskins were the team of the Carolina's before the Panthers.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Breakdown: The Florida teams win big in this format. Five of their six division games are now in state. The Dolphins in particular get to breathe a sign of relief. They lose some stellar rivalries, but their days of long trips for cold weather division games in December are over.
Breakdown: We keep most of the intense AFC North rivalries in this division and add Buffalo to the mix, a city that geographically fits, even if you don't think of it. Buffalo is a short drive from Pittsburgh and shares a spot on Lake Eric with Cleveland.
Green Bay Packers
Breakdown: The Colts were an orphan from the last realignment. They did not have any intense rivalries in the AFC East (although ironically they developed a heated rivalry with the Patriots from almost the second the two teams stopped sharing a division) and ended up on a figurative island in the AFC South. This division keeps most of the NFC North in tact and adds Indianapolis, a city where the NBA team has fairly heated rivalries with teams from similar locations in this division.
Breakdown: Everybody considers themselves Dallas' rival so the Cowboys would probably be the glue that holds this division together. This division would have an all Texas battle between the Cowboys and the Texans. The Cowboys were probably the closest thing the Cardinals had to a division rival during the time both spent in the NFC East so that would be renewed. There would also be the interesting new division matchup between a pair of storied franchises, the Cowboys and Broncos.
Mississippi River Division
Kansas City Chiefs
New Orleans Saints
St. Louis Rams
Breakdown: This is the division of misfit toys from my realignment, although it stretches the length of the Mississippi River, covering its starting point and finish. Three of the teams are on the river. The best rivalry here is the Missouri battle between the Chiefs and Rams. The Vikings are probably the biggest loser of the entire realignment. They lose ancient rivalries from the NFC North and significantly add the travel distance to division road games. The Vikings and Saints do, however, have existing bad blood from the NFC Championship Game three years ago that gained lore in Bountygate and adds a bit of spice.
San Diego Chargers
San Francisco 49ers
Breakdown: The Seahawks might be the biggest winner of this realignment. They get back two big rivals from their AFC West days, the Raiders and Chargers, and keep the 49ers with whom they are developing a nice rivalry. We also get a Bay Area battle between the Raiders and 49ers.
Pros of this system:
I see two major pros of this system. The first is most teams would see a great reduction in their travel. The second is all of the great geographic rivalries that have spice added to them like Giants-Jets, Eagles-Patriots, Redskins-Ravens, Dolphins-Buccaneers, Cowboys-Texans, Chiefs-Rams, and 49ers-Raiders. Instead of playing once every four years in what are usually meaningless games, you get two meetings each year and these teams competing for a Playoff spot.
Cons of this system:
This system throws out a lot of great and historic rivalries. The Vikings, Dolphins, Cowboys, Bills, and Chiefs get hit especially hard. Say goodbye to Ravens-Steelers also. There is something else more subtle that hurts. By leaning on these geographic rivalries, you marginalize some teams. The Jets are a perfect example. Because the Jets and Giants are in different conferences, they have been able to gain their own identity, even though they have a smaller fanbase and have had less historical success. Being separated has allowed them to develop their own style with their own unique rivals. Being a Giants fan means you see the Cowboys if you have tickets. Being a Jets fan means you see the Patriots. Compare the support the Mets and the Jets get to the support the Nets, Devils, and Islanders get. The latter three teams struggle to gain any traction except when they are really good. They generally speaking do not have many passionate fans because people can go to the Knicks and Rangers for the same product, just more popular and usually better.
I think the NFL got it right back in 2002. The divisions they have now make the most sense. They cleared up geographic nonsense. For example, those of you who didn't follow back then might laugh to learn that Arizona was in the NFC East, Indianapolis was in the AFC East, and Carolina, New Orleans, and Atlanta were in the NFC West. At the same time, the league wasn't a prisoner to geography. If it was all about geography, Miami, Dallas, and Kansas City would make more sense in other divisions. The league put them where they are because those teams had long standing rivalries with teams that were not necessarily close to them on the map. Yes, it would be fun to have some geographic rivals play more often with more on the line, but I think there are better ways to achieve it without blowing up the whole league.
(This last paragraph will be a test to see who actually took the time to read the post because I'm sure we'll get somebody calling me a fool for supporting this realignment even though I don't.)