The divisions in the NFL (last modified in 2002) are based on geography, but a number of other factors come into play. There’s an attempt to maintain traditional NFL/AFL rivalries. There’s also an attempt to create new rivalries (it’s not an accident that the Houston Texans are in the same division as the team that used to be the Houston Oilers and the new Cleveland Browns are in the same division as the team that used to be the old Cleveland Bowns). The end result is that everything looks pretty messed up when you look at it on a map:
I’m not proposing that it’s time to make major changes to the NFL’s divisions. If it ain’t broken, there’s no reason to fix it. Sure, there are a few divisions that are kind of duds (NFC West, I’m looking right at you), but there are a bunch that are packed with rich history (including the NFC East, which I would argue is the best division in sports).
The fact is that there’s no convincing reason why the NFL needs to have its divisions based on geography. Teams only have to travel to one city a week (unlike baseball, hockey and basketball teams who are constantly on the road), so it’s not a big deal if there are teams with a large distance between in the same division. Things are good as they currently are (at least until Los Angeles gets a team and messes everything up).
Still, it’s interesting to think about how things would look if the NFL decided to ignore old NFL and AFL alignment and pick the divisions based entirely on geographical location. It would look like this:
Since the names NFC and AFC would make little sense in a world where the history of the NFL and AFL were ignored, we would need some new conference names. I propose we go with the Tagliabue Football Conference (TFC) and the Rozelle Football Conference (RFC), honoring the two greatest commissioners in the history of the modern NFL.
Tagliabue Football Conference
In keeping with the idea of lumping teams together based on geography, all the teams in this conference will be situated in the northeastern corner of the nation.
Packers, Lions, Bears, Vikings
Well, this looks familiar. It just so happens that this division stays exactly the same as the current NFC North. No need for further discussion. Let’s move on.
Bills, Patriots, Jets, Steelers
We get our first major change here. The Bills, Patriots and Jets remain together, but the Dolphins are booted in favor of the Steelers. Imagining the rivalries that would develop between the Steelers and Patriots and Steelers and Jets has me salivating. Sorry, Bills, but you are still the runt of the litter.
Eagles, Giants, Ravens, Redskins
Since all the teams in our hypothetical Tagliabue Football Conference are located in the northeast, the south division isn’t really all that far south. In fact, it ends up looking a lot like the current NFC East. We have the Eagles, Giants and Redskins. Taking the place of the Cowboys is the Ravens. I think they would fit in well.
Browns, Colts, Rams, Chiefs
The mish-mash begins. It’s hard to figure out what the dynamics of this division would be. These teams have rich histories, but all have underachieved for long stretches of time.
Rozelle Football Conference
The teams of the RFC will be situated in the south and west regions of the U.S.
Bengals, Panthers, Falcons, Titans
This is another division that doesn’t resemble any of the divisions in today’s NFL. Four teams that have never won the Super Bowl are lumped together here. We have two teams from the current NFC South and two AFC teams. Two of the teams in this division didn’t really exist before the 1990s (the Titans were the Oilers, but you know what I mean). They can start some history together.
Jaguars, Dolphins, Buccaneers, Saints
This is the hottest division in our realignment plan. Literally. The Saints play in a dome, but the other three teams all play outside in the scorching Florida sunshine. To play in this division, you’re going to need to be in peak physical condition.
Broncos, Cowboys, Texans, Cardinals
Three recently constructed dome (or retractable roof, to be more accurate) stadiums are in use in this division, making the Broncos feel like a weird outsider. The Cowboys were forced to leave their home in the ultra-competitive NFC East, but they get to renew their old rivalry with the Cardinals and start a new one with the Texans.
Seahawks, Raiders, 49ers, Chargers
This division feels natural, perhaps because some of these teams are division-mates in the current NFL. It would be great to see the Bay Area teams get to play each other twice a year. Surely, they would develop one of the fiercest rivalries in the league. Bonus: even if the Chargers move to Los Angeles, it doesn’t screw up our hypothetical new divisions.