When the NFL added two divisions — and weakened the AFC West

Getty Images

Thirteen years ago Thursday, NFL owners unanimously approved multiple changes to the league’s divisional structure, a move made logical with the addition of a 32nd team — the Houston Texans — on tap for 2002.

Among other changes, a South division was added to each conference, and teams were shuffled about to make eight four-team divisions. The Central divisions were rebranded as North divisions, with the southernmost members of the Central (Tampa Bay, Jacksonville, Tennessee) all moving to the South pods.

Yes, there was a time when it was just, well, accepted that Tampa Bay played in a division with Chicago, Detroit, Minnesota and Green Bay. That was the deal. The Buccaneers wore orange, the Lions wore Honolulu blue, and the green carpet-like substance was AstroTurf. If the game you were watching stunk, you couldn’t tweet about it, for there was no Twitter, though you could fire off a humorous fax if you were so inclined.

Anyways, in all of the divisional realignment to begin this century, only one team — Seattle — changed conferences, moving from the AFC West to the NFC West.

To this point, the Seahawks’ move has strengthened the NFC West and weakened the AFC West. Since 2002, the Seahawks have made the postseason eight times, winning nine playoff games. In that same span, the AFC West’s members (Denver, Kansas City, Oakland, San Diego) have combined to win 10 postseason games. Moreover, the AFC West is the only division not to produce a Super Bowl winner since the 2002 realignment.

For those nostalgic about the NFL’s six-division days of yore, below is a listing of the divisions in 2001 — and the subsequent moves made to realign them.


Old divisions:

Eastern: New England, Miami, N.Y. Jets, Indianapolis, Buffalo.

Central: Pittsburgh, Baltimore, Cleveland, Tennessee, Jacksonville, Cincinnati.

Western: Oakland, Seattle, Denver, Kansas City, San Diego.

Realignment outcomes:

Indianapolis shifted from the AFC East to the AFC South.

Baltimore, Cincinnati, Cleveland and Pittsburgh became members of the AFC North.

Houston, upon beginning play in 2002, became a member of the AFC South.

Jacksonville shifted from the AFC Central to the AFC South.

Tennessee shifted from the AFC Central to the AFC South.

Seattle moved from the AFC West to the NFC West.


Old divisions:

Eastern: Philadelphia, Washington, N.Y. Giants, Arizona, Dallas.

Central: Chicago, Green Bay, Tampa Bay, Minnesota, Detroit.

Western: St. Louis, San Francisco, New Orleans, Atlanta, Carolina.

Realignment outcomes:

Arizona moved from the NFC East to the NFC West.

Tampa Bay moved from the NFC Central to the NFC South.

Chicago, Detroit, Green Bay and Minnesota formed the NFC North.

New Orleans, Carolina and Atlanta moved from the NFC West to the NFC South.

78 responses to “When the NFL added two divisions — and weakened the AFC West

  1. The old AFC Central consisted of Bill Cowher, Jeff Fisher and Tom Coughlin, all of whom contributed to Bill Billichick’s employment termination.
    Billichick, meanwhile, went on to become a genius in the updated AFC East, which has been a revolving-door for bad coaches.

  2. Since Seattle entered NFC West in 2002, Seahawks have better records than San Fran in:
    -Total Wins
    -Head-to-head Wins
    -Playoff Wins
    -Division Titles
    -Super Bowl Wins

  3. I do miss watching the Raiders playing the Seahawks. The good ol’days.

  4. To this day I still don’t know why bills never moved to the north and Baltimore to the east. I get you’d lose dolphins-bills rivalry but that rivalry died when Marino and Kelly retired.

  5. Seattle band wagon revelers completely baffled seeing their team’s name next to the letters AFC. Truth is – Chuck Knoll was a way better coach than Cheat Carroll

  6. Ah yes, the days when it actually made sense to give division winners automatic home playoff games, before the league diluted the divisions. Every division winner back then except for two had at least a 10-6 record.

    Now, every year we get stuck with 8-8/9-7 teams hosting the best wildcard team, a wildcard team that, in the past before realignment, would have been hosting a game.

  7. I think MW accidentally posted this to the ProFootballTalk WordPress account instead of the 2000-2002 section of the NFL Wikipedia page.

  8. Great Memories.

    I didn’t like the changes at first, but now I wouldn’t wish it to be any other way. I think the NFL got this one right.

  9. It doesn’t seem that long ago that NFL players had to get off-season jobs to make ends meet. Thirty years ago Hall of Fame WR Charlie Joiner worked as an accountant for Gulf Oil in the off-season. The times have changed.

  10. I miss my Buccaneers in the black and blue division. Will never forget being at the game where we ruined the vikings perfect season.

    For the majority of our history it sucked, but the mid to late 90’s before the realignment were fun.

    Barry would put up 150-200 every game in TB, Brett Farve would get sacked by Sapp 1-3 times a game, Randy Moss would always make a ridiculous one handed catch in the back of the end zone, and well the bears were just awful at that time.

  11. During re-alignment, the Bronco, Raider, Charger and Chief fans all wanted their “original AFC West” back, and told us we weren’t wanted in “their” division. Fine, we said. Good riddance to YOU. We’ll move to a division that would have us. We haven’t looked back since.

  12. Yes, let’s pine away for the good old days.

    Because it makes perfect sense for teams in Atlanta, Charlotte and New Orleans to be in a WEST division.

    It was so much fun trying to explain to my wife that, in 1996, the second-year Panthers of the NFC West were hosting Dallas from the NFC East in a layoff game. She muttered something about “geography dropouts” and went back to watching her Lifetime movie.

    Only thing to really pine away for is the Bucs orange unis, which are a million times better than the mess they will be weaing this year.

  13. I remember back in 99″ when the Lions had Charlie Batch and were pretty decent and they had great games against Sapp an the Bucs and this coming from a Patiots fan…

  14. It could happen again. Unless L.A. gets an expansion team (or the Rams return to SoCal), the most likely NFL teams to relocate are the Jags and the Bills. The NFL isn’t likely to tinker again with a rivalry-filled AFC West, which means either team would take up new residence in the NFC West.

    If the Jaguars move, look for the Rams to head to the AFC South. If the Bills move, St Louis moves back to its East Division roots under the AFC banner.

  15. BTW, for those that remember, Seattle was NFC first…
    The only team to change conferences twice.
    Their first preseason game was against San Francisco.

  16. Had a lot more to do with Elway retiring, Tom Brady and Peyton Manning emerging, and the Raven’s and Steeler’s defenses dominating than Seattle’s exit.

  17. Chuck Knoll huh….

    Doesn’t sound like you remember the old AFC west either…

    “Chuck Knoll was a way better coach than Cheat Carroll”

  18. This might be a good point except for the fact that Seattle wasn’t very good back then. They were basically the Tampa Bay of their devision where none of the other four teams viewed them as a big rival. Seattle being good now, doesn’t make their old division weaker. If it were true that the move weakened them, then you would be saying the same about the bag wearing Aint’s of that era moving to the NFC South weakened the NFC West division. Thusly, The NFC West moves are offset and the division isn’t strengthened at all, as you suggest. Seattle moving divisions no more hurt their old division than any other team that moved divisions because none were any good when they moved.

  19. THANK YOU for writing this!! I said about a week ago in response to someone saying he Seahawks have been terrible forever l, that the hawks have easily been a top 5-7 franchise over the last decade .

    Since joining the NFCW the Seahawks have owned that division . Haters stop clumping us up with The terrible teams who sucked for 15 years . We haven’t been picking top ten picks like so many I’ll informed fans want to clank as the reason the Seahawks are so talented .

    The truth is in appearances and wins and superbowls the Seahawks have been a really good team for a while but always overlooked. The 12am was at the kingdome but now it’s world famous so you act like it just started .

    Since joking the nfcw the Seahawks have the most wins most playoff wins the most superbowls the most superbowl wins and nearly as many nfcw titles as all three other teams combined!

    Seahawks are just the toast of the town and it was long overdue ! Thanks for bringing up facts for those people !

  20. As a Bears fan I do miss TB in their div. made the road trip to Tampa with my group for 10 yrs. Nice weather and usually a win. Good times! Oh ya, the Packers sucked then also!

  21. Its not the Seahawks fault every team in the west sucked. Don’t forget they rode that bad west division to a 13-3 record and the Superbowl in 2005. I don’t think there is any shame in winning the division at 7-9. The shame goes to the other 3 teams that let them do it.

  22. Yes, Seahawks had a 7-9 Season where they made the playoffs.
    They then embarrassed the Saints before losing to Chicago.

  23. I liked the old quirky divisions. When you had the anomalies such as the warm weather Bucs forming rivalries with the cold weather Bears and Packers.

    Or the old Saints/49ers rivalry.

    The geography was messed up, but we lost some good rivalries. I think naming the divisions “North, South, etc.” was a mistake. If they hadn’t done that, no one would care about who was in what division.

  24. Why didn’t we hear this strong take 12 years ago when Seattle hadn’t done better than 9-7 since 1986?

    Hindsight is better than any PED.

  25. dws123 says: May 22, 2014 5:15 PM (Edit)

    “I think MW accidentally posted this to the ProFootballTalk WordPress account instead of the 2000-2002 section of the NFL Wikipedia page.”

    That’s awesome.


  26. Tampa Bay’s first divisional win came in their third season of existence, and it happened against Minnesota in the Humpty Dumpty Dome.

    I guess the Vikings were embracing the suck even back then.

  27. Colts should have stayed in the AFC east and the dolphins should have moved to the south. Manning vs Brady two or three times a year would have been AWESOME

  28. As one who was in the stands for both the 1983 AFC Championship game (Seattle at the Los Angeles Raiders…yes, Los Angeles Raiders) and the 2013 NFC Championship Game, the number one reason I loved beating the Broncos in the Super Bowl isn’t because we beat Peyton Manning, it was because we beat ol’ horse face Elway.

    We never played Manning much, as he’s been in the “other conference” most of his career. Never had anything personal against him. Elway on the other hand….we mostly took two yearly beatings from him for well over a decade. None were worse than the year the Broncos won the Super Bowl, when Terrell Davis had over 2000 yards, and I think about 500 of them were in the two games against us.

    SB 48 was a pretty sweet payback. Maybe 15 years too late, but it was still pretty sweet.

  29. You can thank Paul Allen for most of this. The Seahawks almost left town – had the trucks packed and everything. Since he took over the team they have climbed into being a top tier franchise. This isn’t luck that we’ve spent the offseason talking about how teams will now try to do what Seattle has done.

    However you feel about the Seahawks or their players, one thing is for certain – you can thank them for showing everyone that you can still play defense in this league, it can still win championships, and most of all – it can be just as exciting to watch as the offense when you match up talented athletes with a winning coaching philosophy.

    Just when the league was starting to look really weak, here comes the Legion of Boom to show you that hard-hitting American Football is alive and well.

  30. The ACF West Teams did not account for any Superbowl winners since 2002 but don’t feel bad, Minnesota hasn’t accounted for a Superbowl winner since 1961. ( and counting)

    That should make you feel better.

  31. Kuddoos to the guy above who said a Brady-Manning battle royale twice a year would have been awesome, had the Colts stayed in the AFC East. Plus, the Dolphins would have had much more chance to make playoffs between 2002 and now…in fact, minus Peyton, the AFC South would have been a serious contest between Miami, Houston, Tennessee and Jax every year. Bad move Dolphins….no, you had to stay inn the East because of built up rivalries when you coulda won a division title almost every year!

  32. Indianapolis Colts made out like a BANDIT in that realignment. Not only did they no longer have to get pounded on by the Jets and Patriots anymore but they got moved to a division with bottom feeding expansion teams.

    Let’s be honest, they should have got moved to the AFC North (with Baltimore going to the AFC East and Miami going to the AFC South) but the legend of Payton Manning would be a lot different having to face Superbowl contenders like the Steelers (and now the Bengals) during the regular season and not just the post season. Heck, even the Browns defense used to give Manning issues during his later years

  33. I do like the divisions the way they are now, but it would be interesting to see what would happen if everything was shaken up randomly every 5 years or so…create some new rivalries, even out some divisions…perhaps a breath of fresh air?

  34. you can spin it however you want…. all i know is 3 afc west teams made the playoffs last year, and lets get real , the seahawks for the most part were at the bottom in the afc west…..i mean afterall last year is the first year an NFC west has won a superbowl since 2000, and the broncos won the bow the year before…so not sure what your point is, other than the raiders have been terrible ever since Gannon got drilled by derrick brooks on Grudens first game back in Oakland on a monday night game.

  35. The big losers in all this were the 49’ers , no more three team division makes things a little tougher. A big plus for Atlanta ,all those time zone jumps.

  36. All sports should do away with divisions and the playoffs would just be by regular season record.

    Allows for more variety each year in opponents

    ANY two teams could meet in the playoffs and in championship games.

    For instance… You could get a seahawks vs 49ers Super Bowl. Or a broncos vs. Patriots. Or any other combination.

    People say divisions create rivalries? No… Teams that consistently win make rivalries. So if teams kept reaching the playoffs and meeting eachother in postseason play… There you go!

    If you can’t see what divisions and conferences do to sports… You’re probably still one of those people that is unaware the democrats and republicans all play for the same side.

  37. I grew up with my Hawks in AFCW. Miss it. Nonetheless, the NFCW IS NOW, BY FAR, the best division in football. I have no idea if we can win this division, but I am confidant that the Super Bowl champ will come from it.

  38. Stupid premise MW. The Seahawks were the perennial cellar dweller in the AFC West. The doormat leaving did not “weaken” the division.
    You could say the same thing about the old NFC Central only the team that left, Tampa, has won a SB since the realignment.

  39. I always have thought that realignment was something the Colts pushed and got because until this new AFC South was born, his career was stuck in neutral. They’d just come off getting crushed in the playoffs by the lowly Jets and overcoming Belichick/Brady didn’t seem to be feasible for Manning at the time. Then, you create this new division, and magically you have these “classic” playoff battles that each team can indulge in because suddenly the Colts had 3 lousy teams including an expansion team to feast on 6 times a year. Not saying he would have never gotten over the hump eventually, but the career trajectory wasn’t going as it was supposed to go at that time, and the NFL saw a way to capitalize on their most popular player by manipulating the system.

  40. Let’s be honest, they (Colts) should have got moved to the AFC North (with Baltimore going to the AFC East and Miami going to the AFC South).

    That. Also Dallas to the NFC South and Carolina to the East.

    Bandwagon Dallas fans crawling out of the woodwork would be palatable if they weren’t rooting for a division rival.

  41. One simple change they should have made was to put Baltimore in the AFC South with Tenn and Jax. Those three teams had a common rivalry in the late 90s, early 00s. And Indy fits better geographically in the AFC North than Baltimore.

    Of course Miami in the AFC South would have fit even better, but they weren’t going to break up the all-important Dolphins-Bills rivalry. ROFLMAO!

  42. AFCE New England, NYjets, Baltimore, Buffalo
    AFCN Pittsburg, Indianapolis, Cleveland, Cincinnati
    AFCS Miami, Jacksonville, Tennessee, Texans
    AFCW Denver, KC, Oakland, Chargers
    NFCE Washington, Philadelphia, NYgiants, Carolina
    NFCN Green Bay, Minnesota, Detroit, Chicago
    NFCS Tampa Bay, Dallas, Atlanta, New Orleans
    NFCW Arizona, San Fran, Seattle, St. Louis

  43. Instead of moving the Seahawks to the NFC West, they should have moved the Raiders.

    Geographically the Cowboys and Rams could then have swapped divisions putting STL in the NFC East, and DAL in the NFC West.

    DAL, SF, OAK, ARI – NFC West

    SF and DAL = “The Catch” and early 90’s Rivalry
    DAL and ARI = Old NFC East Rivalry
    OAK and SF = Bay Area Rivalry

    NYG, WAS, PHI, STL – NFC East
    KC, DEN, SD, SEA – AFC West

    Not to mention geographically these changes all make sense.

  44. Saying that moving Seattle “weakened” that division is silly.

    Regardless of records since then,having an AFC west consisting only of Oakland, Denver, KC, and SD was a master stroke. It focused the rivalries in the division and purged it of a team that was superfluous at the time.

    You could say the same of the NFC east, which never really needed St. Louis / Arizona.

    And now, the hawks and the cards are part of a new division w/ thriving rivalries. It all worked out really well.

  45. Haven’t had a record over 9-7 since 86, lol. You guys try not to give the team credit. Just shut up with your wrong numbers. 2 Super Bowl appearances and 6 division titles. I’ll tell u what… I will count it as 5 because I don’t think a team under 500 should count either. Also I am NO bandwagon fan. You guys just didn’t know we existed . I had to sit thru mirer, stiffer, McGwire, gelbaugh, and Krieg to a extent. The franchise started to turn around when they signed warren moon and played in the university of wa stadium

  46. Dolphins belong in the South division.

    The reason they are in the East was because then owner Hazinga wanted NY transplants to fill the stadium when the jests came to town. Greedy fool!

  47. When TB and Seattle joined the NFL in ’76, Seattle was in the NFC and Tampa Bay was in the AFC. In ’77 they switched conferences so that in their first 2 seasons they played every team in the NFL. TB started out 2-26 in those first 2 years, including 0-14 in the AFC in ’76. Just a little trivia for you out there.

  48. Because of these changes and expansion I sometimes get confused when playing Tecmo Super Bowl these days.

    Other than that, I’d say they’ve worked out pretty well.

  49. Consider this: The NFC West has been a pretty weak division until very recently. In 2010, the Seahawks won their division in spite of having a losing record, which had never happened until then. Also, five of the nine playoff wins were in 2005 when they made SB XL, and last season.

  50. And as a result, THE GREATEST OF ALL NFL DIVISIONS was born. The AFC NORTH

    Bow to the king!

  51. I thanked heaven when Colts moved… right around Payton Mannings coming out party… It gave me someone to cheer against vs Mr. Brady!!!!

  52. I dont recall the Panthers in the NFC west…I remember the 49ers rams saints and falcons..they only had 4 teams before they changed it…look it up…

  53. guitarkevin says:
    May 23, 2014 2:40 PM
    And as a result, THE GREATEST OF ALL NFL DIVISIONS was born. The AFC NORTH

    Bow to the king!

    I think you meant to write “NFC NORTH”. Don’t worry, I fixed your mistake!

  54. The Panthers started in the NFC West. With the 1995 expansion, all 6 divisions had 5 teams. The Panthers got plugged into the NFC West and Jacksonville to the AFC Central because those divisions had 4 teams while the other divisions already had 5. When Cleveland’s new Browns team started playing in ’99, the AFC Central had 6 teams. Then, when the Texans started in ’02, the current format was implemented.

    The Panthers very quickly developed a hot rivalry with the 49ers while in the NFC West. In ’95, we started 0-5, then beat the Jets, Saints, Patriots and 49ers all in a row. Then in ’96, the Panthers swept the 49ers and George Siefort resigned. When William Floyd and Eric Davis left the 49ers and signed with the Panthers, the trash talk ramped up another level or 12. By 2001, The 49ers were a playoff team but no longer a serious title contender, and we were 1-15 and the rivalry had seriously cooled. We did build smaller rivalries with Atlanta and New Orleans, and those have become more heated with all 3 teams put in the new NFC South. But yes, we were in the NFC West from 1995-2001.

  55. This is the most proper way, but you know how people hate change.

    NFC EAST: NYG, WAS, PHI, BAL (Bal joins)
    NFC WEST: SEA, SF, OAK, SD (Oak & SD join)
    NFC SOUTH: HOU, NO, TB, MIA (Mia & Hou join)

    AFC EAST: NE, NYJ, PIT, BUF (Pit joins)
    AFC WEST: KC, DEN, ARI, DAL (Ari & Dal join)
    AFC NORTH: IND, CIN, STL, CLE (Ind & Stl join)
    AFC SOUTH: JAX, ATL, TEN, CAR (Jax & Ten join)

  56. It never really made sense as to why Dallas and Miami hung around in their respective divisions, until you realized that they were up until that point the teams with the most division titles. Why should the champion move?

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to leave a comment. Not a member? Register now!

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.