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The Four Horsemen: The AFC elite by the numbers in the modern era

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Greg Garcia takes a look at the four AFC teams that have dominated the conference.

Jim Rogash

One day soon, Peyton Manning and Tom Brady are going to retire.

When that happens, the sun will set on an era of AFC dominance that has not been seen since the 1970s. In that decade; Pittsburgh, Miami, and Oakland combined to take 9 of the 11 Super Bowls between 1970 and 1980 with Kansas City joining in to take the 1969 trophy.

From 1981 until 1999, the NFC mercilessly subjugated the AFC year after year with relentless efficiency. The NFC captured no less than 16 of the 19 Super Bowls during this time, and were it not for the AFC West, they might have taken them all.

Then, one day, the AFC emerged from the darkness in the twilight years of the millennium.

Tennessee served as a harbinger of things to come in the new world order. They unexpectedly drove down on the superior St. Louis Rams to the one-yard line in perhaps the most famous of game-ending plays in a Super Bowl.

From that moment on, things were different in the NFL. The AFC would capture nine of the next 14 Super Bowls, winning seven of the first nine (and one of those losses just happens to be the biggest upset in Super Bowl history).

When we look back on this era, we can determine the principal teams responsible for this turnaround as they were the only four AFC teams to win a Super Bowl during this period.  They are:

The only other AFC team to represent the conference in the Super Bowl was the Oakland Raiders in 2002. Other teams had brief runs of dominance but ultimately failed to capitalize on their window – namely the Titans and Chargers.

In attempting to evaluate the relative strength of these AFC Elite, we have a number of options. We can do the lazy (but perhaps not incorrect) thing and simply count rings. That’s easy, but also tremendously boring.  We can count wins. We could take an average of DVOA scores. We have lots of choices.

Any single stat we choose will ultimately fail to paint a full picture. A stat like total wins is naturally biased towards teams with terrible divisions (NE) while a stat like "Playoff Wins" is biased towards teams that played more wild card games than byes (BAL) or home playoff games (PIT). Even advanced statistics like "DVOA" and "Pythagorean Wins" do a great job of telling us about a team’s regular season performance but nothing about the postseason.

So, that leaves only one option: use a combination of them all, as each has a valuable insight to convey. This allows us to take a roughly quantitative (and highly imperfect) look at the relative dominance and strength of each of these four AFC Heavyweights.  Ultimately, it helps paint an interesting and hopefully semi-comprehensive view of each team in the past 14 years.

The time period we will examine starts in 2000 for several reasons:

  1. It is officially when the NFC’s reign of terror over the AFC ended
  2. Bill Belichick took over the Patriots, beginning the modern Patriots as we know it
  3. Manning was still young and had just begun to turn around the Colts
  4. Brady was in his rookie year although not yet starting
  5. The Steelers still had several years left remaining of their dominant mid-1990s core
  6. The Ravens had emerged from the darkness of expansion team mediocrity to become a relevant player on the AFC stage

This time period of course slightly disadvantages both BAL and PIT since they did not have their franchise QBs yet; however, they were still strong in the early 2000s. Moreover, IND and NE both lost one subsequent season without their franchise QB (2011 and 2008 respectively). Thus, this is about as good as we get to be fair to all four teams in setting the time bound.

The stats we will use to rank the four AFC Heavyweights are:

  • Total DVOA – a reflection of a team’s performance in the 16 game season; then averaged over all 14 seasons
  • Offensive DVOA
  • Defensive DVOA
  • Wins– the average number of wins that the team achieved during the period
  • Pythagorean Wins – the number of wins the team was expected to win given their point differential, averaged over 14 seasons
  • PLAYOFFS – number of appearances in the postseason
  • PO WINS – the number of postseason wins
  • BYES – number of playoff byes achieved
  • RINGS – number of Super Bowls won
  • STRENGTH – the final tally which takes the previous 9 stats to form the final score

Starting with the first category, Total DVOA, we arrive at a fairly obvious conclusion as to which team performed the best overall.  New England was clearly the superior team, with both a strong defense, offense and special teams for many of its years since 2000. Manning’s team was second until we add in the 2011 Colts disaster, which pushes them down below Pittsburgh.

SINCE 2000

TOT

NE

23.2%

IND/DEN

14.4%

PIT

16.9%

BAL

13.2%

Offensive DVOA fleshes out who was producing the points in the AFC:

SINCE 2000

TOT

OFF

NE

23.2%

19.0%

IND/DEN

14.4%

17.2%

PIT

16.9%

7.6%

BAL

13.2%

-4.1%

Manning and Brady were the two best quarterbacks by a large margin in this time period, each winning MVPs and setting numerous offensive records, becoming the gold standards in productivity. Again here, Manning's team led all four teams in offensive DVOA until he lost out on the 2011 season, which crippled the Colts' DVOA (-33%).

Pittsburgh and Baltimore suffer here due to the lack of a franchise QB for four and eight years respectively but even then were hardly the fantasy point monsters that Brady and Manning were once they had their QBs...

...but they make up for it defensively with Defensive DVOA:

SINCE 2000

TOT

OFF

DEF

NE

23.2%

19.0%

-0.7%

IND/DEN

14.4%

17.2%

1.5%

PIT

16.9%

7.6%

-8.9%

BAL

13.2%

-4.1%

-14.8%

Baltimore is the clear cut defensive leader since 2000 with Pittsburgh of course well ahead of Manning and New England. Even New England played just barely above average defense while the "Manning Team" defenses were below average, even when we add in Denver’s dominant 2012.

In terms of raw wins, it’s a predictable breakdown:

SINCE 2000
WINS
PYTHAGOREAN
NE
11.64
11.10
IND/DEN
10.56
10.14
PIT
10.21
10.26
BAL
9.57
9.73

The Patriots were the winningest team since 2000, averaging 11.64 wins a year, not that this is a surprise given that they had just one losing season (2000).

However, when we incorporate Pythagorean wins, both Baltimore and Pittsburgh improve slightly, while both IND and NE regress, suggesting the former duo were better than advertised, while the latter were just a tad worse.

This jives with the fact that Pittsburgh and Baltimore played significantly harder competition in their division (namely, each other) while the AFC East and South consistently failed to offer meaningful competition to the leaders.

When we examine postseason success…

SINCE 2000

PLAYOFFS

PO WINS

BYES

RINGS

NE

11

18

8

3

IND/DEN

12

11

5

1

PIT

8

12

4

2

BAL

9

14

2

2

We would expect the "Manning Team" aka IND/DEN to have made the most playoffs given that they had their franchise QB the longest and Peyton did indeed deliver. In a fact that would probably surprise a casual observer, Baltimore narrowly edges out Pittsburgh with an extra playoff appearance, which is probably more of a testament to Ozzie Newsome than anything else given their painful QB troubles for years from 2000 – 2007.

In raw playoff wins, New England is far ahead of the pack with 18. Manning’s unfortunate "one and done" record is well known. Baltimore failed to win a playoff game between 2002 and 2007, but in 2008 began racking them up, with the vast majority of them on the road.

In terms of byes, in a bit of a surprise, the Manning Team had fewer than we might have thought. PIT meanwhile had three under Roethlisberger and one in 2001 under Kordell Stewart. They advanced to the AFC Championship or better each time.

And, of course, we all know about the Super Bowl rings, which speak for themselves.

Now that we have our stats, it’s time to apply a value to each team. If they ranked first in that category, they get a "1".  If they ranked fourth, they get a 4, and so on. Then we average these out — the team with the best rank is the strongest AFC team since 2000 and so on:

SINCE 2000

STRENGTH

ERA RANKING

NE

1.33

1

IND/DEN

2.78

3

PIT

2.67

2

BAL

3.11

4

New England obviously dominated a number of these performance categories, easily taking top spot. Pittsburgh narrowly beats out the Manning Team, with Baltimore just behind them.

This would probably jive with what an average Joe NFL Fan would think if he or she was asked to list the best four AFC teams in order during the past decade: New England as the best, Pittsburgh and Manning roughly even (Manning better overall production, playoff appearances and wins, but Pittsburgh with the better defense and raw postseason success), with Baltimore doing well in several categories (like postseason wins, appearances, rings and defense) and crappy in others (like offense and byes). Baltimore was perhaps the most disadvantaged team given that it had the longest period without a franchise quarterback, but nonetheless, found a way to be successful in spite of that.

Note: Being a Ravens blog, I do of course have to mention a brief, positive purple spin: I ran the numbers for 2008 onward (the year they got Joe Flacco) and this time they finish in second place, comfortably, behind New England.  But that article will have to wait and I digress.

FINAL THOUGHTS

During this time period, making the Super Bowl from the AFC required you to play at least one of the other AFC Elite.  The lone exceptions were the 2000 Ravens and 2002 Raiders but even they had to play dominant Titans teams coming off byes. After 2004 especially, you had to knock down another heavyweight  – or two – if you wanted to hoist the Lamar Hunt.

These four teams joined together to enable the AFC to exert its superiority over the NFC for just over 10 years.  However, that looks to be turning.  Since 2010 the NFC has taken 3 of the 4 Super Bowls (one obvious exception) and, moreover, the NFC appears to have the more complete teams.

Even though the sun is rapidly setting on this particular AFC era, we should remember to take a step back and appreciate what we have had, even while these four teams continue to fiercely compete with each other in this AFC Game of Thrones.

Because one day the run of AFC dominance led by these four teams is going to end and we can only hope we do not return to subjugation of the 1980s and 90s. 20 years is entirely too long to go with practically no hope of taking the trophy home.

Still, the Four Horsemen of the American Football Conference still have some juice left in them yet.

Let’s enjoy it while it lasts.