At this time of year, just about every media outlet that covers the NFL is ranking teams. It makes for great conversation because fans can debate where their teams are ranked and nobody is wrong — at this point.
But let’s put a twist on rankings. Instead of ranking teams, we’re going to rank divisions. The formula is easy. We’re counting down the divsions from weakest/least competitive to strongest/most competitive.
It’s all about the division in its entirety. For instance, just because the New England Patriots might be the best team in the NFL, doesn’t mean the otherwise weak AFC East will come out with a great ranking. On the flip side, a division may not have a true Super Bowl contender, but it’s going to score well if it has three potential playoff teams.
Here’s a ranking of overall division strength, from worst to first.
8. AFC East
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We’ve heard this story before. It’s New England and everyone else in the AFC East. The Patriots are a dynasty. Everyone else is just a bunch of question marks. If anyone is going to even come close to the Patriots, it will be the Jets. They went on a spending spree in the offseason and new coach Adam Gase brings in an offensive scheme (short and medium passing and a zone-blocking running game) that should fit well with the skill sets of quarterback Sam Darnold and running back Le’Veon Bell. It would take something more than a miracle for Buffalo and Miami to make the playoffs.
7. AFC South
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First-year coach Frank Reich broke a three-year playoff drought by the Colts last year and, as long as Andrew Luck is the quarterback, Indianapolis will be respectable. But the Colts face a huge challenge in their division because Houston quarterback Deshaun Watson, who is a rising star and should be even better this year because the Texans overhauled an offensive line that allowed him to be sacked 62 times last year. Tennessee was a surprising 9-7 last year, but the Titans look to be headed for a step back. Jacksonville is, once again, in a rebuilding mode.
6. NFC West
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This division is a lot like the AFC West — two very good teams and two bad ones. The Rams are the kings of the division. As long as running back Todd Gurley’s knee holds up, the Rams could make a return trip to the Super Bowl. Seattle is their only real competition in the division. But the Seahawks, who used to thrive on great defense, have gotten away from that recently. If they can get back to playing good defense, they’ll be a playoff team.
There is a lot of excitement in Arizona because the Cardinals took Kyler Murray with the first overall draft pick. But let’s see Murray take some NFL snaps before we can expect much from the Cardinals. San Francisco could be one of the league’s most dysfunctional teams with constant rumors flying about the relationship between coach Kyle Shanahan and general manager John Lynch.
5. NFC East
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If the Cowboys are able to sign running back Ezekiel Elliott, quarterback Dak Prescott and receiver Amari Cooper signed to long-term contracts, they could have a dynasty like they did in the 1990s. And, for the foreseeable future, Philadelphia and quarterback Carson Wentz are going to be their main competition.
The Giants are clearly in the rebuilding mode as they prepare for the inevitable switch from veteran quarterback Eli Manning to rookie Daniel Jones. Washington’s Jay Gruden begins the year on the hottest seat of any NFL coach. He has very mediocre talent and it’s possible he might not last the season.
4. AFC West
(Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports)
This division represents a classic case of the haves and have-nots. The Chiefs and Chargers each went 12-4 last season. Neither made major changes in the offseason, so double-digit wins are again likely for both. The only thing Kansas City and Los Angeles have to worry about is beating each up too badly in their two games against each other.
A lot of people tend to overlook the Raiders, but that might be a mistake. They’re going to be better in Jon Gruden’s second season and the coach has a better relationship with Derek Carr than he’s had with any quarterback since Rich Gannon. Denver has had problems at quarterback since John Elway retired. Joe Flacco is the latest, but he’s a guy who has seen better days.
3. NFC South
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New Orleans is the class of the division and the Saints are a Super Bowl contender, particularly if they’re not the victim of anymore no-calls. Carolina and Atlanta are coming off subpar seasons. But Carolina’s second-half collapse can be traced directly to quarterback Cam Newton’s injured shoulder. It was surgically repaired in the offseason and a healthy return by Newton makes the Panthers the top challenger to the Saints.
You can’t count out any team that has Matt Ryan and Julio Jones and the Falcons have them and the rest of the roster isn’t bad. Unless new coach Bruce Arians can suddenly make quarterback Jameis Winston decent, the Bucs drag this division’s overall rating down a bit.
2. NFC North
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This is a division that at least has the possibility of sending three teams to the playoffs. As long as Khalil Mack is around, the Bears’ defense is enough to make them the division favorites. A little more help from Mitchell Trubisky and the offense could make them more than a division winner. Minnesota’s hopes rest almost entirely with Kirk Cousins. There’s no doubt he can throw the ball. But does he have what it takes to lead and win?
The Packers get a much-needed fresh start as Mike McCarthy, who ran one of the league’s most dysfunctional teams, has been replaced by coach Matt LaFleur. The Lions are the Lions, which means their biggest question is if coach Matt Patricia can make it past his second season.
1. AFC North
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There’s no clearly dominant team here, but this is about strength in numbers. It’s not hard to picture three teams from this division reaching 10 wins or making the playoffs. The Steelers will be without the headaches that were Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell, but they keep talking about how that means addition by subtraction, and that may be true. They have the division’s best quarterback in Ben Roethlisberger and that alone should keep them competitive.
The Browns finished last season strong, and quarterback Baker Mayfield and receiver Odell Beckham Jr. could give them a prolific offense. In Baltimore, the switch from Joe Flacco to Lamar Jackson came midway through last season. The big story here is if new offensive coordinator Greg Roman can come up with ways to make Jackson more diverse because defenses seemed to start figuring him out late last season. Even the Bengals could make a little noise. Energetic new coach Zac Taylor has a roster with a fair amount of talent.
Pat Yasinskas has covered the NFL since 1993. He has worked for The Tampa Tribune, The Charlotte Observer and ESPN.com and writes for numerous national magazines and websites. He also has served as a voter for the Pro Football Hall of Fame. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 …9