Power-Ranking the NFL’s DivisionsSarah Glenn/Getty Images
This week, Bill Barnwell has been writing about all 32 NFL teams. So we decided to zoom out just a bit and take a look at the eight divisions across the league. Which four-team group is the strongest from top to bottom? Which one’s the most volatile? And which competition is a foregone conclusion? (Hint: the one with Andrew Luck.) From best to worst, here are our divisional power rankings.
1. AFC East
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Potential Winners: (Maybe) Two
Overall Variance: Very high outside of New England
The division that was home to the most high-profile moves this offseason also happens to be the one that made the most significant jump in quality. No team in the AFC East has an over/under win total of less than 7.5, and the Jets’ figure is that low only because recent memories of their offense are hard to shake. Even without Sheldon Richardson for four games, there’s a real chance the additions on defense take this from an average group to one of the league’s best.
Buffalo’s in a similar spot, but its situation is a bit more volatile with Tyrod Taylor at quarterback. The Bills defense is going to be devastating. We know that. But if Taylor can string together a few “holy shit” plays over the course of the year, it’s easy to imagine the Bills getting to double-digit wins.
At the top, all the non-doomsday scenarios see New England winning 11 games and the division, but Miami may have a chance if the Patriots stumble. If the Dolphins offense takes another step and Ndamukong Suh helps mask some of their deficiencies on the other side, it’s possible they could give the Patriots a run. Of course, it feels like we say that every year.
2. NFC East
Potential Winners: Two
Overall Variance: Relatively low
The over/under totals for the Cowboys and Eagles (9.5 for each) are more pessimistic than I am. If the Dallas offense can stay almost as healthy as it was a year ago, the Cowboys could easily put together 11 wins and take the division again. Meanwhile, Philadelphia’s strength is that outside the secondary, it’s better suited to deal with injuries than almost any team in the league. Chip Kelly showed what he could do last season with a combination of Mark Sanchez and Nick Foles and a piecemeal offensive line. There aren’t many outcomes in which the Eagles do worse than 9-7.
However, Washington’s situation feels like the inverse of that. It should be better in the front seven, but outside of Ryan Kerrigan and maybe the run defense, there just isn’t much this team does well. It’s the likely last-place finisher. As for the Giants, it’s at least possible to envision a world in which Eli Manning plays slightly better than he did a year ago and the offense hums, but the defense is likely to be so paper-thin that it ultimately won’t matter all that much.
3. NFC West
Potential Winners: One
Overall Variance: High
San Francisco has a bleaker forecast than any team in this division. Just think about that for a second. It’s no longer the Rams or Cardinals holding back the NFC West from being the consensus best division in football; it’s the 49ers. With all the turnover on their offensive and defensive lines, it’s hard to pinpoint what this team is going to lean on. Maybe it’s the running game, but that’s not a guaranteed strength, and with defensive coordinator Vic Fangio and a couple of key secondary pieces gone, their pass defense is likely to take a tumble.
St. Louis is the swing team here. Arizona’s defense, even without Todd Bowles, remains solid enough that the Cardinals should be able to stay afloat, but this feels like the year the Rams could move up into second. Their defense was frightening down the stretch last year, and that isn’t going away, especially if we factor in some expected improvement for the younger guys in the secondary. The Rams’ fortunes hinge on what the offense can do, though. They’ll hope that rookie Rob Havenstein, a second-round pick out of Wisconsin, can make enough of a difference at right tackle that they can lean on the running game when Todd Gurley eventually debuts. If Gurley can be a special back, one good enough to limit how much Foles has to do, St. Louis has a chance to make a run at the postseason.
Still, that doesn’t mean the Seahawks will be sweating. It’s true that the financial reality we’ve been talking about for years — they can’t pay everyone — is finally starting to take hold: Kam Chancellor is still holding out, the centerpiece of the Seahawks’ offensive line is now gone, and it’s no guarantee they’ll have a reliable corner opposite Richard Sherman. But these are still the Seahawks, and they should be among the best teams in football. The front seven is scary, and Marshawn Lynch leads the best running game in the league. Even if this team isn’t the force of nature it’s been the past few years, most scenarios still involve the Seahawks winning at least 10 games. Even with the Rams ascending, they have a stranglehold on the top spot.
4. AFC North
Potential Winners: Three
Overall Variance: High, except for the bottom
From afar, this division has looked the same for about a decade. Marvin Lewis has been in Cincinnati for 50 years, and the Bengals once again appear to be a team with a solid defense … and Andy Dalton. Pittsburgh is still a threat to win 10 games. Cleveland is an absurd mess on offense. And the Ravens are the class of this group. Some of that is still true, but many of the details have shifted.
For starters, it’s no guarantee the Bengals defense will be as stingy as it’s been recently. With Vontaze Burfict on the PUP list, A.J. Hawk steps in at linebacker, and that didn’t exactly go well in Green Bay. Plus, the Bengals did nothing this offseason to improve a pass rush that finished 31st in adjusted sack rate last season. Geno Atkins returning to his 2013 form would go a long way in helping that take a jump, though. If he can be something close to what he was at his peak, and the Bengals can once again put together a top-10 defense, there’s a chance the offense is good enough that Cincinnati challenges for the division. A.J. Green is still A.J. Green, and it felt like the Bengals were starting to find their niche offensively late last season with Jeremy Hill and that offensive line.
Pittsburgh is still a threat to win the division, but unlike in the Troy Polamalu and James Harrison days, it’s only because of the offense. The Steelers finished second in offensive DVOA last year, and at this point, the only piece from that group that will miss more than the first few games is Maurkice Pouncey, who broke his ankle in preseason and likely won’t be back until about Week 12. Pittsburgh probably won’t be as healthy on offense as it was a year ago, but with Ben Roethlisberger, Le’Veon Bell, and Antonio Brown, it still has one of the strongest cores in the league. The basement for this offense might be the highest in the league.
Unlike their rivals, offense is where the Ravens have the most questions — who the hell is going to catch the ball, aside from 36-year-old Steve Smith? — but that O-line is still great and their defense is still nasty. Even after losing Pernell McPhee, Baltimore has one of the deepest, most talented defensive-line rotations in the league. It’s hard to imagine the bottom falling out here.1
5. AFC West
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Potential Winners: Three
Overall Variance: Higher than you’d think
This is no longer the Broncos’ division to lose. There are enough questions in Denver when it comes to Peyton Manning’s health, the look of their offense, and the offensive line (even with the addition of Evan Mathis), that it feels like both the Chiefs and Chargers may have a chance to steal the AFC West for the first time since 2010.
I know my feelings for Philip Rivers have me more bullish on San Diego than most, but with the additions the Chargers made up front, this has a chance to be a high-scoring group. Still, it feels like Kansas City has the best chance to make a serious run at Manning & Co. Andy Reid is still one of the best offensive coaches in football, and Jeremy Maclin gives him another versatile piece to tinker with. That group could take a real step forward, and with their pass defense, that’s enough to make the Chiefs serious playoff contenders.2
6. NFC North
Potential Winners: 1.5
Overall Variance: High, excluding the top spot
The Jordy Nelson injury is a rough note on which to start a season, but the Packers are still the clear favorites. Even with their deficiencies on defense, a full season of Aaron Rodgers gives Green Bay the edge. Outside of Wisconsin, though, things start to get interesting.
A few months ago, it felt like the Vikings had a real chance to surprise. The problem is that the season hasn’t even started, and the breaks already haven’t gone their way. Right tackle Phil Loadholt is out for the year, and now center John Sullivan is going to miss at least the first nine weeks after undergoing back surgery earlier this week. Those are the Vikings’ two best offensive linemen, and even if Adrian Peterson can mask those losses in the run game, it’s still a significant blow for an offense that a lot of people found intriguing.
Minnesota still has a ton of young talent on defense, but those injuries probably give the Lions a leg up on what’s most likely a race for second place. Losing Suh has very real consequences, and there’s almost no way the Detroit defense will hit the heights it did a year ago. Still, there’s a potential star in the front seven in Ziggy Ansah, a nice group of linebackers, and a solid secondary. Defensive coordinator Teryl Austin can still have this unit near the top 10, and if that happens, the Lions could make a big enough jump offensively to compete for a playoff spot. A healthier Calvin Johnson would go a long way, and if recent draft picks like Eric Ebron and Ameer Abdullah can add a new element to what Johnson and Golden Tate already bring, the Lions start getting dangerous.
The Bears, well, they aren’t quite there. The mess that was last season has spilled over into this one: There’s a chance that Chicago’s receiving corps in Week 1 consists of Marquess Wilson and Eddie Royal; they recently moved their Pro Bowl guard, Kyle Long, to right tackle, weakening two positions in the process; and there’s a chance this defense will be a nightmare. For the first time in a while, Chicago is going into the season as definitively the weakest team in the division.
7. NFC South
Potential Winners: Three
Overall Variance: Extremely high
When someone figures out how the hell this division works, go ahead and let me know. The Saints still have Drew Brees and Sean Payton. That’s enough to put them in the mix. Carolina’s defense took a step back last year, and somehow it still won the division. For my money, though, Atlanta remains in the best spot to take home the NFC South.
The Falcons still have plenty of offensive line questions, and it looks like we’ve seen the end of Roddy White being an effective option in the passing game. But both of those things were true last year, and Atlanta still managed to finish 10th in offensive DVOA. Matt Ryan and Julio Jones are a good start, and in Kyle Shanahan’s offense, there’s a chance both of those guys absolutely explode this year. Just how good the Falcons will be, though, comes down to their defense. With Dan Quinn in town and some new pieces to work with, they probably won’t finish last in DVOA again. If that group can go from awful to something resembling competency, the Falcons could easily push past 10 wins.
8. AFC South
Potential Winners: One
Overall Variance: Extremely low
There just aren’t many outcomes at play here. Even if the Jaguars are a bit better and the Titans offense gets a jolt from Marcus Mariota, neither is going to push the Colts. Houston is the only team with the talent to challenge Andrew Luck & Co., but the Texans already have had things go against them. To give Indy a run, they needed an offense built around Arian Foster to pair with what’s likely to be a very solid defense. Except, Foster had groin surgery early last month and it’s unclear when he’ll return. That puts a bigger onus on Brian Hoyer, who, let’s be honest, just doesn’t inspire much excitement.