NFL Handicapping: Ranking the Divisions
by Trevor Whenham - 7/17/2014
When evaluating the prospects of NFL teams in the futures market, there are few factors more important than the division they play in. Because every team plays every other team in their division twice, divisional strength can have a massive impact on how a season turns out. A weak division can lift a mediocre team to double-digit wins thanks to hollow victories. A very tough division, on the other hand, can hide a strong team behind an average record.
As we sit here awaiting the start of the next NFL season, here is how the divisions currently rank from most competitive to least.
1. NFC West: It's hard to argue that there is a stronger division than one that includes two of the top three Super Bowl favorites. It's not just Seattle and San Francisco that make this so challenging, though. Arizona won 10 games last year, and the Cardinals are well coached and possess enough talent to do it again. St. Louis is on the right path and should be better than the seven wins they had last year. Any team in the division could conceivably win any divisional matchup without making national headlines. It's a war that will last all season long.
2. NFC North: Green Bay is viewed as the strong favorite here. I'm not really buying it. I'm not certain that they are as good as people think. More significantly, I like the offseason that both the Lions and Bears had and expect them to both have strong years. Minnesota is a total pushover that is in for a very long year, but the other three teams are very strong and well-matched. Wins will not be easy in the division for any of them.
3. AFC North: In the previous two divisions the issue has been a collection of strong teams, The problem here is that there are four teams, and we don't know if any of them are going to be any good. Pittsburgh, Cincinnati and Baltimore all have some upside but also big questions at keys spots that make it hard to really trust them. Cleveland probably will be lousy, and the loss of Josh Gordon really hurts, but you can never really know what the whole Johnny Football mystique turns into until he starts to play. You could tell me that any of the four teams was going to finish in any of four spots in the division and I probably wouldn't argue with you. The AFC North defines parity - and not in the good way.
4. NFC East: If Chip Kelly is as advertised then the Eagles should be able to win this division. It won't be easy, though. Dallas hasn't dominated the offseason, and they have made a science of underachieving, but they have some decent talent and should win more than they lose. RGIII and the Redskins can't be as pathetic as they were last year. Eli Manning and the Giants don't seem to be in a great place, but they don't stay down for long and are proven winners. If the Eagles falter then any team could potentially pick up the pieces.
5. AFC West: Denver should be strong again - as long as Peyton Manning's neck doesn't get reinjured. They are the Super Bowl favorites. San Diego is a team I have a lot of optimism for after a promising first year under a new coach who, mercifully, isn't Norv Turner. Kansas City isn't getting a lot of love but could easily build on the momentum built last year under Andy Reid. Oakland is Oakland, and that's not a good thing - but it helps the records of the other three teams in the division. The teams in this division are in three clear tiers, but things could get interesting.
6. NFC South: If you had asked me two or three years ago I would have guessed that this would have been by far the toughest division, but it just hasn't worked out that way. New Orleans is the class of the division, and the gap seems large. Carolina is coming off a huge season but responded by seemingly deciding to play a season without wide receivers. Terrible offseason. Atlanta had an epically terrible year last year and responded by standing pat on the coaching staff. They improved on paper, but they had heading into the season last year, too, so it's hard to know what to expect. Tampa Bay got lost and destroyed all organizational momentum. They made their best coaching decision in a long time, but who knows if it will be enough. It's one team towering above a disappointing pack here.
7. AFC South: If the Colts don't win this division - by daylight - then they need to go right back to the drawing board. The Jaguars have a new quarterback and a whole lot of work left to do. Houston has defensive talent, but their new coach doesn't seem to care about having a quarterback, and that could be a real issue. Tennessee is making big changes as well, and nothing is certain in the short term. It is not going to be a banner year for the division.
8. AFC East: Ladies and gentlemen, your 2014-15 AFC East champs - the New England Patriots. Buffalo is probably the second best team in the division - and that really says all you need to say. The Jets are a circus. Miami doesn't inspire confidence. This is a messy, messy division right now. Stop me if you have heard this one before - the Patriots will emerge with a record that will build postseason hype because they will sweep their division.
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