Divisional strength plays a major role in playoff hopes. Which division will be the toughest gauntlet to the postseason?
While each team wants to win the Super Bowl, a lot of their immediate behaviors stem from the division they play in. What kind of teams will they face twice a year? How vastly different do their rosters look? What kind of defensive and offensive talent is needed to counter the various personnel strengths of their regular foes?
The NFL is in an interesting place now, in that a lot of its talent seems to be clustered in a few divisions. This absolutely has to be taken into context when you’re an owner of a franchise looking to make a sweeping decision about the future. We may have finished 8–8, but how good is that 8–8 here compared to in the NFC East?
So, while ranking divisional strength is maybe less immediately gratifying for the lot of us than power rankings, it is a useful exercise to understand the difficulty some teams have in even making it out of the fray and into the expanded playoff field. Which teams, given the talent around them, are actually better than we think? Which teams are worse?
Let’s roll up our sleeves and rank all eight divisions on overall quality.
1. NFC West (49ers, Cardinals, Rams, Seahawks)
Every team in this division has a premier quarterback. The NFC West produced 15 Pro Bowl players last year and each team (save for Seattle’s behavior of late) seems to understand the impending squeeze and is loading up on a talent arms race. Of course, injuries will run their course and some of these teams will finish with middling records. However, if placed in some of our lower-tiered divisions (the NFC East, for example), any of these teams would almost certainly be the favorite to win it.
Ranking the NFC West this high carries some built-in assumptions. We’re assuming the Rams will be better with Matthew Stafford but are taking into account the very significant loss of defensive coordinator Brandon Staley. We’re assuming the Seahawks are going to be better offensively with the addition of Sean McVay disciple Shane Waldron but acknowledge they did little to bolster positions of need this offseason. We’re assuming Trey Lance will take the baton at some point earlier than expected (Kyle Shanahan had the luxury of positioning Lance with former pupil and good friend John Beck throughout the draft process) and take the 49ers’ offense in a different direction. We’re assuming the Cardinals won’t plunge their offense into an unsatisfying amalgam of Air Raid and traditional NFL brick-a-brack, and that a Chandler Jones–J.J. Watt combination still has some juice left.
That’s a lot of assumptions, but less so than we’ll make about the other divisions here. It is the only division where we could envision each of the four teams with a realistic path to the playoffs and, for the moment, Vegas seems to agree. Of the 10 teams with the best odds to win the Super Bowl right now, according to William Hill, three of them are in the NFC West.
2. AFC North (Bengals, Browns, Ravens, Steelers)
This division may have four premier quarterbacks, though you’ll have to contort your imagination a little bit. Ben Roethlisberger is coming back on rusty wheels behind quite possibly the least dependable (on paper) version of an offensive line that he’s had in Pittsburgh. While returning Juju Smith-Schuster alongside Chase Claypool yields promise, especially with Najee Harris in the backfield, there is some uncertainty as to how it’ll all tie together. The promotion of Matt Canada to offensive coordinator is promising, and Kevin Colbert has been able to hit on offensive linemen in mid rounds prior to this year. From 2009 on, players like A.Q. Shipley (seventh round), Marcus Gilbert (second round), Kelvin Beachum (seventh round), Chukwuma Okorafor (third round) have been hits either for the Steelers or another franchise. Pittsburgh added Kendrick Green and Dan Moore this season and they should be able to compete for starting jobs.
The division has two of the top eight teams in terms of Vegas Super Bowl odds, with the Browns at No. 8 and the Ravens at No. 6. We’ve been collectively burned by the Browns’ hype train in the past, but this is far different than bending your ethical code to snatch a running back on the cheap and trading for Odell Beckham. This is a thorough, foundational rebuild with top players at key positions. The addition of Jadeveon Clowney, Greg Newsome and Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah in recent weeks have solidified a defense that is both fluid from a matchup perspective and deep at critical positions.
Baltimore, like Cleveland, had a great draft and may have found the antidote for their vertical game woes with Rashod Bateman. The Ravens aren’t going anywhere and could evolve beyond their 2020 stagnancy to become a more multi-faceted offense. With Lamar Jackson, they are a few upgrades away from being un-defendable.
Cincinnati will no doubt be better, even if they took the cart before the horse in the draft and whiffed on a chance to truly solidify their offensive line. Joe Burrow was incredibly promising before going down with a knee injury last year and the addition of Ja’Marr Chase should bolster an offense that relied on A.J. Green for 30% of its targeted air yards last year, despite the fact that Green was having a hard time getting open.
3. AFC West (Broncos, Chargers, Chiefs, Raiders)
The Broncos are, oddly, offseason betting darlings much like they were a year ago after a miniature free agent splurge that included Melvin Gordon. While I find their position of ninth in William Hill’s Super Bowl odds to be a bit puzzling, this roster is one premier quarterback away from being pretty complete.
With Von Miller returning, this defense could be among the best of Vic Fangio’s short tenure in Denver. Patrick Surtain II joins a defensive backfield that includes Ronald Darby, Bryce Callahan and Kyle Fuller. It would not be surprising to see Denver stumble a bit, but legitimately challenge the Chiefs twice a season given their coverage abilities.
The Chiefs are the Chiefs, and their systematic offensive line rebuild and ancillary offensive additions in the draft should be enough to plug them into a guaranteed playoff spot. Are they better than they were a year ago? Perhaps not. Are they still better than almost any team in the NFL? Yes.
The promise of a new era in L.A. under coach Brandon Staley was nearly enough to propel this division to No. 2 on the list. The Chargers were an unlucky team under Anthony Lynn with a glut of talent. It may be time for that talent overload to spill over, much like it did for the 49ers during their Super Bowl run. Staley’s defense last year gave away almost no points in the second half, highlighting his brilliant mid-game adjustments. While a chorus of people are correctly suggesting he no longer has Aaron Donald, it’s not like this defense is without a disruptive presence who can cause mismatches all over the line.
As for Las Vegas, the fruits of their offensive line churn are still to be seen. Until Jon Gruden’s plan comes to fruition, it will be difficult to ascertain exactly what the Raiders are beyond a nice, compact offense featuring a solid quarterback and an excellent tight end. It would seem they are rounding out the rear in this divisional race, but after a seven-win season last year, they show just how good the West can be. Las Vegas would certainly be Wild Card competitive at some of the bottom-tier divisions on this list.
4. NFC South (Buccaneers, Falcons, Panthers, Saints)
This was the most difficult division to place on the list. Obviously, you have the defending Super Bowl champions who have returned their entire roster and added Joe Tryon out of Washington, who will supplement an already destructive pass rush. After that, there are a lot of big ifs.
We could be pleasantly surprised by a lot of new coaches and quarterbacks this year, but in order for the NFC South to be considered a top-three division, we would need to be surprised by Sam Darnold, Taysom Hill and Jameis Winston all at once. It does not seem likely that a third playoff contender would arise from this division. Indeed, gamblers tend to agree. New Orleans has the No. 12 highest Super Bowl odds and another team (the Falcons) doesn’t appear until the 20s.
This is not to say that Atlanta couldn’t surprise us. It would make more sense to see them contending for a playoff spot than New Orleans. Seeing what they did this offseason actually helped bolster the NFC South’s standing here. Kyle Pitts joining a downhill, Shanahan-ian offense with Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley is devastating on paper. Matt Ryan is always going to throw for 4,000-plus yards, but the difference between his time in an offense like the one Arthur Smith is bringing and the various offenses he ran after Kyle Shanahan bolted for San Francisco is in the context of the routes. Atlanta was almost two full yards better in net yardage per attempt with this system, which, over the course of 540 attempts during a season, accounts for a lot of additional first downs, sustained drives and possibly touchdowns.
Carolina is still piecing its offense together but represents a kind of fulcrum for the division’s overall hunt for respectability. The better Darnold is and the more difficult the Panthers are to stop, the more daunting the South looks as a whole. The former No. 3 pick has never played a full season, never finished a year with a QB rating above 90 and never completed more than 62% of his passes during a season. As we noted, anything drastically different would be a big surprise, even with a significantly bolstered skill set and offensive line.
5. AFC East (Bills, Dolphins, Jets, Patriots)
An interesting thought: Has there ever been a collective division filled with this much defensive brain power? Bill Belichick obviously possesses the most wattage here, but Sean McDermott, Leslie Frasier, Brian Flores and now Robert Saleh all in the same place.
I was fascinated to see what the betting markets would think of the division at this point in time. BetOnline had the Bills as the fourth-most likely team to reach the postseason but did not have another team from the AFC East until No. 14—the Patriots. It’s fine not wanting to buy in on the Jets right now, but I think having the Dolphins theoretically out of playoff contention is a bit of a disservice to what Flores and Chris Grier have done to this roster. And, remember, if Tua Tagovailoa is still an incomplete player, Jacoby Brissett is more than good enough to take this roster three-quarters baked and push them into the postseason.
New England, too, is going to have a highly incentivized Cam Newton (further away from his myriad corrective surgeries) and a team that theoretically has the best set of playmakers on the field since the early 2010s. Newton, or Mac Jones, and a pair of intermediate targets like Jonnu Smith and Hunter Henry are going to be a more formidable vehicle for moving the ball than we’re giving credit for.
And so it just might be that the AFC East will only sneak one team into the playoffs, but all these teams wind up competitive and difficult for other opponents to come and play. Like the NFC West has different offensive philosophies and different quarterbacks to plan for, the AFC East has three drastically different defensive philosophies and some talented young personnel to match. The Jets, in my mind, are not good enough to lift this division into the top four strength wise. While there have been marked upgrades this offseason, I think Saleh would be in coach of the year territory if this team wound up finishing 8–8 or better.
6. NFC North (Bears, Lions, Packers, Vikings)
While we’re not going strictly by betting lines for this exercise, the Packers are off the board in plenty of places given the uncertainty of Aaron Rodgers, who recently, artfully informed his employers that a lot is going to have to change before he’ll decide to swing by. This is probably a two-playoff-team caliber division if Rodgers returns to the Packers (Packers/Vikings and/or resurgent Bears) and maintains a cordiality long enough to flip 40 touchdowns and win 13 more games.
There is a lot to like about the idea of Justin Fields and the Bears but little we know about what will actually happen in theory. It’s not hard to envision Matt Nagy’s offense with a much higher ceiling than it had under Mitch Trubisky, and Nagy got a pair of Trubisky-led teams to the playoffs. That offense with any kind of capable, functional mobility from the quarterback position could probably be good enough to contend for another wild card spot.
The Vikings are the unknown quantity here. A Mike Zimmer–coached team has never missed the playoffs two years in a row and, last year, the Vikings had a particularly brutal schedule that included an opening run against the Packers, Colts, Titans, Seahawks, Falcons and Packers again. With a largely similar roster, Minnesota entered last season with 10.29 projected wins according to Pythagorean win-loss projections. If the Packers are without Rodgers for any period of time, it would not be a surprise to see our faith in the Vikings slowly ascend. Despite the Vikings’ searching for a developmental QB prospect, Kirk Cousins was ninth in yards above replacement last year, a number barely edged out by rookie of the year Justin Herbert. Having a quarterback consistently in that Matt Ryan–esque orbit is good enough to perpetually consider a team in the running for postseason spots.
What we’ll say about the Lions is this: They may only win five games next year, but a few of those wins are going to come unexpectedly against good opponents. This is a roster in tatters, but a well-coached roster in tatters that can control the offensive line of scrimmage.
7. AFC South (Colts, Texans, Titans, Jaguars)
On draft night, Stanford head coach David Shaw said that Trevor Lawrence was good enough to do with Jacksonville what Andrew Luck did to a similarly threadbare roster in Indianapolis. That’s a significant vote of confidence for a potentially transcendent player and that may be true. If the Jaguars are suddenly, immediately relevant than the dynamics of this list change significantly.
On the surface, it’s not impossible. While former general manager Dave Caldwell has been scapegoated to various degrees, there aren’t a ton of black holes on this roster. It will be O.K. It was an extraordinarily young roster in 2020 that entered the season with 3.1 Pythagorean wins and finished below that total.
The Colts are expected to pace this division, though Carson Wentz filling in for Philip Rivers will be a more difficult transition than expected. According to Sports Info Solutions, the Colts and Eagles ran a comparable number of personnel splits—largely 11 and 12 personnel sets—and Rivers mostly outperformed Wentz. The Colts were the NFL’s fifth-most efficient 11 personnel team (three wide receivers, one tight end, one running back; far and away the most utilized grouping in the league) and the 23rd most efficient out of 12 personnel sets. The Eagles were 31 and 30, respectively.
While Wentz’s weapon set was almost completely eradicated due to injury, Rivers wasn’t exactly piloting the 2000 Rams, either. The Colts had three receivers finish with a positive catch above expectation rate while the Eagles had two. Wentz also had far greater mobility to bail him out.
The Titans will be one of the most fascinating teams in the NFL next year. Beyond Arthur Smith’s departure, they will be dealing with an offense that lost its No. 2 receiver and top receiving threat at the tight end position, both slots they did not replace. And while we’re all finished doubting the fact that Derrick Henry can reproduce these Herculean seasons, one has to wonder if it will always be enough to consistently lift this team above expectation.
8. NFC East (Cowboys, Eagles, Giants, Washington)
Personally, it feels like the Giants, Cowboys and Washington Football Team all present rosters that could legitimately win 10 games next year depending on a few lucky bounced balls, with the Eagles’ upside running just off the pace.
The betting markets, at the moment, have Dallas as the No. 9 most likely team to reach the playoffs, while Washington comes in at No. 19, the Giants at No. 22 and the Eagles at No. 25 (according to BetOnline). The Cowboys have the only elite quarterback in the division, plus an excellent weapon set, an improved defense and a better defensive coordinator. All of that would lead us to believe that a team that finished 6–10 last year would be vastly better. While some of the roster components that made Dallas great in years past are diminishing a bit, the upgrades on defense, their star-studded linebacking corps, half of a great offensive line and a budding star at wide receiver should be able to overcome the foundational cracks.
Not enough is being discussed about the Giants and defensive coordinator Patrick Graham. They were one of the best teams in the league last season at rushing just four defenders, according to Sports Info Solutions. They were a top-10 team in the pass-heavy dime personnel and a top-11 team in their base defense. While they were not routinely challenged by the likes of Dak Prescott, this was an encouraging step for a team that technically outperformed its expectations last year and now gets one of the more promising weapons in the league (Saquon Barkley) back from an ACL tear.
Washington, meanwhile, has to deal with the vacillations of Ryan Fitzpatrick but may legitimately have one of the best offensive lines in the league to help temper the highs and lows (not to mention maybe the best defensive line). If the division starts to regress back to the middle as it did last year, it would seem to benefit a Washington team that won seven games a year ago despite replacement level play at quarterback and an offense that could not run the ball effectively. Assuming Sam Cosmi can handle the left tackle job, this could be a far different season for Antonio Gibson.
More from Conor Orr:
• Justin Fields Gives the Bears a Second Chance
• Final Draft Grades: Analyzing Every Team’s Picks
• Is Urban Meyer Ready for the Trevor Lawrence Ride?
• Drafting Trey Lance Will Define Kyle Shanahan’s Legacy