Significance of Divisions
Over the two decade span of the New England Patriots dynasty with Bill Belichick and Tom Brady, many questioned their level of competition throughout the years within the AFC East. All the Patriots had to do essentially was win their division and they would earn the right to not only make the playoffs, but host a game as well. Thus, making their path to the super bowl easier than most teams.
While that case does have some merit, the Patriots at the end of the day took care of what they needed to do, and sustained a consistent level of excellence throughout a prolonged period of time.
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NFL Division Rankings
Nonetheless, one thing cannot be argued, the level of interdivision competition does indeed matter. Below are my rankings from best to worst divisions in the NFL heading into the 2021 regular season:
1. NFC West
Over the past 3-4 years, the NFC West has proven to be one of the most competitive divisions in the NFL. This year is no different. Infact, one could make the case that every single team improved in the offseason.
After an injury plagued season, The 2019 NFC Champion San Francisco 49ers, are finally getting healthy. Key contributors like Nick Bosa, Deebo Samuel, Jimmy Goropollo, etc. are fully recovered.
Not to mention the dynamic young quarterback in Tray Lance that they traded up to draft. With his dynamic speed and arm talent, Lance can make a huge difference for the team if he sees the field during his rookie year.
The Arizona Cardinals with rising star Kyler Murrary at quarterback is entering his second season with All-Pro Wideout Deandre Hopkins. Not to mention, they added JJ Watt on the defensive side of the ball. They are a scary team to watch.
The Seattle Seahawks are always a problem with Russell Wilson at quarterback, and their star wide receiver DK Metcalf proved why he is one of the best pass catchers in the league last season in just his second year.
Throw in the new-look Rams with Mathew Stafford at quarterback, Los Angeles may be the biggest wild-card of the league heading into this year. Let’s not forget their incredible defense on the other side of the ball as well with Aaron Donalnd and Jalen Ramsey. The NFC West should be an absolute dogfight from start to finish.
2. AFC North
Moving on with our NFL Division Rankings, let’s talk AFC North! Arguably one of the most improved divisions last year, the AFC North is incredibly intense as well. The Pittsburgh Steelers entered last postseason as the 1st seed in the AFC, only to be knocked out by their divisional rival Cleveland Browns who improved immensely last season.
With the bitter defeat in the playoffs last year, I expect a motivated Big Ben to make a run back to the playoffs. The Cleveland Browns however will have something to say about that with their improving young quarterback in Baker Mayfield, dynamic rushing attack, and swarming defense.
Not to mention the Baltimore Ravens with Lamar Jackson who are always a matchup nightmare for opponents to face. No matter how hard defenses try to game plan against him, his speed and improved accuracy as a passer causes fits for defenses.
The only real question mark in the division are the Cincinnati Bengals. With quarterback Joe Burrow coming back from an ACL injury, it will be interesting to watch how effective he will be coming into the season; especially with a porous offensive line.
3. AFC West
The AFC West is one of the most intriguing divisions to watch this year. While Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs are the prohibited favorites, a few of their matchups against their intervision opponents were extremely close.
In fact, the Las Vegas Raiders seemed to give the Chiefs problems last year, handing Kansas City their first loss of the season. With an improving young defense and bruising rushing attack, Las Vegas looks to build off some of the momentum they have created with a motivated Derek Carr at Quarterback.
The Los Angeles Chargers with star young quarterback Justin Herbert, look to make some noise this year as well. Herbert proved to be the real deal right off the bat, which gave the team an elevated level of confidence that they could compete with anyone.
While the Denver Broncos do not scare anyone on paper, they could cause some of their opponents’ issues this year with a healthy defense. Not to mention, they could be in the running for the reigning MVP at quarterback, residing in Green Bay Wisconsin at the moment. If they do indeed get their hands on Rodgers, the AFC West can easily rise as the best division in football.
4. NFC South
The NFC South is where the Lombardi trophy currently stands. The reigning defending Super Bowl Champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers, look to defend their crown this upcoming season after winning a super bowl in Tom Brady’s first season outside of New England.
Their offensive repertoire is dynamic as ever, and their defense was proven to be extremely difficult to contain; just ask Patrick Mahomes.
Despite the loss of Hall of Fame quarterback Drew Brees, the New Orleans Saints look to usher in a new era with Sean Payton still at the helm. His dynamic play calling and experience always gives the Saints a fighting chance.
The Falcons and Panthers on the other side of the division are also going through transition with the losses of Julio Jones and Teddy Bridgewater respectively.
Carolina is looking forward to revitalizing Sam Darnold’s young career while bringing back a healthy Christian McCaffery. They should be a team to keep an eye out for this season.
5. AFC East
Despite the AFC East looking like a two team race between the talented Buffalo Bills and the Miami Dolphins, Bill Belichick and company look to rebound off a disappointing season with a slew of guys returning to their defense coinciding with a large amount of free agents coming into Foxborough.
Despite the large overhaul, one thing is for certain, Bill Belichick is the man to put the pieces together. Their draft selection of quarterback Mac Jones, is also an interesting variable to factor this season especially if he takes over Cam Newton’s job.
Looking up at everyone, the New York Jets look to find some hope in their young team with Zach Wilson looking to become the new face of the franchise.
6. NFC North
With the potential departure of quarterback Aaron Rodgers, this division could easily become number eight on this list. It would completely make the division absolutely wide open.
Despite Green Bay’s talented roster, it is impossible to replicate the impact Rodgers has made on this team; leading them to back to back NFC Championship appearances.
The Chicago Bears on the other hand look to start a new era with rookie Justin Fields at quarterback. For the Bears fan base, hopefully they found their face of the franchise once and for all after all these years. If not, it could be another lost season for Chicago.
The Vikings look to build off an encouraging 2020 season where all-pro running back Dalvin Cook broke out. Wide receiver Justin Jefferson also looks to be the real deal after one year already. The real question mark for the Vikings is the play of Kirk Cousins. If he is not able to produce, Minnesota will have no shot to make a deep run into the playoffs.
Lastly, the Detroit Lions look to revitalize Jarred Goff’s career. They hope that the change of scenery and lessen pressure will bring the best out of the young quarterback.
7. NFC East
The “NFC Least” as people like to call it makes an appearance at number seven on my list. After all, the division winner last season entered the postseason with a losing record.
Looks like the division has nowhere to go but up. The return of Dak Prescott in Dallas and the impressive young defenses residing in New York and Washington may also make the division a little more compelling than last year.
The interesting team to watch this season is the Philadelphia Eagles who had a drama filled 2020 season with Carson Wentz and Doug Peterson leading the way. With both gone, new head coach Nick Sirianni looks to bring the best out of quarterback Jalen Hurts who showed flashes last season.
It will be interesting to watch how much the division improves, if any, this season. If not, the “NFC Least” tag will continue to be as appropriate as ever.
8. AFC South
With all-pro running back Derrick Henry and newly acquired Julio Jones, the Tennessee Titans are looking to be the presumptive favorites within the AFC South, with little to none competition; making this division what the AFC East was during the Patriots dynasty.
Their biggest threat you could argue is the Indianapolis Colts, but with quarterback Carson Wentz arriving, the Colts have a lot more questions than answers heading into the season.
Frank Reight is looking to revitalize Wetz’s career, but after how horrible he looked last season, it is going to be an uphill battle to turn him back into the quarterback he once was in 2017. It will be interesting to watch.
The Jacksonville Jaguars look to develop a winning culture with new coach Urban Meyer and number one overall pick Trevor Lawrence at quarterback. While his potential is promising, it is going to be a developmental year for the Jaguars with all their unproven talent on the team.
The Houston Texans are looking like a complete mess and could easily become the worst team in all of football this year; especially with the situation surrounding quarterback Deshaun Watson. Hopefully for Houston, they can collect some draft picks and look to build for the future. As for this season though, I do not see them going anywhere.