NFL: Power Ranking Divisions Before Training Camp
There is a great level of parity throughout the NFL, but the same cannot be said among the league's respective divisions.
The gap between the quality of play in the NFC West and counterparts like the NFC North and AFC North is "Grand Canyon-esque."
What is the best division in football?
Can the New York Giants Super Bowl win elevate the NFC East to the top of the mountain, or have the disappointing turnouts from the Dallas Cowboys and Philadelphia Eagles held the division back?
This is only one question of many to be answered as we explore every NFL division heading into training camp.
8. NFC West
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Super Bowl Contenders: San Francisco 49ers
Playoff Contenders: N/A
Leftovers: Seattle Seahawks, St. Louis Rams and Arizona Cardinals
Unfortunately there has to be a worst division in football, and it would be hard to argue it is not the NFC West.
The San Francisco 49ers will again fight for NFC supremacy, but what about everyone else in this division?
Is anyone really worried about the Seahawks, Rams or Cardinals?
The Seahawks and Cardinals have yet to decide on their respective starting quarterbacks, and the Rams will struggle to earn five or six wins.
There is talent in Seattle and Arizona but not enough of it to make the playoffs this season.
7. AFC West
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Super Bowl Contenders: N/A
Playoff Contenders: San Diego Chargers and Denver Broncos
Leftovers: Kansas City Chiefs and Oakland Raiders
I really wanted to label the Chargers and Broncos as Super Bowl contenders.
The Chargers have everything needed to be a contender, yet every year they fall apart when it matters.
Perhaps 2012 will be different, but as it stands, San Diego must be judged by their poor excuse for a postseason track record.
They have an elite talent level but for some reason refuse to become an elite team.
On the other hand, the Broncos now have a Super Bowl quarterback in Peyton Manning.
But are there enough pieces around him to form one of the best teams in football?
The defense ranked in the bottom half of the league last season in numerous major categories, and the leading receiver was Eric Decker.
Manning can elevate the play of those around him, but to consider Denver a Super Bowl contender already seems a bit rash.
As for the Chiefs and Raiders, both teams are listed as leftovers. In reality, it would not be shocking to see either of them earn a Wild Card berth.
The Raiders will need superb play out of Carson Palmer, the kind of play that has not been seen in a few years.
And the Chiefs will need consistent play out of their quarterback Matt Cassel. They will also need to compensate for the loss of cornerback Brandon Carr, who was a major component of their sixth-ranked passing defense from a season ago.
6. AFC South
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Super Bowl Contenders: Houston Texans
Playoff Contenders: Tennessee Titans
Leftovers: Indianapolis Colts and Jacksonville Jaguars
The Houston Texans are the clear and undeniable front-runners of the AFC South division.
This is a team with all the pieces to make a run at the Super Bowl.
Houston has both a Top Five defense and a Top Ten offense.
Anyone who thinks losing Mario Williams or DeMeco Ryans will hurt this team needs to take a long look at the depth of their defensive roster.
Clearly the deepest unit in the AFC South.
However, the rest of the division is not the barren wasteland it is often depicted as.
The Tennessee Titans have a solid offense no matter who starts at quarterback, and if Chris Johnson can return to"CJ2K" form, a playoff berth is not out of the question.
Such hopeful optimism is not yet ready to be exuded in Jacksonville or Indianapolis.
The Colts obviously have their future set up nicely with Andrew Luck, but this is not a team ready to make any kind of noise just yet. There are simply too many holes and too much youth on this team.
And while the Jaguars may possess one of the most underrated defenses in the league, they were hung out to dry by their offense last season.
The Jags ranked in the Top Ten in both passing and rushing yards allowed last year but finished dead last in passing yards of their own.
Perhaps some pressure from Chad Henne will bring out the best in Blaine Gabbert, but as it stands, the Jags are not there yet.
5. AFC East
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Super Bowl Contenders: New England Patriots
Playoff Contenders: Buffalo Bills and New York Jets
Leftovers: Miami Dolphins
The AFC East has one elite unit in the Patriots and a bunch of unpredictable ones that could do just about anything in the upcoming season.
Everyone knows what to expect out of Tom Brady and co.
They will have no problem making the playoffs and will hover between 11 and 13 wins.
But what about everyone else?
The Bills are a team on the rise with enough talent to cause some serious waves in the AFC.
Adding Stephon Gilmore through the draft and Mario Williams in free agency will drastically improve their lackluster defense from a season ago.
If the Bills can combine that improved defense with more consistent play from Ryan Fitzpatrick and the offense, Buffalo's potential becomes almost endless.
However, anyone who thinks they know what to expect out of the Jets is simply a fool.
This team has tons of talent, to be sure, but between the locker room issues and the QB drama, there are too many combustible parts to "Gang Green" to know if they will return to elite form or flounder in mediocrity.
Yet flounder is just what the Dolphins have set themselves up to do in 2012.
Miami has talent sporadically throughout the roster, but with an undecided QB situation and one of the NFL's weakest receiving corps, there is little reason to expect an offense that can keep the Dolphins in games.
4. NFC South
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Super Bowl Contenders: New Orleans Saints, Atlanta Falcons
Playoff Contenders: Carolina Panthers, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The toughest division to predict in the upcoming season has to be the NFC South.
There are so many moving parts to this division that it is impossible to know exactly how it will shake out.
Every team has a chance to win this division, and yet every team (with the likely exception of the Falcons) also has a chance of missing out on the postseason entirely.
How will the Saints respond to "Bountygate," and will Drew Brees be on the field Week 1?
If he is, this is still a Super Bowl contending team. Without him, they aren't even playoff worthy.
Cam Newton led a spectacular Panthers resurgence last season, but sophomore slumps are not uncommon. Still, this is a talented team with a far too often overlooked defense.
The Falcons are both solid and underwhelming. They always hover around 10 wins and then falter in the playoffs.
Definitely a strong unit with enough talent to play for the Lombardi Trophy, the Falcons just need to step up when the games really start to count.
And the Tampa Bay Buccaneers can only get better from the utter disappointment that was 2011.
The roster is simply too stacked not to at least contend for postseason play.
Josh Freeman has a nice new weapon in Vincent Jackson and will hopefully have gotten the interception bug (22 of them last season) out of his system.
3. NFC East
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Super Bowl Contenders: New York Giants and Philadelphia Eagles
Playoff Contenders: Dallas Cowboys
Leftovers: Washington Redskins
The strength of the NFC East is all up to the Dallas Cowboys and Philadelphia Eagles.
Both teams have enough talent to compete for the Super Bowl.
And yet both teams also have the capability of inexplicably missing the playoffs yet again and forcing their fan bases to grab the torches and pitch forks.
If the Eagles and Cowboys, along with the Giants, all play at the elite level they are capable of, then the NFC East becomes one of the most exciting three horse races in recent memory.
The Redskins are obviously the odd man out in this equation, but that does not mean they are a bad team.
To the contrary, Washington has a decent roster with room to grow, but they must grow.
Drafting Robert Griffin III will improve the offense, but will it be rapidly enough to compete in one of the toughest divisions in the league?
Washington can fight for a winning record, but anything more than that is a pipe dream in 2012.
2. AFC North
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Super Bowl Contenders: Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens
Playoff Contenders: Cincinnati Bengals
Leftovers: Cleveland Browns
One word to describe the AFC North: consistent.
The Steelers and Ravens are always at the top of the conference, the Browns are at the bottom and the Bengals like to fluctuate between good and bad.
It has been the blueprint of the division for around a decade.
Expect no change in 2012.
The Browns are unfortunately still the Browns. No one knows quite how the Brandon Weeden experiment will pan out, but even if he is great, there are limited pieces around him outside of Trent Richardson.
The AFC North, and the conference in general, is way too good for Cleveland. However, the same cannot be said for the Bengals.
Cincinnati proved they could overcome their youth last season. With a Top Ten defense returning, along with the continued growth of guys like A.J. Green and Andy Dalton, this is a team capable of double-digit victories.
And, of course, the Steelers and Ravens will again fight it out for division supremacy (assuming Ray Rice does not hold out into the regular season) and make serious runs at the Super Bowl.
Some things never change.
1. NFC North
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Super Bowl Contenders: Green Bay Packers, Detroit Lions and Chicago Bears
Playoff Contenders: N/A
Leftovers: Minnesota Vikings
It doesn't get much deeper than the NFC North.
Top to bottom, this is one of the strongest divisions in the NFL and should make a run at an all-division NFC Championship Game.
The Green Bay Packers are perennial Super Bowl contenders with no new weaknesses or deficiencies to speak of.
Expecting (even demanding) a 12-4 season out of the Packers roster is not unreasonable.
Meanwhile the upstart Detroit Lions and Chicago Bears should have a great battle for the No. 2 spot in the division.
The Lions took that honor and made the playoffs last season but only after a rash of injuries derailed the streaking Bears.
Both teams have enough talent on both sides of the ball to make some noise come January.
And the Minnesota Vikings are the leftover in this division.
They are not a roster without talent, but the Vikings are clearly a step below all of their divisional counterparts.
With Adrian Peterson coming of a serious knee injury and Christian Ponder still developing within the offense, a playoff berth appears out of the question for Minnesota.
Still, the NFC North is the strongest division heading into training camp.