Power Ranking the NFL's 8 Divisions
The NFC North dominated the NFL in 2011, and is poised to do so again in 2012. With training camps in full swing it's time to evaluate how the divisions are shaping up as the regular season approaches.
Here are my power rankings for the NFL's divisions and how I think they will stand during the 2012 season.
1. NFC North
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It should come as no surprise that the NFC North is at the top of these rankings. With Aaron Rodgers and Green Bay's offense leading the way, this division is stacked offensively.
The Detroit Lions and their fantastic pass-catch combination of Matthew Stafford and Calvin Johnson are on the rise. The Chicago Bears finally got Jay Cutler a receiver by trading for Brandon Marshall, and they locked up running back Matt Forte to a long-term extension.
Sure, the Minnesota Vikings still look like they are a long way from being competitive but they put together a great draft in 2012 and could slowly start to build toward respectability.
The Packers went 15-1 in 2011 and look to be just as good this year, while the Lions (10-6) and Bears (8-8) will almost surely be in the mix for playoff spots.
The NFC North is by far the NFL's top division entering the 2012 season.
2. AFC North
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If any division can challenge the NFC North for supremacy it is the AFC North.
The AFC North sent three teams to the playoffs last season, and the Baltimore Ravens (12-4), Pittsburgh Steelers (12-4) and Cincinnati Bengals (9-7) will all be in the mix for postseason runs this year.
The Steelers loaded up in the draft and certainly improved, while the Ravens are hoping quarterback Joe Flacco can finally put it all together in 2012. The Bengals should also continue to grow under young quarterback Andy Dalton.
Yes, the Browns (4-12 in 2011) are still wallowing at the bottom of the division, but with Trent Richardson in the backfield, Cleveland should finally have some offensive punch.
Top to bottom, the North is the AFC's top division.
3. NFC East
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The records in the NFC East weren't pretty in 2011, but the teams also spent most of the season beating each other up.
The New York Giants finished 9-7 but won the Super Bowl, while the Philadelphia Eagles (8-8), Dallas Cowboys (8-8) and Washington Redskins (5-11) all had bad seasons but possess plenty of talent.
The Giants may actually take a step back in 2012, but the Eagles look much better, as do the Cowboys. Meanwhile, the addition of Robert Griffin III to the Redskins should make their offense dynamic. Matching RG3 up with tight end Fred Davis, running back Roy Helu and receiver Pierre Garcon should make him even better.
The Cowboys' defense was terrible last season but with the addition of rookie Morris Claiborne and free-agent Brandon Carr, the secondary is incredibly improved.
Meanwhile, the Eagles finished the season on a four-game win streak.
The NFC East division barely edges out the NFC South because of its depth.
4. NFC South
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The New Orleans Saints and Atlanta Falcons both reached the playoffs last season, and Cam Newton and the Carolina Panthers lit up the league on offense, but the Tampa Bay Buccaneers were a disaster at 4-12.
This offseason, there was a ton of upheaval in the NFC South, with the Saints going through all kinds of problems related to the bounty scandal and the Bucs adding several high profile free agents.
I expect the Saints to take a small step back from their 13-3 record from 2011, and that leaves the road for the Atlanta Falcons wide open at the top of the division. Matt Ryan and company must step up and improve their 10-6 record from 2011 and finally assert themselves as Super Bowl contenders.
Meanwhile the bottom half of the division should remain the same. The Bucs need to develop chemistry with all their new acquisitions and a brand new coaching staff. They aren't poised for a playoff run. The Panthers should continue to slowly improve with Newton and could very well be better than their 6-10 record from last season.
The top of the NFC South is strong, but the bottom will remain average.
5. AFC East
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The New England Patriots are always in the mix for the Super Bowl, and last season they just fell short of winning a title. The Pats went 13-3 in 2011 and look just as good, if not better, entering the 2012 season.
The rest of the AFC East is a big question mark. The Miami Dolphins and Buffalo Bills both went 6-10 in 2011 and no one can tell you with any certainty if either team will be any better this season. Meanwhile the New York Jets flamed out in spectacular fashion last season, finishing 8-8 with a ton of locker room turmoil.
This year, the Patriots are clearly the favorites in the AFC East and the Jets have the potential to reach the playoffs, but nothing is ever certain with Rex Ryan's team. Meanwhile, the Dolphins and Bills should stay on the bottom of the division.
The East could really go either way this season and it all depends on how Miami, Buffalo and New York play.
6. AFC West
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The AFC West has been down over the past few seasons, with injuries and disappointing performances holding the division back. But in 2012, the West appears to be ready to bounce back a bit.
The San Diego Chargers had a great offseason and there is almost no way Philip Rivers will be as disappointing as he was last season. San Diego is likely the favorite out west, but not by a lot. Peyton Manning's addition to the Denver Broncos should improve them as well.
Meanwhile, the Kansas City Chiefs get Jamaal Charles, Tony Moeaki and Eric Berry back from knee injuries and the Oakland Raiders are in year two with Carson Palmer under center.
From top to bottom the AFC West is improved but there are too many question marks to make it one of the NFL's top conferences.
7. AFC South
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These days, the AFC South is essentially the Houston Texans and everyone else. The Texans went 10-6 last season despite having quarterback Matt Schaub on the shelf for the final six weeks of the regular season and the playoffs.
This year, the Texans could be in the mix to post the best record in the AFC and the rest of their division will be chasing them.
The Tennessee Titans just missed the playoffs last season with a 9-7 record, but I'm not sold on either Matt Hasselbeck or Jake Locker at quarterback and they have a ton of questions on defense.
Behind the Titans are the Jacksonville Jaguars, who need second-year quarterback Blaine Gabbert to essentially become another person to be successful, and the Indianapolis Colts.
The Colts are coming off of a 2-14 season and quarterback Andrew Luck will try to slowly build the franchise back up from the steaming pile of rubble it became after the 2011 season.
The AFC South is a mess after the Texans right now and this season it shouldn't be competitive.
8. NFC West
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The San Francisco 49ers shocked everyone by going 13-3 last season and reaching the NFC Championship Game. But the rest of the NFC West still looks awful as the Arizona Cardinals (8-8), Seattle Seahawks (7-9) and St. Louis Rams (2-14) all turned in horrible seasons in 2011.
This year, the 49ers appear ready to repeat their performance from last season and are likely to win the division. The Cardinals have a big-time quarterback controversy brewing between John Skelton and Kevin Kolb and neither guy is a great option.
The Seahawks invested in Matt Flynn this offseason but there is no guarantee he'll end up starting or be any good for them. The Rams have some talent but not enough to contend for a playoff spot.
The division's bottom three teams look no better than average and could end up being terrible.
That will hold the NFC West back.