Picking the Winner of Each NFL Division in 2013
Al Bello/Getty Images
NFL training camps and their attendant roster battles don't start until later this summer, and we're still months away from Week 1 of the actual season (Sept. 5 when the Baltimore Ravens visit the Denver Broncos).
That doesn't mean it's too early to start thinking about which teams could pull away from their rivals and win their respective divisions.
Though things will change drastically for many teams between now and the season's start, based on what we know now, here are early predictions on the winners of each NFL division.
AFC East: New England Patriots
It's hard to imagine the Patriots dropping in the AFC East this year.
USA TODAY Sports
Since 2001, the New England Patriots have finished first in the AFC East all but two times, and they had winning records of 9-7 and 11-5 in those two years (2002 and 2008, respectively). As long as quarterback Tom Brady and head coach Bill Belichick are paired up, it seems that no deficiency on either offense or defense is too great for the team to overcome.
Though the Patriots are still trying to sort out their receiver situation, though Rob Gronkowski's health is in question, though building a strong pass rush and secondary is still a priority, though Aaron Hernandez finds himself in hot water, there's little reason to think the Patriots won't be able to win the AFC East crown yet again.
Season after season, the Miami Dolphins, Buffalo Bills and New York Jets try to find ways to not only improve their rosters but to do so in a way that surpasses and confounds the Patriots. Season after season, it never works well enough.
Of the other three teams in the AFC East, the Dolphins seem to have done the best job at improvement this offseason, both via their free-agency acquisitions as well as the draft. This may serve to trouble the Patriots in the teams' two meetings this year, but it shouldn't be enough to derail New England's current four-year streak atop the division.
AFC West: Denver Broncos
When Peyton Manning's the quarterback, it's hard to pick against him.
Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports
In 2012, the San Diego Chargers, Oakland Raiders and Kansas City Chiefs combined for 13 wins. Interestingly enough, the Denver Broncos earned 13 wins all by themselves.
Though success in a previous season doesn't always lead to continued dominance, the states of the Chargers, Raiders and Chiefs is such that it's hard to imagine the Peyton Manning-led Broncos losing hold of the AFC West's top spot.
For what it's worth, both the Chargers and Chiefs should have better 2013 seasons.
Better protection for quarterback Philip Rivers and an improved defense should tip the Chargers above .500. Meanwhile, the combination of new head coach Andy Reid and quarterback Alex Smith for the Chiefs won't likely lead to a two-win season like they had in 2012.
But when considering all four teams in the AFC West, the Broncos simply stand out. On offense, defense and special teams, they are heading into the 2013 season in the best shape in the division, which should result in another divisional title this year.
AFC North: Cincinnati Bengals
The Bengals have been steadily improving.
Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports
Unlike the AFC's East and West divisions, the North is a bit more difficult to figure out.
There are the powerhouses, the Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens, who are both coming off drastically different 2012 seasons. The Super Bowl champion Ravens and 8-8 Steelers both opted to make significant changes to their roster this offseason.
The Cleveland Browns are on yet another rebuilding project, albeit one with more promise. Their new coaching staff may just be among the best in the league, and their young roster is rife with talent and potential.
And then there's the Cincinnati Bengals.
They added two offensive weapons via the draft to help quarterback Andy Dalton in his third year: tight end Tyler Eifert and running back Giovani Bernard.
With youth to rival the Browns and a scary defense that evokes both the Steelers and Ravens' vaunted units of years past, the Bengals seem poised to take over the top spot in the division in 2013.
AFC South: Indianapolis Colts
Andrew Luck is the Colts' biggest key to divisional dominance.
Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports
Then-Indianapolis Colts quarterback Peyton Manning's missed 2011 season was the best thing to happen to the Houston Texans. It allowed them to take hold of an AFC South that had been dominated by the Colts for years.
Manning's departure the following year to the Denver Broncos, and the Colts' drafting of Andrew Luck first overall in the draft, also managed to buy the Texans another year atop the division's ranks.
Luck's first year with the Colts—one in which the quarterback position wasn't the only thing being rebuilt—resulted in an 11-5 record, just one game back from the Texans. The Jacksonville Jaguars and Tennessee Titans, meanwhile, combined for just eight wins.
This year, that gap will remain, but the two teams at the top will swap positions. While the Texans aren't a weak team by any stretch, they need a No. 2 wide receiver to emerge to pair with Andre Johnson, and key members of their secondary are getting older.
Though strong defense can help a team win championships, the young, dynamic Colts offense should be enough to carry them to a divisional title.
NFC East: Washington Redskins
RG3's health is the Redskins' biggest concern.
Evan Habeeb-USA TODAY Sports
In 2012, the Washington Redskins turned their franchise around primarily thanks to two new members of their offense: quarterback Robert Griffin III and running back Alfred Morris.
While relying on a quarterback like Griffin, who combines his strong, accurate arm with the ability to run away from pressure, injuries will happen. Unfortunately for the Redskins, he tore his ACL and LCL last season, though he should be ready for Week 1.
The Redskins won the NFC East and reached the playoffs last season, while only the New York Giants managed to post an above-.500 record alongside them in the division. And as long Griffin and Morris remain healthy in 2013, they should repeat.
The Giants and Cowboys are coming off disappointing seasons, while the Eagles are rebooting their offense and defense under Chip Kelly. The Redskins are building a dangerous roster that could be Super Bowl-ready sooner rather than later.
NFC West: San Francisco 49ers
No team ran the ball with as much success as the Niners.
Ed Szczepanski-USA TODAY Sports
The NFC West has rapidly shifted from one of the NFL's most pathetic divisions to one of the toughest, thanks to the arms race going on between the San Francisco 49ers and the Seattle Seahawks.
As long as the St. Louis Rams find ways to keep quarterback Sam Bradford protected while supplying him with a cadre of talented offensive weaponry, this could soon become a three-horse race.
For now, the advantage belongs to the 49ers.
They have one year's worth of positive development over the Seahawks and at least two years over both the Rams and the Arizona Cardinals. They have the motivation of a Super Bowl loss to drive them and a well-balanced, deep roster of talent on both offense and defense.
Though the Seahawks will be clawing desperately at the 49ers' heels, which should result in a playoff berth for their efforts, the NFC West will remain San Francisco's division for 2013.
NFC North: Green Bay Packers
The Packers drafted Eddie Lacy to help their stagnant run game.
Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports
Three of the four teams in the NFC North went 10-6 or better in 2012. As such, it's hard to predict who will take the division.
The question this year is whether the Vikings' 10-6 season was a fluke or a result of tangible, sustainable improvement on both sides of the ball. Already, Vikings quarterback Christian Ponder has been reportedly inconsistent in practices, and there are whispers that Matt Cassel could replace him at some point in the season.
Also 10-6 last year were the Chicago Bears, who parted ways with longtime head coach Lovie Smith after missing the playoffs. Marc Trestman, a CFL coaching veteran and sharp quarterback mind, has taken over in Chicago.
Then there are the Detroit Lions, who went a disappointing 4-12 last season after letting fourth quarter after fourth quarter get away from them. If they can be more consistent and finish out games, they could greatly improve on last season's win total.
That leaves us with the Packers, who went 11-5 last season before being terrorized by the San Francisco 49ers in the playoffs. With quarterback Aaron Rodgers' passing prowess and a newly revived run game, the Packers should be able to take the NFC North's top spot despite the heavy competition.
NFC South: Atlanta Falcons
The Falcons are known for their offensive prowess.
Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports
With the New Orleans Saints suffering under the weight of bounty scandal-related sanctions in 2012, the door was wide open in the NFC South. The Saints, Carolina Panthers and Tampa Bay Buccaneers each went 7-9, while the Falcons went an impressive 13-3.
The Falcons have a strong offense, featuring Matt Ryan, a tough-as-nails offensive line, Roddy White, Julio Jones, Tony Gonzalez and the newly acquired Steven Jackson. Their defense needs help, but the six defenders they drafted (of their eight total picks) should help that side of the ball significantly in 2013.
While the Saints will be fighting to regain their earlier glory and the Buccaneers and Panthers will both be trying to enter into the playoff discussion, the Falcons simply have too much firepower on offense to let the division slip away.