The NFL would like to claim that all divisions are made equal and that parity is king. That every team has an equal chance of making the playoffs.
One look at the NFC East and we all know that's not true. One look at what Buffalo is up against in its division versus what San Francisco is up against in its division and we all know that's not true.
Looking at the divisions, it is easy to see they're not all equal, that some are more difficult than others, and that some are much, much more difficult than others.
So let's take a preseason look at the divisions, from worst to first, before the regular season and the chaos it brings renders all of our preseason opinions meaningless.
When Kurt Warner retired, this immediately became the worst division in football.
The defending division champion Cardinals didn't just lose Warner, though. They also lost standouts Anquan Boldin, Karlos Dansby, and Antrel Rolle.
They're one of the big enigmas coming into the season, with the potential to repeat as division champs or fall flat on their faces with Matt Leinart at the helm. Or Derek Anderson, who knows. It is an embarrassment of riches for the Cardinals, or the exact opposite. I always mix those up.
The 49ers have the talent to win the division too, but that's not saying much in this division. After all, this time, Alex Smith is still a question mark at quarterback and Frank Gore is still one rush away from the DL.
The Seahawks are an odd mix of old, over-the-hill veterans and inexperienced, green youngsters. It will be a miracle if Matt Hasselbeck survives the entire season.
And the Rams are the Rams.
If one was to put the AFC West in this spot, I wouldn't quibble. I just think the NFC West is trending downward and looks to be the worst division in football, right now. Lack of standout talent, lack of recent success (that didn't involve Kurt Warner), lack of Super Bowl aspirations...
Worst. Division. Ever.
The AFC West is slightly ahead of the NFC West because of the San Diego Chargers.
Though the Chargers don't look to be so great this year, with a rush defense that straddles the line between awful and abysmal. But with Phillip Rivers to Antonio Gates, they are still capable of beating anybody and giving the AFC West just enough cache to be the second to worst division in football.
Broncos coach Josh McDaniels and Chiefs coach Todd Haley are both control freaks who haven't demonstrated an ability to get out of their own way yet. Their teams will be hard to beat—most of the time—and will win some games they probably shouldn't. Heck, one of them could contend for the division crown—especially if Haley realizes to ride Jamaal Charles.
A return to glory for the Raiders and Al Davis would be nice. He should get to see the Silver and Black rampaging through the league one last time. While the team looks to be better than the past couple of years and has finally jettisoned JaMarcus the Hut, the Raiders probably won't give Al that last hurrah this year.
The AFC West has a few more bright spots than the NFC West. Every team should be more competitive and better, except the Chargers—and they're the favorites to win the division. Things are trending upwards here.
It's not enough to get them higher than the seventh spot, though.
The NFC South has historically been one of the tougher divisions in football. Not tough, like, "Wow, they're all so good," but tough because they just beat each other up.
Sure, they all could be good—save the Buccaneers, who are in the midst of a reclamation project. But something will happen to the Falcons or Panthers—a plethora of injuries, defensive schemes didn't pan out, the offensive line falls apart, something—that will leave one of them with a top 10 pick next season. Happens every year, like clockwork.
The top dog in the division right now, in the league right now, is the defending Super Bowl champion New Orleans Saints, and they should continue to be a Super Bowl contender as long as Drew Brees and Sean Payton are running the offense. Logically speaking, their defense has to take a step back this season, however. But they should have this division on lockdown for the foreseeable future.
The NFC South is a tough division, a division that isn't won by default, but by will. The Bucs and the up-and-down nature of the Falcons and Panthers leave them low on the totem pole. For now.
There is the possibility—if Matt Moore emerges or if the Falcons defense can bounce back—that this division could be second-best in the NFC when the year is over.
The AFC South boasts three legitimate playoff contenders, so why are they so low? Because they only have one answer to the question "Who will win this division?" and only have one Super Bowl contender: The Indianapolis Colts.
And while the Houston Texans and Tennessee Titans are legitimate playoff contenders, they're both still on the fringe of that list. It is hard to decipher which one of the two should be ranked above the other—the Texans have the better offense, while the Titans have the better defense; the Titans have one of the two best running backs in the game, while the Texans have the one of the two best wide receivers in the game—but they're both essentially in the same boat: They haven't proved they are a playoff team yet.
The Jacksonville Jaguars are in denial right now, unwilling to start the rebuilding and overhaul they are in need of, and wasting MJD's prime. That said, they aren't pushovers at the bottom, a la the Rams. An opponent can't walk into the stadium and just beat the Jaguars.
The dominance of the Colts and the overall quality, potential, and downsides of the other teams slide this division in the middle of the pack.
Years of the Lions being easy wins and doormats are nearing an end.
The Lions will be improved this year with another year of Stafford to Johnson, rookies Ndamukong Suh and Jahvid Best, and an overall talent improvement to the roster under head coach Jim Schwartz. They will still finish at the bottom, but they'll steal some wins and provide some scares this year.
Regarding the Bears, Jay Cutler could remind everyone why they thought the Bears were so smart to trade for him last season. Matt Forte's disappointing sophomore campaign can be attributed to injuries. They have added Julius Peppers and Brian Urlacher is coming back from injury. They could become a playoff team with the right breaks and with Mike Martz not going too crazy.
But the NFC North gets the nod for being in the top half of the league because of the Minnesota Vikings and Green Bay Packers. Both teams have a couple of red flags and concerns, but both are on the small list of Super Bowl contenders, with Green Bay slightly ahead of Minnesota.
Injuries are already hurting the Vikings, but with Adrian Peterson and their defensive line, they should continue to pile up wins and be a feared team, even when Brett Favre's stats take a precipitous drop from last season. The Vikings have the high-end talent necessary to win in January.
The Packers look like galaxy-eaters in the preseason, scoring at will while Aaron Rodgers continues to justify Ted Thompson's decision to let Favre go. They have a strong defensive line rotation, athletic linebackers, a talented secondary, an improving offensive line, one of the deepest receiving corps in football....they're locked, stocked, and ready to go.
With two Super Bowl contenders, a fringe playoff team, and a young up-and-comer, the NFC North deserves to be in the top half of this list. That said, there is a definitive gap between this spot and the next spot.
The AFC East has garnered a lot—lot—of hype this offseason. It was deserved.
To a point.
Nobody received more or deserved more hype than the Jets this offseason. They had a great draft, replenishing their secondary and offensive line with potential starters, trading 90 cents on the dollar for high-caliber players in Santonio Holmes and Antonio Cromartie, and signing one of the best defensive ends of the past 10 years in Jason Taylor and the best running back of the past 10 years in LaDainian Tomlinson.
All that said, they have their work cut out for them. Mark Sanchez was more lucky than good last season and has yet to show improvement in the preseason. And Darrelle Revis remains a holdout, leaving the Jets defense without its best weapon.
They won't be an easy win for anybody though. Not with Rex Ryan orchestrating that defense. Even without Revis, they have the tools to make the playoffs, and if Revis comes back, they have the tools to win it all.
The Miami Dolphins made a splash in the offseason as well, signing Karlos Dansby and trading for Brandon Marshall. Adding Marshall to a running game that features Ricky Williams and a healthy Ronnie Brown, and with potential-ladened Chad Henne, gives the Dolphins the best offense they've had in years. With their disciplined defense, the Dolphins will have a chance to win every game. However, they will only go as far as Henne takes them.
The Patriots had a down year by their standards, which meant a first-round playoff exit. With Tom Brady fully recovered from his knee injury and Randy Moss unencumbered by the shoulder injury he had last season, their offense should be closer to their record-setting ways of a couple seasons ago. With their added depth at receiver and tight end, they can afford to ease Wes Welker back into the flow—if he lets them.
New England's problem the past few seasons has been defense though. Ty Warren just went down for the season, so it would make sense to assume the defensive struggles would continue. But the young talent they've added the past few seasons (such as Jerod Mayo, Brandon Meriweather, and Darius Butler) and the players they've drafted this year (like Brandon Spikes and Devin McCourty) give Bill Belichick more talent and options than he's had in the past.
While they won't be like the great Patriot defenses fielded during their dynasty, this defense will be better than the past few years.
Then, there is the Bills. They look to be more exciting this season with CJ Spiller and a talented defense, but it would be a surprise if they win more than four games.
The big three teams have playoff potential, excellent coaching, sound fundamentals, and explosive playmakers, which slides them into the upper echelon of divisions. However, as long as Tom Brady has been healthy, neither the Jets or Dolphins have stopped the Patriots from winning this division since 2000. That divisional dominance keeps the AFC East out of the top two.
A lot of people are down on the Steelers this year.
But since Troy Polamalu is healthy, they're definitely a Super Bowl contender.
Ben Roethlisberger could miss the possible six games and they'll still be a Super Bowl contender, as long as Polamalu remains healthy. They have some work to do along the offensive line, but they should have better cohesion and chemistry with time.
And Roethlisberger is set to return at some point this season, with a Super Bowl-winning track record and wanting to prove he has learned and improved as a quarterback and man. With the improving Rashard Mendenhall and Mike Wallace on offense, and a defense full of Pro Bowlers and Dick LeBeau mind juice, and the Steelers can win in the playoffs.
Again, Polamalu is healthy.
However, the preseason choice to win the division should still be the Baltimore Ravens.
Adding Anquan Boldin and Donte Stallworth to the receiving corps will no doubt help Joe Flacco, who was already showing the potential of an elite quarterback. The bread-and-butter of the offense will still be their running game and Ray Rice though. The Ravens defense looked to have taken a step back last season, but Ed Reed will return with fresh legs, and that alone will be a boon. Young players like Lardarius Webb, Paul Kruger, Lamar Divens, and Jameel McClain will improve and give the mountain Haloti Ngata and the ageless Ray Lewis the help they need.
The Ravens are on many pundits' short lists of Super Bowl favorites this season, and rightfully so.
Funny thing is, the Cincinnati Bengals are the defending division champion, and they could very well win the division again. Receiving additions Terrell Owens, Jermaine Gresham, and Jordan Shipley will augment Chad Ochocinco and Andre Caldwell's production, giving Carson Palmer the weapons needed to succeed. If Palmer is able to spread the ball around and find the open man, and if Cedric Benson keeps on truckin', their offense should be vastly improved.
This Bengals team can win with their defense too. Featuring one of the best corner tandems in the league (Jonathan Joseph and Leon Hall), a gifted linebacking corps, and sack-demon Antwan Odom coming back from injury, the Bengals defense also might be better this season.
Cincinnati is a team capable of ruining a lot of preseason predictions and they should not be overlooked.
The Cleveland Browns might not ruin a lot of predictions as they will assuredly finish in last place, but they should not be overlooked either.
Cleveland gets by on offense thanks to a very good offensive line. Their playmakers are very green, but if Jerome Harrison can continue to play like he ended last season, they should be alright. For all his faults, Jake Delhomme is a better option than they had last season. The defense is revamped and Josh Cribbs can score a touchdown any time he touches the ball. They will upset more than one of the favorites in this division.
The Super Bowl aspirations of the Steelers and the Ravens, and the possibility the Bengals could beat them both for the division title, give them the nod over the AFC East as the AFC's best division. However, the Browns prevent them from getting the top spot.
I really didn't want to pick the NFC East, I didn't. I'm tired of hearing how great this division is and how tough every divisional game is.
Unfortunately, it's true.
Run down the list and find an easy win.
The Dallas Cowboys have starters two-deep at every skill position, one of the better offensive lines, and an ever-improving Tony Romo at quarterback. Their offense is looking elite and their defense ended last season looking like the best in the NFC (save their last playoff game). Plenty of people are picking them to win the NFC and that's a good bet. They should be favorites to win the division.
Unless the Giants defense returns to their Super Bowl form. They suffered more than their fair share of injuries last season and added Antrel Rolle to a glaring need position at safety.
Eli Manning and his deep, budding receiving corps looked unstoppable at times last season. The offensive line should be better than last season and hopefully the Bradshaw/Jacobs split begins to lean towards Bradshaw. Plenty of people are picking them to win the NFC and that's...well, it's not a bad bet. And they could win the division.
The Eagles eschewed Donovan McNabb for Kevin Kolb, and it's hard to believe they did that without knowing Kolb was ready. With the weapons at his disposal on offense, Kolb and the Eagles could be as potent as last season.
And with the myriad number of players added to the defense, including rookies Brandon Graham and Nate Allen, the defense should be more like the Eagles defenses from years past. Plenty of people are picking them to win the NFC and that's...well, it's a longshot. But they could win the division.
Donovan McNabb was traded from one team in the gauntlet to another team in the gauntlet, the Washington Redskins. His addition, along with new head coach Mike Shanahan, has given Redskins' faithful a reason for optimism this year, despite the Albert Haynesworth weirdness. They are the least talented team in the division, but they have seasoned veterans and fledglings with potential who needed a fresh start, a fresh spark.
A lot will depend on if Shanahan is able to work his offensive line magic for Washington. Plus, Washington/Philadelphia games will be pretty fun, especially in Philly. Plenty of people are picking them to win the NFC, and that's...well, that's not true. But, with a couple breaks, they could win the division.
The overall depth, skill, and possibilities of the NFC East keeps them as the top dog, and considering the relative youth of the top three teams, they look to be on top for the foreseeable future.