It's fair to say that when power ranking the divisions of the NFL, we all probably have the same group of four teams at the bottom: the NFC West. After that, it tends to get muddy.
In fact, it is my opinion that the 2011-12 Super Bowl champion could come from any of the other seven divisions. Each of the remaining AFC and NFC North, South, East, and West divisions has at least one team that could, if all goes well, seriously contend for the Lombardi Trophy.
However many games we get to see this year, I'm sure we are in for surprise and much intrigue. At least one team will have a cataclysmic fall from grace, while another team will rise from the ashes like the phoenix.
There are obvious favorites for improvement (Chargers, Colts) and playoff teams from a year ago that may be watching the postseason from home (Seattle, Kansas City).
Let's get right into it.
Easily the hardest-hitting division in all of football, the AFC North boasts the reigning AFC champion Pittsburgh Steelers.
While the Steelers have the league's staunchest defense in terms of points (14.5 per game), not far behind is a veteran squad led by linebacker Ray Lewis and safety Ed Reed, the Baltimore Ravens (16.9 points per game).
The Steelers made an effort in the draft to upgrade a sieve of an offensive line by taking tackle Marcus Gilbert in the second round. Receiver Mike Wallace (1,257 yards, 10 touchdowns) is entering his third season, which many believe is a wide receiver's breakout year, playing with the rejuvenated Ben Roethlisberger. Adding to a receiving corps that already has perennial Pro Bowl-talent Hines Ward, and up-and-comer Emmanuel Sanders, the Steelers have a group of pass catchers that rival any team in football. The Steelers have been and always will be a smash-mouth team, and bruising running back Rashard Mendenhall (1,273 yards, 13 touchdowns) carries the load willingly. Until someone else says otherwise, the Steelers will be the class of the AFC North in 2011.
The Ravens, after having back-to-back-to-back playoff seasons, are led on offense by fourth-year pro Joe Flacco. Flacco has improved every year he has been in the league and now has the addition of newly-drafted Torrey Smith. Smith, a player who Baltimore's front office feels will provide a deep threat and add to the team's passing game, and hopefully his presence will open more running lanes for starter Ray Rice. The defense is always a force to be reckoned with, but it is getting older. They were able to add corner Jimmy Smith in the draft, and he will be counted on to hold down one side of the field. While they are still unsure of the playing status and eligibility of 2010 first-round selection Sergio Kindle of Texas, opposing offenses will find yards tough to come by against the team.
Second-year quarterback Colt McCoy leads an offense looking for an injection of life under new head coach Pat Shurmur. The West Coast switch and change in defensive philosophy to the 4-3 could cause the Browns to struggle early and often, but they should be much improved on both sides of the ball. RB Peyton Hillis can be penciled in for 1,000 yards as long as the Browns can provide him the sufficient breaks he will need with back up Montario Hardesty. Over the past two drafts, team president Mike Holmgren and general manager Tom Heckert have done a remarkable job of playing catch-up in the talent department, and the addition of second-round receiver Greg Little should provide Colt McCoy with the type of weapon at the position the team has lacked. Rookies Phil Taylor and Jabaal Sheard will be counted on to anchor the defensive front seven in its run at respectability.
The weak link in the AFC North is the Cincinnati Bengals. This team is in total disarray. Quarterback Carson Palmer is refusing to come back, both top receivers from the 2010 season (Chad Ochocinco, Terrell Owens) are likely to be gone, and running back Cedric Benson is a free agent who slowed down considerably at the end of last season. To rebound, the Bengals drafted quarterback Andy Dalton, wide receiver A.J. Green, and linebacker Dontay Moch in the first three rounds of the 2011 draft. They open the season at Cleveland, assuming the season starts on time, and it will be a great barometer as to how both teams have progressed, or regressed, this offseason.
The Atlanta Falcons laid an egg (no pun intended) against the Green Bay Packers in the divisional round of the playoffs last season. Do not expect a disappointment like that this season. The team traded away next year's first-round draft pick and several other picks to the Cleveland Browns to select Julio Jones at No. 6. With Michael Turner in the backfield, Pro Bowl wide receiver Roddy White opposite Jones and Michael Jenkins, quarterback Matt Ryan should see a significant increase in his numbers from last year (3,705 yards, 28 touchdowns) and the Falcons are the early odds-on favorite to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl.
Fresh off a disastrous finish in Seattle in the Wild Card in last year's playoffs, the New Orleans Saints, the 2010 Super Bowl champions, should rebound from a Super Bowl hangover that cut their season short. They added significant pieces on defense with defensive end Cameron Jordan and linebacker Martez Wilson. The drafting in the second round of Alabama's Mark Ingram to bolster the running game will aid in taking away much of the pressure on Drew Brees and the Saints passing game. On a side note, Brees may have to do with the services of receiver Marques Colston, who recently underwent microfracture knee surgery.
The 10-win Tampa Bay Bucs are giving the rest of the league a drafting clinic when it comes to the defensive line over the past couple of years. By drafting defensive ends Adrian Clayborn and Da'Quan Bowers, the Bucs have solidified the talent on their line. While this team is very up and coming, their season will hinge on the continued development of third-year quarterback Josh Freeman. If Freeman can pair this year's numbers with last season's (3,451 yards, 25 touchdowns, six interceptions),along with the strong running of LeGarrette Blount, Tampa Bay will be one of the Wild Card teams from the NFC.
Expect nothing from Carolina this season. I'm writing them off now and have no plans of changing my mind. Regardless of how Cam Newton performs, and I expect him to play poorly, his top two returning receiving targets are David Gettis and Brandon LaFell, assuming Steve Smith gets out of town (either way, he's old and falling fast). The oft-injured DeAngelo Williams is not expected to return, as he is a free agent, meaning the team's main option at the position is Jonathan Stewart. Stewart, however, did not perform to standard last year as he gained only 770 yards in 14 games. A top three pick in the 2012 draft is firmly in their crosshairs.
Healthy or not, the Green Bay Packers are the team to beat in the NFC North. If the Packers are at full strength this year, they are, very simply, unmatched by any other team in the conference. They have young and proven corners, a veteran presence at the safety position, and possibly the best linebacking corps in the game. Oh yeah, they also have Aaron Rodgers and one of the most explosive offenses in football.
The Bears, Lions, and Vikings are all playing for second place in the division. Chicago lacks the offensive consistency necessary to be one of the elite. Detroit is unable to keep Matt Stafford healthy, but their defense is aggressive and competent enough to keep them in games. Do not sleep on back up Shaun Hill, who, last season, looked very comfortable and able in the offense as a replacement. With Stafford's injury history, expect him to see plenty of playing time.
Finally, there are the Minnesota Vikings. They went from Super Bowl contender to league joke last year as the Brett Favre saga spun wildly out of control. Can Christian Ponder turn this team around quickly? Doubtful, however, the pieces are in place that if he turns in a good campaign, Minnesota could see its team fighting for a hotly-contested final playoff spot. Just don't hang your hat on that actually happening at all.
This is the Eagles' division to lose. Michael Vick quarterbacks the most exciting offense in the league, bar none. The one concern for Philly is that teams figured out that keeping Vick in the pocket and not allowing him running lanes works. If the defense can limit the oppositions' scoring opportunities, there will not be many games the Eagles will not win.
In Philly's wake are the Giants and Cowboys. New York got great value with Prince Amukamara at pick 19 in the first round of the draft. Then they added North Carolina defensive tackle Marvin Austin in the second round. The offense is not the Giants problem. Last year, they finished the season by losing two of their last three contests, giving up 83 points in those two games.
The Cowboys have issues, which have hopefully been righted by the steady leadership of head coach Jason Garrett. Tony Romo needs to stay healthy for this team to compete in the NFC East. Otherwise, another abysmal season in Dallas is on the horizon.
Then there are the Washington Redskins: 12 picks in the 2011 NFL Draft, no quarterback taken. The 'Skins seem destined to part ways with Donovan McNabb and Rex Grossman is nothing more than a back up. Unless there is a deal in the works, Washington has no legitimate option at the QB position. Albert Haynesworth is in trouble and lazy, and the team made its best effort to draft key pieces on the defensive line. Leonard Hankerson may be able to bolster the passing game, but with an unknown throwing the ball, his game-day attendance is meaningless.
This is a division of contenders and pretenders. The class of the division is the Patriots and Jets, and bringing up the rear are the Dolphins and Bills.
The Pats may be on the downward swing as they have not won a playoff game since Tom Brady injured his knee to start the 2008 season. In the regular season, they proved to be untouchable. The postseason is another story. Their young secondary was shredded last season, and it is unlikely they will perform better in 2012. They did attempt to upgrade both offensive tackle spots in the draft, and that should help as they may find themselves in many shootouts.
The Jets, on the other hand, have lost the last two AFC championship games. The flip side to New York is the Jets are going to be losing key pieces in free agency and that could very easily change the potency of the team on both sides of the ball. Braylon Edwards figures to be out of the plans as the team will be committing big dollars to Santonio Holmes. Also out of the picture is DT Kris Jenkins, who has played only seven games the past two seasons due to injury.
The Dolphins and Bills are potentially on the same track. While Buffalo opted to upgrade its defense in the draft, Miami went with offense in picking C/G Mike Pouncey and RB Daniel Thomas. Buffalo has Ryan Fitzpatrick leading its offense, a capable veteran with the intangibles to get this team on the right side of .500. Miami created quarterback issues for itself by benching starter Chad Henne for Chad Pennington, who was subsequently injured for the season, and now are not sold on Henne as their future. The two franchises could be headed in completely different directions this season.
This is a division in flux. Its flagship franchise, Indianapolis, is falling fast and Peyton Manning is on the downside of his career. The new darling of the division, Houston, can't get in the playoffs. The two grizzled vets, Jacksonville and Tennessee, are in position to grind out playoff spots.
Indy finds itself in an unfortunately unique position. The offensive line, the Achilles heel of the team, is going to be breaking in two new tackles while the interior of the line is still atrocious. They haven't successfully rushed the ball in years, and the finesse tag given to the team as a whole refers to creating ways to hide deficiencies and being soft rather than promoting a savvy way of winning.
Houston has the best offense with the worst defense in the South. In the draft, Houston fell all over defense ends JJ Watt and Brooks Reed. Then they later added cornerbacks Brandon Harris and Rashad Carmichael. In Houston's aspirations of making the postseason, they are going to be relying heavily on rookie defenders.
That brings us to Jacksonville and Tennessee, two teams that drafted quarterbacks early in the first round.
First, Jacksonville and Blaine Gabbert. The Jags finished 8-8 last year and that points to Gabbert learning on the bench this season. More importantly, for Jacksonville to win games this season, the defense is going to have to play better. The Jags were 28th against the pass and 22nd against the run in 2010. Those numbers must improve, hands down.
Tennessee is going to have to try and get one more year out of Kerry Collins before handing the reigns over to Jake Locker. The Titans went heavy on defense in the draft while hoping to improve on their 29th pass and 20th run rankings respectively. I'm not sold on Kenny Britt and Nate Washington being top receivers. Unless something great happens in free agency for Tennessee, those two are going to be the guys. That means Chris Johnson is going to get a lot of touches.
Ask me to show you a travesty and I'll show you the San Diego Chargers. They had the top offense and defense in terms of yards in 2010, and managed to win only nine games. The 2010 version was an enigma, in that they beat the tough teams and lost to the weaker teams. It's gut check time for the So Cal guys. They are replacing some key players this season and have serious decisions to make with the wide-receiver position. If they can put the same stats together, I can't imagine them missing the playoffs, but then again, they are coached by Norv Turner.
Then there is Oakland, the only team to win all six divisional games. After their best finish since Rich Gannon was throwing passes, Al Davis fired head coach Tom Cable and chose to go in a different direction. They are a running team first, as evidenced by the tandem of Darren McFadden and Michael Bush. I also feel they've settled on Jason Campbell as their starter even though Bruce Gradkowski capably moved the offense when he played. Since bringing aboard of John Madden, the team has made sensible and intelligent selections in the draft and could be building a very solid foundation moving forward.
With Denver, there is a team confused at quarterback. How John Fox chooses to proceed at the position will determine their season for better or worse. Fox is in a tight spot, however, because Josh McDaniel sent anyone with talent out of town. Brandon Lloyd was a pleasant surprise last season as he and Kyle Orton developed real chemistry. No matter who the Broncos have starting for them at quarterback, until they can solve the issues with the league's 25th-best rushing attack, they are destined for trouble in one of the NFL's coldest city's.
Kansas City lost offensive coordinator Charlie Weis to the Florida Gators and promoted line coach Bill Muir. Muir's last coordinator position was under John Gruden in Tampa. The real question with the offense is how effective Matt Cassel will be without Charlie Weis. He was successful with Josh McDaniel in New England, but really turned in some solid football last season. In the playoffs, Baltimore was able to negate Dwayne Bowe. But with the addition of Jonathan Baldwin and a potent running game led by Jamaal Charles, this could be a difficult offense to stop. Aided by a young, aggressive defense, Kansas City should at least duplicate its 10-win season of a year ago.
The NFC West being ranked the worst division in football should be no surprise to anyone that watches the game. Last year, an NFL rule permitting the winner of every division a playoff spot is the only reason the Seattle Seahawks were playing in mid January (it's a rule every year, but talking about it further illustrates how poor the NFC West truly was).
Seattle rolled into the postseason with a paltry 7-9 record, tying St. Louis for tops in the West. Seattle won the tiebreaker by beating the Rams in Week 17. More disgusting is the fact that Seattle beat the defending-champion New Orleans Saints, a win that defied all logic and reasonable betting.
The only team set at quarterback in the division is the Rams with Sam Bradford. Elsewhere, there is utter turmoil in Arizona; newly drafted Colin Kaepernick in San Francisco, along with Alex Smith still trying to get it together; and Seattle with Charlie Whitehurst if Matt Hasselbeck doesn't return.
The QB discussion speaks volumes to the ineptness of the NFC West. John Harbaugh inherited mediocrity at the position, so he drafted Nevada's Kaepernick. Pete Carroll brought Whitehurst in to be the heir apparent to Hasselbeck, but who knows. Arizona has done nothing about its quarterback position to the chagrin of just about everyone who cares about Cardinals football. If they lose the Kevin Kolb Sweepstakes, prepare for Andrew Luck next year and a pissed off Larry Fitzgerald this season.
St. Louis attempted to give Sam Bradford some live targets to throw to this year by drafting rookie receivers Austin Pettis and Greg Salas and tight end Lance Kendricks.
While the Rams made some upgrades, they have a way to go to being seriously considered by their opponents. The other three teams, well, are bad and there is not much light at the end of the tunnel at this juncture.
It is possible for the NFC West to return a sub-.500 team to the playoffs for the second-straight season. If they do, you heard it here first.