NFL Power Rankings: Rating the Best Divisions in the League
2002 was the last year an NFC team was the league's regular season champions. Since then the AFC has dominated the season and, until recently had a sizable advantage in the Super Bowl win column: 6-4. Despite he AFC's reign as regular season champions, this trend does not dictate which conference is host to the league's worst team, as since 2002 both conferences have had an equal number of last-place teams.
The NFC's recent dominance in Super Bowl wins may have signaled a shift in the power of the conferences, with more of the "elite" teams being considered to reside in the NFC than the AFC. The AFC still is home to plenty of excellent teams that geared up in this off-season's arms race.
Bias enjoys the company of every fan, but for one to truly evaluate the superiority of a conference, things have to be broken down on a divisional level. Each division guarantees one playoff team, but that does not necessarily mean a team is worthy. Much has to be considered when evaluating a division, because one is not just critiquing an individual team, but a composite of four.
Which four teams, with their combined strengths and weaknesses, join to form the league's best division?
The NFC East has long been the home of smash-mouth football and Super Bowl champions, excluding the Philadelphia Eagles, and this year proves to be no different.
Last season, the Philadelphia Eagles were one play from defeating the eventual Super Bowl champions in what many feel was an opportunity they let slip by. This season, the Eagles decided to not take the same chances and were the league's most active team in free agency: acquiring Nnamdi Asomugha, Cullen Jenkins, Ryan Harris, Jason Babin and a few other former Pro Bowlers. The Eagles are usually one of the league's elite teams and this season they seem to have the goods that may give them that last necessary push.
The Dallas Cowboys suffered through a horrible year last season, losing their starting quarterback Tony Romo and replacing their head coach mid-season. If Romo can stay healthy this year, the Cowboys may be one of the league's surprise teams. They managed to secure Rob Ryan from Cleveland and his presence will immediately bolster last season's 26th-ranked pass defense.
The New York Giants, along with the Eagles, have been one of this division's most consistent teams for the past few years. Their seemingly always dominant defensive line is the staple of this franchise and, in essence, what allowed them to win the Super Bowl against the undefeated New England Patriots in 2008. Although losing star receiver Steve Smith to a division rival hurts, the Giants still boast one of the league's best receiving corps to go with a solid rushing attack.
The one weakness in this division is the Washington Redskins. Out of all the NFC East teams, this past decade the Redskins have the fewest playoff appearances and subsequently the worst success the few times they have made the playoffs. That might be a blessing in disguise because the playoffs are not in the Redskins' radar this season. For this team to progress, they have to find stability at a key number of positions—including quarterback.
The NFC North is home to the reigning Super Bowl champions and the NFC runner-up. This division has proven quarterback play combined with tough defense is the recipe of success.
According the ESPN's Power Rankings, the Green Bay Packers are heading into the season as the league's No. 1 team and rightfully so. Last season, they managed to win the Super Bowl with 17 key players, including starting running back Ryan Grant, on injured reserve. With all the players returning and the confidence of being the league's reigning champs, the Packers are a team to be feared and will be in the thick of the playoff hunt come January.
The Chicago Bears may not have had a lot of action this off-season, aside from losing tight end Greg Olsen, but with a defense led by Brian Urlacher and Julius Peppers, their speed and tenacity will guarantee them a winning record and possibly a playoff berth. For the Bears to make the step to the next level, quarterback Jay Cutler needs to improve, as does the consistency of one-time stud Matt Forte.
The Detroit Lions are one of the league's perennial bottom dwellers, but with a successful draft and the development of some key players, their fortunes may be changing. After a relatively successful—by the Lions' standards—6-10 season, the success of this franchise lies on the shoulders of former No. 1 overall pick Matthew Stafford. If Stafford can stay healthy this season, he will emerge as one the league's up-and-coming quarterbacks and possibly push the Lions into a playoff spot.
Despite the turmoil of the Brett Favre saga and the constant bickering and eventual firing of head coach Brad Childress, the Vikings have plenty of talent on their roster. The Vikings lost star receiver Sidney Rice but gained quarterback Donovan McNabb, whose veteran leadership may negate the loss of Rice and provide stability for the franchise. Always consistent running back Adrian Peterson will be a determining factor to the success of this team, but in such a crowded division he may not be enough.
The NFC South hosted the league's worst team last season in the Carolina Panthers. Aside from that, each team in this division is very young and make it one of the league's emerging powers. This division is a more "sexy" choice, where the teams thrive on high octane offenses, as opposed to the grind-it-out play of the defense-dominant NFC North.
At 13-3, the Atlanta Falcons were the NFC's best team during the regular season behind the emergence of quarterback Matt Ryan, who last season made the leap into discussion of the league's elite quarterbacks. To help his development, the Falcons sold the barn and acquired wide receiver Julio Jones in the draft with the No. 6 pick. The addition of Jones with their incumbent All-Pro receiver Roddy White makes the Falcons one of the league's most explosive offensive teams. If their defense—namely the pass defense—can keep pace, look for the Falcons to again be atop the NFC standings.
After suffering an embarrassing and early playoff exit last season, the New Orleans Saints look to rebound and repeat the success of their 2009 Super Bowl-winning campaign. With Pro Bowler Drew Brees pioneering the ship, the Saints should have no problem once again reaching the playoffs. To do so, they'll need rookie Mark Ingram to provide a solid rushing attack to complements their stellar passing game.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers were one of last season's refreshingly surprising teams. This team is very young but also very talented but failed to make the playoffs despite a 10-6 record. This season will put their worth to the test, with a more difficult schedule and teams less likely to be surprised by the play of quarterback Josh Freeman and running back LeGarrette Blount.
The Carolina Panthers had a league-worst 2-14 record but hope the fortunes of their franchise can change behind the arm and legs of No. 1 pick Cam Newton. Newton's NFL debut signaled future success for the young man, and the fact they managed to keep wide receiver Steve Smith bodes well for the future of this franchise. Newton may be best served learning this year from the bench, but he has shown he has the charisma and poise to step in and be the starting quarterback for this team, if needed.
One can easily say the NFC West is the NFC's worst division, failing to have a team with a winning record last season. Despite the abysmal state of the division, there is room for improvement for each franchise and this off-season many of its teams acted on this and tried to address their weaknesses.
Kevin Kolb will be the talk of the Arizona Cardinals franchise for the next few years, seeing that they traded a Pro Bowler and a second round pick for his services. Kolb has the tools to succeed, but the question is: Will he? He is an improvement on the Cardinals quarterback play of last season, evidenced by his 43-yard pass play in their preseason opener to wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald—two yards more than Fitzgerald's longest reception of last season. If Kolb can deliver on his promise, he can take advantage of this relatively weak division and catapult the Cardinals back into playoff contention.
The St. Louis Rams have a lot to be proud of when looking at last season. The team posted a six game improvement and was on the cusp of a playoff berth. All that can be attributed to the arrival of Sam Bradford. Despite his rookie status, Bradford proved the be the team's franchise quarterback. If he makes the normal strides of a quarterback from their rookie season to their sophomore campaign, look for the team to continue upward in the win column.
Last season, the Seattle Seahawks overachieved almost to a fault. Their playoff berth and win over the reigning champions, the New Orleans Saints, can be viewed as a pleasant appetizer to prepare their fanbase for a disastrous entree. The Seahawks lost starting quarterback Matt Hasselbeck and replaced him with a lackluster quarterback controversy. Head coach Pete Carroll has to decide whether former Vikings back-up Tarvaris Jackson or their own Charlie Whitehurst will enter this season as their team's starting quarterback. Regardless of their selection, not much is expected of their quarterback play, even with the addition of wide receiver Sidney Rice.
The San Francisco 49ers are probably one of this division's more talented teams, but like every other team in this division—excepting the Rams—their stability and play at the quarterback position has led to their downfall. With the arrival of head coach Jim Harbaugh—the Quarterback Whisperer—this may be former No. 1 pick Alex Smith's last chance to prove he is capable of being a starting quarterback in this league. If he can show even a small amount of improvement in his play, look for the 49ers to be a potential darkhorse candidate to sneak in the playoffs from this division.
The AFC East is home to some of the AFC's top heavyweights but also some of its perennial bottom dwellers. With the New York Jets and the New England Patriots dominating this division, it does not look like the fortunes of this division's remaining teams will change anytime soon.
The New England Patriots were the league's best team, with a 14-2 record, and since the promotion of future Hall of Fame quarterback Tom Brady to the starting position nearly a decade ago, this team has always been mentioned as possible Super Bowl contenders. Head coach Bill Belichick has long been known as a great talent evaluator for making the most out of nothing, but this off-season he seemed to steer away from his philosophy of "no-name players" and brought in two huge—albeit troublesome—talents in the form of defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth and wide receiver Chad Ochocinco. The last time this team had this kind of star power it went 16-0, so look out NFL.
Rex Ryan is the face and personality of the New York Jets, who are continuing their quest of becoming this decade's Philadelphia Eagles. With two consecutive losses in the AFC Championship, the Jets did not help their cause this off-season by losing several key players and failing to find adequate replacements. Another AFC Championship appearance may be out of the question for this team, as it looks like their division rivals, the Patriots, have made enough improvements across the board to finally get over the hump that is the Jets.
The Buffalo Bills are a team stuck in limbo, or should one say purgatory. They are perennially one of the league's worst teams, but never to the point where they can secure a top pick. The recent loss of speedster Lee Evans may actually be a godsend, for it may push them to even lower depths of the league, and as a result put them in contention for the No. 1 pick—the Andrew Luck sweepstakes.
Not much can be said of the Miami Dolphins until they decide whether they want Chad Henne to be their quarterback of the future or go in a different direction. Henne has shown glimpses of being capable to lead this team but not to the point where any jobs in this team's front office are secure. Possibly former Saints running back Reggie Bush can regain the form he had in his USC playing days and team with ever-troubled receiver Brandon Marshall to bring credibility to this offense.
Like the AFC East, the AFC North is very top-heavy with two yearly Super Bowl contenders and two yearly top 10 draft recipients.
The Pittsburgh Steelers are one of the most consistent teams in NFL history. The management and ownership of the Steelers always strives to please its fanbase and be in constant contention for a Super Bowl. Despite little turnover in their roster, this year the Steelers are still considered a top two team in the AFC and will continue to be so with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger at the helm. Their philosophy of a tenacious defense combined with a steady offense has garnered them several Super Bowl appearances and wins.
The Baltimore Ravens have elevated themselves into the talks of possible Super Bowl contenders with the addition of wide receiver Lee Evans. Evans provides the explosiveness that draws focus away from receiver Anquan Boldin, thus expands the playmaking ability of their offense. Other teams around the league need to follow linebacker Ray Lewis, because I am almost 100% positive he knows the location of the Fountain of Youth and for over a decade, he has been the leader of this imposing defense. Now that their offense packs some power, look for the Ravens to make some noise.
The Cleveland Browns improved much last season through the competent drafting of cornerback Joe Haden and quarterback Colt McCoy. Keep an eye on Haden—his success last season had as much to do with his talent as it had with the defensive schemes Rob Ryan constructed for this team. On the other side of the ball, McCoy looks to be this team's quarterback of the future. This team's ascension towards a playoff berth may be a slow journey but they are headed in the right direction.
The Cincinnati Bengals went through a drastic offensive makeover this off-season. After longtime quarterback Carson Palmer informed the team he would rather retire than continue to play for the organization, the team decided not to call his bluff and drafted TCU's Andy Dalton with their second round pick. Dalton, along with No. 4 overall wide receiver A.J. Green, provides the Bengals with a dream QB-WR combination that they can nurture to their liking.
With the aging of future Hall of Famer Peyton Manning, the tide may be turning in the AFC South and the Indianapolis Colts may not longer be the top dogs in the next year or so.
Every year the word on the Houston Texans is that they will get over the hump and make the franchise's first ever playoff appearance, but every year they disappoint. Despite a hot start last season, the Texans defense proved it was not up to the job of maintaining the success their offense generated. To remedy this, the Texans acquired this year's second-best option at cornerback in Jonathan Joseph via free agency. If Joseph can bring the team's passing defense from the bowels of the league, the Texans have a legitimate chance on capitalizing on their promise and securing a playoff berth.
The success of the Indianapolis Colts lives and dies with Peyton Manning, and Manning may have hit the wall. This season, Manning will be 35 years old and coming off a season where he posted his worst quarterback rating since 2002, albeit still 91.9. Manning will still be a force to be reckoned with, but with his skills declining, the Colts are less of a threat.
The Jacksonville Jaguars are the definition of this league's average team. Every year they just miss the playoffs by a game or two and are left with the off-season to ponder how they can improve. They elected to draft Missouri's Blaine Gabbert with their first round pick and have him sit and learn behind quarterback David Garrard. While that may solidify their status as average for the next season or two, it bodes well for their future.
The Tennessee Titans are heading the same course as the Jaguars, just in a different boat. After a nightmare season where their franchise quarterback walked out on the team and the firing of longtime head coach Jeff Fisher, they seem to have righted their ship sooner than expected. They invested a first-round pick in quarterback Jake Locker but, more importantly, they re-signed running back Chris Johnson to a deal he deserved and locked him up long-term. With Johnson on-board and former Seahawk Matt Hasselbeck captaining the ship, this franchise seems to be planning for the future until Locker is ready to take the reigns.
The AFC West is a division many are unsure about heading into this season. After a relatively successful outing by all of its teams last season, critics will be looking to see if their success was due to easy scheduling or if this is really one of the emerging divisions in the league.
Last season, the Oakland Raiders rose from obscurity and for the first time in years did not have a losing record. Much of this can be attributed to the emergence of running back Darren McFadden, who overcame his history of injuries en route to a 1,000+ yard rushing season. Combined with running back Michael Bush, the two proved to be a dynamic duo. The Raiders did lose star cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha and though his presence will be missed, they have enough talent to make up for his absence.
The jury is still out on the Kansas City Chiefs and whether they are one of the league's premier teams. This is a team has stocked high-level talent on both sides of the ball through draft picks, and last season it seemed to come together. Wide receiver Dwayne Bowe recorded a 15 touchdown season, Matt Cassel continued with his efficient game management at the quarterback position, and running back Jamaal Charles had a breakout season averaging 6.4 yards per carry. Their defense has numerous bright spots also and several of its members may crack the Pro Bowl this year, namely safety Eric Berry and cornerback Brandon Flowers.
The San Diego Chargers are one of this league's enigmas. They are the only team to have a top five offense and defense but fail to make the playoffs. Even with their shortcomings, it is easy to see the talent the Chargers possess, especially in quarterback Philip Rivers. Rivers is questionably the most accurate quarterback in the league, but he will have to find a new target to pair with Vincent Jackson after the departure of Malcolm Floyd. Regardless, if the Chargers can build on last season's success and improve their divisional record, they will most likely crack the AFC's top six.
Denver is easily the worst team in this division, but that does not necessarily mean the Broncos lack talent. With the No. 2 overall pick they secured linebacker/defensive end Von Miller to be a staple of their defense for years to come. The main concern of the Broncos is their quarterback situation. Denver has to decide whether it wants to move forward with the reliable Kyle Orton or mortgage their future on the popular Tim Tebow. Despite training camp reports saying Tebow was struggling to provide proper competition for Orton, he performed admirably in his first preseason game. If Tebow can continue to show the type of progress he has shown on game day rather than in practice, he will make this decision much more difficult for Elway & Co.
Every division, aside from the horrible NFC West, has a team or two that can rightfully be said to be legitimate Super Bowl contenders; but being a contender is not important, winning it all is. With that being said, one division stands out more than the rest and has a few more contenders ready to vie for the Lombardi trophy when compared to other divisions.
Best Divisions in the NFL
1. NFC South (1. New Orleans; 2. Atlanta; 3. Tampa Bay; 4. Carolina)
2. NFC North (1. Green Bay; 2. Detroit; 3. Chicago; 4. Minnesota)
3. AFC East (1. New England; 2. New York Jets; 3. Miami; 4. Buffalo)
4. AFC North (1. Baltimore; 2. Pittsburgh; 3. Cleveland; 4. Cincinnati)
5. NFC East (1. Philadelphia; 2. New York Giants; 3. Dallas; 4. Washington)
6. AFC West (1. San Diego; 2. Kansas City; 3. Oakland; 4. Denver)
7. AFC South (1. Houston; 2. Indianapolis; Jacksonville; Tennessee)
8. NFC West (1. St. Louis; 2. Arizona; 3. San Francisco; Seattle)