Best and Worst Cases for Each NFL Division with Training Camps Underway

Ian Wharton@@NFLFilmStudyFeatured Columnist IVJuly 30, 2022

Best and Worst Cases for Each NFL Division with Training Camps Underway

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    NFL training camps are underway as every team had rookies and veterans reported by July 26. Over the coming weeks, teams will take part in joint practices and prepare for the preseason. The NFL's season opener on Sept. 8 between the Los Angeles Rams and Buffalo Bills is quickly approaching.

    Before we reach the regular season, we've identified the best and worst cases for each NFL division. Not every division has the same expectation. Some have several playoff hopefuls and Super Bowl contenders, while others are just hoping their best team can represent the division well enough in the postseason.

    Every fanbase wants its favorite team to win as much as possible. But competition within each division brings out the best of the top teams. Last year's playoffs was one of the best in NFL history, so we're hoping that level of competition repeats itself throughout the 2022 season.

    We're rooting for the best games each week. Each division's best-case scenario pushes that outcome. If the worst case happens, divisional games will be lacking and we could see the end of the regular season be meaningless when it comes to playoff seeding.

    Let's dive into each division and break down what each extreme outcome would look like.

AFC East

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    Best case: Patriots and Dolphins challenge the Bills

    The AFC East boasts the NFL's Super Bowl favorite, the Buffalo Bills. Beyond the Bills are a set of teams that are in varying stages of their developments. Miami, New England and New York Jets are all depending on their young quarterbacks for internal growth. Since the Jets are still so young on both sides of the ball, it's up to Miami and New England to apply pressure on Buffalo.

    The Dolphins aggressively sought out high-end playmakers to help third-year quarterback Tua Tagovailoa this past offseason. Between hiring head coach Mike McDaniel, trading for Tyreek Hill and signing Terron Armstead, it was a headline-grabbing offseason for Miami. If Tagovailoa can be an average-or-better passer, it's fair to expect Miami to at least match its nine wins from 2021 and compete for an AFC wild-card game.

    Bill Belichick's Patriots have taken a different path but are at a similar crossroads. Mac Jones had an impressive rookie campaign, but the Patriots' lack of playmaking is a concern. The Patriots were unable to add an impact defender after cornerback J.C. Jackson departed in free agency, leaving the team reliant on their rookie class to step up.

    The Bills will be uncomfortable throughout the year if Miami and New England can both win 10 or more games. Last year was already a tight race as New England was one game back from Buffalo and these teams faced off in the AFC Wild Card Round.


    Worst case: Bills run away with the division

    It's entirely possible the Bills unlocked a new ceiling for themselves between their excellent playoff showing last season and by signing Von Miller. The star pass-rusher was the catalyst for the Los Angeles Rams' Super Bowl run. He contributed nine sacks in eight regular-season and four playoff games with the Rams.

    Adding that type of presence to the NFL's No. 1 scoring defense is huge. The Bills also get cornerback Tre'Davious White back from a torn ACL as well. The combination of the NFL's No. 3-ranked offense and No. 1 defense might be unstoppable in the regular season regardless of their divisional foes' upgrades.

    The alternative is Buffalo doesn't ascend and the rest of the AFC East falls short like they did last year. Whether it's due to Tagovailoa and the Dolphins struggling in Year 1 with a new offensive staff or New England unable to progress without veteran upgrades, the Bills might just coast past their competition into the playoffs.

    We'd much rather see the young talent push the league's favorite to their limit and see how Buffalo responds to the pressure.

AFC North

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    AP Photo/Gail Burton

    Best case: Each coaching staff maximizes team's potential

    The level of coaching in the AFC North is the highest across the NFL. Cincinnati Bengals head coach Zac Taylor and Cleveland Browns head coach Kevin Stefanski are the two least accomplished of the four. Between them is a Super Bowl appearance and an NFL Coach of the Year Award.

    The margins appear tight between the Bengals, Browns and Baltimore Ravens. We have to see how many games, if any, Deshaun Watson plays in Cleveland in 2022. Expectations obviously change if he's suspended for eight games or more.

    In terms of what would be the best on-field product this season, the Ravens staying healthy and getting the most out of Lamar Jackson in his contract year is a must. The Bengals also need to repeat their breakout 2021 season, if not improve after making huge investments along the offensive line. Cleveland and Pittsburgh have their own questions at quarterback, but neither situation is hopeless.

    In all likelihood, we will see three elite quarterbacks and four great coaching staffs in the AFC North this season. Pittsburgh has the weakest situation at quarterback with Mitch Trubisky and Kenny Pickett battling for the starting role. But doubting Mike Tomlin and his staff after they've gone .500 or better in 15 straight years would be unwise.

    It's possible this year's Super Bowl winner will come from this division. Even if Pittsburgh and Cleveland don't end up as actual playoff competitors, they can still give the Ravens and Bengals a set of difficult rivalry games throughout the year.


    Worst case: Bengals regress, Ravens' injury woes repeat

    For as competitive as the AFC North was last year, it wasn't because the division was impressive.

    Injuries robbed the Ravens' postseason chances as their best players missed significant chunks of games. The Browns couldn't overcome Baker Mayfield's injuries and limitations. Pittsburgh's offense was stuck in the mud with an aged Ben Roethlisberger and a horrible offensive line.

    What if the Bengals regress despite the additions of La'El Collins and Alex Cappa to their offensive line? Are the Ravens putting too much pressure on players returning from major season-ending surgeries?

    Cleveland won't be a threatening playoff force if Watson misses the entire season. Pittsburgh might have one of the worst quarterback situations in the league if Trubisky repeats his struggles in Chicago and if Pickett is nowhere near ready to start.

    We're hoping none of this occurs, but there's a possibility of each happening. If so, the AFC North will be weaker with each blow that comes.

AFC South

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    AP Photo/Mark Humphrey

    Best case: Jacksonville and Houston thrive under new staffs

    Known as the weakest division in the AFC, the South has a lot of ground to make up in order to catch up to their peers in the conference. Both Jacksonville and Houston recognized they were slacking this offseason, firing their unproven coaches in favor of more experience. It's possible that Doug Pederson and Lovie Smith will bring stability and competence to each young roster.

    The Tennessee Titans and Indianapolis Colts have been unchallenged by these bottom-feeders for the last few years. The Jaguars committed $137.5 million in guaranteed dollars to major free agents this offseason in order to stop their struggles. Houston added two first-round picks and is hoping its core takes a step forward.

    Neither should expect to compete for even a wild-card berth this season, but they can push the Titans and Colts more than in recent years. The Titans churned their receiver room after trading A.J. Brown and releasing Julio Jones. Even with Derrick Henry fully healthy after missing nine games last year, Ryan Tannehill was bad last season and must prove he can win with a new set of receivers.

    The Colts are also looking to take their next step with Matt Ryan under center. The 37-year-old should bring more consistency and reliability to the position than Carson Wentz could. The Colts have an impressive roster other than depth concerns at receiver.

    Jacksonville and Houston need to put up more of a fight this year, though. They can't combine for seven wins and a minus-376 point differential between them.


    Worst case: Colts or Titans roll through a weak division

    The Titans appear weaker on paper compared to the Colts despite winning the division with 12 wins last year. They have razor-thin depth across the entire roster. It's possible that everything goes right for them and they win their third straight AFC South crown, but it'll take a stroke of luck healthwise.

    The Colts appear closer to dominance based on their improved defense after adding Stephon Gilmore and Yannick Ngakoue. They boast a solid quarterback, the NFL's leading rusher in 2021 in Jonathan Taylor and up-and-comers on both sides of the ball. It's reasonable to expect the NFL's ninth-best scoring offense and defense to improve in 2022 after their offseason.

    The worst case for the South is that one of these teams falls apart and the other is unchallenged by Jacksonville and Houston. Jacksonville appears closer to being a competitive thorn in the side after hiring Pederson, their free-agent spending and the expected development of Trevor Lawrence. Houston's roster is lacking in comparison to Jacksonville's, and Smith's recent resume in both college and the NFL has been unimpressive.

    It'd be nice for this division to have two 10-plus-game winners and a third quality team show a considerable leap from a rebuilding team to a possible playoff contender for the future.

AFC West

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    AP Photo/Colin E. Braley

    Best case: All four teams make the playoffs

    With seven teams from each conference making the postseason, it's possible for all four teams from the AFC West to make the playoffs this year. If there were ever a division to do it, this is the one. Regardless of who you believe will win the AFC West, there are three other strong contenders right behind them.

    We haven't seen a single division as loaded as this since the 2013 NFC West. That year, the 13-3 Seattle Seahawks beat the 12-4 San Francisco 49ers in the NFC Championship Game to advance to the Super Bowl. The Arizona Cardinals had finished 10-6, and the Los Angeles Rams (then in St. Louis) were 7-9.

    It's quite possible history repeats itself. Kansas City, Los Angeles Chargers, Denver and Las Vegas each loaded up this offseason in various ways. Each team has a star quarterback and enough playmaking on defense to see their pathway to a deep playoff run. Projecting any of these teams to finish fourth in the division is far from a slight.

    The best case for this division is they all somehow manage to make the playoffs. The only way this would happen is for some of the worst cases to hit other AFC divisions. It's unlikely all four West teams would finish with 10 or more wins, so a 9-7 team would need some luck.


    Worst case: Young coaches wilt under pressure

    While it's possible Kansas City has the worst offensive playmakers among the four West teams, it's hard to bet against Andy Reid and Patrick Mahomes making the playoffs. The veteran coach has been one of the best in the NFL over his career. It's easier to see another team underachieve under the pressure.

    This concept isn't unfounded. The Chargers fell apart in the final month of the 2021 season during Brandon Staley's first year as head coach. They lost three of their final four games, including a shocking 41-29 loss to Houston that kept them out of the postseason.

    It's possible Nathaniel Hackett in Denver or Josh McDaniels in Las Vegas suffer similar hiccups. Or that Staley stumbles again in key moments. The minor differences in these teams mean the decision-making in crunch time by these coaches will be scrutinized at an all-time high.

NFC East

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    Best case: Jalen Hurts, Carson Wentz become franchise QBs

    The NFC East has gone through tough stretches over the last decade. Even in 2021, the Dallas Cowboys looked like a potential Super Bowl contender. Finishing the season with a 12-5 record and No. 1 scoring offense appeared promising.

    But the Cowboys lost badly in the first round of the playoffs, then proceeded to lose several notable starters in the offseason. For the East to avoid being the NFC Least again, the Cowboys must maintain their level of play from last year and get more from the secondary contenders.

    Philadelphia and Washington did what they could this offseason.

    Philadelphia surrounded Jalen Hurts with a terrific supporting cast, but he must find consistency as a passer for the Eagles to see their ceiling in 2022. Adding receiver A.J. Brown will help Hurts considerably after he dealt with erratic play from Jalen Reagor last year. The Eagles defense looks talented enough to turn in a top-five season thanks to their draft and free-agency haul.

    Washington is hoping its decision to trade for quarterback Carson Wentz will give them their missing piece. Wentz was average in 2021 for the Indianapolis Colts, but poor play down the stretch and his personality clash led to him being one-and-done with the franchise. The Commanders won't care about those issues if Wentz is the difference between being a seven-win team to a 10-win team.

    The East will be a beast if both quarterbacks prove to be long-term starters for their respective teams. Hurts is a dynamic dual threat who has improved every season since he enrolled at Alabama. Wentz has previously achieved franchise-quarterback status before injuries and inconsistencies plagued him.


    Worst case: No Super Bowl contender emerges

    If neither quarterback becomes a franchise guy, the NFC East's title hopes are in worse shape. But that doesn't mean there's no pathway to Dallas or Philadelphia pulling off a similar run as to what Cincinnati did in the AFC last year. Both teams boast a solid defense and enough star power to get hot at the right time.

    Dak Prescott is one of the NFL's most consistent and accurate passers. He would have to elevate his playmaking to make up for losing Amari Cooper and a defense without Randy Gregory. The Cowboys weren't far behind their peers in the conference last year.

    The Eagles also won't just disappear if Hurts doesn't firmly establish himself as a sure-fire star for the next decade. Head coach Nick Sirianni figured out the right formula to win during the second half of the 2021 season. Experience and some creativity put the Eagles on a hot streak that redefined Sirianni's first year.

    Both teams can still be very good, but it'll be hard to view the division as one that matters if things don't break the right way. Prescott, Trevon Diggs and Micah Parsons need to continue ascending despite coming off excellent years in 2021. They'll run into much more accomplished teams throughout the NFC playoffs in Tampa Bay and Los Angeles.

    The Eagles are also entering "Super Bowl or bust" mode. Hurts' future could be in doubt in this worst-case scenario. This wide range of results is a scary proposition for the NFC East.

NFC North

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    Best case: Vikings ascend under Kevin O'Connell

    With two rebuilding teams in Detroit and Chicago in the NFC North, expectations for postseason success lie on the Green Bay Packers and Minnesota Vikings. That doesn't mean that the Bears and Lions don't matter in 2022; the best case for the North still involves each franchise making progress in finding long-term building blocks.

    The Packers have racked up 39 wins over the last three regular seasons, but their playoff outings have exposed roster limitations. We can be confident the Packers will be a force with Aaron Rodgers and a terrific defense, but they'll again face scrutiny in the postseason. Until then, our focus is on the Vikings.

    Minnesota opted to fire head coach Mike Zimmer and run most of its roster back with first-year head coach Kevin O'Connell. He inherited an impressive set of playmakers to build an offense around. Quarterback Kirk Cousins, running back Dalvin Cook and receivers Justin Jefferson and Adam Thielen is good enough to carry a top-10 offense.

    The defense will need to improve, but the Vikings devoted most of their available assets to that side of the ball. They signed veteran pass-rusher Za'Darius Smith and linebacker Jordan Hicks to solidify their front seven. Cornerback Patrick Peterson was re-signed, and he'll be joined by rookie safety Lewis Cine and corner Andrew Booth Jr.

    There's a lot more talent on this Vikings roster. If the coaching staff proves to be the right pick, the Vikings should make the playoffs.


    Worst case: Lions and Bears fail to show progress during rebuild

    As both the Lions and Bears franchises can attest to, a rebuild can last for what feels like an eternity if it's not done correctly. The Lions are off to a good start in their efforts after they saw a rapid improvement at the end of 2021. But the Bears are just in the first stage of their own journey.

    The worst case for the NFC North is for these two teams to be bottom-feeders without progress. We expect a playoff appearance for the Packers, but they're only at risk of missing the postseason if Aaron Rodgers suffers a major injury. The Vikings are a good team, but it also wouldn't be shocking if they missed the playoffs under a first-year coach.

    Having Detroit and Chicago show zero promise could be devastating for each franchise. A poorly executed rebuild can quickly lead to a revolving door of new front offices and coaching staff. Neither staff should be anywhere near that point for either team, but the clock could start ticking after finishing with one of the worst records in the NFL.

NFC South

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    AP Photo/Nell Redmond

    Best case: Jameis Winston and Baker Mayfield stay healthy

    The Tampa Bay Buccaneers loom large in the NFC South. Coming off a 13-4 finish with the NFL's second-best scoring offense and third-biggest point differential, the Bucs return a powerhouse with Tom Brady. Everyone else will battle for second place.

    The New Orleans Saints and Carolina Panthers have built impressive rosters. Both have the same question mark at quarterback, though. Can Jameis Winston, off a torn ACL, and Baker Mayfield, off a torn labrum and other less severe injuries, stay healthy throughout 2022?

    Both teams were interested in acquiring Deshaun Watson earlier this offseason before he chose Cleveland as his new destination. The Saints quickly re-signed Winston after he produced 14 touchdowns to only three interceptions in seven starts. Carolina just recently traded for Mayfield after haggling over how much of his salary they'd be responsible for.

    If Winston and Mayfield can stay healthy and play as well as they have at various points of their careers, the NFC South will be a nightmare division to face. New Orleans has an elite defense, and their offense will massively benefit from the return of star receiver Michael Thomas and the additions of Jarvis Landry and Chris Olave. Carolina is young but Christian McCaffrey, DJ Moore and a defense led by Shaq Thompson and Brian Burns is a talented core.

    It's unlikely either team could knock off the Buccaneers from winning the divisional crown but we could certainly see a wild card berth from this pair.


    Worst case: Buccaneers aren't challenged until the playoffs

    Both the Saints and Panthers made sure all of their chips weren't on quarterbacks with health concerns. The Saints also signed Andy Dalton as their backup as Taysom Hill transitioned to tight end full-time this offseason. The Panthers brought Sam Darnold back to compete for the starting job, and third-round rookie Matt Corral will almost surely make the final roster.

    While each of these backups is better insurance than some alternatives, the Buccaneers won't be challenged by a team that starts Dalton, Darnold or Corral for an extended number of games. Dalton, the most accomplished backup option, has combined for 38 touchdowns and 31 interceptions over his last 32 games. No team can beat a Brady-led juggernaut with that level of quarterback play.

    Mayfield's impact on Carolina is especially interesting since his career has been so up-and-down. Carolina overhauled its offensive line this offseason. If Mayfield can play as well as he did in 2020 for Cleveland, the Panthers are a dark-horse playoff contender.

NFC West

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    Best case: Rams, Cardinals and 49ers make the playoffs

    The strongest division in the NFC is the West. Having the defending Super Bowl champions certainly helps bolster that claim. But the West also produced two other teams with 10 or more wins in 2021.

    Arizona fell apart in the second half of last season as injuries piled up and their lack of depth was exposed. They were still an 11-win team, though. With Kyler Murray now signed to a $230.5 million extension and Marquise Brown added to the offense, the Cardinals have a chance to prove last year wasn't a fluke.

    Their best case is the loss of Chandler Jones is mitigated by Markus Golden and rookies Cameron Thomas and Myjai Sanders. Hopefully, the acquisition of Brown will allow the Cardinals' offense to survive DeAndre Hopkins' six-game suspension. If so, the Cardinals may have an upper hand on San Francisco.

    The 49ers have their own major question mark as they transition from veteran quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo to Trey Lance. Lance played sparingly as a rookie but showed off his tremendous physical skill set in limited time. At best, Lance will be the spark that was missing for the 49ers' offense over the last few years with Garoppolo.

    Adding a dynamic dual-threat to the 49ers' offense would seemingly raise their ceiling. Lance's inexperience may bring inconsistency but his upside can potentially compensate for any shortcomings. If it does, it's possible the 49ers can challenge for the divisional crown and Super Bowl.


    Worst case: Trey Lance isn't ready to start and the Cardinals fall apart again

    There's a very clear worst case in the NFC West. What if the Cardinals' 2021 breakout was just smoke and mirrors? Or what if losing Jones to Las Vegas and Hopkins for six games sinks this team just enough for them to miss the playoffs?

    It's also possible that Lance's brightest moments can't make up for the inevitable struggles of a second-year quarterback. The 49ers may be sacrificing some of their ability to win now to help win more in the coming years. If both happen, the Rams will coast to another divisional title.

    Murray and Lance are two of the most exciting athletes at the quarterback position. Their uniquely strong arms and ability to escape the pocket make them must-watch athletes. Giving them a grand stage in the playoffs to show off their playmaking chops would give fans the best postseason experience.

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