With the 2022 season quickly approaching, it's time to judge the NFL's eight divisions and sort them from easiest to hardest to win.
8. NFC North
Aaron Rodgers may claim to own the Chicago Bears, but he also wouldn't be wrong to suggest that his Green Bay Packers own the entire NFC North.
|Team||NFC North titles since 2011|
Green Bay has been king in the division for years, and that doesn't seem likely to change in 2022. Despite losing one of the game's top receivers in Davante Adams, the Packers should remain on course with Rodgers and Matt LaFleur running the offense.
The Minnesota Vikings are perhaps the Packers' closest challengers, thanks to Justin Jefferson, Dalvin Cook, and a solid defense. However, they're stuck in good-but-not-great territory with Kirk Cousins. The Detroit Lions are reshaping their culture under Dan Campbell, but their competitive window is still far from its arrival date. And the Bears showed their hand in the offseason by not bringing in any legitimate playmakers for Justin Fields. Until those three clubs take an additional step, Rodgers and his pals will continue to govern the NFC North.
7. AFC South
The reality for the Houston Texans and Jacksonville Jaguars is that the AFC South will likely come down to a two-way dogfight between the Tennessee Titans and Indianapolis Colts. At least it should be a good duel.
The Colts took a step up after ditching Carson Wentz and landing Matt Ryan, while the Titans lost some horsepower after parting ways with star receiver A.J. Brown rather than meeting his contract demands. Which of the two clubs is further ahead in the chase for a divisional crown is open for argument, but they're separated by the slimmest of margins.
If there's any consolation for the Texans and Jaguars, it's that they should both be tougher outs in 2022 than they were last year. Led by promising passers in Trevor Lawrence and Davis Mills, the two teams likely won't be easy pickings for their rivals anymore, although 2022 may still be too early to expect a real push for the AFC South title.
6. NFC South
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers initially put their home atop the division for sale this offseason. It didn't last long on the market, though, as Tom Brady returned to his NFC South lair for at least one more year. Brady won't have Rob Gronkowski or Pro Bowl center Ryan Jensen this time around, but the Bucs have equipped him with shiny new toys in Russell Gage and Julio Jones.
The New Orleans Saints will be plotting to crash Brady's return party. New Orleans has been a thorn in Tampa Bay's side, winning all four of their regular-season meetings since 2020. Dennis Allen's team looks even stronger now with the anticipated return of All-Pro receiver Michael Thomas and additions such as Tyrann Mathieu and Marcus Maye.
Not much can be said of the Atlanta Falcons' aspirations after they had their wings plucked following the departure of Ryan. Meanwhile, the Carolina Panthers continue to be directionless with their endless hobby of collecting project passers in the hopes that one sticks. The Panthers' chances may come down to if Baker Mayfield proves to be their winning lottery ticket.
5. AFC East
When all the dust settled, the top three teams in the AFC East all finished with a winning record last season. While the Buffalo Bills remain the team to beat, the division could be tougher than it's been in a long time, due in large part to the positive steps the Miami Dolphins took this offseason.
The Dolphins, who won eight of their last nine to cap the 2021 campaign, added the likes of Tyreek Hill and Terron Armstead, as well as new head coach Mike McDaniel. Those additions could be the key to unlocking Tua Tagovailoa's true potential.
Meanwhile, the New York Jets had a monster draft and were projected to improve before Zach Wilson suffered a knee injury in their preseason opener. The Jets' success may boil down to how fast he can get back on the field and whether he can take another step. Wilson is going to have his work cut out for him if he intends to end New York's days of being division minnows.
And then there's the New England Patriots. The biggest constant in the NFL, the Patriots are going to put up a fight no matter who Bill Belichick has under center or calling plays. Belichick's longtime offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels departed for a head coaching gig, leaving a big question mark in the offense and around Mac Jones' development. However, the man in the hoodie has already navigated the worst in the two years since Brady left for Tampa Bay. With a playoff appearance in 2021, the Patriots' next step is challenging the Bills, and they're more than prepared to give their rivals a worthy scrap.
Buffalo will remain a step ahead as long as Josh Allen remains elite, but it's the state of the division's other signal-callers that will make the AFC East a must-watch. With Tagovailoa receiving more support and Jones banking another year of experience, it likely won't be a walk in the park for the Bills.
4. NFC East
History tells us that no matter how each of the NFC East teams shapes up on paper, the division will be a battleground where the unpredictable can happen. A different winner has emerged in each of the last three seasons, while no team has repeated as champions since 2004, the longest active streak in the NFL.
Can the Dallas Cowboys break the streak after comfortably winning the division last year? Mike McCarthy's squad certainly has a shot, though momentum has shifted in favor of their archrivals: the Philadelphia Eagles. While many are avoiding comparisons to the ill-fated "Dream Team" of 2011, the Eagles feature an all-star cast headlined by Brown. The former Titans wideout could be the decisive addition that elevates Jalen Hurts and Philly to the top of the NFC East.
Don't count out the Washington Commanders or New York Giants, either. The Commanders won seven games last season with Taylor Heinicke as their primary passer. If Wentz can limit his mistakes - a big if - then Washington could make noise with its strong defense.
The Giants have been the division's forgotten side, but if Brian Daboll can find a way to make good on Daniel Jones' potential - another big if - they may be the wild card. There's a lot that needs to go right in Washington and New York, but as the past has shown, the NFC East has typically been the land of surprise where anything can happen.
3. NFC West
Welcome to the Wild West. The division features the reigning Super Bowl champions, the dynamic Kyler Murray-led Arizona Cardinals, and a fresh gunslinger in San Francisco 49ers quarterback Trey Lance. Watching from afar are the Seattle Seahawks, who won't have the firepower to get involved in this showdown after trading away franchise passer Russell Wilson.
Even with the usually competitive Seahawks taking a backseat, the NFC West clubs will give fans some exciting battles. Murray was on an MVP pace before getting injured last year, and with a lucrative new contract signed, the young passer comes into this season determined to improve on his 2021 performance.
Meanwhile, the talk of the Bay Area is all about Lance, another dual-threat quarterback. The club managed to get to the NFC Championship Game with Jimmy Garoppolo under center, so there's no telling what the team's limit could be if Kyle Shanahan can incorporate Lance's athleticism into the offense. That should put the Los Angeles Rams and the rest of the division on notice.
Last but not least, there isn't much that needs to be said about the Rams' consistency. Their gigantic Super Bowl rings make them the division's big targets, but that shouldn't be a new feeling. The Rams - who've been in win-now mode for the last few seasons - continued adding to their deep roster with the signing of Pro Bowl receiver Allen Robinson. Los Angeles may be the most complete team in the division, but the Cardinals' and 49ers' exciting rosters make the NFC West must-watch football.
2. AFC North
The AFC North was the toughest division in football last season as only two games separated first and last place. Known for its intense rivalries and physical style of football, the Baltimore Ravens, Cincinnati Bengals, Pittsburgh Steelers, and Cleveland Browns fought a war of attrition in 2021. That shouldn't change this year, as the four clubs are set to participate in another last-man-standing contest.
There've been noteworthy changes all over the division, especially with last year's winner and runner-up. Cincinnati went on a Cinderella run to a Super Bowl appearance despite its shockingly bad offensive line. Now that the unit has improved, Joe Burrow and Ja'Marr Chase should have even more opportunities to torch defenses. The Steelers dragged an over-the-hill Ben Roethlisberger to a playoff appearance but now hope Mitch Trubisky or rookie Kenny Pickett can bring more mobility to the quarterback position. However, Pittsburgh could be in line for regression after going 8-2-1 in games decided by eight points or less last season.
Basic probability says the Ravens are due better luck after dealing with more injuries to key players than any other team last season. John Harbaugh's club should be right back in the mix after adding key pieces and depth to its roster over the offseason. It's hard to feel confident about the Browns bouncing back at the moment. There's no doubting their talented roster, but they'll likely have to roll with Jacoby Brissett due to Deshaun Watson's uncertain future, which will surely impact their offense's productivity.
1. AFC West
There really should be no surprise that the AFC West finishes our ranking as the NFL's toughest division. Not only is it realistic that all four teams can make the postseason in 2022, but any of the West clubs would also likely have no problem competing for a division title in any of the conference's other divisions. Perhaps we're better off giving the division a more appropriate name: the AFC Best.
Look no further than the quarterback position for why the AFC West reigns supreme. The Kansas City Chiefs were able to throw their power around with Patrick Mahomes in recent years, but times have now changed. Justin Herbert is entering Year 3 with the Los Angeles Chargers and has already become one of the NFL's top passers. Las Vegas Raiders quarterback Derek Carr has been quietly consistent for a while and is now reunited with All-Pro wideout Adams.
But the signal-caller who's really put the division on notice has to be the Denver Broncos' new leader under center: Russell Wilson. For the first time since Peyton Manning donned the jersey, the Broncos have a legitimate quarterback who can win them games through the air. With 17 combined Pro Bowls between the passers, every inner-division matchup has the potential to be remarkable.
The talent level continues to match up evenly at other positions, too. There's no Hill, but the Chiefs brought in JuJu Smith-Schuster and still have Travis Kelce. Keenan Allen, Mike Williams, Courtland Sutton, Jerry Jeudy, and Adams round out the division's receiving group. The Chargers must be commended for their work on defense, too, after the arrivals of J.C. Jackson and former Defensive Player of the Year Khalil Mack. With all four teams oozing with star power, there'll surely be no shortage of fireworks coming from the NFL's most loaded division.