NFL preview: The 8 divisions ranked from toughest to easiest
The level of competition in each NFL division shifts from year to year, but there are some where the fight will be much fiercer than in others.
No team really knows how they will do this year, as there is no way to fully measure a team’s talent and predict the outcome of a game. All that is obvious, but if one division offers a Chargers-Chiefs duel while another gets to have a Jaguars-Texans borefest, you know which one you would prefer to watch.
This is our NFL division ranking:
1. AFC West
The undisputedly toughest division in the league will feature very-good-to-great quarterbacks in all four teams. The Kansas City Chiefs have won it for the past six years, and they are the favorites once again under Reid and Mahomes. However, the AFC West simply has no free games for any team, so being the favorite does not mean you cannot find yourself in last position at the end of the season.
Russell Wilson and the Broncos may need a bit of time to get into gear, but the ex-Seahawks QB is used to carrying a team by himself, while the Chargers are a known playoff contender thanks to Justin Herbert’s explosive passes and Brandon Staley’s elite defensive schemes.
The Oakland Raiders do not have as high a ceiling as the other teams in the division but Carr is a proven quarterback in a team that will hardly be under .500 when all is said and done, and Josh McDaniels may have some tricks up his sleeve in his return as head coach. No other division matches this level of competency.
2. NFC West
The Los Angeles Rams are the champs, and they brought everybody back, so that’s a good start for a division that got three teams in the playoffs last year and aspires to do so again. Aaron Donald is the best player in the league, McVay is an offensive genius whose play arsenal has not dimmed yet, but their rivals are up to the task.
The Arizona Cardinals have finally extended Kyler Murray, which basically extends their window of contention for however long the mobile QB can keep playing at the top of his game, while the 49ers never go away under Kyle Shanahan, even if their QB situation is iffier than ever this year. The Seahawks are probably entering a rebuild after trading away Wilson and having to start either Lock or Geno Smith this year, but Pete Carroll can steal a game from anyone.
3. AFC North
No chance this division is not interesting, even if only due to the off-field stuff going on in Cleveland with Deshaun Watson. The Browns have gone to the playoffs a few times with Mayfield, and are theoretically (yet perhaps not morally) with an elite talent at QB, whenever he plays, and they are still probably only the third best team in the division.
The Ravens will continue to run it back with Lamar Jackson and John Harbaugh while hoping that their playing style finally translates during the playoffs. The Bengals went to the Super Bowl last year and have Joey B and Ja’Marr Chase as an unstoppable QB-WR receiver duo, and they have enough talent surrounding them to win any game.
The Steelers have never finished under .500 with Tomlinson as their coach, and even if Roethlisberger is gone at last there is no reason to think that Pittsburgh will not continue to compete however they can, and if Pickett becomes a viable option at QB during his rookie season then everything may be up for grabs in the AFC North.
4. AFC East
Belichick will make a race out of this division when there should be none by talent levels per team. The Patriots have a good QB in Mac Jones, but they have finally lost star offensive coordinator McDaniels while getting back Joe Judge or Matt Patricia as assistant coaches, so Belichick will probably have to rely on his defense to win games again.
The Bills are the frontrunner once more, with Josh Allen as the odds-on favorite for MVP this season and a complete team at every level, they hope to finally get past the Chiefs this year. The Dolphins and Jets are once again questionable, but with new coach Mike McDaniels and Robert Saleh bringing excitement as head coaches, they may still wreak some havoc if everything goes right for them.
5. NFC East
The Cowboys should win this division, but will they? That’s just impossible to know in the NFL, and even more with this team. They have an elite QB in Prescott and some great players in every line, but it may not be enough to offset the constant catastrophes plaguing this team, which so far have come in the form of penalties during the preseason. They will have to win their divisional games to win the division, and they start the season against a contender in the Buccaneers, so the season can go south rather quickly.
The Eagles were a positive surprise last season, but they will no longer be one this year, as they have resurfaced as a competitive team under Jalen Hurts and his run-pass style. The NY Giants and the renamed Washington Commanders are not ready to contend for now, but they are not at the bottom of the league talent-level wise, so no game will be free.
6. AFC South
The most volatile division in my opinion, as the Titans are the only stable team whose record will almost surely be anywhere between 8-9 and 12-5, but not much else is known right now. The Jaguars have an exciting QB in Lawrence and they have to hope that he flourishes without Urban Meyer shotcalling the team and with a Super Bowl winning competent head coach as Doug Pederson at the helm.
The Colts have traded for Matt Ryan just one season after going for Carson Wentz, so their QB status is rather shaky, but they have talent spread all over the roster and only need one season where everyone gets together to be well over .500. The Houston Texans are not supposed to compete as they rebuild for another year and find their future QB, but they are 2-0 in the preseason, so why not have hope for now.
7. NFC North
Aaron Rodgers and the Packers will win this division. After that, there may still be some competition left between middling teams like the Vikings, revamped with Kevin O’Connell as head coach but Kirk Cousins still as QB; the Bears, as Chicago hopes Justin Fields shows more this season under Matt Eberflus; and the Lions, who do not have the potential to be a great team yet but will fight each game as if it were their last.
8. NFC South
The Buccaneers are by far the best team in the division, and they still are no sure-fire thing. Brady is back after “retiring”, and you can never count out Touchdown Tom, but Tampa Bay’s strength might lie even more in the lack of rivals they will face in their division, just a good spot to get Todd Bowles in as head coach once again.
The Panthers are in one of the worst quarterback competitions ever right now, as whoever wins between Mayfield and Darnold will probably not be enough to win a lot of games, but they have Christian McCaffrey so they will be fun to watch (until he inevitably gets injured halfway through the season).
The Atlanta Falcons are rebuilding even if they act like they are not after getting a competent QB in Marcus Mariota, but if they lose a couple of games they will throw it all out, start Desmond Ridder and see what’s what. The Saints are hoping that Sean Payton’s absence is not too felt, and if Jameis Winston finally takes a step forward they do have some talent still, but it is waning.