NFL divisional breakdown: AFC North's best, AFC West most competitive

by | Senior NFL Columnist
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It's Tom Brady and the Patriots, and then the rest of the non-competitive AFC East. (Getty Images)  
It's Tom Brady and the Patriots, and then the rest of the non-competitive AFC East. (Getty Images)  

You want to know who wins the NFC East, and I have an answer: Wait five months. OK, let's give it another six weeks before we try to sort the NFL out. In the meantime, here's my take on this year's eight divisions, not in terms of wins and losses but in terms of relative strength.

It's based largely on offseason moves, strength of schedules, key subtractions and -- yep, you got it -- gut feeling. Anyway, let's go to the scoreboard.

Strongest division
AFC North
Three of the four reached last year's playoffs, with one (Baltimore) making it to the conference championship game. Pittsburgh went to three of the past seven Super Bowls, winning twice. Baltimore went to two of the past four conference championship games. So did the Steelers. Now, Cincinnati is starting to squeeze both, with a quarterback who, as a rookie last season, had to play 10 top 10 ranked defenses yet still finished 9-7. Yeah, I know, the Bengals were 0-8 vs. playoff teams, but four of them (twice each) were Baltimore and Pittsburgh. Anyway, there's strength at the top.

Runner-up: (tie) NFC North, NFC East. One has the 2010 Super Bowl champions; the other has the 2011 winner. And both are solid 1 through 3.

Weakest division
AFC South
Once upon a time this division seemed loaded. Then Peyton Manning bowed out, Chris Johnson stopped running to daylight and Jacksonville stopped, period. With Matt Schaub back, Houston is a legitimate Super Bowl threat -- primarily because it should lap the field. Plus, last time I checked Wade Phillips was still coaching the defense. The Texans won their first division title in franchise history without Schaub, without star linebacker Mario Williams, without star receiver Andre Johnson (out nine games) and with a third-string rookie quarterback. That should tell you something. What it tells me is that everyone else is playing for second -- with Tennessee, 9-7 a year ago, the slam-dunk runner-up.

Runner-up: AFC West. In two of the past four years 8-8 has won it. I know, Peyton Manning changes things, and San Diego looks better, tougher and ready to return to the playoffs. But there wasn't a club here last year with a winning record.

Most competitive division
AFC West
One game separated these four in 2011, and one game could separate them again. No, I don't think that happens, nor do I think that Oakland is, as Carson Palmer predicts, "a playoff team." But Denver could be. So could San Diego. All I know is that this is as good as it gets from top to bottom, and I'm not talking about strength; I'm talking about competition in teams 1-4. There isn't a patsy here, with 7-9 the worst finish, and the Broncos just added Peyton Manning. That could separate them from the pack, but I'm skeptical. I want to see what happens after his first three weeks when the Broncos take on Pittsburgh, Atlanta and Houston and after the first eight games, six of which are vs. playoff opponents.

Runner-up: NFC East. You can make a case for every team but Washington, and the Redskins should be improved with Robert Griffin III at quarterback. The Giants are the defending champions, but Dallas and Philadelphia were within a game of them last season -- and it's not a stretch to think either could reach the playoffs now.

Least competitive division
AFC East
Let's make this one simple: If Tom Brady plays, the division belongs to New England. Period. Since Brady took over as the team's starter, New England has won the AFC East in all but one season (2002) where Brady was healthy ... but even then it tied for first, losing out in a tiebreaker. The Patriots are the defending champions. They're the defending AFC champions. They're stronger today than they were a year ago. And Tom Brady is back at quarterback. What part of this is so difficult to understand? Buffalo is better, and tackle D'Brickashaw Ferguson insists the Jets "have greatness written all over us." Maybe, but I pay attention to what is written on the wall, and it says that everyone but New England plays for second as long as Brady is upright.

Runner-up: AFC South. First, you have Houston, and they're a legitimate Super Bowl contender. But then it's ... it's ... it's what? Tennessee, the only non-playoff team with a winning record last year, could make a run at the Texans. But it ranked 24th vs. the run and has a front-loaded schedule that features four playoff teams in the first six games. Sorry, but that's a death sentence when you're trying to overcome Arian Foster, Ben Tate and Houston.

Most improved division
AFC West
Denver added Peyton Manning, and San Diego's strong offseason moves make the Bolts playoff worthy again. I don't know, but I could see both clubs making it to the postseason. A year ago no one from the division looked like it belonged there. Then Denver upset the defending conference champions, and it did so with Tim Tebow at quarterback. I don't need to tell you what a healthy Manning does for the Broncos' passing game and overall record. With him, Indianapolis was a division champion; without him, it was a 2-14 doormat. So you have Manning, Philip Rivers with a multitude of weapons, Carson Palmer with an offseason of workouts and a healthy Jamaal Charles and Matt Cassel in K.C. Yeah, I'd say that's an improvement over what we witnessed last season.

Runner-up: NFC West. I have this feeling that Seattle is going to squeeze the 49ers at the top. Granted, the Seahawks are waffling on their quarterback. But the 49ers were in the same position a year ago and look what happened. Defense still matters, and Seattle's could rival the 49ers. Then there's Arizona, and I never, ever, ever count out a Ken Whisenhunt team. The guy won seven of his last nine in 2011, most of them with John Skelton at quarterback, and the Cards are a tough out at home. St. Louis is still the fourth-best team here, but the Rams started improving the minute they hired Jeff Fisher.

Least improved division
NFC South
This one's a no-brainer. The Saints are the defending champions and a club you'd normally consider a legit Super Bowl candidate. So what did they do to get better? They didn't. They just lost their head coach and star linebacker for the season. Their GM is out for half the year, and their assistant head coach sits down six games. I don't think I need to draw you a picture. The team has been weakened by Bountygate, which means the division has been weakened. Atlanta moves to the top, and tell me which of its offseason moves convinces you this is a club ready to win its first playoff game with Matt Ryan. Someone? Anyone?

Runner-up: AFC South. I hate to keep cracking on these guys, but it is what it is and what it is is a division with one heavyweight -- and that club just lost the right side of its offensive line, as well as its star linebacker. Granted, it also regained its starting quarterback, but let's see how this shakes out. Indianapolis is more intriguing with Andrew Luck but still a project. I'm not sure how Jacksonville is better off with Mike Mularkey, and the Maurice Jones-Drew situation has to be a concern. Same goes for Justin Blackmon. And I'm starting to wonder who sees more of Kenny Britt in Tennessee -- the Titans or the local police.

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