On occasion in the NFL, there is one division that stands out above the rest of the league. Over the past 16 seasons, there have been 15 instances of a division achieving a combined record of 25-15 or better in its games against non-divisional opponents. Those 25-win seasons by a division have been spread out rather haphazardly; but for the most part, it tends to be just one or two divisions that dominate the rest of the league.
Last year, for example, the NFC South went 25-15 in games played against non-NFC South teams. The year prior, the NFC East had a combined record of 27-13 in games played against opponents from outside their division. In 2014, the AFC North went 26-14 in non-divisional games while the NFC West went 25-15. The year before that, it was the AFC West with a 25-15 record and the NFC West going an incredible 30-10.
While there's no guarantee there will be such a division in 2018, it is worth wondering, well, if there were, which division would it be? The guess here is that it would wind up being the NFC North.
The Chicago Bears, Detroit Lions, Green Bay Packers, and Minnesota Vikings combined to go 22-18 against non-division opponents last season, tied for the second-best interdivisional record of any of the league's eight divisions. Additionally, the only division that landed firmly ahead of them -- the NFC South -- actually has something in common with this year's NFC North: lucky scheduling.
The NFL uses a rotating schedule to determine which teams play each other in any given season. Each team plays its divisional opponents twice each, every single year, but the other 10 games change on an annual basis. On a four-year rotating schedule, each team plays every team from one division in the opposite conference. On a three-year rotating schedule, each team plays every team from another division in its own conference. And each year, each team plays the two teams from the other two divisions in its conference that finished in the same place in their respective division.
OK so let's explain that: every team in the NFC North will play every other team in the NFC North twice each in 2018. Additionally, each NFC North team will play every team from the AFC East once each. They'll also play every team from the NFC West once each. Then, the Vikings will play the first-place teams from the NFC East and NFC South. The Packers will play the second-place teams from those divisions, while the Lions will play the third-place teams and the Bears will play the last-place teams.
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So, what does the 2018 NFC North have in common with the 2017 NFC South? The privilege of playing against the AFC East, one of football's worst divisions outside of the Patriots. The Bills are dramatically remaking their roster and could be starting either Nathan Peterman or Josh Allen at quarterback. The Dolphins cut their best player for no apparent reason and traded their best offensive playmaker. And while the Jets have the promising Sam Darnold waiting in the wings at quarterback, that seems like something far more likely to pay off in years down the line, rather than 2018. So, the NFC North should see success in its inter-conference games.
The NFC North is also catching the NFC West at an opportune time. The Rams should be one of the inner-circle NFC contenders this season, but the Seahawks are in a transition period with stars like Richard Sherman, Michael Bennett, Cliff Avril, and Kam Chancellor moving on, and Earl Thomas holding out. The Cardinals are working through a coaching change and a transition at quarterback that involves them hoping Sam Bradford can stay healthy. And while the 49ers are a trendy sleeper, it's important to remember that they had the NFL's 26th-ranked defense last season and Jimmy Garoppolo has all of a seven-game NFL track record. There's a pretty decent chance the NFC North does well in its inter-conference schedule as well.
The way the schedules break out for individual teams also works in the division's favor. Chicago, the team in the NFC North that most needs to get off to a good start in order to avoid spiraling into the basement, begins the season with the NFL's second-softest schedule through Week 10, according to Warren Sharp's essential 2018 season preview. Not only that, but they face the league's fifth-easiest schedule of opposing pass defenses, which bodes well for the Mitchell Trubisky-led passing game. Elsewhere in the division, the Packers face the NFL's second-softest schedule after Week 9, which should allow Aaron Rodgers to get on a nice roll over the second half of the season.
Speaking of Rodgers ... the NFC North should also benefit from improved quarterback play in 2018. Rodgers played only seven games last season, and threw just four passes in one of those seven. It seems fairly safe to assume that having Rodgers on the field rather than Brett Hundley for an additional 10 games will do wonders for the Packers' offense. Trubisky should also take a step forward in his second season, particularly given that the Bears both added a bunch of new weapons for him to throw to (tight end Trey Burton, plus wide receivers Allen Robinson, Taylor Gabriel, and Anthony Miller) and got him a new coach who is importing one of the NFL's most creative and aggressive offensive schemes.
The coaching upgrade in Chicago alone should be worth a few wins for the Bears in 2018. John Fox cost his team valuable points through field position, decision-making, terrible use of the challenge flag, and running possibly the NFL's most conservative offense over the past few years. Matt Nagy will put Trubisky in much better position to succeed. It will be almost impossible for him to be a worse decision-maker than Fox, and it's hard to imagine anyone ever being worse when it comes to use of the challenge flag. With better personnel and bolder design, the Chicago offense should take a big step forward, and the defense was already an improving unit under Vic Fangio.
The Bears are also not the only team in the division that made a coaching upgrade. Matt Patricia's Patriots defense did not exactly shower itself in glory last year, but it had been very strong in previous seasons and was missing its best player (Dont'a Hightower) for much of the 2017 campaign. The Detroit defense has been sitting at or near the bottom of the league for several seasons, and Patricia should at least be able to provide some measure of improvement on that side of the ball.
The Packers made a defensive coaching change of their own, bringing in Mike Pettine to replace Dom Capers as defensive coordinator. It had been clear for a while that Capers' best years were behind him, and his struggles scheming up ways to stop read-option plays eventually bled over into an inability to stop any aspect of the passing game. Pettine's defenses have long excelled at both getting pressure and suppressing big plays, and the Packers do have a bunch of talent for him to work with. It should help that one of his former Jets charges, Muhammad Wilkerson, was brought in to wreak havoc up the middle.
Green Bay also attacked with fervor its deficiencies on the back end, drafting cornerbacks in each of the first two rounds in order to provide both depth and high-level talent in the secondary that had been missing for the past few years. Similarly, the Lions added strength to the offensive line, an area where they were severely lacking. They also added a talented running back in Kerryon Johnson, who almost has to be better than the guys the Lions have run out there over the last few years, even if only by default. The Bears added Miller and solidified the middle of their defense by drafting an all-field playmaker in Roquan Smith. And the Vikings kept the core of one of the NFL's deepest and most talented rosters, and upgraded at quarterback (Kirk Cousins) and on the interior of their defensive line (Sheldon Richardson).
What do you get when you take a division that was already good despite an injury to its best overall player, a severe coaching deficiency for one of its teams, and obvious weaknesses for two others, then give that division an easy schedule, roster upgrades all around, some new coaching blood, and a healthy Aaron Rodgers? Well, we're guessing you get the best division in football. Let's see how it shakes out.