At a time when nothing is certain in professional sports, and with the reactions by the leagues whose regular seasons have already been impacted by the pandemic indicating that everything is and must be maleable, I couldn't help ponder what all of this could mean for the NFL. Then I spent yesterday morning reading John Breech's incredibly well-conceived plan of what an NFL emergency schedule could like look (and I would dare say, should look like), and I scrapped my idea entirely.
Breech has it all sussed out, and if you haven't read his piece on ways to curtail the NFL schedule but preserve some degree of sanity and competitive balance on the fly, I cannot urge you strongly enough to check it out.
One of the tenets of his piece is a suggestion to go with only divisional games for a stretch of the schedule, in what might amount to a round-robin stage of sorts within the season. Again, I love it. And that got me to thinking about what something like that would look like in practice and not just in theory, and which divisions would provide the toughest gauntlet and just how much of a divide there is between some clusters of teams and others.
Basically, despite my general distaste for all things POWER RANKINGS, I started mulling what NFL divisional power rankings might actually look like. Which division is like, the SEC of the NFL, and which is more like the MAAC? If I had to go to Vegas and put all of my money down on teams from one division to win the Super Bowl, which would it be? Hence the following, which I imagine will infuriate some fans far more than I could ever fathom, but, then again, that comes with the POWER RANKING territory, I suppose.
So at the risk of incurring wrath the likes of which is generally reserved for Prisco, here is my take on the best and worst divisions in football with training camps open around the country and the regular season less than a month away (assuming it starts on time).
1. NFC West
This was was tough. I went back and forth here between the NFC West and NFC South, divisions which I believe contain two very legit Super Bowl favorites, and another team I believe has the potential to be far better than some might think, and a fourth team that has some serious issues ... but will prove to be .500-ish in the end and far more competitive than the teams that bring up the rear in most other divisions.
So why did I lean to the West?
Continuity. It's always a buzzword in the NFL and never more so than now, given how crazy this offseason and preseason are. Seattle and San Francisco bring back the same schemes and coaches and quarterbacks and, for the most part, same key personnel as a year ago. Both probably added multiple impact players in the draft, know how to develop players, and have contined to add potential impact players in the past week (Jamal Adams and Jordan Reed). It was a coin flip between Seattle and San Fran a year ago to settle this division and it likely will be again, with the winner I'm guessing grabbing the top seed in the NFC, which will be bigger than ever with the new playoff format. Also, I believe if the Cardinals can make even modest gains on defense they have Wild Card potential and the Rams are not what they appeared to be even a few short years ago, but they won't be terrible and tend to play the big boys tough.
2. NFC South
Guess I kind of gave this away up top there. This was neck and neck but the fact that this is such an unusual run-up to the season and Tampa has so many new moving parts, I gave the edge the other way. But if the Bucs or Saints win it all, I won't be surprised. Both look loaded to me and they are each led by a 40-something madman QB who knows Father Time is around the corner and would sell their soul for another ring ASAP (okay, Brees wouldn't sell his soul, and Brady, after much consideration, probably wouldn't either, but you get the idea). Sean Payton and Bruce Arians have the perfect mentality to navigate a team through what could be a bizarre, stop-and-start season. I like the Panthers to be better than you think and particularly interesting on offense and Teddy Bridgewater is a great fit there who already knows the system. The Falcons have been on borrowed time for a while and just might once again have the meaningful part of their season over by Halloween, but they'll pad those win totals by Week 17 to try to make you forget all about the first eight weeks again.
3. AFC North
Baltimore won 14 games with a 22-year old MVP and appears to be significantly better on both sides of the ball on paper. Rebuilt the defensive line, amassed the best and deepest secondary in the league, and added more speed and twitch to the offense, which will also get a full-strength Hollywood Brown this season, too. Flip a coin between them and KC for the conference title. Pittsburgh nearly made the playoffs last year without a QB and gets back a Hall of Famer. That defense can win anywhere and the Steelers have a distinct chip on their shoulder that I believe will carry them well.
I'm buying the Browns, again. Not to be a juggernaut, but to be in the thick of the Wild Card race until the end and maybe even reach the postseason. Ton of talent and the right coaching staff to balance out the errors of a year ago. They will keep Baker within himself and get him back to playing winning football and Myles Garrett isn't going to get suspended for half the year. A modicum of better discipline all around and this is a dangerous team. The Bengals will be impacted greatly by the drastically altered offseason, but Joe Burrow is legit and by the second half of the season this offense is going to be a problem. Not sure they can play a lick of defense but I could see them pulling some upsets in December with nothing to lose.
4. AFC West
Let's be real -- the division is only even this high because of one team -- the Super Bowl champs -- and, also, one particular player: Patrick Mahomes. They have the potential to be better than a year ago, have a bright core that is pretty much all on team-friendly deals. Plenty to like, with a Hall of Fame coach, too. After that it gets murky. Once again I am looking at the Chargers roster and seeing playoffs, but they fool me more often than not. Denver can play defense but will have a heck of a time getting all those new, young pieces on offense to fit for a while. Oakland probably has a decent offense but I'll believe that defense is even below average -- and not God awful -- when I see it with my own eyes. Perhaps I am listing them too high because of the Chiefs, and the division may only send KC to the playoffs, but what a team it is.
5. AFC East
Let's be real, this division is only even this high because of one man -- Bill Belichick, and one man only. And he doesn't even coach the best team in this division. The Bills will win this division; if the Pats reach the playoffs yet again it will be the best work of The Hoodies career, and he may already be the GOAT. The Patriots lost a ton of talent already early in the offseason and have been hit far harder than any other club by the opt outs. But Bill and Cam won't go down without swinging hard, and I could still see them getting to the playoffs. That's really the only thing keeping this group from being down at the bottom with the NFC East. Miami is ascending but has a long way to go, while the Jets might be the worst team in football. But I'm putting the AFC East in the middle of the pack out of deference to Belichick.
6. NFC North
We are projecting here, not just looking back at last year's standings. The Packers were not as good as that record and look to be the poster boys for regression. Uber-conservative offense and a defense that got worse, by far, as the sample size increased. Oh yeah, and they managed to get on the bad side of their Hall of Fame QB, and that's not going away anytime soon. Minnesota will be what it's been for years -- Meh. Good enough to get your attention for a while before fading back to mediocrity. And ownership just doubled down on that with extensions for the brass! They'll go 10-6 and win the division and get whacked in January. I could see the Lions creeping to mediocrity, but that's not anything to jump up and down about. Chicago is about to rebuild, again, only they are the only ones who don't seem to realize it.
7. AFC South
Any real reason to focus on this quadrant of teams since Peyton Manning headed to Denver all those years ago? Am I missing anything? Nah. We're good. The Texans are a playoff punching bag that gave away its best player with its coach now doubling as the worst GM in football. Enjoy the salad days, Texans fans. They're over. Philip Rivers has been in steady decline for a while now, and he probably will be enough for the Colts to win the division, I guess, but I can't see them being a playoff force. The Titans may go 9-7 into perpetuity ... but I can't see them picking up where they left off in January. They do still play (bad) football in Jacksonville and the Jags best player once again vows to withhold his services until he is freed from the organization. Stop me if you've heard that one before.
8. NFC East
I think the Cowboys are paper tigers. Okay, well, less than paper tigers because you'd actually have to win something to be a paper tiger, technically. But you get the picture. Far and away the worst division in football last year, and I expect Dallas to regress and the Eagles to be the only legit team here in the end.
Yes, the Eagles could certainly win the Super Bowl and if Carson Wentz stays healthy they will be a force in the playoffs. I just don't see anyone else coming close. Dallas is 9-7 at best to me and the Washington Football Guys and New York Giants could have quite a battle for the first-overall pick. Godspeed to both.