It is still July, which unfortunately means NFL training camp is a bit of a tease.
Luckily, the Green Bay Packers and Indianapolis Colts will kick off the preseason on August 7th in the Hall of Fame game, inching us closer to the regular season.
Without further ado, let’s take a look at the favorites and challengers for each division this upcoming season.
NOTE: Favorites are based on my opinion, not based on odds.
Favorite: Green Bay Packers
Biggest Challenger: Minnesota Vikings
In the NFC North, there are clearly two competitive teams, and two other teams. While the Lions and Bears have certainly had successful seasons over the past 10 years, this season will not result in a division title for either of them. This race comes down to an up-and-coming Vikings squad, and the playoff-savvy Packers. Even though the Vikings won the division last year, they still lost their first playoff game, while Green Bay came out victorious. Furthermore, the Packers are getting their second best offensive player back in Jordy Nelson. While it wouldn’t be surprising if the Vikings were able to keep up with the Packers during the majority of the season, few are expecting them to top the Packers after Week 17.
Favorite: Carolina Panthers
Biggest Challenger: Atlanta Falcons
This may be one of the most obvious choices on this list. The Carolina Panthers are clearly the best team in the NFC South right now. The Bucs are young and talented, but not quite there yet. The Saints still have major holes on their defense. That only leaves the Falcons, who finished the season 3-8 and only beat two teams with a winning record last season. The Panthers have the best defense in the division by far. Their offense was better than everyone else’s last season, and they are getting Kelvin Benjamin back without losing very much. Unless Cam Newton or Luke Keuchly gets hurt, it would be shocking not to see the Panthers win the NFC South.
Favorite: Arizona Cardinals
Biggest Challenger: Seattle Seahawks
This decision was one of the toughest to make. The Cardinals and Seahawks are both elite teams with Super Bowl aspirations. The Seahawks have one the division in 2013 and 2014, but the Cardinals are the defending champions. It would certainly not shock anyone if the Seahawks ended the regular seasons as division champions. However, there are just a few question marks about the Seahawks that are tough to ignore. 1. How healthy will Jimmy Graham be? 2. Is the loss of Marshawn Lynch going to be a big problem? 3. The offensive line will be completely different, but will it be better?
No one knows if Carson Palmer can get it done in the playoffs (the curse of being a Bengal), but there are many around the league that are buzzing about the Chandler Jones’ trade. That deal could end up changing the trajectory of the season for the Cardinals.
Favorite: Washington Redskins
Biggest Challenger: Dallas Cowboys
Welcome to arguably the worst division in the NFL (thanks for saving them, AFC South).
Does anyone know if Tony Romo can stay healthy? Who thinks that Kirk Cousins is as good as he showed at the end of last season? Will OBJ and Eli benefit from all the moves made by the Giants this offseason? What the hell are the Eagles going to look like?
Nobody knows the answers to these questions. The Cowboys could certainly win this division with no issue. If they stay healthy and competitive, people don’t see the Redskins beating them out. However, a smart man would not bet on the Cowboys to stay healthy for a season. The Redskins made some really smart moves this offseason, the smartest being Josh Norman. Remember that their first three draft picks were Josh Doctson, Su’a Cravens, and Kendall Fuller, all picks of value at positions of need. Barring (a lack of Cowboys’) injuries, Washington is the safest choice to win the division.
Favorite: Cincinnati Bengals
Biggest Challengers: Pittsburgh Steelers, Baltimore Ravens
This could very well be the best division in football. The AFC North has sent two teams to the postseason in 2008-2012 and 2014-2015. While you could and should make a strong case for the Steelers to be the favorite instead, the offseason turmoil for them leaves doubt in many people’s minds. The Bengals have simply been the most consistent franchise in this division over the past 5 seasons. They are one of only four teams in the NFL to make the postseason each of the last five seasons, joining the Packers, Broncos, and Patriots. With that being said, the Steelers are an elite team when healthy. If Pittsburgh was entering the season suspension-free, many would be picking them to be the division champion. The Ravens are another team that wouldn’t surprise people by finishing the season as the best team in the AFC North. Last year can be tossed aside for them due to injuries; this season should be a bounce back season for them.
Favorite: Houston Texans
Biggest Challenger: Indianapolis Colts
This division title race is as wide open as any. While the winner could be anyone, the Texans simply have a slight edge. They very clearly have not only the best player, but the best defense in the division, and it isn’t really close. While Andrew Luck could certainly return to form very quickly, the team around him simply isn’t all that great. Either way, it would be surprising not to see Andrew Luck bounce back and have a terrific season. Furthermore, some may want to place Jacksonville in the category of biggest challenger, or even likely favorite, as they have an incredibly talented roster. That being said, these young pieces might need one extra year of experience. The additions of Brock Osweiler (who will likely underperform) and Lamar Miller will give the offense enough scoring punch for the defense to sustain victories.
Favorite: Kansas City Chiefs
Biggest Challengers: Denver Broncos, Oakland Raiders
The Chiefs have a very deep and complete roster. They do have weaknesses at the receiver position, and some depth concerns with the injuries that have already impacted them; however, the return of Pro Bowl RB Jamaal Charles will be a welcome sight to Chiefs fans. With that being said, many would still expect the Denver Broncos to be the favorites; they are the defending Super Bowl champs after all. I just have a hard time believing that Mark Sanchez or Paxton Lynch will equate to the genius that is Peyton Manning, diminished skills and all. That brings us to the Oakland Raiders, who could have easily had the best offseason in the NFL. They added a lot of talent to their offensive line and secondary in particular. The continued development of Derek Carr will be fun to watch as well. This division race could come down to Week 17.
Favorite: New England Patriots
Biggest Challenger: New York Jets
Yes, Ryan Fitzpatrick going back to the Jets changes everything about this division race. But, do the Jets have Tom Brady and Bill Belichick? The answer is no, even if the Patriots only have TB12 for 12 games. New England traded Chandler Jones, but gained Martellus Bennett and Chris Long in free agency. They also get Dion Lewis back, who was one of the most dominant running backs in the games he was able to play last season. The Patriots are stacked once again, but it all comes down to whether or not the offensive line has improved.
No one would be surprised to see the Jets push the Patriots late into the season, but you have to ask yourself who you trust more down the stretch. The Jets might even have one of the best rosters in the NFL, but until Fitzpatrick can begin to duplicate his success again this year, doubt will remain in many fans’ minds about whether or not he can do it. The Jets defense is elite (seriously) and their weapons are legit. If Fitzpatrick doesn’t throw their season away in Week 17 again, the Jets should make the playoffs. Who knows? Maybe they will even win the AFC East.
Photo David Kadlubowski / The Arizona Republic.