As long as the NFL has eight divisions, there will always be a debate as to which one reigns supreme. Multiple divisions have one elite team and several average ones, whereas others are solid from top to bottom. No matter where your teams’ division stands right now, don’t fret—this list looked vastly different five years ago, and will look vastly different five years into the future as well. For now, here are my 2018 NFL division rankings.
8. AFC East
Not even the Patriots can keep the AFC East out of the last spot. Until Tom Brady and Bill Belicheck call it quits, this team will still be a perennial Super Bowl contender—the question marks lie with the rest of the division. The Bills snuck into the playoffs last season for the first time since 1999, but it will be a long road back with unproven quarterbacks and departures on the offensive line.
After these two teams, you have arguable the two worst teams in the NFL. The Jets made a move to jump up and grab Sam Darnold, but the rest of their roster isn’t talented enough to make the playoffs. The Dolphins made one of my favorite picks in Minkah Fitzpatrick, but that alone won’t be enough to turn around a defense that allowed the fourth-most PPG, and we don’t know how Tannehill will perform without Jarvis Landry.
7. AFC North
I wish I could say that I think the Browns will be an above .500 team this year, but I just don’t see it. I believe it will take a year or two to adjust to Baker Mayfield, other free agent pickups, and the pressures of being a competent football team. The Steelers are still Super Bowl contenders (although their window is closing with each passing year for Big Ben and Le’Veon Bell), and the Ravens were a miraculous Bengals touchdown away from reaching the postseason.
The good news for Baltimore heading into 2018 is drafting Lamar Jackson to create some QB competition. Flacco will likely up his game with his job on the line, and if he struggles and the season is on the downward slope, Harbaugh can bring in Jackson to spark the future. And finally, we have the Bengals, who have had the talent in the Andy Dalton era to go the distance but have yet to win a playoff game since 1990—I don’t see it happening again this year.
6. AFC South
There was once a time not too long ago when this was the worst division in the league, and it wasn’t really close, but that time has come and gone. Jacksonville was a bad fourth quarter away from reaching the Super Bowl and they once again boast a top defense. The key will be whether or not Bortles can continue to be respectable. The biggest challenger to the Jaguars looks to be the Texans. Houston added Tyrann Mathieu and get J.J. Watt and Deshaun Watson back from injury. They’ll be a sleeper playoff pick this year.
The Titans will look to return to the playoffs after reaching the divisional round and have the potential to do so with the continual growth of Marcus Mariota, who now has plenty of help in the backfield with Derrick Henry and Dion Lewis.
The biggest NFL mystery next season will be the Colts. Either Andrew Luck will return to form and lead the Colts back to the AFC Championship game, he’ll return but won’t reach his peak potential, or he won’t play again and the Colts will stink—take your pick.
5. NFC East
If this was a ranking of last season’s divisions, the NFC East would be right down with the AFC East—an elite team, a 9-7 team, and a couple of sub-.500 teams. Luckily, we’re looking to this year, and I like the arrow to be pointing upward for this division.
The Eagles should be right back in the mix in January with the return of Carson Wentz and a balanced team, and the Giants will surely see improvement after drafting Saquon Barkley and getting OBJ back.
The less obscure improvements will come from the Redskins and Cowboys—I’m excited to see what Alex Smith can do in a new system with a young defense. The recipe for the Cowboy’s success is simple: keep Ezekiel Elliot out of trouble. My bold prediction for this division is that Prescott will be even better without the distraction of Dez Bryant. Since no team has repeated as division winners since 2004, it looks like it’s once again anyone’s division.
4. AFC West
The most disappointing division in 2017 also has the most upside heading into 2018. My pick is the Chargers this year, not only to win the division but to also contend for a Super Bowl—four of their losses were by a combined ten points last season. If Rivers and company can figure out a way to turn even two of those into wins, they’re in business. The Chiefs have the potential to have one of the most high-powered offenses in the league if Mahomes pans out. Their offense is loaded with Travis Kelce, Tyreek Hill, Kareem Hunt, and Sammy Watkins.
I have the Raiders and Broncos each improving upon last year’s performance. Look for Carr to bounce back after a less-than-stellar season with the addition of ol’ reliable Jordy Nelson and former head coach Jon Gruden. On the other side, the Broncos have their best quarterback since Peyton Manning in Case Keenum, who is fresh off an NFC Championship appearance with the Vikings.
3. NFC West
The Rams are the clear favorite to win the West with their Pro Bowl-esque roster, but the rest of the division is not as far behind as some might think. The 49ers appear to be on their way out of the doldrums with Jimmy Garappolo, who recently declared that he and Brady “wanted to kill each other” and that he was better than Brady—the time is now to back that talk up.
People are writing off the Seahawks after their lockdown defense seems to be disbanding before our eyes, but Russell Wilson is a top-five quarterback in the league at his best and is capable of leading a less-talented team to the playoffs.
In Arizona, you have a quarterback in Sam Bradford who, when healthy, can win football games and a running back in David Johnson more than capable of supporting him.
2. NFC North
Every team in the NFC North got better this offseason. The Packers got Aaron Rodgers back, acquired Jimmy Graham and Mohammed Wilkerson, and bolstered their secondary in the draft. The Lions picked up LeGarrette Blount and hired defensive-minded Matt Patricia as their new head coach. Chicago is slowly beginning to build their defense after drafting Roquan Smith, and if Mitch Trubisky can take the next step, the Bears have the potential to (believe it or not) make a playoff push. And the Vikings made the biggest free agent splash by signing Kirk Cousins and still have the best defense in the league.
The North plays the NFC West and AFC East, which boast difficult matchups against the Rams and Patriots.
1. NFC South
The NFC South had three teams in the playoffs for the first time since the AFC West did it in 2013, and there’s a chance the Panthers, Falcons, and Saints could return to January football again this year. It’s the only division with two MVP quarterbacks (should be three—Brees should have at least one for his 2009 season). The only glaring weakness is Jameis Winston, who had his worst statistical season yet. The Buccaneers extended their playoff drought to 11 years, which is now the second-longest in the league. Still, this is head-and-shoulders above the rest of the league.