The 2020 NFL season serves as great evidence that not all divisions are created equal.
For instance, there was one division that sent three teams to the playoffs while there was another division that couldn’t even produce one team that had a winning record. Of course, that was 2020, and 2021 is a new year.
With offseason moves, some teams spending wildly, other teams cutting salary, and the draft, there is a chance that some of the power in the NFL has shifted among the divisions. As we get ready for the start of the 2021 NFL season, let’s take a look at the preseason power rankings of the league’s eight divisions.
8. NFC East
The Washington Football Team won this division last year with a 7-9 record, and if the Eagles hadn’t tanked in Week 17, the division could have been won at 6-10. Needless to say, this division is deep at the bottom of the power rankings with little reason to think they’ll get out of it.
Granted, if Dak Prescott comes back healthy, the Cowboys will be better. If the Eagles do a better job of staying healthy as a team, they could be reasonably better. But Ryan Fitzpatrick isn’t a difference-maker in Washington and the Giants are going nowhere with Daniel Jones. However, these teams are all bitter rivals and will cannibalize each other once again.
Even with an extra game, it’d be surprising to see any of these teams win 10 games in 2021.
7. NFC South
Obviously, the reigning Super Bowl champion Buccaneers call this division home, so the NFC South is not without some credibility. But outside of Tampa Bay, there are serious questions about the rest of the division.
Are the Saints actually going to be serious contenders without Drew Brees? Winning 12 games again this season doesn’t seem likely for New Orleans. Meanwhile, the jury is still out on Matt Rhule and the Panthers, as well as new quarterback Sam Darnold. Plus, Atlanta doesn’t even have Julio Jones anymore, so what are the chances of the Falcons improving much on their 4-12 record with an aging quarterback in Matt Ryan?
Outside of the Bucs, this division could be rather ugly.
6. AFC South
For a team that had two 11-5 teams last year, the AFC South isn’t that impressive.
The Titans and Colts are both solid, but does anyone expect either one to be a serious contender in the AFC compared to the Chiefs, Ravens, and Bills? Both will be in the playoff hunt, but neither is an elite team. Meanwhile, the Texans and Jaguars play a part in dragging the rest of the division down.
To be fair, there’s hope for the Jags with Urban Meyer taking over and Trevor Lawrence becoming the quarterback. However, after going 1-15 last year, it would take a lot for the Jags to be a winning team this year. Plus, the Texans could be in danger of going winless this season and will likely be even worse than the 4-12 record they had last year.
5. AFC East
We can probably expect the Bills to be good, but what about the rest of the division?
Miami won 10 games last year with defense and special teams. But if Tua Tagovailoa doesn’t take a step forward, 10 wins might be Miami’s ceiling this season. Even after the Patriots spent a lot of money during the offseason, they may not be that much better if they don’t find a solution at quarterback between Cam Newton and rookie Mac Jones.
Finally, the Jets still aren’t going to be much better than the 2-14 team they were a year ago. The organization, as a whole, has so many problems that Zach Wilson doesn’t have the cast around him to succeed as a rookie quarterback.
Buffalo will carry the flag for the AFC South but there should be skepticism about everyone else.
4. NFC North
The fact that Aaron Rodgers is still technically a Packer is the only thing keeping the NFC North from dropping a spot or two on our power rankings. If he remains in Green Bay, the Packers will be one of the best teams in the NFC.
The Vikings also have a chance to be in that class if things break the right way. In fairness, the same could be said of the Bears, who have a nice rushing attack and a solid defense, which was enough to be 8-8 and make the playoffs last year.
3. AFC West
Obviously, the Chiefs do a lot to lift up the entire AFC West. Forget about what happened in the Super Bowl, on paper, Kansas City is arguably the best team in the NFL heading into the 2021 season. But the rest of the division has plenty of intrigue as well.
If Justin Herbert can build on a strong rookie season, the Chargers would win 10-plus games and be a playoff team. The Raiders and Broncos could also be good enough to make a little noise this season. Of course, both Las Vegas and Denver are two rumored destinations for Aaron Rodgers, which could potentially make this the best division in the NFL.
2. AFC North
This division sent three teams to the playoffs last year and could be even better in 2021.
The Ravens won just 11 games last year but look poised to match or exceed that total this year. One could argue that the Browns are also well-positioned to match or top their 11 wins from 2020. The caveat here is that the Steelers were terrible down the stretch last season and look likely to take a step back this year with Ben Roethlisberger starting to show his age. But the Pittsburgh defense is too good to let the Steelers fall too far, so they’ll be in the playoff mix.
Finally, the Bengals should be able to improve upon last year’s four-win season. Just keeping Joe Burrow healthy all season will help, especially since the supporting cast around him will be a little better.
Frankly, it’d be a surprise if any team in this division finished with fewer than seven or eight wins, making it strong from top to bottom.
1. NFC West
The 49ers finished last in this division in 2020 at 6-10, although that was due to a ton of injuries, including quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo. Barring another injury-plagued season, San Francisco will be much improved in 2021, although the 49ers might still be the worst team in the division. That alone should tell you how tough this division will be once again.
The 8-8 Cardinals could be even better with J.J. Watt coming to help the defense and Kyler Murray continuing to develop. The Rams will fancy themselves better than the team that finished 10-6 last year with Matthew Stafford as the team’s new quarterback. Of course, the Seahawks aren’t going anywhere as long as they have Russell Wilson.
In other words, the NFC West isn’t even close to having a weakness.
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