The NFL is loaded with talent across the board, but it’s pretty obvious that some divisions are just flat out better than others. While the NFC East was once one of the beasts of the NFL, they’ve taken a big step back as of late. So, while we look ahead to the 2016 NFL season, let’s review which divisions are the weakest in the NFL and which ones are the strongest. We’ll kick it off with a division that has plenty of young talent and could turn things around sooner than later.
8. AFC South
There’s no question that the talent and upside for the AFC South is there. Andrew Luck, Blake Bortles, and Marcus Mariota are all incredibly intriguing, but at this moment, the division doesn’t exactly strike fear into the hearts of opponents. The Houston Texans made the playoffs with a 9-7 record last season, then were swiftly rolled over 30-0 by the Kansas City Chiefs. This division almost didn’t take the bottom spot and may not after 2016, but for now, it’s the worst in the NFL.
7. NFC East
The Dallas Cowboys’ massive struggles in 2015 play a big role in this ranking, but even if Dallas had won the division and we weren’t looking at a division with three teams under .500, we aren’t sure how much higher the NFC East would be. Based on pure talent, the East should actually be far better than it was last year, but that seems to be on the verge of becoming a trend. The Washington Redskins won the division at 9-7, but they have plenty of uncertainty across the board as well, specifically at quarterback. There will be a lot of rebuilding in this division soon.
6. AFC North
The Cincinnati Bengals and Pittsburgh Steelers. The fact is, both of these two teams went through massive injury issues and still made it to the postseason. If they can remain healthy in 2016, both teams should be able to not only make the playoffs, but make a playoff push as well. It’s tough to place this division below the NFC North, but the fact is, the Baltimore Ravens and Cleveland Browns really hurt this group, and things don’t seem to be poised to turn around anytime soon. Expect the Bengals and Steelers to be able to continue to run this division and battle for the top spot for at least a few more years.
5. NFC North
Honestly, there’s a strong argument to place the AFC North above the NFC North, largely due to the combination of the Bengals/Steelers versus the Minnesota Vikings/Green Bay Packers. It’s obvious that the North has plenty of talent, but with Calvin Johnson likely looking at retirement and the Chicago Bears going through their own issues, it’s basically just Minnesota/Green Bay, and then a lot of question marks right now. If Johnson returns to the Detroit Lions they definitely have a chance to do some damage, but without one of the best wide receivers in the NFL, it really hurts the NFC North. Possibly more than any division, this one has the potential to jump up the ranks quickly though.
4. NFC South
Obviously the Carolina Panthers give this division a big boost, but if not for a few rough stretches for the other three teams, we could have been looking at three teams who all had a serious shot at the final NFC Wild Card spot. While that obviously didn’t happen, the Atlanta Falcons finished at 8-8, the New Orleans Saints went 7-9, and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers went 6-10. In all honesty, all three of those teams were probably slightly better than their records too. For every team the future looks bright, although the Saints may run into an issue when Drew Brees retires. Fortunately, that doesn’t seem to be happening too soon.
3. AFC East
If the New York Jets had made the playoffs, this might be a totally different argument, but for now, the AFC East sits at the No. 3 spot in the divisional power rankings. They obviously have the New England Patriots and Tom Brady leading the way, while the Jets have some serious potential to do damage in 2016 and beyond. The real wild cards here, though, may be the Buffalo Bills and Miami Dolphins.
While the Bills were just 8-8 and the Dolphins were 6-10, both teams have a ton of talent on both sides of the ball. Based on pure talent, any AFC East fans can make a strong argument for them to be in the top two overall. For now, though, the AFC East is No. 3, and the Brady/Bill Belichick combo still runs things.
2. AFC West
It’s hard not to put the AFC West even higher than this, but it’s also hard to get the idea of the Denver Broncos’ lack of a quarterback in 2016 out of our heads either. Regardless, the defending Super Bowl champions carry a lot of weight in this decision, while any team who has the type of run that the Kansas City Chiefs did to end last season deserves a ton of love as well.
Aside from those two top teams, the Oakland Raiders look like they have the potential to really push for a playoff spot next season as well. They will have to really work to get past the two teams ahead of them, but it’s possible. As for the San Diego Chargers, well, that’s the one weak point in the division, and it’s a part of what keeps them out of the top spot.
1. NFC West
Why the NFC West over the AFC West? It’s pretty simple. The NFC West has two true Super Bowl contenders. Both the Arizona Cardinals and Seattle Seahawks could win the Super Bowl next season, but we don’t believe that the same could be said about the Broncos/Chiefs/Raiders. On top of that, the Los Angeles Rams finished up 2015 with a 7-9 record, and they did so with massive question marks at quarterback.
If this team can figure out who their quarterback is, they could be massively dangerous. Just like all other divisions, there’s still that one weak point, and that’s the San Francisco 49ers for the NFC West. The 49ers are just in a full rebuild mode currently, and it’ll start with whichever quarterback they draft in 2016.
Follow Jeff Smith on Twitter @JSM8ith