The 3 Toughest Divisions in the NFL

Divisional play is crucial in the NFL, with every team scheduled to play six games within the division through a home-and-home format. On top of this, the NFL schedule also includes a total of eight rotating interdivisional games, both in and out of the conference.

For 201617, the NFC North will matchup against the NFC East and AFC South. The winner of each division is awarded with a playoff berth and the privilege of hosting the opening postseason game at home, regardless of record. In 2014, the Carolina Panthers went 7-8-1 to somehow win their division and play host to the 11-5 Arizona Cardinals in the wild-card round. These Panthers won this matchup in the driving rain against a third-string quarterback, before heading out on the road to Seattle and getting their doors blown off, 31-17.

For 2016–17, random NFL scheduling quirks will likely keep strong 9-7 and 10-6 teams out of the playoffs, especially if a relatively weak conference foe backs into winning its own division. On the other side of the coin, any battle-tested team that does survive the bloodbath of warring within these three toughest divisions in the NFL will be well-positioned for a real Super Bowl LI run.

3. AFC West

The 3 Toughest Divisions in the NFL
Wide receiver Demaryius Thomas of the Denver Broncos has a second-quarter touchdown catch under coverage by free safety Husain Abdullah (L) of the Kansas City Chiefs and cornerback Chris Owens | Justin Edmonds/Getty Images

The 2015–16 Denver Broncos, in winning Super Bowl 50, are often compared directly against the 2000 Baltimore Ravens, as a historic defense that carried a limited, game-managing quarterback to the Promised Land. Last season, the Broncos fielded the stingiest defense in the league, in terms of total yards given up, while a brittle Peyton Manning tossed 17 picks against only nine touchdowns, through nine regular-season games. Von Miller sent Manning off into retirement and Canton, Ohio as a winner, as he claimed 2.5 sacks and the MVP award for Super Bowl 50.

Like clockwork, the competition showed up immediately to raid the Broncos of defensive end Malik Jackson, leading tackler Danny Trevathan, and assumed heir apparent Brock Osweiler. These losses will likely open the door for Kansas City to take control of the division. The Chiefs, remember, rattled off 10 straight wins to close out the regular season, before going on the road to throttle the Texans 30-0 in the wild-card round.

The 2016–17, the Chiefs will look for more, with the electric Jamaal Charles returning from last year’s torn ACL. Meanwhile, the Oakland Raiders and San Diego Chargers are two compelling sleeper teams, at exact opposite ends of the player development spectrum. The Raiders, in Latavius Murray, Khalil Mack, Amari Cooper, and Derek Carr, feature young stars working to establish themselves in this league and restore the Silver and Black to glory. In San Diego, the fiery Philip Rivers is now 34 years old, and will happily play spoiler to the league’s elite.

2. NFC West

The 3 Toughest Divisions in the NFL
Quarterback Russell Wilson of the Seattle Seahawks runs off the field after defeating the Baltimore Ravens in 2015 | Rob Carr/Getty Images

The NFC West will be somewhat top-heavy, with two of best teams in the NFL squaring off within the same division. The Seattle Seahawks have become synonymous with slow starts, before rounding into form and suddenly catching fire to throttle the competition down the stretch and deep into the playoffs. Alternatively, the high-octane Arizona Cardinals typically start hot, before getting popped in the mouth and fading fast late in the year. Seattle went into Arizona and spanked the Cards 36-6 during the final game of the 2015–16 regular season.

Last March, Arizona dealt guard Jonathan Cooper and a second-round draft pick to New England, in exchange for defensive end Chandler Jones, who racked up 12.5 sacks last season. Jones will immediately improve the pass rush out in the Valley of the Sun and make going to work that much easier for the likes of Tyrann Mathieu and Patrick Peterson in the secondary. Both locker rooms will have the October 23 date circled, ready for another clash in Arizona this season. The winner of this early-season tilt will send a message to the rest of the league and will have the direct edge for home-field advantage through the NFC Playoffs.

Meanwhile, Los Angeles will welcome the Rams back to town after 22 years. Head coach Jeff Fisher has already rallied the troops, for his refusal to put up with “7-9” behavior. The Rams do field one of the more underrated defensive lines as they hold down the fort and back up the electric Todd Gurley, who may go the distance on any given possession. Last season, the Rams went 3-1 against Seattle and Arizona. The 49ers, however, will be all but irrelevant, beyond Colin Kaepernick’s refusal to stand for the National Anthem. When the season starts, Kaepernick will remain on the bench behind known draft bust Blaine Gabbert. The wheels quickly fell off in San Francisco after Jim Harbaugh was run out of town.

1. AFC North

The 3 Toughest Divisions in the NFL
Le’Veon Bell of the Pittsburgh Steelers runs the ball | Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

The AFC North is the best division in the NFL from top to bottom. The fierce Pittsburgh-versus-Baltimore rivalry suddenly shifted down the Ohio River Valley to Pittsburgh-versus-Cincinnati. For Christmas last year, Steelers offensive tackle Marcus Gilbert went so far as to demand a playoff meeting against the Bengals, “where they choke.” Gilbert indeed got his wish, with the Steelers moving on to set up for the game-winning field goal, after the Bengals blew yet another lead through bone-headed personal fouls, turnovers, and cheap shots. The bad blood will definitely spill over into this season, after Pittsburgh and Cincinnati racked up close to $85,000 in fines through that brutal 2015 wild-card game.

The Steelers will take on the Bengals at home in Week 2, while Le’Veon Bell sits out his three-game suspension. Without Bell, an opportunistic Bengals club can get the early jump on the Steelers in the AFC North standings. These two teams will meet again in Cincinnati on December 18, with the high-octane Pittsburgh offense likely clicking on all cylinders. The Bengals must beat the Steelers at full strength and actually win a playoff game to join the ranks of the elite.

At the same time, Baltimore has quietly picked up the pieces, far away from the spotlight. A healthy Joe Flacco and Terrell Suggs are set to return back to the lineup of this prideful organization. Flacco throws one of the best deep balls in the football and will work with Steve Smith to make for a tough out against any NFL team. In Cleveland, there is finally a glimmer of hope, with LeBron James recently bringing the first title back to the city after 52 long years. Ecstatic Clevelanders and the Dawg Pound will be ecstatic, if they can get anything out of Robert Griffin III at quarterback.

Statistics courtesy of ESPN and Pro-Football-Reference.