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NFL rankings by division: NFC West leads the pack entering 2021 season

NFL rankings by division: NFC West leads the pack entering 2021 season
Oct 3, 2019; Seattle, WA, USA; Los Angeles Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald (99) pressures Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson (3) during the first quarter at CenturyLink Field. Mandatory Credit: Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

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Here’s a fun little twist on the usual NFL rankings. There are eight divisions in pro football, but they’re not anywhere near the same in quality. Some fortunate franchises have a much easier path to the playoffs, while others will limp into the postseason due to a brutal divisional slate.

An obvious spoiler in that headline aside — yes, the NFC West is pretty much indisputable as the best division in the league — find out where all the other division stack up in this special edition of NFL rankings by division.

Related: 2022 NFL Power Rankings – Outlook for all 32 teams entering summer

8. AFC South

NFL rankings by division: AFC South
After his arrival in Jacksonville on Friday, April 30, 2021, Jacksonville Jaguars first-round draft pick Trevor Lawrence, center, and running back Travis Etienne appear with team owner Shad Khan, left, head coach Urban Meyer and Jaguars general manager Trent Baalke at a press conference at TIAA Bank Field. Credit: Bob Self/Florida Times-Union via Imagn Content Services, LLC
  • AFC South teams: Houston Texans, Indianapolis Colts, Jacksonville Jaguars, Tennessee Titans

Because of Deshaun Watson’s off-field scandal, the Texans are in total limbo. Even before that happened, Watson had requested a trade. They might have the worst roster in the NFL by a considerable margin. Indianapolis is banking on Carson Wentz bouncing back from a disastrous 2020 campaign in Philadelphia. That will be believed when it is seen.

Meanwhile, the Jaguars have reason for optimism with No. 1 overall pick Trevor Lawrence at quarterback. Urban Meyer is still a complete wild card as head coach, though, and coaches making the transition from college to pro ball have a shaky track record at best.

As for the reigning AFC South champion Titans, they should be considered big favorites entering the new season after trading for superstar wide receiver Julio Jones.

7. NFC East

NFL rankings by division: NFC East
Oct 11, 2020; Arlington, Texas, USA; Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott (4) calls a play in the second quarter against the New York Giants at AT&T Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports
  • NFC East teams: Dallas Cowboys, New York Giants, Philadelphia Eagles, Washington Football Team

It’s a bold move not to have the NFC East in DFL on this list of NFL rankings by division, yet there’s a case to be made on the division’s behalf.

Washington took the crown in 2020 with a meager 7-9 record. However, they have an elite defense and should be much better offensively with Ryan Fitzpatrick at the controls. Yes, that sounds absurd to say given his track record of ill-advised throws, but don’t count Fitzmagic out with this loaded roster.

Their status as America’s Team may be in question. What isn’t is how dangerous the Cowboys’ offense will be with Dak Prescott back off a season-ending ankle injury. If Dallas can improve its defense even a little, a playoff win could be on the horizon.

Some may doubt the Eagles’ ability to thrive with Jalen Hurts at QB. Bear in mind that their defensive front is legit, and in the event Hurts doesn’t pan out, they can upgrade in the 2022 NFL Draft thanks to three first-round picks.

No one really knows what to make of the Giants right now. If Daniel Jones pops in Year 3, Saquon Barkley comes back healthy and the defense builds on a stellar 2020 effort, though, New York could easily push for the division title.

6. NFC North

NFL rankings by division: NFC North
Jan 16, 2021; Green Bay, Wisconsin, USA; Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers (12) against the Los Angeles Rams during the NFC Divisional Round at Lambeau Field. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports
  • NFC North teams: Chicago Bears, Detroit Lions, Green Bay Packers, Minnesota Vikings

Forgive all the quarterback talk thus far, but it’s going to continue. You either have a top-flight field general or you don’t. Much of the NFC North’s ceiling as a division depends on the type of play they get from their signal-callers.

Will Chicago really start Andy Dalton over Justin Fields? Don’t expect great things, should that be so. Is Jared Goff going to be even worse in Detroit than he was with the Los Angeles Rams? doesn’t really matter — the Lions are rebuilding anyway.

By now, we can discern that Kirk Cousins has a clear ceiling and seems fated to be more of a big stats producer than playoff winner for the Vikings.

Last but not least: Is Aaron Rodgers going to get traded from Green Bay? Will he even play in 2021? Can Jordan Love really be a worthy follow-up act to the reigning NFL MVP and Brett Favre before him? Seems like a tall order.

Because of all that uncertainty at the most important position on the field for all four of these teams, it’s really hard to slot the NFC North any higher.

5. NFC South

Tom Brady Miami Beach mansion
Feb 7, 2021; Tampa, FL, USA; Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady (12) celebrates after beating the Kansas City Chiefs in Super Bowl LV at Raymond James Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports
  • NFC South teams: Atlanta Falcons, Carolina Panthers, New Orleans Saints, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers do a lot to elevate the quality of the NFC South as reigning Super Bowl champions, and have all their starters back to make another deep playoff run. Tom Brady and the Bucs should be prohibitive favorites to win this cluster.

Something potentially special is brewing for Carolina. It’s just a question of whether Sam Darnold can be a franchise QB, which he failed to be for the New York Jets. The rest of that Panthers roster? Pretty darn good.

Hiring an offensive guru in Arthur Smith as head coach brightens the Falcons’ forecast a bit. Matt Ryan should benefit from Smith’s presence and the addition of No. 4 overall pick Kyle Pitts at tight end. Atlanta just needs to find a way to get stops on defense.

Drew Brees’ retirement has sparked a QB competition in New Orleans between Taysom Hill and Jameis Winston. Either man could enjoy a surprise, successful season under Sean Payton’s tutelage. still, that position is a question mark on an otherwise championship-caliber team.

4. AFC East

NFL rankings by division: AFC East
Jan 16, 2021; Orchard Park, New York, USA; Buffalo Bills quarterback Josh Allen (17) walks on the field after their win over the Baltimore Ravens during the second half of an AFC Divisional Round playoff game at Bills Stadium. The Buffalo Bills won 17-3. Mandatory Credit: Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports
  • AFC East teams: Buffalo Bills, Miami Dolphins New England Patriots, New York Jets

Buffalo’s Super Bowl window is wide-open thanks to the massive leap Josh Allen made in 2020. Allen and Stefon Diggs may be the most dynamic QB-receiver tandem in the NFL right now. Enough said there.

After a 7-9 mark last season, Bill Belichick spent big money in free agency to upgrade New England’s roster. Whether it’s Mac Jones or Cam Newton leading the offense, the Patriots will be a huge factor this year.

Don’t forget about the Dolphins, either. They’re coming off a 10-win season, and provided Tua Tagovailoa lives up to his status as a top-five pick, Miami will be going places fast.

It’s not reasonable to expect too much out of the Jets given their lack of depth on defense. Still, they drafted Zach Wilson second overall, and he should be a huge upgrade over Darnold to help keep Gang Green competitive.

3. AFC West

NFL rankings by division: AFC West
Dec 29, 2019; Kansas City, Missouri, USA; Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes (15) throws a pass during the second half against the Los Angeles Chargers at Arrowhead Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports
  • AFC West teams: Denver Broncos, Kansas City Chiefs, Las Vegas Raiders, Los Angeles Chargers

Justin Herbert just had maybe the best season ever for a rookie quarterback. The Chargers are going to be a serious problem, and probably the primary rival to Kansas City’s burgeoning dynasty in the Patrick Mahomes era.

Las Vegas needs to figure out its defense. That unit is squarely responsible for Jon Gruden’s lack of success in his second stint as coach, and why Derek Carr isn’t held in higher esteem.

The Broncos seem like a logical destination for Aaron Rodgers. Until that happens, they’re stuck with either Drew Lock or Teddy Bridgewater. No matter how good their defense might be, that puts them at a disadvantage against any of their AFC West rivals.

2. AFC North

NFL rankings by division: AFC North
Dec 30, 2018; Baltimore, MD, USA; Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson (8) scores a touchdown in the second quarter against the Cleveland Browns at M&T Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Evan Habeeb-USA TODAY Sports
  • AFC North teams: Baltimore Ravens, Cincinnati Bengals, Cleveland Browns, Pittsburgh Steelers

Cincinnati appears to have its new face of the franchise in Joe Burrow. With another good draft and free agency period, this Bengals team could be a force to be reckoned with.

You can never count out the Steelers or Ravens. Pittsburgh needs a better succession plan for Ben Roethlisberger, but for now, its elite front seven and the steady leadership of coach Mike Tomlin are huge assets.

A crossroads is approaching for Baltimore when it extends MVP Lamar Jackson. They’ll need to be smart about building a roster around the gigantic cap hit he’ll soon be.

Finally, we have the Cleveland Browns. They’re on the precipice of challenging for a Super Bowl with one of the NFL’s premier rosters. Their fortunes hinge on whether Baker Mayfield can become a true top-10 quarterback amid his second season in Coach of the Year Kevin Stefanski’s system.

1. NFC West

NFL rankings by division: NFC West
Nov 29, 2020; Inglewood, California, USA; Los Angeles Rams head coach Sean McVay (left) talks with San Francisco 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan before the game at SoFi Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
  • NFC West teams: Arizona Cardinals, Los Angeles Rams, San Francisco 49ers, Seattle Seahawks

Kyle Shanahan and Sean McVay are the premier young offensive coaches in all of football. They’re in charge of the 49ers and Rams respectively. Those four games per season between San Francisco and LA will be a blast to watch for years to come.

At least for now, the offseason drama surrounding Russell Wilson seems to have subsided. The Seahawks must back it up on the field in short order, because otherwise, Wilson will probably be more serious about a trade request ahead of the 2022 campaign.

Kyler Murray is an electrifying talent for Arizona. We’re about to enter Year 3 of the Murray-Kliff Kingsbury partnership. The Cardinals got better on defense by signing J.J. Watt. NFC West games will largely determine Arizona’s fate in 2021. Kingsbury might be out of a job if Arizona can’t hang in the best division in the NFL.