As we analyze the upcoming NFL season it’s important to take into account the divisions teams around the league are playing in. That’s magnified by what has become an increasing gap between the best divisions in football and those on the bottom end.
A case study would be the NFC North. While an up-and-coming team like the Minnesota Vikings might have a strong chance of competing for a division title in the NFC South, it is going to have a hard time competing with the Green Bay Packers and Detroit Lions in the north. Meanwhile, it would be foolish to conclude that any team in the NFC South stands a chance to win the Super Bowl. Despite this, at least one is guaranteed a playoff spot.
In the first of a two-part series, let’s power rank the divisions from best to worst. We start with the top-four divisions in football heading into the 2015 season.
1. AFC North
With three playoff teams from a season ago and what looks to be an improved Cleveland Browns squad, this division will remain the best in the NFL in 2015.
The Pittsburgh Steelers might be without Le’Veon Bell to start the season, but Ben Roethlisberger is more than capable of picking up the slack in the passing game. Armed with dangerous weapons up and down the team’s wide receiver group, Antonio Brown included, Big Ben should put up yet another stellar season for a Steelers team that earned its first playoff appearance in three seasons by winning the division last year.
Joe Flacco and the Baltimore Ravens might be lacking proven weapons at wide receiver, but all reports coming out of camp during the summer indicate that rookie first-round pick Breshad Perriman should have an excellent season. He will be joined by Steve Smith as the Ravens attempt to make up for the loss of Torrey Smith in free agency.
Though, it’s really going to be the defense that helps Baltimore potentially earn a second straight playoff spot. Fresh off a 2014 campaign that saw him record 12.5 sacks, Elvis Dumervil is setting his sights much higher this year. For the Ravens, it’s all going to be about putting pressure on the opposing quarterback. After all, the team’s secondary isn’t much to write home about. That’s where Courtney Upshaw and an aging Terrell Suggs come in next to Dumvervil. If one of them has a solid 2015 campaign, the Ravens will be in a good position.
With the Cincinnati Bengals, it’s going to be all about Andy Dalton improving under center. He was an unmitigated disaster last season, throwing 19 touchdowns compared to 17 interceptions while leading an otherwise talented Bengals offense to a middle of the pack ranking in scoring. If he’s able to improve, the rest of the squad has what it takes to lead Cincinnati into conference championship contention. As potentially the third-best team in the AFC North, this tells us what we need to know about the division.
It will be interesting to see how the Cleveland Browns perform with Josh McCown under center. All they need from him, especially with what promises to be a stellar defense, is to move the chains and play mistake-free football. Cleveland boasts a solid running game with second-year backs Isaiah Crowell and Terrance West as well as rookie third-round pick Duke Johnson. The team also has one of the top offensive lines in the NFL.
A run-based, time-consuming offense that limits its mistakes might be Cleveland’s best chance to overcome three stronger teams in the division. It will also enable the Browns’ defense to continue improving from a ninth-ranked scoring unit a season ago. Still, it’s unrealistic to expect the Browns to compete with the other three teams in the division.
2. NFC North
The NFC North will find itself tasked with going up against the divisions out west this season. That’s much different than taking on the AFC East and NFC South like they did last season. It also means that the winner of this division likely won’t see 12 victories. For the sake of drama and intrigue, that’s probably best. Though, the real matchups here are going to be within a division that boasts three potential playoff teams…and the Chicago Bears.
There is absolutely no reason the Green Bay Packers can’t contend for a Super Bowl this season. After a heartbreaking defeat against the Seattle Seahawks in the NFC Championship game last January, the Packers have all pieces intact. Aaron Rodgers—the best quarterback in the NFL—is coming off a 2015 campaign that saw him throw 38 touchdowns compared to five interceptions. After retaining Randall Cobb back in March, the Packers will also give Rodgers his full arsenal of weapons in the receiving game. After all, Cobb and Jordy Nelson combined for over 2,800 yards and 25 scores a season ago. As it has been in previous seasons, it’s all about Green Bay’s defense. Can it continue to improve off of what was a decent 2014 campaign? That could be the difference between premature playoff exit and a date in Santa Clara next February.
People will look at the Detroit Lions loss of Ndamukong Suh in free agency and assume this squad has taken a step back from a defensive standpoint. I am not ready to go that far yet. Haloti Ngata should be a decent stopgap option at defensive tackle. Meanwhile, the likes of Tyrunn Walker and Caraun Reid should do a solid job replacing Nick Fairley at the other defensive tackle position. Unlike previous seasons, Detroit’s success might ride more on its defense than its offense. We know what Matthew Stafford and Calvin Johnson can do. At their best, they represent the best quarterback-wide receiver tandem in the NFL.
In order for the Lions to take that next step from wild card team to division winner, they will need to see their secondary continue to improve. Darius Slay is among the most underrated corners in the NFL. If he can get some help on the outside, the Lions defense could continue to put up a solid performance even without Suh in the mix. If that happens, we could be looking at progression from this squad in 2015.
One of the most interesting teams to watch this season will be the Minnesota Vikings. Not only is Adrian Peterson returning after missing all but one game due to his child abuse case, quarterback Teddy Bridgewater is looking to improve off a surprisingly consistent rookie campaign. With Peterson and his abilities behind the second-year quarterback, it’s possible the Vikings’ offense could surprise a ton of people in 2015. Creating balance on offense with Mike Wallace, Cordarrelle Patterson, Kyle Rudolph and Charles Johnson as receiving weapons could be huge for this squad.
Equally as important, the Vikings have done a tremendous job building a young core on defense. The likes of Sharrif Floyd, Anthony Barr, Eric Kendricks, Xavier Rhodes, Robert Blanton, Trae Waynes and Harrison Smith all have four years or less of experience under their belt. All seven possess tremendous talent and haven’t even come close to hitting their ceilings. Depending on how they perform in 2015, the Vikings could very well make a surprise trip to the postseason.
Unlike the other three teams in this division, the Chicago Bears’ trajectory isn’t necessarily pointing upwards. While bringing in a veteran head coach in John Fox and a studly defensive coordinator in Vic Fangio will surely help, it’s going to be more than a one-year process for this club. More so than Jay Cutler’s inability to get out of his own way with turnovers, the Bears’ defense has to be of utmost concern here.
Transitioning to a 3-4 defense, one has to wonder whether Fangio and company have the immediate fits in place for success. Jared Allen will be moving to outside linebacker—a position he’s never played—in this scheme. Meanwhile, there just doesn’t seem to be the right mix of talent at inside linebacker. Jon Bostic and Mason Foster will get the first cracks at the jobs, but neither impresses from a coverage standpoint. Without anyone of real substance at safety, that’s going to be a major issue.
3. NFC West
We already know which teams will be contending for a playoff spot in this division. It’s going to be the same cast of characters as the past two seasons. The larger issue here is whether the St. Louis Rams can take that next step and close the gap between themselves and the other three teams in what has been a consistently good division.
Adding Jimmy Graham to the mix is going to be absolutely huge for the Seattle Seahawks. The tight end is going to provide Russell Wilson with one of the best red-zone targets in the NFL—something he’s been severely lacking over the years. With Marshawn Lynch slated to come back for another season, Seattle’s offense should find itself vastly improved off what was a surprisingly good 2014 campaign.
However, as has been the case over the past few years, Seattle’s ability to contend for a Super Bowl title will be heavily dependent on its defense. Considering the Legion of Boom is returning nearly every starter from a season ago, there’s no reason to believe it won’t be just as dominant in 2015. If there is one glaring hole on Seattle’s roster its the team’s offensive line, which consists of five projected starters who have started a total of 125 combined games (nearly half of them coming from Russell Okung).
As with Minnesota, the Arizona Cardinals are another team to watch in the NFC this year. Derailed by injuries late in the year and in the playoffs last season, all appears to be intact for the Cardinals heading into training camp. For someone his age (35) and with a previous history of ACL injuries, it’s awesome to see Carson Palmer back in the fold. He’s going to be joined by a solid wide receiver trio consisting of Michael Floyd, Larry Fitzgerald and John Brown. Meanwhile, rookie David Johnson is someone to watch at running back with holdover Andre Ellington. In reality, Arizona’s offense should be among the best in the conference.
However, it’s an elite-level defense that could turn this team into title contenders. Patrick Peterson and Tyrann Mathieu head a secondary that is among the most talented in the NFL. If Arizona’s front seven can step it up, this team could be a force come playoff time.
Jim Harbaugh’s departure from the San Francisco 49ers set into motion a cycle of events that seem to have the team reeling. Patrick Willis. Justin Smith, Chris Borland and Anthony Davis all surprisingly announced their retirements. The likes of Frank Gore, Michael Crabtree, Mike Iupati, Chris Culliver and Perrish Cox departed in free agency. That’s nine starters gone from a season ago. Despite this, new head coach Jim Tomsula has a ton of talent to work with. Torrey Smith and Reggie Bush add another dimension to the team’s offense. Anquan Boldin should continue to do his thing, and Carlos Hyde is more than ready to take over the starting job from Gore. In fact, look for a huge 2015 campaign from him. In what could be a make-or-break season for Colin Kaepernick, the embattled quarterback has the best supporting his of his young career.
Meanwhile, general manager Ternt Baalke did a tremendous job building young talent on defense. If Carlos Hyde can show his talent on the field and Colin Kaepernick can progress under center, San Francisco could very well surprise and challenge for a playoff spot, if not the NFC West. Don’t sleep on this team.
The biggest question mark outside of San Francisco’s new coaching staff is what the St. Louis Rams are going to do in 2015. Nick Foles takes over for Sam Bradford under center while first-round pick Todd Gurley looks to take the reins at running back. The talent is most definitely there for St. Louis to have success on offense. It’s now going to be all about the team’s receiving core to play an important role here. Can Kenny Britt pick up where he left off last year? Brian Quick was playing good ball before an unfortunate season-ending injury. Is he the real deal? And what about former top-10 pick Tavon Austin? Do the Rams have a role for him? The team’s defense will be among the best in the game. Its offense now needs to step up to avoid the cellar in an ultra-competitive NFC West.
4. AFC East
This might actually be the first time in years where the AFC East is going to be tough to call. Sure the New England Patriots are defending champs, but every other team in the division improved vastly while the Pats downgraded in key areas. Does this mean New England will be knocked off its mantle as the top dog? Well, that’s a question for another time. Though, we could see two teams out of the east make the playoffs.
The appeal of Tom Brady’s suspension will play a huge role for the New England Patriots. If he’s sidelined for the first four games, the team might very well start out the season behind the proverbial eight ball. It lost running backs Shane Vereen and Stevan Ridley in free agency. Darrelle Revis, Brandon Browner and Kyle Arrington all are gone from the secondary as well. Tom Terrific can move the chains in New England’s favor, much like we have seen through his career. The larger issue here is whether the Patriots are more talented than other squads in the division.
One team to really keep you eye on should it get decent quarterback play is the Buffalo Bills. With LeSean McCoy, Charles Clay and Percy Harvin added to an offense that had in the past lacked talent, the Bills have their best skill-position group since their run to four consecutive conference titles back in the early 1990’s. That group also includes holdovers Fred Jackson and Robert Woods.
Defensively, the Bills might have the best unit in the AFC. This is a unit that ranked fourth in the NFL in both points against and yards allowed last season. With one of the top defensive lines in the league and a talented young secondary, the ceiling is incredibly high here. That’s only magnified by the addition of a defensive-minded head coach in Rex Ryan. If the Bills ever get their quarterback situation settled, they could challenge New England in the division. Unfortunately, the likes of EJ Manuel, Matt Cassel and Tyrod Taylor don’t inspire much confidence there.
As with Buffalo, the Miami Dolphins are another team to watch. They are as talented as any non-playoff team from a season ago. Ryan Tannehill is coming off a 2014 season that saw him put up over 4,000 yards with 27 touchdowns and 12 interceptions. He has an almost completely new receiving group headed by rookie first-round pick DeVante Parker as well as veteran additions Greg Jennings and Kenny Stills. These three capable pass catchers join holder Jarvis Landry to form a more-than-capable receiving group. Jordan Cameron will be called on to replace Charles Clay at tight end, which is an upgrade from a pure receiving standpoint. The only real question mark on Miami’s offense is at running back where Lamar Miller returns after putting up nearly 1,400 total yards last season. If his 2014 campaign wasn’t a mirage, the Dolphins could have one of the best offenses in the conference.
And with a defense that ranked in the top-12 last season, that unit should be just fine. Of course, fans in South Beach are expected an even better performance after the team signed Ndamukong Suh in free agency. Based on pure talent, there is absolutely no reason Miami shouldn’t win 10 games and earn a playoff spot. Anything short of that would be a major disappointment and would likely cost Joe Philbin his job.
While the New York Jets are a step behind their competition here, they are in the midst of completing a rather quick rebuilding process. As with the Bills, it’s all going to be about the quarterback situation in New York. Geno Smith will reportedly compete with veteran addition Ryan Fitzpatrick for the starting gig. If one of them is able to turn in a mediocre 2015 campaign, the Jets could be surprise playoff contenders. Brandon Marshall joins Eric Decker to form a pretty solid starting tandem at wide receiver. They will be supplemented by rookie second-round pick Devin Smith and a productive veteran in Jeremy Kerley. That’s the best wide receiver group the Jets have had in years. With five capable running backs, including off-season additions Stevan Ridley and Zac Stacy, it will be interesting to see how that position plays out.
Defensively, the Jets may have one of the top-five most talented units in the NFL. Rookie first-round pick Leonard Williams joins a line that already consists of elite-level players in the form of Sheldon Richardson and Muhammad Wilkerson. Darrelle Revis, Antonio Cromartie and Marcus Gilchrist come in to improve what had been a disastrous secondary as well. Even if the Jets offense ranks outside of the top half—a real possibility—this team could still finish with a winning record based on an elite-level defense under first-year head coach Todd Bowles.
Photo: USA Today Sports