The NFL regular season officially kicks off on Thursday when Green Bay travels to Seattle to take on the defending Super Bowl champion Seahawks. Shutdown Corner will be previewing everything to come all week, capped off by our awards and Super Bowl predictions on Thursday.
Not every division is equal. Ask the Colts and the Broncos, two AFC favorites who look at their 2014 schedule and see much different things.
The Colts have the easiest schedule in the NFL, based on what their opponents' records were in 2013. The Broncos have the second toughest. A lot of that is based on the six divisional games they play. The Broncos aren't helped by four games against 2013 playoff teams, and the Colts won't play a divisional game against an opponent that had a winning record last year. And it might ultimately affect seeding in the AFC playoffs.
So let's try to figure out how the eight NFL divisions rank in terms of strength, shall we?
8. AFC South
Look at any preseason ranking and you’ll find three teams from this division near the bottom. Jacksonville was outscored by more than 200 points last year, yet they went 3-1 against the Texans and Titans. While the Titans aren’t as bad as people think, the Texans might not have the rebound some are predicting either. The Colts, on paper, should win this division by early December. Maybe late November.
7. NFC East
If you wanted to argue this is the worst division in football, I wouldn’t stop you. The Redskins and Giants are coming off horrendous seasons, although the Giants added a lot this offseason. The Cowboys’ defense is a mess. The Eagles are the trendy pick this year but they didn’t exactly blow away a bad division last season. Hey, at least we get to see at least one of these teams on roughly 98 percent of the NFL’s prime-time schedule this season.
6. AFC East
It seems like another year of the same old thing, with New England winning the division and the other three battling mediocrity to get a wild-card spot. The Jets and Dolphins both finished 8-8 last year, so there’s hope that they can take the next step. The Bills didn’t look good in the preseason, but there’s reason to think they can be good too. But really, it’s the Patriots and nobody else looks remotely special.
5. AFC North
This is one of the few divisions that you can make a case for any one of three teams winning it. The Bengals won it last year, the Steelers are always contenders and finished last year strong, and the Ravens are usually in it. If the Ravens’ offense is better than what it was last year, it could be a great three-team race. And then there’s Cleveland. At least the Browns will be interesting to watch once they make a quarterback change.
4. AFC West
The AFC West had the rare achievement of sending three teams to the playoffs last season. It’s not out of the question that could happen again, although most people (including myself) are planning on a Chiefs regression. San Diego could take a step back too, because it’s hard to consistently win if the defense is well below average. Then you have one of the NFL’s top few teams in Denver balanced out by one of the NFL’s bottom few teams in Oakland.
3. NFC North
Here’s what we know: The Packers will be very good, and the Bears will be too if their defense cooperates a little. The Vikings probably won’t be that good, though there are some reasons to think they’ll be better. And then you have the Lions, who could be 12-4 or 4-12 and I wouldn’t be surprised either way. They’re still the most unpredictable team in the league. But assuming the Lions don’t put it all together, it could be a great two-team race between a pair of classic rivals.
2. NFC South
The NFC South has never had a repeat champion, which is a weird and fun oddity. It seems that trend could continue because the South has four interesting teams. New Orleans is the consensus favorite. Atlanta should be better than last year’s injury-filled nightmare, and Tampa Bay should be better than last year’s Greg Schiano-filled debacle. The Panthers are the reigning champs and have Cam Newton and a great defense. Every one of these divisional games will be fun to watch.
1. NFC West
A few key injuries have taken this division back a bit. So the argument that this might be the toughest division ever, from top to bottom, takes a hit. But it’s still the best division in this year’s NFL. Sam Bradford’s second ACL injury probably limits the Rams’ ceiling, but the defense is still nasty and they have some good complementary pieces around new quarterback Shaun Hill. The Cardinals took a big hit with the season-ending injury to Darnell Dockett, but they were 10-6 last year and will be tough again. And the Seahawks and 49ers are still among the top few Super Bowl favorites.
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