The 2016 NFL season has seen plenty of surprises, but perhaps the most surprising of all is the strengths and weaknesses of divisions. Perceived powerhouse divisions are more like doll houses and doormat divisions are the ones doing the trampling. So we figured, why not rank them, and, while we’re at it pick a winner for each division.
Throughout history the NFC East has been the best division in the league, earning the nickname the “NFC Beast” with its 12 Super Bowl wins. In recent years, however, the nickname “NFC Least” has fallen on the division with the struggles of all the teams, but in 2016 they have regained their original nickname. This division contains the best team in the league in the 11-1 Dallas Cowboys. Their offensive line has been steamrolling teams all year and that doesn’t look to change any time soon. Ben McAdoo is quietly a strong coach of the year candidate as his team, the 8-3 Giants, would be leading five divisions. Kirk Cousins is looking to make bank this offseason leading the ‘Skins to a 6-4-1 record. When the worst team in your division is 5-6, you know the division is pretty good. The Eagles have been up and down all year but are exceeding expectations and are looking like they could be contenders in the near future.
Winner: Dallas Cowboys. Even though the Giants and the ‘Skins are two of the better teams in the league, being in a division with the best doesn’t do them any favors. The ‘Boys defense and been solid and the combo of Dak and Zeke has been prolific. They’re the team to beat right now.
Another division where every team is good. The emergence of Derek Carr has made the Raiders organization take a complete 180 and start the season at an impressive 9-2. Carr has plenty of weapons on offense and the defense, while reminiscent of Swiss cheese at times, contains plenty of talent. If the Raiders defense can figure things out they’ll be even scarier than they are now. The Chiefs and reigning Super Bowl champion Broncos have the same formula: win with a strong defense. This formula has gotten them to a solid 8-3 and 7-4 respectively so far. The 5-6 Bolts are a lot better than their record suggests. Questionable coaching has cost them a couple games, and had they been wins, they would be in the thick of this division race.
Winner: Oakland Raiders. As previously stated, the Raiders offense is clicking on all cylinders and as long as Derek Carr keeps playing at an MVP level they will retain the division lead.
After the NFC East and AFC West there is a large gap between the next closest division, the AFC East. The 9-2 Patriots and ageless Tom Terrific are, as always, the top team. Despite being seemingly devoid of talent on the offensive side besides Gronk, Edelman, and Brady and the lack of any big name defenders, Bill Belichick still has his team steamrolling over the rest of the sorry NFL. The Pats dominating is no surprise, the real surprise is everyone else not being terrible. Adam Gase has the ‘Fins running game rolling with Jay Ajayi and is further earning his title as “quarterback whisperer” by garnering solid play out of Ryan Tannehill allowing the ‘Fins to win 6 straight on their way to a 7-4 record. The Bills have started 6-5 due to a strong running game and game managing of Tyrod Taylor and are in the thick of the wild card race. The Jets round out the division at 3-8. Ryan Fitzpatrick is demonstrating why he didn’t make the big bucks in the offseason as he has been nothing short of Fitztragic.
Winner: New England Patriots. Who else would it be? They’ve won 12 of the last 13 division titles.
The 7-5 Falcons lead the South behind their league leading offense. Offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan has Matt Ryan playing at an MVP level and, when healthy, the one-two punch of Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman is deadly. The biggest question mark for the Falcons is their defense, who will struggle even more with Desmond Trufant going down. The Bucs and the Saints have been on a tear recently and pose a serious threat to the Falcons. Drew Brees is as good as ever and the Jameis Winston Mike Evans combination seems unstoppable. As with the Falcons, these two teams defenses are weak and could cost them a trip to the playoffs. And finally the Panthers. Reigning MVP Cam Newton has not been the same and teams are passing all over the Panther’s inexperienced secondary. After a 15-1 season last year they are in danger of not even finishing above .500.
Winner: Atlanta Falcons. This Division will be incredibly close. However, the Falcons will pull it out. The Bucs and Saints still have to play each other twice and the Falcons have the easiest schedule to close out the year, getting to face the Niners and Rams in consecutive weeks.
The Lions are one of the NFL’s most surprising teams, leading the North at 7-4. Matt Stafford is a new man this year, retaining his knack for incredible plays while kicking his tendency to make boneheaded plays. Behind their stout defense the Vikings jumped to a 5-0 start but have been 2-5 since as their matador style offensive line has been exposed. Aaron Rodgers has not been himself all year and his play will determine whether the Packers can sneak into the playoffs or continue to be an afterthought. The 2-9 Bears are simply a bad team. Their best player, Alshon Jeffrey is suspended and probably won’t be back next year. They have some young talent in Jordan Howard and Leonard Floyd, but other than them their future is looking bleak.
Winner: Detroit Lions. The Lions have trailed in the fourth quarter in every game this year, and if their luck runs out they can be overtaken. However, the Lions will still win games and the Vikings and the Packers are simply not good enough to make up the ground.
Possibly the most disappointing division of all. Such high expectations for both the Steelers and Bengals who have underachieved this year. The 6-5 Ravens lead the division with a tiebreaker over the Steelers. Joe Flacco has been his average self this year for the Ravens with an 11-10 TD to INT ratio. Their average offense and average defense makes them a classic .500 team. The Steelers are the same team they’ve been for the past couple years. Big Ben and the offense has been stellar, but the defense has been porous. The Bengals were supposed to be a powerful team but have been lethargic all year. At this point in time a playoff run for the Bengals is about as realistic as the tooth fairy. And lastly at 0-11 come the Browns which really surprises nobody.
Winner: Pittsburgh Steelers. They simply have the most talent in the division and that should propel them to a division victory. Besides a week 9 win over the Steelers, the Ravens have only beaten bad teams, while the Steelers have beaten better teams and played stronger against some of the league’s best.
The Seahawks are the only good team in this division. The Seahawks running game has struggled since Marshawn Lynch’s retirement, but the play of Russell Wilson and the defense has made up for it. Everyone else in this division belongs in a dumpster. The Cards have been another big disappointment. Carson Palmer’s age is a serious problem and as good as David Johnson and Larry Fitzgerald have been they can’t make up for it. Their defense is good, but not nearly good enough to win games on their own. The Rams could have a future with Jared Goff but he’ll have an uphill battle because of the lack of offensive talent around him. Todd Gurley will be fine after his sophomore slump but when Kenny Britt is your best receiver you know there’s a problem. Ram’s GM Les Snead has his work cut out for him. The Niners are an abomination and possibly the worst team in the league, yes…maybe even worse than the Browns. There will be a real fight for the first overall pick.
Winner: Seattle Seahawks. No one else is even close.
And finally…the AFC South. No one is good in this division, three average teams and one bad team. The 6-5 Texans and their $72 million man haven’t been good. Their defense has kept them in games but the offense hasn’t pulled its weight. Now the Texans will have to make due with Osweiler for the foreseeable future. Marcus Mariota has progressed this year for the Titans and the offseason acquisition of DeMarco Murray has revamped the running game. Their biggest issue is inconsistency all around. The offense is sluggish at times and the defense has been up and down. The Indianapolis Andrew Lucks…I mean Colts are the same as they have been the past few decades, star quarterback and no one else. When Luck plays they can beat anyone, but when he doesn’t they have no chance. Maybe the Colts will someday learn that you need other players around a star QB to make Super Bowl runs. Another disappointment is the 2-9 Jacksonville Jaguars. After plenty of offseason acquisitions the Jags were possibly the most hyped team coming into the season, but they’re turning out to be the same ‘ol Jags. Blake Bortles has regressed mightily this year and is looking like every other Jags quarterback since David Gerrard, and despite all the talent, the defense is as much like Swiss cheese as it has been this whole decade.
Winner: Tennessee Titans. They have been inconsistent this year but in their wins they have by far looked better than every other team in the division. I don’t trust the Texans or Colts to make a push and if the Titans can pull off an upset of either the Broncos or Chiefs they’ll be looking good to play January football for the first time since 2008.