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This year is a time of hope for both the NFL‘s 32 teams and their fans. Every team from Arizona to Washington has aspirations of making a postseason run. Or even of making it all the way to Atlanta and Super Bowl LIII.
For a great many teams, those aspirations are legitimate. Three teams from the NFC South made the playoffs last year. Given all the tumult in the AFC West this offseason, all four teams in that division believe they can win it.
In other divisions, not so much. The New England Patriots have long been the kings of the AFC East. And with all due respect to the Buffalo Bills, Miami Dolphins and New York Jets, there’s little reason to think that won’t be the case again in 2018.
With the beginning of the 2018 preseason less than a week away, the NFL writers here at Bleacher Report have gathered to offer their takes on the class of each of the league’s eight divisions. Some votes were close. Others were landslides.
Here’s how they all shook out.
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New England Patriots (8 votes)
Might as well kick things off with the easiest call in the league to make.
Fans of approximately 31 NFL teams are well and truly sick of the New England Patriots. Since the dawn of the 21st century, the Patriots have put together arguably the greatest dynasty in NFL history.
Since 2001, the Patriots have played in a staggering eight Super Bowls—beginning with New England’s upset win over the “Greatest Show on Turf” Rams in Super Bowl XXXVI and ending with last year’s loss to the Philadelphia Eagles in Super Bowl LII. And five times, the Tom Brady/Bill Belichick Patriots have lifted the Lombardi Trophy as the champions of the NFL.
As mind-boggling as that is, New England has been all the more dominant inside the AFC East. Starting with that Super Bowl win in 2001, the Patriots have won the division a staggering 15 times in 17 seasons—including the past nine years in a row. The last time the Pats weren’t the champs of the East was 2008, the year the Golden Boy tore his ACL in the season opener.
Frankly, it would take a similar injury to stop the Patriots from making it 10 division titles in a row.
Sure, there are questions around the Pats. Brady will be 41 when the season begins, the Patriots will be without top wideout Julian Edelman for the first month of the season, and New England’s defense was exposed in a big way by the Eagles this past February.
But as NFL Features Lead Writer Tyler Dunne pointed out, there’s still just too much Tom Terrific and not enough…well, everything else.
“It’s the Patriots,” Dunne said. “The Bills and Jets are rebooting (again), and while the Dolphins welcome Ryan Tannehill back, head coach Adam Gase has jettisoned a lot of talent in trying to change the culture of his locker room. Not a bad idea, to be sure. But New England will coast to its 15th division title in 16 years.”
No one is arguing with him.
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Pittsburgh Steelers (8 votes)
In recent years, the Pittsburgh Steelers have planted their flag (or Terrible Towel, as it were) as the team to beat in the AFC North. The Steelers have advanced to the postseason each of the last four seasons, and in three of those years, they did so as the champions of the division.
Our panel is unanimous in its belief Pittsburgh will make it four out of five in 2018.
It’s not that the Steelers are a team without problems. The absence of inside linebacker Ryan Shazier creates a large hole in the middle of the Pittsburgh defense. Tailback Le’Veon Bell is a no-show for training camp (again) as he angles for a new contract. And at 36 years old, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is a lot closer to the end of his career than the beginning.
But Bell will show up eventually—he isn’t going to leave nearly $15 million on the table. Roethlisberger may be old, but he can still sling the ball around. And Roethlisberger, Bell and Antonio Brown form the best trio of offensive stars in the NFL.
Besides, the rest of the teams in the AFC North have even bigger problems.
The Baltimore Ravens are a good football team, but not a great one. The team was 27th in total offense in 2017, and similar struggles in 2018 could mean the end of Joe Flacco as Baltimore’s starting quarterback.
The Cincinnati Bengals have some talent on both sides of the ball. But Cincinnati signal-caller Andy Dalton is only as good as the line in front of him, and there’s little reason to believe that line will be better than average in 2018.
The Cleveland Browns are better—at least on paper. But it would be nearly impossible not to be after last year’s 0-16 fiasco.
Per NFL National Lead Writer Matt Miller, the Steelers are the clear class of the division.
“It’s the same playbook for the Steelers as long as Bell is in the backfield,” Miller said. “The offense is one of the league’s best, and the defense is stout enough to shut out the AFC North for another division title. As long as Big Ben and AB are healthy, the Steelers are a 10-win lock.”
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Jacksonville Jaguars (4 votes)
Finally, some dissent!
It was starting to look like all the writers were going to join hands and start singing—and no one wants that.
Three of the four teams in the AFC South received at least one vote as division champions this year. Sorry, Colts fans: It would appear the writers here at B/R will believe Andrew Luck is back when they see it.
NFL Analyst Brent Sobleski cast his vote for first-year head coach Mike Vrabel and the Tennessee Titans.
“Vrabel and his staff will bring a new level of accountability and creativity that previous head coach Mike Mularkey lacked even during last year’s playoff campaign,” he wrote. “The offense will be better suited to Marcus Mariota’s skill set, which can be the primary driving force behind catching and surpassing the Jacksonville Jaguars.”
Three scribes (including NFL Analyst Brad Gagnon) think a Houston Texans team set to get quarterback Deshaun Watson as well as edge-rushers Whitney Mercilus and J.J. Watt back from injury is in position to knock the Jaguars off their perch atop the division.
“The Texans were tearing it up on offense before Watson went down,” Gagnon said. “He’s back, and so is Watt. With those two healthy, I trust Houston a lot more than Indianapolis, Tennessee or Jacksonville, all of whom have questions about their quarterbacks.”
However, half the panel went with arguably the NFL’s most fearsome defense in the Jaguars. The Jags led the AFC in total defense and the league in pass defense in 2017. But for NFL National Lead Writer Mike Tanier, that defense is only part of the reason the Jaguars will repeat as the champions of the South.
“In a tough division,” Tanier said, “it comes down to the team with the fewest questions. The Jaguars aren’t hoping for a quarterback to get healthy, other superstars to get healthy or a new coach to chart a new direction. They’ve proven what they can do with what they have. And with upgrades on the offensive line, what they have is likely to be a lot better on offense than what they had last year.”
The AFC South as a “tough division.”
The times, they are a-changin’.
Others receiving votes: Houston Texans (3 votes), Tennessee Titans (1 vote)
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Kelvin Kuo/Associated Press
Los Angeles Chargers (4 votes)
There isn’t a harder division in the NFL to peg this year than the AFC West. Three of the division’s four teams are undergoing major changes.
The Oakland Raiders have a new coach who is also an old coach in Jon Gruden. For NFL National Lead Writer Dan Pompei, it’s the return of Chucky that could spark a return to prominence for the Silver and Black.
“This team was 12-4 two years ago before things fell apart in 2017,” Pompei said. “With Jon Gruden’s energy and leadership, and an infusion of talent, the Raiders could surprise a lot of people.”
The Denver Broncos and Kansas City Chiefs are both breaking in new quarterbacks. The Broncos were the only team in the division that didn’t receive at least one vote, but two scribes (including NFL National Lead Writer Mike Freeman) believe that second-year signal-caller Patrick Mahomes will lead the Chiefs to a second straight division crown.
“The Chiefs lost a stable presence in Alex Smith but gained a major weapon in Mahomes,” Freeman said. “Yes, getting rid of Smith for an unproven quantity is a huge risk, but we will look back and say it was well worth it.”
However, it’s the team that stayed relatively unchanged that won the vote here. Despite a disastrous start last year, the Los Angeles Chargers nearly made the playoffs. With a proven quarterback in Philip Rivers and talent on both sides of the ball, Brent Sobleski thinks the Bolts will seal the deal this year.
“Rivers has waited a long time to be relevant again, and the Chargers’ ascension coincides with the Kansas City Chiefs’ decision to replace Smith with Mahomes,” he said. “As talented as Mahomes is, a step or two back should be expected, while Rivers is surrounded by talent at wide receiver, running back and an improved offensive line.”
Three other writers agree with him—although if the season-ending injuries continue stacking up in Los Angeles, that confidence could be shaken.
Others receiving votes: Kansas City Chiefs (2 votes), Oakland Raiders (2 votes)
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Philadelphia Eagles (5 votes)
If you’re a fan of the Washington Redskins, go ahead and get those angry tweet-firing fingers moving. Alex Smith’s new team was the only squad in the NFC East that didn’t garner at least one vote from the panel.
We’d explain why…but do we really have to?
The Dallas Cowboys garnered the lone vote of Mike Freeman, while two voters, including Dan Pompei, believe the New York Giants are set to go from the East’s outhouse to the penthouse.
“Worst-to-first stories happen almost every year in the NFL,” Pompei said. “This year, it could be the Giants’ turn. Their 2017 season got derailed by injuries and other factors, but that page is turned. It is not difficult envisioning Pat Shurmur and Saquon Barkley leading a revival.”
However, a majority of our writers don’t see a Cinderella story happening again in the NFC East. They threw their votes behind the team that went from worst in the division in 2016 to Super Bowl champions in 2017: the Philadelphia Eagles.
“Let’s see…defending champions, deepest defensive line in the NFL, top-notch offensive line getting Jason Peters back, talented secondary adding Sidney Jones, minimal losses from last year’s starting lineup and a big controversy about having too MANY starting-caliber quarterbacks,” Mike Tanier said. “The biggest training camp question involves the punter, for heaven’s sake. And the only division rival that made any serious upgrades is the one that won three games last year. There’s not a lot to overthink here.”
Tanier’s point is hard to refute. And by “hard,” we mean “nigh impossible.”
Yes, the Giants should be a vastly improved team with a healthy receiving corps and the addition of Barkley. Neither the Cowboys nor the Redskins are teams opponents can take lightly on Sundays this fall.
As is usually the case, there are no easy outs in the NFC East.
But the Eagles are loaded. An MVP-caliber quarterback. One of the most imposing defensive fronts in the NFL. A deep secondary.
There’s a reason the Eagles have the best odds in Vegas (per OddsShark) of any team in the NFC to win the Super Bowl…again.
Others receiving votes: New York Giants (2 votes), Dallas Cowboys (1 vote)
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Minnesota Vikings (5 votes)
For the past several seasons, there have been two groups in the NFC North. There was the group led by Aaron Rodgers, and the group of teams chasing him.
The former group has won five of the last seven division titles.
That wasn’t the case last year. When Rodgers went down with a broken collarbone, so did any chance the Packers had of making the postseason. The Minnesota Vikings steamrolled their way to the top spot in the NFC North and a berth in the NFC title game. And after adding even more talent to an already stacked roster the Vikings are viewed not only as the front-runners in the North but also as one of the NFC’s leading Super Bowl contenders.
Sure enough, it’s the Vikings who our writers think will win the division in 2018, with Matt Miller singling out a stifling defense and new pieces on offense as two of the reasons why.
“The Vikings were dominant on defense last year and will be again in 2018, but now the offense will be as impactful with Kirk Cousins at quarterback and Dalvin Cook healthy at running back,” Miller said. “The Vikings will do more than win the NFC North; they should be a favorite to challenge to win the whole conference.”
However, it was a relatively close vote, with three experts tabbing the Packers to reclaim their perch atop the division.
For NFL Analyst Gary Davenport, that fellow wearing No. 12 in Titletown is the deciding factor.
“There’s no denying on paper that the Vikings look like the best team in this division,” Davenport said. “Minnesota has as much skill-position talent on offense as any team in the league. Ditto for the defensive line. There just isn’t a glaring weakness. But while the Packers aren’t as stacked, they also aren’t the Cleveland Browns. Cousins is a good NFL quarterback, but Rodgers is a first-ballot Hall of Famer. He’s been to the mountaintop. And he’s going to use last year’s lost season and the anointing of the Vikings as motivation to get back.”
Others receiving votes: Green Bay Packers (3 votes)
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New Orleans Saints (5 votes)
A pretty compelling argument can be made that the NFC South was the toughest division in the NFL last year. Three of the division’s teams advanced to the postseason. Two won a playoff game.
Given the quality and success of the teams in the South in 2017, it’s not a huge shock that three teams got at least one nod as division champs this year. For Gary Davenport, it was the Carolina Panthers.
“The Panthers admittedly aren’t as loaded offensively as the Atlanta Falcons or New Orleans Saints,” he said. “But just like the Falcons and Saints, the Panthers have an MVP quarterback in Cam Newton. They also have the best defense in the division, spearheaded by middle linebacker Luke Kuechly. And just about every year in the NFL, we get a less-than-obvious division champ. For me, in 2018, it’s the Panthers.”
Two more writers, including Tyler Dunne, went with the Atlanta Falcons.
“If Julio Jones comes down with that touchdown in the NFC divisional playoff round, are the Falcons back in the Super Bowl for an epic 28-3 rematch against the Patriots? Probably,” Dunne said. “Atlanta isn’t going anywhere any time soon. Another season in this offense should help Matt Ryan, who’ll sure love having rookie Calvin Ridley opposite Jones now.”
However, the majority of the NFL writers here at Bleacher Report expect the New Orleans Saints to give Drew Brees one more shot at the Super Bowl with a second straight NFC South crown.
Brad Gagnon wrote that the Saints could be much more than just the best team in their division.
“The Saints might be the best team in the NFL,” Gagnon said. “The 2017 rookie class was historically good, and there’s no reason to think that group won’t be better in 2018. Brees quietly led the league in yards per attempt and completion rate last season, and he should be even better with Cameron Meredith joining the fray and Ryan Ramczyk and Alvin Kamara further along. They’re also better on defense with Demario Davis, Patrick Robinson and top pick Marcus Davenport on board.”
It should be a fascinating race to watch unfold.
Others receiving votes: Atlanta Falcons (2 votes), Carolina Panthers (1 vote)
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John Froschauer/Associated Press
Los Angeles Rams (8 votes)
We’ll wrap things up just like they started out—with a unanimous vote.
However, while the New England Patriots have long dominated the AFC East, the Los Angeles Rams are newcomers to being front-runners in the NFC West.
The Rams certainly didn’t sit on their hands after winning 11 games and the division in 2017. As a matter of fact, there wasn’t a team in the NFL that was more aggressive in adding impact veterans in free agency and through trades.
The Rams added a new No. 1 receiver in Brandin Cooks. A pair of veteran cornerbacks in Marcus Peters and Aqib Talib. And Defensive Player of the Year Aaron Donald got a new batterymate when L.A. inked Ndamukong Suh.
Cooks and tailback Todd Gurley also received big contract extensions with almost $100 million in guarantees. The edict from management was clear. With quarterback Jared Goff at the helm of an offense that led the NFL in scoring last year and a stifling defense spearheaded by Donald, the Rams view themselves as legitimate contenders to make the trip to Super Bowl LIII.
It’s a hard point to argue. The San Francisco 49ers ended last year red-hot and are vastly improved from the tomato cans of a few years ago, but the team doesn’t have the firepower on offense or the defense the Rams possess.
The Seattle Seahawks hemorrhaged veteran defensive talent this offseason. They shouldn’t be underestimated given their run of success since Russell Wilson took the reins, but Seattle’s days as the clear top team in the West are done.
Calling the Arizona Cardinals the West’s worst team is a touch unfair: The Redbirds have the potential to be a tough out for opponents. But with questions at quarterback and big changes on defense, if the Cardinals contend in the division, it would be an even bigger surprise than last year’s Rams were.
As Mike Freeman put it, “The Rams are easily the most talented team in the division on both sides of the ball. Plus, they have Gurley. It’s simple math.”
You can’t argue with math.