With the 2020 NFL season around the corner (finally!), let’s take a look at the league landscape — not by examining top teams or assessing star players at a certain position, but by division. Which four-team collection of squads is the strongest heading into Week 1? Which is the weakest? Check out my ranking of all eight divisions below.
NOTE: Teams are ranked within each division write-up according to the order in which they appear.
1) NFC West
This group boasts arguably the NFC’s best quarterback (Seattle’s Russell Wilson), the defending conference champions (San Francisco) and an ascending team that would have the potential to grab a wild-card spot in a less-competitive division (Arizona). Wilson will have the luxury of throwing to Greg Olsen, Tyler Lockett and emerging talent DK Metcalf. Do-it-all safety Jamal Adams was a huge addition, but the key to a defensive bounce-back from the Seahawks is (somehow) getting more production out of the pass rush. The 49ers retained plenty of key pieces, but potential vulnerabilities at receiver, guard, defensive tackle and cornerback could make it tough for them to join the 2018 Patriots as the second Super Bowl-losing franchise since the 1993 Bills to return to the Big Game the following season. The Rams carry questions at running back and in the pass rush, outside of Aaron Donald. It will be fascinating to see if Jared Goff can put himself into the conversation as one of the NFL’s best. I don’t envision the Cardinals making it out of this tough division, but general manager Steve Keim deserves credit for a flurry of strong offseason moves, including trading for DeAndre Hopkins and drafting Isaiah Simmons.
2) AFC West
This division is headlined by a powerhouse that is primed to repeat as Super Bowl champ. K.C. has every key starter returning, including the game’s best quarterback, Patrick Mahomes. But the Chiefs aren’t the only attraction in the AFC West. Year 3 of Jon Gruden’s Raiders rebuild should result in the franchise’s second playoff appearance since the 2002 season. If Drew Lock’s strong finish to 2019 (4-1 record, 64.1% completion rate, 7:3 TD-to-INT ratio) is a harbinger of what’s to come, the Broncos should be a dark-horse playoff contender, thanks to a strong run of offseason acquisitions (defensive tackle Jurrell Casey, running back Melvin Gordon and rookie receiver Jerry Jeudy) and the return to health of pass rusher Bradley Chubb. The Chargers’ defense was playoff-caliber on paper, but that was before stud safety Derwin James went down for the year with a torn meniscus. I’ll reserve further judgment on this team until we can see how new starting QB Tyrod Taylor fares in an overhauled offense that will probably look similar to the attack that he ran with Anthony Lynn in Buffalo four years ago.
3) NFC South
No one can beat this division in the category of All-Pro-caliber QBs 35 or older. Saints signal-caller Drew Brees (41 years old) enters what will likely be his final NFL season knowing he’ll be working with one of the strongest supporting casts — on both offense and defense — around. Tom Brady (43 years old) gives the Buccaneers a legitimate shot at becoming the first team to play in a Super Bowl in its home stadium; if nothing else, Tampa’s 12-season playoff drought should come to an end. The Falcons’ decline — from participating in Super Bowl LI to missing the playoffs in each of the past two seasons — stemmed largely from problems generating an effective pass rush and fielding a strong ground attack. If the offseason acquisitions of Dante Fowler Jr. and Todd Gurley bear dividends, Matt Ryan (35 years old) and Co. should cause some damage once again. When it comes to starting experience in 2020, no team lost more from 2019 than the Panthers, who have embarked on a rebuild under new coach Matt Rhule. I love some of the offensive stars in Carolina, like Christian McCaffrey, but I’m not as sold on the pass rush or back seven on defense.
4) AFC North
Will reigning MVP Lamar Jackson take a Patrick Mahomes-esque step in Year 3 by notching his first career postseason win with the Ravens? Even without released safety Earl Thomas, Baltimore’s strong secondary will be helped by upgrades made up front. That being said, I don’t think the Ravens will simply run away with this division again. I’m bullish on what Ben Roethlisberger’s return to health will mean for the Steelers‘ offense — and I’m even more encouraged by the preservation of one of the NFL’s top defenses in Pittsburgh. A spate of injuries (including, most seriously, the loss of rookie safety Grant Delpit for the year) put a damper on the Browns‘ outlook, but Cleveland still has a premier pass rusher (Myles Garrett) and the offensive talent to go as far as QB Baker Mayfield will take it in his pivotal third NFL season. The Bengals will make serious progress under rookie QB Joe Burrow — it just won’t be enough to truly impact this strong division.
5) AFC South
My optimism around the Colts is not just fueled by my belief that Philip Rivers will rebound from a subpar 2019. Indianapolis also has a slew of young players across the roster looking like they’re primed to break out in 2020, in addition to new defensive stud DeForest Buckner. I’ve enjoyed watching Titans head coach Mike Vrabel become as good at his current job as he was at playing — and he was really good at the latter. While Tennessee’s pass rush remains a question, especially with Vic Beasley’s status unknown, I’m excited to see how the offensive triplets (Ryan Tannehill, Derrick Henry and A.J. Brown) continue to blossom in the group’s first full season working together. How will the Texans reinvent themselves without premier receiver DeAndre Hopkins? Chiefs safety Tyrann Mathieu told me on SiriusXM NFL Radio that he expects Houston to try to establish the run in their Week 1 showdown. Maximizing standout QB Deshaun Watson and getting a full season out of J.J. Watt is paramount to Houston’s playoff hopes. For Doug Marrone’s sake, I hope the Jaguars aren’t headed for another rough season. Gardner Minshew and the offense will have to compensate for what looks on paper like one of the NFL’s shakiest defenses.
6) NFC North
This might be the most complete Vikings team Mike Zimmer has coached since taking over in 2014. Pairing Yannick Ngakoue with Danielle Hunter gives Minnesota a lethal pass-rush combo, and I’m even more bullish on the offense now that Gary Kubiak will be at the helm as coordinator, having helped develop Kirk Cousins into a franchise QB while fielding a superlative rushing attack. After steering the Packers to a 13-3 record and NFC title game appearance, head coach Matt LaFleur and general manager Brian Gutekunst should be given the benefit of the doubt when it comes to offseason moves (or the lack thereof). Here’s hoping they’re right in their decision not to invest heavily in the pass-catching corps — if not, Green Bay will take a step back. The Lions must make sure their new “Dagger Time” mantra is more than just a catchy slogan by actually winning more close games than they did last season. Having Matthew Stafford back to full health will help, but defensive improvement is needed after Detroit intercepted seven total passes in 2019. Bears head coach Matt Nagy will keep the identity of his starting QB a secret for now, but I’m not sure how much it matters whether Nick Foles or Mitchell Trubisky is under center. Chicago still lacks proven playmakers, outside of receiver Allen Robinson, and the defense must improve in Year 2 under coordinator Chuck Pagano.
7) NFC East
New Cowboys head coach Mike McCarthy inherits a full cupboard of offensive talent from his predecessor, Jason Garrett, while the defense and special teams should be better — and definitely less predictable — under new coordinators Mike Nolan and John Fassel. I know I’m biased, but I think Dallas might be the most underrated team in football heading into the 2020 season. While the Eagles already lost two starting offensive linemen (Andre Dillard and Brandon Brooks), the offense should be far more explosive than it was last year, with Carson Wentz having speedier — and healthier — options at receiver and Miles Sanders ready to become a bell-cow back. Will trade acquisition Darius Slay solve their problems at cornerback? The Giants have potential, if Daniel Jones can step up while working with Garrett as his offensive coordinator. I’m not as sold on the defense, where corner is a serious concern, outside of signee James Bradberry. I’m pulling for Washington coach Ron Rivera, who is undergoing cancer treatment while attempting to reconstruct a franchise that has hit rock bottom both on and off the field. Rivera will get it right in time, but I’m not expecting much, record-wise, in 2020. Side note: Wouldn’t it be great to see Alex Smith become Comeback Player of the Year in Washington?
8) AFC East
Tom Brady’s exit from New England and the upward trajectory of other teams introduces more uncertainty to this division than we’ve become accustomed to, but the Patriots remain the cream of the crop until proven otherwise, whether Cam Newton, Jarrett Stidham or Brian Hoyer is starting at QB. That said, New England is more vulnerable than it has been at any point since Bill Belichick and Tom Brady won that first ring in February of 2002. The Bills are shaping up to be a potential playoff team, for sure; how far they go will depend on QB Josh Allen’s development in Year 3. Preseason injuries at receiver and the departures of C.J. Mosley (COVID-19 opt out) and Jamal Adams (trade) don’t bode well for the Jets — but let’s not forget Sam Darnold has all the earmarks of a true franchise QB, while Adam Gase and Gregg Williams are outstanding play-callers. The Dolphins are in Year 2 of a rebuild that will ideally see them take off in 2021 behind Tua Tagovailoa at QB — their future is a lot brighter than it was at this time last year, when some predicted Miami might not win a game.
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