We have one final round of preseason games left, which means the 2023 NFL regular season is coming fast. It will once again be a fascinating year, because there are so many teams that are fostering high hopes. The AFC is clearly flush with talent, so much so that four or five quality squads might be sitting home when the playoffs start. The NFC isn't as loaded, but it houses two of the best teams in the entire league (Philadelphia and San Francisco), along with plenty of compelling storylines in places like Green Bay, Detroit, Dallas and Seattle.
There will be ample time over the coming weeks to dissect all those narratives. Today, we'll focus on breaking down all eight divisions. Last season, the AFC West was all the rage, as people couldn't stop talking about all the personnel movement in that part of the NFL. That division is not even in the conversation for the crown this coming fall, which is a testament to how much life changes in this league.
That's the exciting part about all this. We know the NFL is built on parity. This season might just be the greatest example of that in recent memory. Here's how this writer sees the divisions shaping up this year, from worst to first:
8) NFC South
This is as close as you can come to an easy layup in the world of division rankings. The NFC South didn't have one team finish with a winning record in 2022, and it might be even uglier this coming season, as every franchise is breaking in a new full-time starting quarterback. One of those signal-callers (Atlanta's Desmond Ridder) played in just four games as a rookie, another (Carolina's Bryce Young) is starting his career, and the winner of Tampa Bay's competition (Baker Mayfield) is replacing Tom Brady. If you're picking a favorite here, it's likely New Orleans. The Saints signed Derek Carr in the offseason, and he'll give that offense plenty more stability than it displayed last year. There could be some surprises in the division -- both Carolina and Atlanta invested heavily in free agency -- but that's a lot to hope for. All four teams have much to prove. We won't know if they've actually improved until we're well into the season.
7) AFC South
The Jacksonville Jaguars picked the right time to come into their own. They grew up in a hurry last season, going from holding the first overall pick in the 2022 NFL Draft to holding the division crown in January -- and there's no reason to anticipate a decline. Along with boasting a rapidly ascending quarterback in Trevor Lawrence and a promising offense, the Jaguars are competing in a division where everyone else has real problems. The Houston Texans, for one, are still figuring out how to field a competitive roster and help rookie quarterback C.J. Stroud through his predictable growing pains. The Indianapolis Colts are dealing with non-stop drama around star running back Jonathan Taylor -- who has now been given permission by the team to seek a trade -- and hoping rookie quarterback Anthony Richardson can handle life in the NFL after making just 13 college starts. As for the Tennessee Titans, they still have an excellent coach in Mike Vrabel. The problem is they haven't been able to stay healthy for two straight years, and 29-year-old running back Derrick Henry isn't getting any younger. This division went downhill fast.
6) NFC North
Like Jacksonville, the Detroit Lions are sitting in an enviable position. They have both the belief and the talent to take the crown in a division going through its own transition. The Green Bay Packers are getting used to life with Jordan Love, who is finally succeeding Aaron Rodgers at quarterback three years after being drafted in the first round. There's plenty of optimism about his development, and the Packers might be more dangerous than some anticipate, if a promising defense can dominate. On the other hand, the Minnesota Vikings are going through some noteworthy changes for a team that won the division last season. They've bid farewell to Dalvin Cook, Adam Thielen and Za'Darius Smith, and there was some well-documented tension with edge rusher Danielle Hunter, until he received a sizable one-year bump in pay. Even with Justin Jefferson catching passes, all the good mojo that helped this team win so many close games in 2022 might be absent this fall. That leaves us with the Bears, who are betting heavily on the progress of third-year quarterback Justin Fields. He has more weapons now, including wide receiver DJ Moore. However, we still need to see how far Fields has come as a passer, and whether the Bears' defense can be more effective.
5) NFC West
This is the division with the greatest disparity between teams. The lowest is easily the Arizona Cardinals. Quarterback Kyler Murray is recovering from a torn ACL and it's not clear when he'll be able to play again. Their roster is so limited that they could finish with the league's worst record. The third-best team in the division, the Los Angeles Rams, won the Super Bowl two years ago, so that helps boost the profile a bit. Their problems are that they've said goodbye to some key players from that championship squad (like cornerback Jalen Ramsey), their best offensive player (wide receiver Cooper Kupp) lost significant time this month to a hamstring injury after missing much of 2022 with a high ankle sprain, and quarterback Matthew Stafford is coming off a season that included multiple injury issues and ended with him on injured reserve. Seattle finds itself in an interesting position after being one of the biggest surprises of 2022. They have to be better on defense, and quarterback Geno Smith has to continue his inspired play. Of course, the San Francisco 49ers have their own quarterback who needs to keep proving people wrong. If Brock Purdy can provide more of the magic he manufactured in seven stellar starts as a rookie last season, it will be hard for anybody to stop such a loaded team.
4) NFC East
The NFC East is a little better than the NFC West for two simple reasons. For one, the Eagles won the conference last season. Second, three teams from the division made the playoffs, and all of them won at least one postseason game. Philadelphia is poised to be just as dangerous this coming fall, featuring quarterback Jalen Hurts, who is coming off a season in which he finished second in MVP voting, and a strong defense that managed to keep some key pieces in place. The bigger question is whether Dallas can unseat the Eagles. The Cowboys improved in the offseason by finding a quality cornerback to pair with Trevon Diggs (Stephon Gilmore) and a true deep threat for quarterback Dak Prescott (wide receiver Brandin Cooks). Throw in all the other strengths -- notably All-Pro linebacker Micah Parsons -- and you have a team that might be ready to make a deep playoff run. The New York Giants and Washington Commanders, on the other hand, are a little harder to predict. Can Giants quarterback Daniel Jones do more damage with his arm this season? Is Sam Howell really the right quarterback for a Washington team that has been plagued by its inability to find an answer at that position? The jury is still out on both of those questions.
3) AFC West
This was considered the best division in football at this time last year. Then the games started. And Nathaniel Hackett and Russell Wilson happened in Denver. And the Raiders imploded in an all too familiar fashion. And the Chargers -- surprise, surprise -- were battling all sorts of debilitating injuries. The one thing you can count on in this division is the Kansas City Chiefs dominating. They easily won their seventh straight division title, and only a fool would doubt head coach Andy Reid and Patrick Mahomes' chances of doing that again. So, who's going to challenge them? It's going to be intriguing to see how the hiring of offensive coordinator Kellen Moore impacts the growth of Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert. If Herbert takes a major step in his development, Los Angeles has more than enough around him to be a serious championship contender. Also, the impact head coach Sean Payton could have in Denver might be seismic. The Broncos needed somebody to show them how to win, and that's what Payton brings to the table. You'd like to be more optimistic about the Raiders, but it's hard to see them not being the worst team in this division. Everyone else is just better.
2) AFC East
It's difficult to not fall in love with how the AFC East looks on paper, especially with Aaron Rodgers joining the New York Jets, and with the greatest coach in history, Bill Belichick, still leading the weakest team in the division. The reality is, we need to pump the brakes a bit here. Yes, the Buffalo Bills remain a serious championship contender, even with skeptics crowing about how their best window to win a title is closing fast. The problem is that serious questions linger around every other team in this division. The Jets are praying their heavily scrutinized offensive line can block consistently enough to keep Rodgers on the field. The Miami Dolphins face their own concerns about keeping their quarterback, Tua Tagovailoa, healthy, and it doesn't help that star cornerback Jalen Ramsey is sidelined with a surgically repaired knee. As for the Patriots, defense won't be a problem for them, as they have a unit that is good enough to rank among the best in the league. However, they haven't been a truly dangerous offense since Tom Brady left town. New offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien isn't going to change that overnight.
1) AFC North
The North is king this year because every team has a real shot to reach the postseason. The Pittsburgh Steelers might be the worst squad on paper, but their preseason buzz is real. Quarterback Kenny Pickett is maturing quickly in his second season, the defense still has an assortment of playmakers and Mike Tomlin can coach his butt off. The Cleveland Browns are just as intriguing. Two straight losing seasons shouldn't obscure the fact that plenty of talent remains for a team that made the playoffs in 2020. They'll also have quarterback Deshaun Watson for a full season and a defense that should prosper under new coordinator Jim Schwartz. If you want to talk about the favorites to win this division, we're once again choosing between Baltimore and Cincinnati. The Ravens are eager to prove that quarterback Lamar Jackson can take his game to another level in an offense that is expected to feature a more dynamic passing attack. The Bengals are praying the calf strain that has sidelined quarterback Joe Burrow since early in training camp doesn't linger into the regular season. Right now, it appears to me that both Baltimore and Cincinnati are poised to make deep playoff runs.
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