2021 NFL season preview: Ranking all eight divisions

The best thing about the NFL is its devotion to parity. Since the league expanded to eight divisions in 2002, there have only been two seasons (2014 and ’19) in which a team did not go from worst to first. It’s those very dynamics that make the sport so attractive to fans who believe that all they need is a few good breaks for their favorite teams to rise to the top. Just ask the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who signed Tom Brady last offseason and won a Super Bowl after 12 years without a postseason appearance.

This year the competition in the league will be just as stiff, so much so that ranking the divisions from top to bottom feels like a tougher exercise than usual. There shouldn’t be much doubt about who belongs at the top (where the NFC West has four legitimate playoff contenders) or the bottom (where the NFC East crowned the Washington Football Team as its 2020 champion after a 7-9 regular season). It’s all the other divisions in between that create the challenge. They are so close in overall talent that it’s hard to separate them at first glance.

That’s why we do stories like these — to provide some critical perspective. There surely will be plenty of people who’ll debate the choices involved in this list, but they can offer their own selections in another space. Here’s how the divisions break down in quality based on the humble opinions of this particular writer.

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1) NFC West

THE GOOD: This is the only division, in my opinion, where every team has a shot at the postseason. The San Francisco 49ers should be much improved now that they’ll have key playmakers returning from injuries. The Los Angeles Rams still have a tough defense led by All-Pros Aaron Donald and Jalen Ramsey, while their offense will receive a major upgrade in talent with Matthew Stafford replacing Jared Goff at quarterback. Let’s not forget the Seattle Seahawks won this division last season with a 12-4 record while the Arizona Cardinals challenged for a playoff spot. This division has star power, exceptional coaching and the deepest collection of challengers to Tampa Bay’s hopes of repeating as Super Bowl champs.

THE BAD: San Francisco sorely needs quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo to stay healthy — which has been an issue in the past — or rookie Trey Lance to be really good. The fact that head coach Kyle Shanahan hasn’t named a Week 1 starter yet means Lance is either playing his way into the job or the 49ers aren’t as sold on the idea of sticking with Garoppolo as long as possible. Getting this decision right obviously is a major factor in where this team goes. The Rams have the stars, but they feel like a top-heavy team now that some key role players have departed in free agency and they haven’t drafted in the first round since 2016. The Seahawks have to prove they can play high-level defense once again after an atrocious 2020 campaign. The Cardinals, on the other hand, have to continue growing up as quickly as they possibly can.

THE BOTTOM LINE: All these teams could win at least 10-to-11 games, with three (the 49ers, Rams and Seahawks) having the potential to reach the NFC Championship Game.

2) AFC North

THE GOOD: It says plenty about the strength of the AFC North when last year’s champion went 12-4 and is now the third-best team in the division. Say what you will about the Pittsburgh Steelers, but they’re still employing one of the top coaches in the business (Mike Tomlin) and that defense has some of the best young playmakers in the game (outside linebacker T.J. Watt, safety Minkah Fitzpatrick and inside linebacker Devin Bush, who’s returning from a torn ACL). The Cleveland Browns have built one of the best rosters in football. They used the draft and free agency to load up on athletic players to improve a mediocre defense, while quarterback Baker Mayfield has learned to maximize all the talent around him on offense. The Baltimore Ravens also know their window to win a Super Bowl with this current core won’t stay open forever. They’ve given quarterback Lamar Jackson plenty of weapons to bolster the passing game. Now he has to make that dream a reality.

THE BAD: The Cincinnati Bengals still have a long way to go. Ben Roethlisberger’s ability to perform at a high level remains very much in question after the way he faded down the stretch last season. As much as there is to like about the Browns’ new additions on defense, those players still have to get it done on the field. As for Jackson, he’s already rankled some folks by being caught on video participating in WR and DB drills on a basketball court with kids in Florida earlier this offseason and then testing positive for COVID-19 at the start of training camp. He risked injury in the former incident and missed time to recover in the latter, which was his second bout with the virus. Upon his return, he would not say he’d get vaccinated, a decision that could end up costing him and his team during the season.

THE BOTTOM LINE: The Browns look like the biggest threat to the Kansas City Chiefs for AFC supremacy, while the Ravens could also be in that conversation if Jackson turns the corner as a quality passer.

3) AFC East

THE GOOD: It’s hard to see the Buffalo Bills declining anytime soon, fresh off their first division title in 25 years. Josh Allen has blossomed into a Pro Bowl quarterback and he’ll once again lead an offense loaded with playmakers. The Miami Dolphins missed the playoffs despite winning 10 games a season ago; they should be even hungrier this fall. And you knew there was no way Bill Belichick was going to put another collection of underwhelming talent on the field after the New England Patriots missed the playoffs for the first time since 2008. He went on a wild shopping spree in free agency, one that landed more difference-makers on both sides of the football. The Pats will be back in the mix. You can bet on that.

THE BAD: There are still questions about a Bills defense that struggled to pressure quarterbacks last season. That’s a fatal flaw when trying to keep pace with a certain signal-caller in Kansas City. The Dolphins are saying a lot of positive things about second-year quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, but he has to develop and stay healthy. The Pats turned plenty of heads with all those new additions in the offseason. However, we also know that free-agent spending doesn’t always lead to the desired results. There’s bound to be some growing pains in New England, no matter who’s under center. And then there are the New York Jets, who’ve already lost defensive end Carl Lawson to a season-ending injury while linebacker Jarrad Davis is out for about a couple months with an ankle injury. Those were two of their biggest free-agent acquisitions this offseason. Ugh.

THE BOTTOM LINE: This division is the most intriguing because of the what-if factor. The Bills are good enough to return to the AFC title game. The question is what Miami and New England can do, which really comes down to their quarterback play. If both teams find consistency under center, this division will be a monster.

4) NFC South

THE GOOD: The team that just won the Super Bowl resides in this division. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have all their starters back and are committed to a repeat. Oh yeah — Tom Brady is their quarterback. Enough about that. It’s easy to forget now that the New Orleans Saints actually won the NFC South last season, beating the Bucs convincingly both times during the regular season before being ousted by Tampa Bay in the postseason. They’ll miss retired quarterback Drew Brees, but head coach Sean Payton still has enough key pieces to keep this team in the double-digit-wins category.

THE BAD: The Saints could be a ticking time bomb, particularly with all the smoke that’s been surrounding wide receiver Michael Thomas and the franchise. Payton also has to prove he can get enough out of whomever he chooses as his next quarterback — either Jameis Winston or Taysom Hill — to keep his typically prolific offense humming. With Thomas expected to miss the start of the season, the Saints don’t have many great weapons on offense beyond Alvin Kamara and there’s bound to be a leadership void on that side of the ball, as well. As for the rest of the division, the Atlanta Falcons are trying to rebuild on the fly, while the Carolina Panthers are hoping Sam Darnold can be much more than he was with the Jets.

THE BOTTOM LINE: This division would be ranked much lower if the Bucs weren’t playing in it. It’s hard to see Tampa Bay losing to any NFC South rivals this year.

5) AFC West

THE GOOD: The Kansas City Chiefs are the most electric team in football. Patrick Mahomes is the best quarterback and brightest star in the league. The Chiefs’ offense should continue to be prolific, while their defense might be better than expected. There is more depth at cornerback, more athleticism at linebacker and more potential disruption up front (with defensive tackle Jarran Reed added via free agency and Pro Bowler Chris Jones alternating between tackle and end). The Denver Broncos could be the biggest threat to the Chiefs within the division, as they have one of the best rosters in football. Pass rushers Von Miller and Bradley Chubb have the potential to make life miserable for opposing quarterbacks while the secondary could be the best in football. The one big issue for the Broncos — finding an answer at quarterback — is one the other two teams in the division don’t need to worry about. The Los Angeles Chargers had the Offensive Rookie of the Year in Justin Herbert last season, and Derek Carr arguably enjoyed the best year of his career for the Las Vegas Raiders.

THE BAD: The Chargers need to show that their offensive line has improved, that new head coach Brandon Staley can be the defensive-minded equivalent of Sean McVay and that they can stay healthy. It seems no team in the league loses more key players to injury early in a season than this bunch. The Broncos couldn’t bring themselves to draft Justin Fields in the first round, as they were enamored with cornerback Patrick Surtain II. Even if Surtain makes the Pro Bowl, it won’t matter much if neither Drew Luck nor Teddy Bridgewater can play well enough to maximize all the talent the team has elsewhere on offense. The Raiders just have to find a way to defend and finish. They beat the Chiefs in Week 5 last season and were 6-3 before dropping five of their last seven games.

THE BOTTOM LINE: This division would be ranked higher if you could trust the other three teams outside of Kansas City to play up to their potential. After all, the Chiefs were six games better than their next-closest competitor last season (the Raiders). We probably won’t see that kind of disparity again, but those lesser teams need to take a step forward.

6) NFC North

THE GOOD: The Green Bay Packers found a way to get star quarterback Aaron Rodgers back into their building. We spent the entire offseason wondering if Rodgers would retire, force a trade or ultimately return to that franchise. Now that he’s back — and playing on a reworked contract that could offer him his chance to go elsewhere after this season — the Packers can rest a little easier. This is still a team that won 13 games and reached the NFC title game in both 2019 and 2020. It certainly feels like another run at a Super Bowl appearance is a real possibility for Green Bay. The Minnesota Vikings were disastrous on defense last season, but those issues also had plenty to do with injuries to key players like Danielle Hunter and Anthony Barr. They’ve had a huge makeover on that side of the ball and it’s hard to imagine head coach Mike Zimmer putting a similar product on the field this fall.

THE BAD: Dan Campbell seems like a great guy, the kind of dude you’d like to grab a beer with and hear him tell stories. The problem is he’s coaching the Detroit Lions, not running for public office. This is a franchise that has had three playoff appearances in the last 21 years and it’s hard to see Campbell changing that culture anytime soon. The Chicago Bears were good enough to make the postseason with an 8-8 record in 2020, but their hopes this year really come down to whether Justin Fields can succeed in his first season. They’re already trying to sell people on the idea that Andy Dalton can manage that offense effectively until Fields matures, which sounds like a recipe for disaster. When it comes to Minnesota and Green Bay, it’s all about minimizing drama. Kirk Cousins made headlines in training camp with his comments about the COVID-19 vaccine after landing on the reserve/COVID-19 list. If he winds up on that list again, it could badly hurt the Vikings’ hopes in 2021. As for Rodgers and the Packers, any lingering drama between him and the front office could roil under the surface and undermine their championship dreams. It’s one thing to renew your wedding vows. But when you stay together for the kids, that kind of dynamic rarely works out in the end.

THE BOTTOM LINE: The Packers will determine how good this division is by season’s end. If they end up being a 13- or 14-win team, the NFC North will look much better.

7) AFC South

THE GOOD: The Indianapolis Colts and Tennessee Titans are the cream of the crop here. The Colts’ offensive and defensive lines have the ability to dominate opponents. The major questions for them are whether quarterback Carson Wentz and All-Pro guard Quenton Nelson can recover fast enough from foot injuries to help this team get off to a good start. The good news is both returned to practice this week. The Titans will do what they’ve done the last two seasons: Pound the ball with Pro Bowl running back Derrick Henry, run play-action with quarterback Ryan Tannehill and hope their defense remains solid enough to help them finish off opponents. Both of these teams finished 11-5 in 2020 and they’ll be the two best teams in this division this fall.

THE BAD: It’s been a disastrous year for the Houston Texans, and I’m not expecting things to get much better for them anytime soon. There’s interest in what’s going to happen with quarterback Deshaun Watson, both with his legal issues and his desire to be traded. The Jacksonville Jaguars are more intriguing now that Urban Meyer is their head coach and quarterback Trevor Lawrence is trying to make good on the promise that comes with being the first overall pick in the draft. However, this is still a team that won one game last season. There’s a lot of work to be done in Duval, and the task doesn’t get any easier with the loss of rookie Travis Etienne. As for the upper echelon of this division, the injuries to both Wentz and Nelson were pretty scary developments for a Colts team that is trying to take a major leap forward. The Titans also were lousy on defense in 2020, and it’s difficult to see them being markedly better in this area this fall.

THE BOTTOM LINE: This division had two playoff teams come out of it last year. Only one is making it this time around.

8) NFC East

THE GOOD: As easy as it is to dismiss the Washington Football Team for winning this division with just seven victories last season, they did give the eventual Super Bowl champion Buccaneers problems in last year’s Super Wild Card Weekend loss. The WFT also turned around their season after starting 1-5, which speaks to their resilience. Most of their success came down to two things: stabilizing the quarterback position and relying on an aggressive front seven to set the tone. That will be their same formula for success this coming season. The Dallas Cowboys have as much talent on paper as any team in the league. If their stars play at a high level on offense — specifically quarterback Dak Prescott, running back Ezekiel Elliott and wide receivers Amari Cooper, Michael Gallup and CeeDee Lamb — they’ll be in every game. The question is whether their defense can do the same thing on a weekly basis.

THE BAD: There’s a long list here. The Football Team is betting a lot on quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick, who’s their best option at quarterback. He brings plenty of experience to the position, but he’s always been known as a signal-caller who can kill a team with devastating turnovers. They need more good Fitz than bad in Washington. We also have no way of knowing if the Cowboys will be more stable this coming season. The defense has a new coordinator (Dan Quinn), but the problem with last year’s unit went beyond scheme. The shoulder issue Prescott has been dealing with in camp, although not expected to keep him out in Week 1, didn’t get this group off to a positive start, either. The offensive additions to the New York Giants could help Daniel Jones, but it’s hard to have any conviction about that right now. The Philadelphia Eagles are in an even worse state. They might contend for worst team in the league.

THE BOTTOM LINE: The best team in this division won’t win seven games again. Nine should be enough to get it done this year.

Follow Jeffri Chadiha on Twitter.

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