A popular complaint about the New England Patriots dynasty is that they have an easy road because of the AFC East.
That’s overstated. The Patriots still play 10 games and playoff games against non-AFC East teams and do quite well. But people want to downgrade the Patriots, and pointing out the foibles in the rest of their division is an easy way to do it.
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All that said, the AFC East has been mostly horrible for two decades. Here’s a fun exercise: Who is the best quarterback other than Tom Brady in the AFC East this century? If the answer is Chad Pennington (eek), then who’s No. 2, Jay Fiedler? It hasn’t been pretty.
That’s why division strength matters. Playing in an easier division is an edge. Before the 2019 season kicks off, let’s rank the divisions from easiest to toughest:
8. AFC South
The AFC East is spared the bottom spot because the Patriots are good. Andrew Luck retired from the Colts, then the Texans gave away Jadeveon Clowney in a trade. The Jaguars should be better, but there are still issues there. The Titans’ season might rest on Marcus Mariota, and that’s no sure thing. This feels like a division that can be won at 9-7.
7. AFC East
Well, it wasn’t going to take long to get to this one. The Patriots are fantastic. And there is hope that the Bills and Jets are building, each with an intriguing second-year quarterback. A breakout from either team isn’t out of the question, but we need to see it happen first. And the Dolphins are looking like the NFL’s worst team. Maybe the Patriots won’t have the AFC East wrapped up by early December. Maybe.
6. AFC North
This division might not be as top-heavy as the two that follow, but there are three viable contenders for the title. The Browns could also make a big leap and push the AFC North up. The Ravens won the division last season and it’ll still be hard to stop Lamar Jackson. Maybe some calm in the Steelers’ locker room helps them. The Bengals are clearly the last-place team here but who knows, maybe Zac Taylor’s offense surprises everyone.
5. NFC West
This division could be pretty good, but it still seems like the Rams’ title to lose. We probably need to see some actual wins from the Kyle Shanahan 49ers before we buy in. The Seahawks will be good again because they always are. The Cardinals are a total wild card, but it’s probably best to assume they’ll have a rough season with Kliff Kingsbury and rookie quarterback Kyler Murray.
4. NFC East
Two fantastic teams, two potentially bad teams. The Cowboys and Eagles might have the best divisional race in the NFL this season. It would also be a total shock if one of those two teams doesn’t win the division. The Redskins could end up being pretty bad, and the Giants are in the middle of a rebuild too. At least we’ll likely see rookie quarterbacks Dwayne Haskins and Daniel Jones for those teams at some point this season.
3. AFC West
Like the NFC East, it’s a two-team race. The Chiefs and Chargers are both very good, as they were last season when they battled for the division title. The AFC West gets the edge over the NFC East because the Broncos might be a tough out due their defense with new coach Vic Fangio, and the Raiders should be improved too.
2. NFC South
It’s tough to find a division with better quarterback play from one through four. This ranking assumes the Panthers and Falcons rebound from down years, and they should. The Saints are loaded again after barely missing on an NFC championship. And while the Buccaneers have holes on defense, the offense could put up a ton of points with new coach Bruce Arians.
1. NFC North
From top to bottom this should be a strong division. The Lions are clearly the fourth-best team heading into the season, but they probably won’t be an easy out. The Bears were fantastic last season and if Mitchell Trubisky improves, they could repeat as division champs. Perhaps Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers is revitalized with new coach Matt LaFleur. And the Vikings still have a ton of talent; they’re in the mix for the division crown too. There won’t be any easy games in this division.
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