I know I do a lot of these early prediction articles, and I normally do them division by division, predicting every team. But this one is going to be a little bit different, instead focusing on just the winners from each division. Below, you will find the team that I call to win their respective divisions, though I will be leaving their actual predicted record out. I realize it is too early to make solid calls, so we will call this one the training camp edition, with others to follow.
We’ll start with the AFC, from toughest division to the weakest.
Pittsburgh Steelers: As a Ravens fan, it’s almost physically painful to write this one out. However, I do feel as though the Steelers are in the best position to win the North this year. Ben Roethlisberger is as good as any quarterback in the league, and he has a plethora of weapons at his disposal (at least on paper). It all starts with Antonio Brown, arguably the #1 wide receiver in the entire league, and definitely the best in the AFC North. He’s backed by what could potentially be a lethal duo in Sammie Coates and Darrius Heyward-Bey, though they are both largely unproven. Heath Miller retired during the off-season, but they look to replace him with the potentially volatile Ladarius Green, who they signed in free agency. The running game is one of the best in the NFL as well, with Le’veon Bell and Deangelo Williams packing a mean one-two punch. The offensive line is easily a top 10 unit, which will provide holes for the backs, and close holes for the aging Big Ben. While the front 7 looks to be a top 10 line this year, the question mark is the secondary, which let below average teams burn them over and over in the 2015 campaign. I don’t think drafting Artie Burns in the first round will change that very much.
With all that said, look for the Steelers to make a run for the AFC North, sweeping the Browns, and splitting with Baltimore and Cincinnati. A lot of people think that the Bengals will repeat as division champions, but I feel as though they have taken a step back. The Ravens, if healthy, have a decent chance at snapping the North from the hands of both Pittsburgh and the Bengals, but let’s wait and see how they play through the first few weeks before we make that call.
Oakland Raiders: The Denver Broncos have owned the middling AFC West for the better part of a decade, and many people think that their rockstar defense from 2015 is enough to win the division, with Mark Sanchez under center. I am not one of those people. Aside from the San Diego Chargers, the other teams in the division are too tough, and have made too many improvements for the Broncos to have their way with the division again this year. It will be a tough race, but the Raiders will come out on top, claiming their first winning season, and first division title since 2002. Derek Carr is a young, skilled quarterback that is on the rise, and it’s hard to compete with the connection that he has with wideout Amari Cooper. Add Michael Crabtree, running back Latavius Murray, and Lee Smith, and the Oakland offense looks to be hard to stop in the 2016 NFL season. They made upgrades to the offensive line, adding Baltimore Ravens’ standout Kelechi Osemele, as well as beefing up the defense with the FA signing of Reggie Nelson (Cincinnati). Khalil Mack will more than likely progress even further, bringing honor to the number 52 that he wears on his jersey.
While the division games will be the biggest fight for Carr and the Raiders, look for them to sweep San Diego, while they split with both Denver and Kansas City. Outside of the division, they should have a field day, facing the lowly NFC South, which houses a couple of bottom-half-ranked defenses, and bumbling offenses. The real competition will come from Kansas City, who started 1-5, but went on a 10 game winning streak to close out the 2015 regular season.
New England Patriots: Same old, same old, in the East. I really, really, REALLY wanted to put another team here, but from a football standpoint, it doesn’t make sense. Yes, Tom Brady is suspended for the first 4 games, and that will make the passing game suffer (don’t say that it won’t) through the start of the season. However, Rob Gronkowski is a great in-line blocker, as is Martellus Bennett, which will make the run game a priority through those games, and balance out the fact that the passing game isn’t as prolific as it normally is. Add that to the fact that Jimmy G is only facing 2 playoff teams through his 4 games (and one of those playoff teams was in by default), the opening stretch isn’t as daunting as non-Patriots fans are making it out to be. (Keep in mind, I have the Patriots ending that 4 game streak at 1-3. See my article regarding that here: Tom Brady Accepts Suspension) We all know that hell hath no fury like a Tom Brady scorned, and when he comes back in Week 5 to face Cleveland, I expect the Factory of Sadness to be filled with.. well.. sadness.
Though the Jets made a solid run for the title last year, finishing at 10-6, don’t expect a repeat of that, being that the quarterback position is still in question. The Bills finally had an 8-8 season last year, and you would have to look back to 2004 to find a winning season in Buffalo. The Dolphins are the Dolphins, and even with the off-season acquisitions, they look to repeat their 6 wins this season. And so, once again, the Patriots win the division, even given a relatively tough schedule outside of the division, facing the rough-and-tumble AFC North, as well as playoff teams in Arizona and Seattle.
Indianapolis Colts: This will be a 3-way battle between teams on the rise: Houston, Jacksonville, and Indianapolis. There isn’t a true ‘bully’ in this division, like there is in the East, and that will make for some interesting football. But I like the Colts to regain their perch atop the division. If Andrew Luck didn’t learn a whole lot from sitting out and watching Matt Hasselbeck operate his offense, then the Colts made a HUGE mistake paying him during the off-season. If he did, however, look for the Colts’ offense to operate almost flawlessly, and the defense to gel significantly better than they did in 2015. Jacksonville will make some noise, as the younger guys are getting their feet under them, and they made some upgrades. Houston will contend as well, if Brock Osweiler is an upgrade from Brian Hoyer, as they made some nice moves as well. I still think that the Titans need a couple more pieces before they can be contenders.
The Colts are normally the sure-fire winners of the South, and I think they’ve made the moves, and have the ease of schedule, needed to make it back to the top. While the AFC South is normally the divisional joke of the NFL, this is a division that, as a general whole, is on the rise, and this is the year that they will begin to put the NFL on notice.
There it is, boys and girls. My very early AFC division winners for 2016. Let’s move on to the NFC.
Arizona Cardinals: Let’s be honest, this isn’t much of a reach anymore, if at all. They won it last year, with the best record in the NFL at 13-3, and they have only gotten better (minus Carson Palmer being a year older) in the off-season. The only true competition that they face within the division is the Seattle Seahawks, who won the division the two years prior, but I see the Cardinals edging them out yet again this year. Bruce Arians will yet again be a Coach of the Year candidate, and Palmer will make waves with the trio of Larry Fitzgerald, Michael Floyd, and John Brown. The defense will be stifling once again, showing their strength early, when they shake Jimmy Garroppolo out of his cleats in Week 1, and continuing to harass quarterbacks throughout the season.
Is this the year that the Cardinals return to the Super Bowl? Maybe even the year that they win one? It very well could be, if Palmer can stay healthy. It’s hard to name another team in the NFC that is as well-rounded as Arizona, and that includes the 15-1 Panthers.
Minnesota Vikings: This may seem silly to some, since the Green Bay Packers still have Aaron Rodgers, and have key players returning healthy, and the fact that they haven’t had back-to-back division titles since ’08 and ’09, but the momentum is shifting in the North. The Vikings seem to think that they have added a key offensive player in draft pick Laquon Treadwell, and strengthened the backfield with Mackensie Alexander. They have also made some other moves to strengthen an already tough team, and look to repeat as champions in 2016, keeping the Green Bay Packers in 2nd for the 2nd year. The defense is young (all in their rookie or 1st contract) and volatile, led by Harrison Smith, who is arguably one of the best safeties in the league, and ranked 15th overall, but top 5 in scoring last year. They only look to get better, as the young core gets their feet under them. The offense is lethal when firing on all cylinders, and how can you bet against a team that has ‘All Day’ Adrian Peterson, one of the best to ever play at the running back position?
While I do believe that the Packers win one of the two games against the Vikings, look for them to sweep the rest of the division, and claim the division by Christmas. Now that they have gotten over the road playoff game hump, a Vikings/Cardinals NFC Championship game isn’t out of reach.
Carolina Panthers: Let’s face facts. They lost the Super Bowl, and Cam Newton showed his true colors, but 15-1 is nothing to spit at. Take into consideration that the offense was working with the likes of Ted Ginn, Jr as the #1 WR, with a tight end (Greg Olsen) being the number two option, and that makes it a pretty impressive feat. The rest of the division consists of an aging Drew Brees with a bad defense, the young-but-promising-in-a-year Buccaneers, and the Atlanta Falcons (or the Failcons, as I affectionately refer to them as). The Panthers boast one of the best defenses in the league (yes, I realize that they lost Josh Norman), and they show no signs of slowing down in 2016. Do I see another nearly undefeated season in their future? Not at all. But I do believe that they are a lock to win the division this year. The return of Kelvin Benjamin should create a more prolific offense, meaning that the defense won’t have to do AS much, but a Super Bowl berth means a tough schedule. Not so tough that they won’t three-peat as NFCS Champions, though.
There is nobody in this division that can compete for the title. The Panthers are the current bully on the block, and show no signs of that changing over the next couple years, barring some big moves from the Falcons or the Saints.
Dallas Cowboys: This division is pure chaos. Not in the same way as the AFC South, which is anybody’s division, but in the sense that every single team in this division could either do really well, or be a dumpster fire. The Giants have a terrible defense, and the offense relies entirely on 2 guys – Odell Beckham, Jr and Eli Manning. The Eagles completely dismantled the Chip Kelly dynasty, and are starting Sam Bradford once again, with an above average defense. The Redskins won the division last year by default, but will not repeat the feat this year, even with their off-season acquisitions. IF the Cowboys remain healthy, they will dominate this division, as much as that sounds like blarney. Dez is a #1 WR in Dallas only, but the Tony Romo to Dez Bryant connection is alive and well, and the focus will be on the running game behind that big, mean, offensive line that ranks as the best in the league. At least 2 of the Cowboys’ losses will come from the AFC North, but within the division, they will have a heyday.
Until the other 3 teams get themselves under control, this is Dallas’ division to lose, and coming off of a 4-12 season means that they have a relatively easy schedule. I don’t think that they will make it past the first round of the playoffs, but I do think that they show a flash of their former selves. Don’t get excited, Cowboys fans.. it’s still Romo under center, and that means that the season could go either way.
Well, there you have it. My picks for each division. Leave your comments below as to your own ideas of who will win the division. (Browns fans need not apply.)