Thanks to a restrictive salary cap and the litany of injuries that mar every season, the NFL is a bastion of parity. While a handful of teams have carved out their niche as annual contenders, the league’s ability to cultivate Cinderella worst-to-first stories every year makes the gridiron host to some of the most compelling stories in major sports.
We saw this in 2017 when the Philadelphia Eagles leapt from last place in the NFC East to Super Bowl champions behind a rock-solid defense, 13 games of MVP-caliber play from Carson Wentz, and a Super Bowl MVP performance from backup Nick Foles. In 2015, it was the Carolina Panthers rising from a losing record to sprint out to a 15-1 regular season and a spot in Super Bowl 50.
That means it’ll be no surprise to see some turnover at the top of the league’s eight divisions this fall. Last season, we got new champions in the AFC South and all four of the NFC’s divisions. Here are the divisions that could see some similar tumult in 2018, ranked in order from most to least likely.
1. NFC South
The Saints were worthy champions in 2017 and remain stacked for 2018, but the South stands to be the NFL’s toughest division after pushing three teams to the postseason last year. Both the Panthers and Falcons are coming off double-digit-win seasons with the cores of their rosters intact, and a few small additions could be the tweak needed to overtake New Orleans.
In Carolina, that means Cam Newton will have to rely on a second-year leap from Christian McCaffrey and a big debut from first-round pick D.J. Moore to upgrade a middle-of-the-road offense. Atlanta will have its own big name rookie wideout to turn to — Calvin Ridley — and will have to hope its defense can carry on without the contributions of Dontari Poe and Adrian Clayborn up front.
The Saints will be a difficult Goliath to topple. The reigning offensive and defensive rookies of the year, Alvin Kamara and Marshon Lattimore, respectively, will flank established stars like Drew Brees and Cameron Jordan. After getting bounced out of the playoffs on the wrong end of a miracle, New Orleans will have a chip on its shoulder in its quest to repeat as NFC South champs.
That doesn’t mean it’ll be easy for the Saints to repeat, either. The strength of this division is the biggest reason it’s the one most likely to see a new champion.
2. AFC West
The Chiefs stumbled after a hot start, recovered, then flailed their way out of the playoffs in an upset loss to the Titans. That left several questions to be answered in 2018, and a second-year quarterback with 35 career NFL passes under his belt will have to answer them. If Patrick Mahomes II struggles, it’ll open the door for the rest of a competitive division.
The Broncos may finally have some stability at quarterback after signing Case Keenum to a two-year deal, and the addition of No. 5 overall pick Bradley Chubb should help restore a stout defense to its terrifying heights. The Chargers made a late run at the division title in 2017 and have added more talent on each side of the ball, including space-clearing center Mike Pouncey. The real wild card is the Raiders, who underwent serious reconstruction this offseason under returning head coach Jon Gruden.
3. AFC South
Jacksonville rose from its nine-year malaise to win its first division title of the millennium behind a ferocious defense, but the rising tide of the AFC South — and sticking with Blake Bortles at quarterback — could make a repeat difficult. The Titans, Texans, and even the Colts (assuming Andrew Luck returns to full health) are all roadblocks on Doug Marrone’s path to a second straight division title.
The biggest challenge could come from Houston, which will return both J.J. Watt and Deshaun Watson from injury. Watt is a three-time defensive player of the year and Watson was an electric playmaker as a rookie, and getting either back at full strength could make the Texans a playoff team, let alone both. But Watt has only played eight games the past two seasons and Watson’s year one success may not be sustainable. Even so, Houston is a tremendous candidate to put together the league’s biggest turnaround in 2018.
Tennessee ended an eight-year postseason drought by backing into the playoffs and will need Marcus Mariota to prove his 2017 downturn was a fluke to foster hopes of the team’s first division title since 2008.
4. NFC North
The Vikings are built for to win the division again, but one big obstacle stands in the way: Aaron Rodgers. The Packers were early favorites to win the North last fall, until Rodgers’ broken collarbone effectively erased Green Bay’s 4-1 start and ended its postseason streak at eight years. A healthy Rodgers, flanked by a revamped offense (Jordy Nelson and Jeff Janis are out; Jimmy Graham, Marcedes Lewis, and a trio of receiver draftees are in) will make a run at the team’s sixth division title in the past eight years.
Minnesota will have to hope Kirk Cousins can adjust to his new home quickly. That shouldn’t be much of a problem — the franchise spun Sam Bradford and Case Keenum from straw into gold the past two seasons. The question is whether the Vikings can do it again, this time with a better pure QB talent but without the help of offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur.
5. NFC West
The Rams were a surprise division champion in 2017 after surrounding quarterback Jared Goff with weapons and trusting the second-year player to fulfill the potential that made him 2017’s top overall pick. While he passed with flying colors, he’ll face a tougher schedule than the year before and will be without Sammy Watkins, who led the team with eight touchdown receptions last season but has since signed with the Chiefs. Rather than replace him on the free agent market, Los Angeles doubled-down on defense, trading for Marcus Peters and bolstering an already-dominant line with Ndamukong Suh.
Behind them stand two teams heading in different directions. The Seahawks are shifting toward a rebuild after losing standouts like Richard Sherman, Michael Bennett, and Cliff Avril from the Legion of Boom defense ,and playmakers Paul Richardson and Jimmy Graham on the other side of the ball. The 49ers are boomeranging back from their rebuild behind Jimmy Garoppolo, who remains undefeated as a starting quarterback despite taking over a 1-10 team last season. San Francisco is ascending, and if last year’s late-season leap is transferrable that’ll be bad news for Goff’s hopes of a repeat.
6. NFC East
2017 champions: Philadelphia Eagles
2018 contenders: Dallas Cowboys
This isn’t an indictment of the Eagles. Philadelphia is built for success, especially if Wentz can return to his regular season MVP-frontrunner form (or, barring that, Foles is able to return to his Super Bowl MVP-winning form). But the NFC East is a strange beast, and we were similarly confident in an emerging Cowboys team’s grip atop the division heading into 2017.
The East hasn’t had a repeat winner since 2004 — which was, coincidentally, the Eagles. The NFC’s cauldron of chaos could claim another victim this year, though the Giants’ rebuild and flagging defense makes them a long shot to rise to the challenge. Washington will have an opportunity, but the team’s hopes will hinge on making a smooth transition from Kirk Cousins to Alex Smith behind center, as well as upgrading the league’s 22nd-ranked defense.
That leaves the 2016 East champs as Philadelphia’s greatest challenge. Both Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott suffered through sophomore slumps, but that duo should rebound in year three to pace a Dallas offense with several other question marks — namely, who will step up to fill the roles Dez Bryant and Jason Witten have left behind. If Prescott can return to his rookie year ways, he can be a massive thorn in the Eagles’ side.
7. AFC North
Baltimore hasn’t won the North since its Super Bowl-winning 2012 season. Yet with the exception of 2015, the Ravens have typically hung around the top of the division waiting to derail the Steelers. 2018 looks like no exception. John Harbaugh’s team has bulked up its receiving corps with Michael Crabtree, John Brown, Willie Snead, and 2018 tight end draftees Hayden Hurst and Mark Andrews. That should help ensure Joe Flacco doesn’t endure another season where he throws for fewer yards per pass than Packers backup Brett Hundley.
If they can jump-start the offense, they’ll have a shot at dethroning a Pittsburgh team that should be strong as ever this fall. While losing right tackle Chris Hubbard in free agency hurts and Ryan Shazier’s spinal injury leaves little depth at linebacker, the Steelers should be able to replicate last year’s impressive season.
8. AFC East
2017 champions: New England Patriots
2018 contenders: Uh ...
If anything happens to Tom Brady in 2018, there’s a chance the AFC East could be very, very bad. The Bills snuck into the playoffs last winter and promptly shipped their starting quarterback to Cleveland in order to bet on AJ McCarron, Nathan Peterman, and rookie Josh Allen behind center. The mismanaged Dolphins have hemorrhaged talent — this offseason alone saw Jarvis Landry, Mike Pouncey, and Ndamukong Suh all leave — and Ryan Tannehill’s uncertain health to rely on. The Jets outperformed expectations last year, but may still be another year away from contention.
That leaves the Patriots as an easy default pick, the same way they have been for the past 15 years. If Brady gets replaced by Brian Hoyer at any meaningful point, however, the East jumps up the rankings a few slots.