By Chris Wesseling
Around the NFL Writer
A wise old man on the barstool next to me once said the NFL season doesn’t truly begin until Thanksgiving. Now that the year’s final month is upon us, we can shed the lowly (49ers, Jaguars), the unfortunate (Bengals, Jets) and the woebegone (Panthers, Cardinals) in favor of concentrating on pole position for the playoff race in January.
At this point, we know the Cowboys are the league’s gold standard and the rebuilding Browns are the dregs. But how should we order the divisions? We know the NFC East has undergone a dramatic metamorphosis, emerging from last year’s cocoon to blossom as the class of the NFL. Let’s unpack the rest of the divisions, ranking them from strongest to weakest.
NFC Playoff Picture: Cowboys in control … then what?
The Debrief: Packers poised for late run?
Chadiha: Dolphins legit playoff contenders
Power Rankings: Raiders rise; Seahawks fall
Schein: Ranking the true Super Bowl LI contenders
Rosenthal: What’s next for Tony Romo?
1) NFC East: It’s a close call between the two most competitive divisions, but the NFC East gets the edge by dint of the NFL’s No. 1 team. Dallas not only boasts the league’s best record, longest winning streak and most well-balanced team, but also the largest point differential (plus-103). By season’s end, the Most Valuable Player debate might just boil down to Ezekiel Elliott vs. Dak Prescott vs. cries for the Cowboys’ earth-moving offensive line.
The rest of the division isn’t merely riding Jerry Jones’ coattails. The Giants and Redskins are holding down the fifth and sixth seeds in the NFC, with the latter group playing like one of the top half-dozen teams in the league over the past two months. Although the Eagles’ offense has struggled of late, they are advanced-metrics darlings, ranking second overall in Football Outsiders’ DVOA and fourth in weighted DVOA.
2) AFC West: Good luck finding a weak link. If not for incredibly rotten luck on the injury front and in the closing minutes of several losses, the Chargers would be contending with the Chiefs and Broncos for the division’s second-best record as well as the conference’s top wild-card spot. The flip side is that the football gods have shined on the Raiders as much as any other team in tightly fought games, in no small part due to Jack Del Rio’s much-ballyhooed “onions” and Derek Carr’s clutch passing. Per NFL.com Research, the AFC West boasts a stellar 22-8 (.733) record outside of the division, just a half-game behind the NFC East’s 22-7-1 (.750) performance.
3) AFC East: As has been their wont throughout the 21st century, the Patriots are running away with the division, enjoying the AFC view from the catbird seat. The suddenly frisky Dolphins are riding a six-game winning streak, while the rough-and-tumble Bills loom as the one team no AFC contender wants to see squeak into the playoffs. The wayward Jets are caught in a death spiral, wondering whether to rebuild or launch one more reload with an aging nucleus. The AFC East ranks third in out-of-division record (18-12) as well as point differential (plus-80).
4) NFC South: There’s a growing sense that the Saints and Buccaneers are closing the gap and perhaps even gearing up to overtake the Falcons as the class of the division. As impressive as those surging squads have been of late, the Falcons are easily tops in the NFC South. Forged by the fire of a grueling schedule, they have emerged as the NFL’s No. 1 scoring offense and the No. 2 team in Football Outsiders’ weighted metrics. The reigning NFC champions in Carolina are one of the most competitive 4-7 teams in recent history. Although these four teams are just 15-15 outside of the division, it can be argued that all four are playing their best ball of the season entering December.
5) AFC North: There’s very little separating the underwhelming divisions in the final tier. At 8-22-1, the AFC North has the worst out-of-division record in the league. So why give it a slight edge over the NFC West and NFC North? Start with point differential, where the AFC North has an advantage over the other two divisions. There’s also reason to believe the Steelers, Ravens and Bengals are better than their records. Pittsburgh and Baltimore are sixth and 12th, respectively, in Football Outsiders’ weighted metrics. Cincinnati’s injury-induced swoon doesn’t do justice to the team’s competitiveness in the first half of the season. At this point, the odds are in favor of Cleveland joining the 2008 Detroit Lions as the only 0-16 teams in NFL history.
6) NFC West: The 49ers haven’t won a game since their season opener. Breaking in a raw rookie quarterback who took 10 weeks to unseat the inimitable Case Keenum, the Rams’ annual 7-9 finish is a pipe dream this year. Although the Cardinals are one of the few teams with a losing record despite a positive point differential (plus-17), they rank with the Panthers among 2016’s biggest disappointments. Bruce Arians’ outfit has yet to notch a single quality win through three months of play. With a 10-20 record (.333) outside of the NFC West, this division’s only saving grace is Seattle. Staking their claim as the mentally toughest team of the era, the Seahawks are on a collision course with the Cowboys to meet in the NFC Championship Game.
7) NFC North: The NFC North boasts a better out-of-division record (13-17) than the two divisions listed above. So why the lack of respect here? Look no further than the top of the standings. The Lions’ 7-4 record is an illusion. Having been behind in the fourth quarter of every game this season, they rank just 25th in Football Outsiders’ metrics. Can their late-game magic sustain against a brutal remaining schedule with road matchups versus the Saints, Giants and Cowboys? The second-place team, Minnesota, has lost five of its past six games. The third-place team, Green Bay, just ended its own four-game skid. The last place team, Chicago, is playing backups at every single skill position on offense.
8) AFC South: This is where pro football’s doormat belongs every year until proven otherwise. For all of the offseason hype over a promising young division, the AFC South remains the NFL’s version of a tomato-can boxing opponent. A month ago, the Texans were the worst 6-3 team we had ever seen. Now they are perhaps the least impressive division leader ever to enter the month of December, closer to the bottom third of the league than the top third. Led by a hot-seat coach resorting to snake-oil sales as his broken quarterback continues to hold the organization hostage, the Jaguars are a money pit in need of yet another renovation. The architect and the overseer of the Colts’ threadbare roster are wasting the prime years of Andrew Luck’s career. Who would have thought that Mike Mularkey’s exotic smashmouth-practicing Titans would emerge as not only the most entertaining team in the division, but also the most promising?