The NFL preseason kicks off August 1 with the Hall of Fame Game. I can’t wait! It feels the same as when I was a kid on Christmas Eve! There is the excitement of how the draft picks are going to affect each team, how some of the free agent pickups are going to help or hurt a team, and getting to see how the coaching changes, not just head, but defensive and offensive coordinators can make a difference, good or bad.
With so much changing from year-to-year, it’s no wonder we can get some surprises in tight divisional races. I like to formulate images in my head to illustrate my thoughts on things. When thinking about the recent history of division winners in the NFL, I could not help but think of a merry go round. Over the last 17 years, every team in the NFL has a division title, except for the Buffalo Bills, Detroit Lions, and Cleveland Browns. Of course the merry go round does not apply to the AFC East, where the New England Patriots have won the division every year since 2003, except 2008 when they still went 11-5 but missed the playoffs on a tiebreaker with the Miami Dolphins. No one is even close to the Patriots accomplishments (16 division titles) since realignment in 2002. The Indianapolis Colts and Green Bay Packers have nine division titles each in that time, while Pittsburgh and Seattle each have eight.
There are a number of divisions that could be up for grabs, but I’m going to focus on two where there can be three potential winners.
The NFC North is the one that I think anyone can win.
I know the Bears had a great defense last year with the best defensive DVOA as they finished first in scoring defense and third in yards allowed. However, their offense finished 20th in DVOA and would have been even worse had the defense not been so dominant. Mitchell Trubisky made huge strides last year statistically. I think that was all smoke and mirrors, though. Matt Nagy is the kind of guy that has an offense I think looks very appealing to the eye when watching the broadcast on television. I do not believe that it is the kind of offense that can sustain winning like they did last year because of the lack of explosive plays (they finished 19th in 2018). I believe that they cannot count on continuously running so many plays each drive without committing one of the classic drive killers. I think we will see the Bears revert back to what we thought they were, a team that is middle of the pack and might win a spot in the playoffs.
Many have predicted the Minnesota Vikings to win the division. Kirk Cousins still has many questions to answer. I said on my podcast at the beginning of the season that I thought he was one of nine or so quarterbacks who could win a Super Bowl. I still believe that, but he may not if he does not show a huge improvement this year. The Vikings barely cracked the top-10 in total DVOA last year and their creativity on offense is part of that. With Diggs and Thielen, that should open up everything else offensively, if they use them properly. But they continue to throw so much outside the numbers and let linebackers hang it out in the middle short to play the run and free to blitz without worrying much about the consequences in the middle of the field.
The Green Bay Packers still have who many consider the best quarterback in the game (though I don’t have him in the top-three currently playing) and have a new coach, which that community seems to think may be the answer. I personally refuse to think it gets any better unless they have a QB whisperer who can get Rodgers to run the offense like a real quarterback. He is extremely talented, don’t get me wrong, but he goes through stretches where I am convinced he is not making a post-snap read or going through progressions, but instead is looking down at the defensive line waiting on a chance to leave the pocket. He takes too many hits that way and although the big plays come sometimes, I think it is net negative. I do not see that changing nor do I see their 29th-ranked defense by DVOA improving enough.
Then there are the Detroit Lions. Many pegged Matt Patricia as the one who could not get them going. Year 1 did not produce great results. I do believe it is ultimately the coach’s responsibility but in this case, it may be time for a quarterback change. Stafford dipped to his lowest yards per completion and attempt and his worst QBR in the last nine years. The “throwing from all arm angles” thing is worn out and means nothing, especially if routine plays can’t be made. He needs to move his feet, stand stronger in the pocket, and recognize and get rid of the ball sooner. Patricia may not even have the authority to ask for another quarterback right now in this early part of his head coaching tenure.
There are so many things on these teams that can be improved, and quite frankly there is plenty of talent to easily make that jump, that any of these teams, even the Lions, can win. I believe the Vikings win the division with the Packers finishing second, the Bears third and the Lions only a game or two behind them.
The AFC North is probably more up for grabs than its counterpart in the NFC.
Last year it was the closest division race from top to bottom with only four games separating first from last.
As bad as the Bengals looked at times, they still have the talent to easily put together a plan on the field that can win that division. I don’t know if their new coach, Zac Taylor, is the answer but there will be a spark, for sure. In Taylor’s five-game stint as interim offensive coordinator for the Miami Dolphins back in 2015, they went 2-3 and averaged 17 points per game. He also didn’t exactly create fireworks in college at Cincinnati. Now he has much more talent to use in Gio Bernard and Joe Mixon, A.J. Green at wide receiver and a solid tight end in Tyler Eifert. I think that alone will allow them to jump right up in this mediocre division and almost win 10 games. When I say almost, I do not mean eight or nine. I mean they will win six but get really close to a win in four more games.
The Pittsburgh Steelers lost Antonio Brown, Jesse James, and Le’Veon Bell (well he really did not do them much good last year when they had his rights anyway). But they still have Big Ben, who set a career high for touchdown passes last year and had the lowest interception rate in his last five years. They finished ninth in overall DVOA and were fifth in yards per drive, which allowed them to help their defense on offense. They are a team that makes themselves difficult to prepare for because of their diversity on both sides of the ball.
Of course, there is everyone’s darlings, the Cleveland Browns. They have tons of talent at wide receiver, running back, and if you are a Mayfield believer, quarterback. I think he will be very good in a few years. He has to eliminate the mistakes that he makes while playing outside the offensive game plan, although I do know that with a player like him it is definitely a gift and a curse. Their defense is underrated, finishing in the top third of the league by DVOA (12th). As a team, if you just look at the recent games after they had adjusted to a change in offense during the middle of the year, they finished in the top-third, statistically. There is tremendous potential for sure and while this certainly could be their year, I am not sure a first-year head coach with such a wide array of outgoing personalities can be controlled in the media and in the locker room. This will cause problems that we may never know about and that will cost them wins.
Finally, there is last year’s division winner, the Baltimore Ravens. Baltimore finished with the best record in the AFC North in spite of one of the most off-target quarterbacks I have seen in awhile. However, Lamar Jackson could run the ball and the Ravens were creative enough to figure out how to use him effectively. Their defense is still outstanding. as is customary in Baltimore. Their special teams really helped them out as well. Their inability to throw the ball came back to haunt them in the playoffs when teams are truly willing to sell out to stop what you do, not what you should be able to do. That was shown in the playoff game with the Los Angeles Chargers. I think this offense will go the way of the San Francisco 49ers offense with Colin Kaepernick. Remember how they were so effective that first year and then teams seemed to figure out how to stop them? I think that begins to happen here and they lose some low scoring games that they won last year.
I see the AFC North finishing Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Cincinnati, and Baltimore. Obviously, that is a bold prediction taking the Ravens from first to last but I call it where I see it. Zac Taylor has a ton to do with whether Cincinnati can vault past Baltimore or not, but I think they can and will. I do think it will be the closest race again coming down to the final two weekends.