AFC East or AFC North? Ranking the toughest divisions

Last season, it was a foregone conclusion that the AFC West was the toughest division in the NFL. Maybe one of the toughest divisions ever.

Well, not exactly.

The Kansas City Chiefs held up their end. They won the Super Bowl. And the Los Angeles Chargers did too, to an extent, making the playoffs before suffering an epic collapse in the wild-card round. The Denver Broncos and Las Vegas Raiders were big disappointments. It wasn’t the toughest division ever, or even the toughest of the 2022 NFL season.

Still, we can take a guess on which division will be the toughest (and easiest) this season. Here are our preseason rankings of the divisions, from weakest to strongest, with a tough call between No. 1 and 2:

Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson returned to the team with a huge new contract. (Jerry Jackson/The Baltimore Sun/Tribune News Service via Getty Images)
Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson returned to the team with a huge new contract. (Jerry Jackson/The Baltimore Sun/Tribune News Service via Getty Images)

8. NFC South

Figuring out last place wasn’t hard. Last season’s champions, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, were lucky to get to 8-9. And Tom Brady retired in the offseason. The New Orleans Saints could be improved with Derek Carr at quarterback, and the Atlanta Falcons might make big strides if quarterback Desmond Ridder is better than expected. The Carolina Panthers have a rookie quarterback, but Bryce Young should be a good one. At very least, the champion from this division should be over .500. We hope.

7. AFC South

When was the last time this division was among the few best in the NFL? The Jacksonville Jaguars are the clear favorite after a strong finish to last season. It’s thin after that. The Tennessee Titans flirted with an offseason fire sale, but didn’t end up trading Ryan Tannehill or Derrick Henry. The roster has a lot of holes though. The Indianapolis Colts and Houston Texans are coming off miserable seasons and both teams have rookie quarterbacks. It wouldn’t be a surprise if the Jaguars win the division by multiple games.

6. NFC North

The NFC North could be sneaky bad if the Detroit Lions don’t live up to the hype. The Minnesota Vikings are in for a huge regression after one of the most fortunate seasons ever, the Green Bay Packers have no idea what to expect from Jordan Love as he takes over for Aaron Rodgers (though he looked good this preseason) and the Chicago Bears earned that No. 1 overall pick in the 2023 NFL Draft after a three-win season. A lot of the division’s success might ride on the Lions, who last won the division in 1993 when it was the NFC Central.

5. NFC West

The bottom of the division drags the ranking down. The San Francisco 49ers and Seattle Seahawks should be fine. They both made the playoffs last season and seem like good bets to make it to the postseason again. Both teams have strong rosters and coaches. The Los Angeles Rams are rebuilding not long after winning a Super Bowl. And the Arizona Cardinals are favored to have the worst record in football.

4. AFC West

This division will be tougher if the Denver Broncos play up to the expectations they had last offseason. New Broncos head coach Sean Payton is a big upgrade, and perhaps he can fix Russell Wilson. The Kansas City Chiefs are going to be great again. You’re talking yourself into the Los Angeles Chargers’ big breakout season as we speak, because they tease us with the talent on the roster every year. The Las Vegas Raiders, well, maybe it won’t be as bad as last season.

3. NFC East

The NFC East had three playoff teams last season. The Philadelphia Eagles led in the fourth quarter of the Super Bowl and the Dallas Cowboys could have won a few other divisions last season. The Eagles and Cowboys are just as strong as last season and both should be back in the playoffs. The New York Giants are due for regression, but head coach Brian Daboll will get the most out of the roster. The Washington Commanders could be better than expected too if new quarterback Sam Howell emerges.

2. AFC North

There’s a good case to be made for the AFC North having four playoff-level teams. The Cincinnati Bengals are one of the best teams in the NFL. Big things are expected from the Cleveland Browns now that Deshaun Watson will be in the lineup from Week 1 on. The Baltimore Ravens managed to retain Lamar Jackson, and have a new offense that could push him to a higher level. And the Pittsburgh Steelers never put up a bad season under Mike Tomlin.

1. AFC East

You can talk yourself into the Buffalo Bills, Miami Dolphins or New York Jets winning a Super Bowl. The Bills were better last season than you remember, the Dolphins could have a top-five offense and defense, and the Jets got an Aaron Rodgers upgrade. You can also argue the New England Patriots, with a fantastic defense and an offense that will be improved after a much-needed coordinator change, will be one of the NFL’s surprise teams. The biggest problem for the AFC East teams is they have to play each other twice. This division will be a gauntlet.