Vikings head coach Kevin O'Connell (left) and QB J.J. McCarthy. Nick Wosika/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

1 X-Factor That Can Significantly Impact Each NFL Division Race in 2024

Maurice Moton

Every year, NFL teams fall out of division races while others rise in the standings to earn a playoff spot. Four different teams won a division title between the 2022 and 2023 seasons.

Last year, Joe Burrow's health dramatically changed the complexion of the AFC North, while C.J. Stroud's standout rookie campaign catapulted the Houston Texans to the playoffs in the AFC South.

The Philadelphia Eagles' questionable coaching opened the door for the Dallas Cowboys to win the NFC East, and the Detroit Lions' growth led them to their first division title since 1993 in the NFC North.

Here, we'll examine one X-factor that could impact each division race in the upcoming season. Some of them obvious; others a little more subtle.

AFC East: Aaron Rodgers Jelling with His Pass-Catchers

Jets QB Aaron Rodgers Sarah Stier/Getty Images

Aaron Rodgers' return should elevate the New York Jets offense.

After the quarterback tore his Achilles in the Jets' 2023 season opener, Gang Green cycled through three backups—Zach Wilson, Trevor Siemian and Tim Boyle—and finished the campaign with the fewest passing touchdowns and third-fewest passing yards.

A Rodgers-led passing attack won't sink that low in passing categories, but he hasn't had time to build a rapport with his receivers in live action.

Remember, the 40-year-old didn't light up defenses with the Green Bay Packers' relatively young receiver corps following Davante Adams' departure to the Las Vegas Raiders in 2022. In that year, Green Bay fielded the 17th-ranked passing offense.

Though Garrett Wilson has the potential to develop into an elite receiver, he's yet to play a full game with Rodgers. Malachi Corley is a rookie, and the team hasn't cleared Mike Williams (torn ACL) to practice.

With the team's reported concerns about Nathaniel Hackett's play-calling (h/t SNY's Connor Hughes), we cannot assume the Jets offense takes off like a rocket. If it does, though, Gang Green should contend for the AFC East title.

AFC North: Lamar Jackson's Pass Protection

Ravens QB Lamar Jackson Adam Glanzman/Getty Images

Lamar Jackson is a three-time Pro Bowler and two-time All-Pro coming off his second MVP campaign. As a starter, he's 58-19.

As we all know, a quarterback needs protection and playmakers to earn those accolades and lead his team to victories.

Jackson has the playmakers in All-Pro/Pro Bowl tight end Mark Andrews and electric wide receiver Zay Flowers, but the Baltimore Ravens offensive line will feature three new starters.

They traded right tackle Morgan Moses to the New York Jets and let guards John Simpson and Kevin Zeitler (a 2023 Pro Bowler) walk in free agency.

Baltimore could use inexperienced replacements to fill those voids. Andrew Vorhees and Ben Cleveland will compete for the open guard spots.

Vorhees missed his entire rookie campaign while recovering from a torn ACL, and Cleveland has only started in seven games through three seasons.

Rookie second-rounder Roger Rosengarten will likely compete with Daniel Faalele for the right tackle spot. The latter has started in one NFL outing.

By the way, left tackle Ronnie Stanley has missed 36 games since 2020.

Unless versatile sixth-year offensive lineman Patrick Mekari cracks the starting lineup at right tackle or right guard, Jackson may be vulnerable in a shaky pocket.

Jackson slimmed down to his rookie weight of 205 pounds, which should make the coaching staff a bit uneasy with a makeshift offensive line. If the Ravens struggle to protect him, the Cleveland Browns and Pittsburgh Steelers could dominate Baltimore with defenses that finished within the top 11 in pressure rate last season.

AFC South: Trevor Lawrence's Development

Jaguars QB Trevor Lawrence David Rosenblum/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

We expect C.J. Stroud to further ascend in the quarterback hierarchy after he won 2023 Offensive Rookie of the Year.

Beyond that, the AFC South has a lot of question marks at the position.

Nonetheless, Anthony Richardson and Will Levis are likely to go through ups and downs because of inexperience. They both have fewer than 10 career starts.

However, Jacksonville Jaguars quarterback Trevor Lawrence has been in the league for three years, and he's still a wild-card player who can help his team win a playoff contest or cost his squad games because of turnovers.

The 24-year-old made a big leap between his rookie and second seasons, thanks to an upgraded coaching staff led by lead skipper Doug Pederson. In 2022, he put together a Pro Bowl year, and the Jaguars won a playoff game.

However, at the end of the 2023 season, Pederson noted the team's poor ball security, which is an alert to Lawrence who turned the ball over 21 times (14 interceptions and lost seven fumbles).

The Jaguars selected the Clemson product with the No. 1 overall pick in the 2021 draft, and he may get an extension this offseason. Yet we have no idea if he will continue to regress or play up to expectations of his draft pedigree in 2024.

Based on Lawrence's performances over the last two years, the Jaguars could be a sub-.500 team or the biggest threat to the Texans for the AFC South title.

AFC West: Jim Harbaugh's Winning Formula

Chargers HC Jim Harbaugh (left) and QB Justin Herbert (right) Harry How/Getty Images

Going back to Jim Harbaugh's first head coaching job with San Diego Toreros, he has elevated or turned around football teams—college and pro—in a short period.

With the exception of his stint at Stanford, he has led a winning team in his first year at every stop in his career as a head coach.

The Los Angeles Chargers could rise from the AFC West basement to pose the biggest threat to the Kansas City Chiefs' eight-year reign over the division.

While that sounds like a joke in May, Harbaugh's track record suggests the Chargers may finally play up to offseason hype.

The 60-year-old has brought former Michigan defensive coordinator Jesse Minter with him to the pros. He called plays for a defense that allowed the fewest points per game (10.4) across the nation in 2023.

Minter will work with two high-level pass-rushers, Khalil Mack and Joey Bosa, and the Chargers also drafted Michigan defensive standout Junior Colson.

Harbaugh also hired offensive coordinator Greg Roman, who served in the same role on his San Francisco 49ers coaching staff between 2011 and 2014.

The Chargers jettisoned wideouts Keenan Allen and Mike Williams and allowed running back Austin Ekeler to walk in free agency, but they're built to run the ball effectively, which is a staple with Harbaugh-coached teams and Roman's offenses.

Los Angeles has three recent first-rounders along its offensive line, and the team signed running backs J.K. Dobbins and Gus Edwards.

If Dobbins and Edwards can stay healthy, quarterback Justin Herbert won't have to rely heavily on his pass-catchers to carry the Chargers offense.

Because of Harbaugh's track record, L.A. will again garner buzz going into the regular season, but the NFL has changed since his last head coaching stint with the 49ers.

Harbaugh's winning formula could be an elixir for an underachieving franchise or an expired recipe that needs a few tweaks.

NFC East: Dan Quinn's Culture Reset in Washington

Commanders HC Dan Quinn Scott Taetsch/Getty Images

The Washington Commanders selected quarterback Jayden Daniels with the No. 2 overall pick in the 2024 draft. He represents hope for the franchise.

That said, Washington needs more than a rookie quarterback to change the outlook of its future.

The Commanders haven't finished a season with a winning record since 2016. They won the NFC East with a 7-9 record in 2020, but the franchise couldn't sustain its spot atop the division with mediocrity.

Head coach Dan Quinn must change their losing culture.

In his first stint as a head coach, he led the Atlanta Falcons to the Super Bowl within two years after the team finished 6-10 in 2014.

On his way to Washington, Quinn brought along defenders who played under him while he served as the Dallas Cowboys defensive coordinator.

Linebacker Bobby Wagner wanted to reunite with the 53-year-old in Dallas before joining him in Washington. He played under the former defensive coordinator in Seattle. Washington signed savvy veterans Austin Ekeler and Zach Ertz, who are both past their prime years but can help Daniels along in his development.

While Daniels will have the spotlight in Washington, Quinn's experience and the veteran leadership in the locker room could take the Commanders a long way in the NFC East division race.

NFC North: Vikings' Unsettled QB Situation

Vikings QB J.J. McCarthy Nick Wosika/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Minnesota Vikings are a middling team with a bevy of offensive playmakers and an open competition for the starting quarterback position.

The winner of the Vikings' QB battle between Sam Darnold and rookie first-rounder J.J. McCarthy will determine the team's ceiling in the upcoming campaign.

Head coach and offensive play-caller Kevin O'Connell fielded a top-five passing offense in yards and touchdowns with four different starting signal-callers last season.

After Kirk Cousins tore his Achilles, the Vikings acquired Joshua Dobbs and started him along with Jaren Hall and Nick Mullens. The backups either failed to move the ball with consistency or struggled with turnovers.

Cousins' departure in free agency has created an opportunity for Darnold to show he's a serviceable starter after bouncing around the NFL.

If he doesn't win the job or loses it during the season, McCarthy has a good enough arm (strength and accuracy) and the mobility to manage the offense with the help of O'Connell's play-calling.

If Darnold or McCarthy put together average performances with All-Pro/Pro Bowl wideout Justin Jefferson, budding second-year receiver Jordan Addison and two-time Pro Bowl tight end T.J. Hockenson, the Vikings could have a bounce-back year in the NFC North standings.

NFC South: Each Team Adjusting to a New Offensive System

Falcons QB Kirk Cousins Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

In the NFC South, the X-factor applies to each team: Will one of these clubs see immediate progress on offense with a new play-caller?

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers retained the core of their offensive personnel from the previous season, but they lost offensive coordinator Dave Canales, who became the Carolina Panthers' head coach.

The New Orleans Saints hired offensive coordinator Klint Kubiak to replace Pete Carmichael.

The Atlanta Falcons and Carolina Panthers have new offensive coaching staffs. The Falcons also have a new starting quarterback in Kirk Cousins.

In a league that's heavily emphasized scoring—with offensive players taking the first 14 spots in the 2024 draft—the winner of the NFC South may be the team that's first to find its offensive groove.

None of the offensive shot-callers in the division have more than one full year of play-calling experience.

The Panthers are at a disadvantage because of Bryce Young's inexperience, which may leave Cousins, Derek Carr with the Saints and Mayfield with the Buccaneers to battle for the NFC South title as they learn new systems.

NFC West: Mike Macdonald's Impact on Seahawks Defense

Seahawks HC Mike Macdonald Steph Chambers/Getty Images

One can argue that despite an inconsistent offense, the Seattle Seahawks could have made the playoffs with a stronger defense last season.

In 2023, they finished 9-8 with a middling scoring offense (17th) and one of the league's worst defenses, ranking 25th in points allowed and giving up the third-most yards.

Seattle starting quarterback Geno Smith has put together back-to-back Pro Bowl campaigns, and he has one of the league's best wide receiver trios with DK Metcalf, Tyler Lockett and Jaxon Smith-Njigba on the perimeter.

Though the Seahawks made changes on the interior of their offensive line, signing 10th-year veteran Laken Tomlinson and taking Christian Haynes in the third round of the 2024 draft, they could have a decent offensive attack under new offensive coordinator Ryan Grubb.

Nonetheless, head coach and defensive play-caller Mike Macdonald can take some pressure off the offense and lead the club to the playoffs with a dominant defense.

As the Baltimore Ravens defensive coordinator in 2022 and 2023, the 36-year-old fielded a top-three scoring unit and a top-nine group in yards allowed.

If that trend continues, the Seahawks may have a defense that can slow down the Los Angeles Rams' and San Francisco 49ers' top-eight scoring offenses in division matchups.

Macdonald will call plays for a talented group that includes Boye Mafe, who led the team with nine sacks last year, Jarran Reed, Leonard Williams and Dre'Mont Jones on the front line. Also, Seattle has a few recent Pro Bowlers in the secondary, Riq Woolen, Julian Love and Devon Witherspoon.

With those playmakers, the Seahawks could field a top-10 defense that can help them contend for the NFC West title.

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Maurice Moton covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @MoeMoton.


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