Much of the NFL playoff picture every year depends on the strength of its four divisions in each conference.
Getting to the playoffs hinges on teams rising above the competition within their divisions.
With free agency and offseason player movement in full swing, those divisions already look different than they did in 2019. Teams have made big decisions about their futures, from spending money to re-signing players to making trades.
With the ever-shifting landscape, it's worthwhile to pause to evaluate where the divisions stand. We considered what each team has coming back and the steps they've taken to improve (or not).
Then we evaluated the top-to-bottom strength of the divisions. For instance, the Kansas City Chiefs are a Super Bowl contender, but with the Las Vegas Raiders, Denver Broncos and Los Angeles Chargers stuck in the middle of the pack or even further behind, the overall strength of the AFC West is not great.
8. NFC East
The Philadelphia Eagles were expected to be Super Bowl contenders in 2019 but fell short. They did, however, get strong play out of Carson Wentz for a full season and rallied to get to 9-7 after starting 5-7.
Philadelphia hasn't done a lot to get better in the offseason, though its trade for Darius Slay should impact the secondary and shore up a major weakness from last season. The Eagles also agreed to sign Javon Hargrave to improve their defensive front. So, the playoffs should once again be an expectation.
The Dallas Cowboys are an interesting team. They tagged Dak Prescott and are bringing back Amari Cooper, but they’ve suffered major losses on defense, including the departures of Robert Quinn, Maliek Collins, Byron Jones and Jeff Heath. The additions of Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and Gerald McCoy will help, but the defense could still take a step back.
The New York Giants and Washington Redskins were in transition last year, and that could continue in 2020.
Both will be looking to new head coaches to bring direction to the franchises, and both figure to start young quarterbacks in Daniel Jones and Dwayne Haskins. Blake Martinez and James Bradberry will help the Giants defense.
The Redskins took some good steps in building their roster. They placed the franchise tag on Brandon Scherff and brought in some experience with Kevin Pierre-Louis and Thomas Davis, but they shouldn't be expected to be a lot better than they were last season.
7. AFC West
One thing is for sure about the AFC West: The Chiefs will be Super Bowl contenders. The defending champions will probably have that distinction as long as Patrick Mahomes is starting at quarterback. Keeping Chris Jones around long-term after franchise-tagging him would be ideal, but there isn't much the Chiefs could do that will make them fall from contender status.
After that, it's anyone's guess.
The Broncos and Raiders finished 7-9 last season but have questions.
Denver is set to go forward with Drew Lock. The team went 4-1 with the rookie quarterback starting the final five games of the season, but we've seen first-year quarterbacks look solid only to stumble in their sophomore seasons (ask Cleveland Browns fans about Baker Mayfield). They Broncos are doing the right things. They added Graham Glasgow to bolster the offensive line and got Melvin Gordon III on a team-friendly deal. Tagging Justin Simmons will keep the secondary stable.
Las Vegas doesn't appear to be sold on Derek Carr as its quarterback of the future. Bringing in Marcus Mariota to compete gives it options, but neither is that trustworthy. Adding Cory Littleton and Nick Kwiatkoski to the defense was huge, but it's fair to wonder how much progress the defense can make after it finished 31st in defensive DVOA last season.
The Chargers were one of the biggest disappointments of 2019. After finishing 12-4 in 2018, the bottom fell out. Philip Rivers is moving on, which means the team is likely to roll with a rookie or Tyrod Taylor at quarterback. Neither option inspires much confidence that they'll be competitive in 2020.
6. NFC North
The North was one of two NFC divisions with two teams in the playoffs last season, but it could struggle to duplicate that feat.
The first-year pairing of Matt LaFleur with Aaron Rodgers was a success. The Green Bay Packers made it to the NFC Championship Game after going 13-3 in the regular season. They've lost a key starter on each side of the ball, however, in Bryan Bulaga and Blake Martinez. They did a nice job of finding fill ins for each with Rick Wagner and Christian Kirksey.
The Minnesota Vikings may be in for some regression. Not only did they lose offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski, but they also traded Stefon Diggs, which will change the offense. On defense, they've lost Trae Waynes, Linval Joseph, Mackensie Alexander and are reportedly going to lose Everson Griffen. Even though they retained Anthony Harris, that's a lot to lose from one unit.
The Chicago Bears are coming off a season in which they played great defense. Matt Nagy's team once again invested in that side of the ball with the signing of Robert Quinn to replace the departing Leonard Floyd. On offense, they traded for Nick Foles to bring competition to the quarterback position for Mitchell Trubisky, who regressed in nearly every statistical category from 2018.
The Detroit Lions will play the role of underdog in the division. They were 3-4-1 with Matthew Stafford as the quarterback last season before he was injured and the wheels came off. The Lions have done well to bring in players that fit their needs. Desmond Trufant will be a good replacement for Darius Slay, whom they traded. Jamie Collins should add a veteran presence to the linebacker room and familiarity with Matt Patricia's defense. Halapoulivaati Vaitai will fill in at tackle for Rick Wagner.
5. AFC East
The New England Patriots' stranglehold on the AFC East is going to be difficult to maintain in 2020. With Tom Brady headed to the NFC South and Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the Buffalo Bills could emerge as the favorites.
Don't count out the Patriots, though. It's easy to forget Brady's Pats won the division on the strength of a stingy defense and an offense that was just OK last season. The Pats were 11th in offensive DVOA last season and No. 1 in defensive DVOA.
The Bills also had an elite defense but need the offense to take a step forward next season. Josh Allen will enter his third year with his first No. 1 receiving threat in Stefon Diggs. They've also added Quinton Jefferson and Mario Addison on defense, which should help avoid regression on that side of the ball. Buffalo has made the moves necessary to become the new favorite in the division.
The New York Jets were about as up and down as a team can get in 2019. They got off to a terrible start without Sam Darnold as Adam Gase struggled to get things going, but they rallied to finish 6-2. That sounds nice, but it included one-possession wins over the Bills (who rested starters in Week 17), Miami Dolphins and Pittsburgh Steelers and a loss to the Cincinnati Bengals. Their investments in the offensive line don't inspire a ton of confidence. Connor McGovern was a good addition, but George Fant and Alex Lewis aren't that exciting.
The Dolphins were a mess last season but should be competitive within the division on any given week. Major investments in the defense—Byron Jones, Kyle Van Noy, Emmanuel Ogbah and Shaq Lawson—were needed.
4. AFC North
There's a reason to be optimistic about all four teams in the AFC North.
The Baltimore Ravens disappointed in the playoffs, but no one was better in the regular season. Teams have a full season's worth of film to break down on Lamar Jackson and devise schemes to slow him down. They won't be able to fully stop him, but it will be difficult for Baltimore to go 14-2 again. Still, it will be a Super Bowl contender.
Pittsburgh remained relevant despite subpar quarterback play from Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges. It retained Bud Dupree and one of the better one-two pass-rushing combos in the league with him and T.J. Watt. That doesn't seem like much, but the Steelers are rarely bad. They haven't had a losing season since 2003, and the return of Ben Roethlisberger will give them a chance to keep that streak going.
The Browns were offseason darlings in 2019, but reality hit hard. Freddie Kitchens fell flat in his first and only season as the head coach. However, the team made good additions with Austin Hooper and Jack Conklin highlighting the free-agency signings. The breakout may still happen. This year is critical, though. Baker Mayfield will be in his third season, Cleveland has surrounded him with all the talent he needs to be successful.
The Bengals were bad last season, and it's going to take more than just Joe Burrow to turn that around. At least they proved they are willing to open the checkbook with big-money signings of D.J. Reader and Trae Waynes. It's a step in the right direction, but the best thing Cincinnati has right now is hope. If the team can rally behind Burrow and play with fire, it'll win a few more games than it did last season.
3. AFC South
The AFC South is traditionally unpredictable, and it was competitive last season. This year should be no different, as there is a good case to be made for each of the top three teams to be the best of the four.
Bill O'Brien is questionable as a general manager, to put it mildly. His decision to trade DeAnde Hopkins to the Arizona Cardinals in a deal that brought David Johnson and a second-round pick was not a good one.
However, O'Brien the coach has helped the Houston Texans achieve consistent results. They've had just one losing season in his six seasons at the helm. The last two seasons have been their most successful, which coincides with Deshaun Watson's run as the starting quarterback. Watson returns, and even though it will be harder for him to achieve results without his main target, he is still capable of carrying the offense.
The Tennessee Titans ended the season as one of the hottest teams in the league. They rode Derrick Henry to the AFC Championship Game and brought him back on the franchise tag along with an extension for Ryan Tannehill. They lost Jack Conklin to the Browns, but re-signing Dennis Kelly should help soften the blow.
The Colts were as middle of the road as it gets last season, but that's actually impressive when you consider Andrew Luck's sudden retirement before the season. Going 7-9 without your franchise quarterback bodes well moving forward, especially now that Indianapolis has a plan in place.
Bringing in Philip Rivers to play quarterback and trading for DeForest Buckner shows the Colts are ready to win now. They can take the next step in 2020.
The Jacksonville Jaguars are the only team that brings this division down. They've shipped off Calais Campbell and A.J. Bouye, and Yannick Ngakou made it clear he doesn't want to be part of future plans. They are in a rebuild, and this division could make them look like they are tanking even if they aren't.
2. NFC South
There's going to be a lot of scoring in the NFC South in 2020.
Three of the four teams in the division ranked in the top half of the league in points last year. The Buccaneers tied the New Orleans Saints for third and swapped out Jameis Winston for Tom Brady. New Orleans got Drew Brees back. The Atlanta Falcons were 13th and brought in Todd Gurley II and Hayden Hurst to replace Devonta Freeman and Austin Hooper.
The division has a bona fide Super Bowl contender in the Saints. They've had terrible luck in the playoffs, but Brees' consistency should have them back in the hunt. Teddy Bridgewater is the only free agent of note they lost.
In addition to Gurley and Hurst, the Falcons added Dante Fowler Jr., which should help the pass rush. The continuity within the organization should also help them remain competitive.
Brady's presence gives the Buccaneers a new swagger. They are one of the most interesting teams in the league now, but it's worth noting the offense wasn't the problem last season. Jameis Winston's 30 interceptions were compounded by a defense that ranked 29th in points allowed. But betting against Brady's team to make the playoffs would be difficult.
The Carolina Panthers were the division's worst team in 2019, but even they should be better. With Cam Newton injured, the team was forced to play Kyle Allen and Will Grier, which held it back. Now, Teddy Bridgewater will take over with Matt Rhule stepping in and providing a new vision for the team.
1. NFC West
It doesn't get tougher than the NFC West.
The division has provided the NFC with its Super Bowl representative in back-to-back seasons with the Los Angeles Rams and San Francisco 49ers. The Seattle Seahawks have made the playoffs in seven of the past eight seasons.
Kyle Shanahan is one of the best head coaches in the league. San Francisco's turnaround was nothing short of remarkable, and it made moves to ensure it keeps going. The Niners got a first-round pick for DeForest Buckner and re-signed Arik Armstead and Jimmie Ward. Losing Buckner will hurt, but they can use the extra pick to continue to build the roster.
The Seahawks have proved they deserve the benefit of the doubt, but free agency hasn't been kind to them. They added a questionable pair of tackles in Brandon Shell and Cedric Ogbuehi. On defense, they brought back Bruce Irvin to help repair the pass-rush. Jarran Reed was the most important piece they signed.
It only took one season for Sean McVay to lose some of his shine. The young head coach and the Rams went from the Super Bowl to out of the playoffs. Now they are stuck in salary-cap purgatory. Their biggest move was releasing Todd Gurley II and bidding adieu to Clay Matthews. However, they've made a few under-the-radar signings that could help: A'Shawn Robinson and Leonard Floyd.
There's still a lot of talent on the roster, and McVay didn't forget how to coach in one season.
So what about the presumed worst team in the division?
Oh, the Cardinals just traded for an elite wide receiver in DeAndre Hopkins. They'll enter the season with second-year quarterback Kyler Murray throwing to Hopkins, Larry Fitzgerald, Christian Kirk and Kenyan Drake.
When that's what the worst team in the division brings to the table, you have the best division in the league.