It may not seem like it, but the start of the 2020 NFL season is now less than two weeks away. That September 10 game between the Houston Texans and Kansas City Chiefs will finally give us the opportunity to talk about actual NFL football again, but for now, there is still time to fire off some more preseason rankings. In this case, it's the turn of the eight NFL divisions.
To rank these divisions, I'll make use of PFF's 2020 NFL season simulations and the PFF Elo rankings that you may have seen on PFF.com over the past several seasons. PFF's Eric Eager explained the concept behind the Elo rankings in a piece this past April that gave an early look at what PFF's 2020 NFL Power Rankings looked like, though it should be noted that the rankings themselves have changed some since then.
At PFF, we use the machine-learning capabilities of AWS to infer what the score of a game should have been before running it through the system, meaning some teams will be given more or less credit than the final score of a game indicates, depending on circumstances. Between seasons, we regress PFF Elo to the league average of 1505 for a few different things, namely coach and quarterback changes. Finally, we regress the number towards the odds that a team will win the Super Bowl to come up with the final ranking.
There are a few of my own subjective calls in here, but as you'll see, those two figures — projected win totals and PFF Elo — will drive these rankings.
1. NFC West
Average team win total: 8.55 (1st)
Average team PFF Elo ranking: 1529 (1st)
I don't think many would be surprised that the NFC West fields what we believe to be the toughest competition in the NFL. Both the San Francisco 49ers and the Seattle Seahawks won 11 or more games in 2019. The Los Angeles Rams — though they are coming off a disappointing season — are only two years removed from a Super Bowl appearance. The Arizona Cardinals, meanwhile, are a clear fourth in the pecking order but aren't your run-of-the-mill bottom feeder since Kyler Murray is entering his second season in an offense that is clearly on the rise.
With the expanded playoffs set to include an additional wild-card team, there's a good chance that three of these teams make the postseason, but it will still likely come down to San Francisco and Seattle for the division title, just as it did last season in a Week 17 drama-filled affair.
The 49ers will turn to rookies Brandon Aiyuk and Javon Kinlaw to replace key contributors in Emmanuel Sanders and DeForest Buckner, but they still figure to be one of the Super Bowl favorites as the offense goes into another offseason under Kyle Shanahan's tutelage while the defense — one of the league's best — remains largely intact.
The Seahawks added several difference-makers in their secondary with the trades for Jamal Adams and Quinton Dunbar to support Russell Wilson. Will it be enough to offset a team that overperformed in 2019, though? The back-and-forth in this division should provide some of the best entertainment of the 2020 NFL season.
2. NFC SOUTH
Average team win total: 8.18 (3rd)
Average team PFF Elo ranking: 1519 (3rd)
The NFC South finished third in both average team win total and average team Elo ranking, but they finished a narrow third in each. Considering the two divisions below them on this list alternated second- and fourth-place finishes in those categories, I decided to give the NFC South the designation of second-toughest division in football heading into the 2020 NFL season.
There is a real argument to be made that the New Orleans Saints have the best roster in football. They were one of the best teams in the NFL this past season despite their early postseason exit, and they added key veterans such as Emmanuel Sanders and Malcolm Jenkins, who should play key roles on their team. They boast very few weaknesses from top to bottom. New Orleans just has to hope that Drew Brees' arm holds up late into the year.
Behind the Saints and 49ers, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are right in that next tier of Super Bowl contenders in the NFC. Tom Brady finished the 2019 season with the 12th-highest passing grade in the NFL — he's not as washed as some would have you believe — and now he goes to a significantly better passing-game environment, with receiving weapons like Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, Rob Gronkowski and O.J. Howard to choose from. The biggest thing to monitor with the Buccaneers is whether their defense continues the top-10 play that they closed the 2019 season with. If they do, Tampa Bay could be a formidable opponent next season.
The Atlanta Falcons are a bit of a wild card. They underperformed expectations this past season as the defense and the offensive line struggled to stop much of anyone. Matt Ryan found himself near the top of the list of quarterbacks most affected by pressure, and the offense wasn't quite the top-five group we have come to expect. They do still have an impressive trio of Ryan, Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley heading into next season, though. Their 2020 season will hinge on whether the offensive line can find some stability and whether the young secondary can hold up better than they did a year ago.
Lastly, the Carolina Panthers are a clear fourth in the NFC South totem pole. There are some things to like, specifically at the skill positions on offense. Teddy Bridgewater should serve as a nice upgrade over the quarterback play they got in 2019 from an injured Cam Newton, Kyle Allen and Will Grier. However, there are just too many question marks along the offensive line and throughout the defense to think that 2020 is the year Carolina makes a postseason push in a tough division.
3. AFC NORTH
Average team win total: 8.23 (2nd)
Average team ELO ranking: 1515 (4th)
The AFC North has some favorable divisional matchups with the AFC South and NFC East, which is why they come away with the second-best expected win total average. Still, there is also reason to believe that several teams in the division will be improved next year.
Obviously, for the Pittsburgh Steelers, it all comes down to getting back a healthy Ben Roethlisberger, and by all accounts, he is healthy. The Athletic's Mark Kaboly said of Roethlisberger in a recent training camp piece, “Roethlisberger looked good as he ever has. He has plenty of zip on the ball; he has shown some delicate touch; the decision-making has been solid, and, boy, has he been accurate.”
Getting even average play out of Big Ben would be a massive boost for an offense that saw some of the worst quarterback play in the NFL in 2019, and they figure to have one of the league's best defenses once again complementing the offense.
For the Cleveland Browns, the improvement is more focused around the arrival of Kevin Stefanski at head coach and the additions of players such as Jack Conklin, Jedrick Wills and Austin Hooper in the offseason. More specifically, it's focused on how those moves will impact Baker Mayfield. After a tremendous career at Oklahoma and a promising debut in Cleveland, things went off the rails for Mayfield and the Browns offense in 2019. The hope is that Stefanski can make things easier for him, though, similar to what he did with Kirk Cousins last season.
The Steelers, Browns and the Joe Burrow-led Cincinnati Bengals — a team that has reason for optimism now, even if they are still probably a year away from seriously contending — will be chasing the Baltimore Ravens for the AFC North title. The fact that Baltimore is favored in every single one of their games this season tells you just about all you need to know about their 2020 season outlook. MVP Lamar Jackson returns to lead what was the league's most efficient offense in 2019, and their defense should be among the best in the NFL, even without Earl Thomas III.
With all the young quarterbacks and a returning Big Ben, there should be plenty of intriguing quarterback matchups in the division this season.
4. AFC WEST
Average team win total: 8.13 (4th)
Average team ELO ranking: 1522 (2nd)
The Chiefs are putting in some major work in both the average projected team win total (11.2) and average Elo rankings (1653), coming in at a comfortable first in both categories ahead of Baltimore. As the reigning Super Bowl champs, and with Patrick Mahomes at the helm of one of the league's most talented offenses, it's hard to argue too much with that assessment.
The division gets more interesting after Kansas City. There are arguments to be made that each of the Denver Broncos, Las Vegas Raiders and Los Angeles Chargers could push for a playoff spot. The Broncos sport one of the league's most underrated rosters and have brought together a lot of high-level talent on offense for Drew Lock to work with. Meanwhile, the Raiders have taken steps to improve their defense through free agency and the 2020 NFL Draft and have some intriguing young pieces on offense around Derek Carr. Lastly, the Chargers have one of the most talented defenses in the NFL on paper, particularly with Derwin James and Chris Harris Jr. in the secondary.
Now for the question marks. Denver's season will hinge on Lock's development in his first season as a full-time starter. The five games we saw from him to end the 2019 season weren't enough to make a complete judgment, but he earned just a 58.1 PFF grade in those starts.
You can easily argue that quarterback is also a concern for the other two teams. Tyrod Taylor will get the start for Los Angeles, and while his tenure in Buffalo gives reason to believe he can have some success in Anthony Lynn's offense, it's also been a while since we've seen Taylor be a successful NFL quarterback.
On the other hand, the Raiders' biggest concern probably isn't Carr, but he isn't firmly in the “pros” column, either. Fielding even an average defense will be the biggest concern for Las Vegas, and that's something they've struggled to do of late.
The top of the division may not be all that competitive, but there should be plenty of competition between the next three teams.
5. NFC NORTH
Average team win total: 7.95 (5th)
Average team ELO ranking: 1501 (5th)
In my opinion, one of the biggest stories of this offseason is the lack of improvement and likely regression from teams at the top of the NFC North.
The Green Bay Packers failed to give Aaron Rodgers more pass-catching options to work with, even though this was one of the team's biggest needs heading into the offseason. Their only “major” addition at wide receiver, Devin Funchess, opted out of the 2020 NFL season.
The Minnesota Vikings, meanwhile, traded away Stefon Diggs and are set to undergo pretty heavy turnover on defense. And in Chicago, a lot will hinge on the quarterback position — and with Mitchell Trubisky and Nick Foles battling it out for that job, it's hard to feel too confident in their chances.
That gives the Detroit Lions what is probably the best chance in the NFL at going “worst to first.” Their offense was having success with a downfield passing attack before Matthew Stafford's injury last season, and despite the loss of Darius Slay, they did a decent job of adding to their defense (Jeffrey Okudah, Desmond Trufant, Duron Harmon, Jamie Collins, Danny Shelton, Julian Okwara, etc.). They still come in behind Minnesota and Green Bay in the projections, but the Lions making some noise in the NFC North is far from out of the question.
6. AFC SOUTH
Average team win total: 7.93 (6th)
Average team ELO ranking: 1493 (6th)
It would be a surprise if the Jacksonville Jaguars come out of the 2020 NFL season as AFC South champs, but it wouldn't be a big surprise if any of the other three teams did.
The Tennessee Titans are the favorites after making a run to the 2019 AFC Championship Game. Ryan Tannehill will have to show that the 2019 season wasn't a one-year mirage because it's him — not Derrick Henry — who was the catalyst in their offensive improvement.
The Houston Texans are dealing with several notable losses, the biggest of which is DeAndre Hopkins, but they still have Deshaun Watson, and that gives them a chance. The impact of a healthy J.J. Watt also shouldn't be discounted, as he showed early last season that he is still easily one of the most disruptive defensive linemen in the NFL.
The team that I'm higher on than many, though, is the Indianapolis Colts. Opinions of the Colts were high running into the 2019 season, but Andrew Luck's retirement and the ensuing shaky play from Jacoby Brissett put a halt to that optimism. Even if he doesn't come out like the Philip Rivers we saw in 2018, this version of Rivers behind the Colts' offensive line should be a nice upgrade. Defensively, the addition of DeForest Buckner will help along the defensive line, too.
7. AFC EAST
Average team win total: 7.63 (7th)
Average team ELO ranking: 1489 (7th)
Newton is simply a better player than Jarrett Stidham is right now. In our projections, the Patriots are once again favorites over the Buffalo Bills in the AFC East, despite losing six defenders who played 500 or more snaps for the team last year. It will be interesting to see how the offense changes with Newton because he and Tom Brady bring very different skill sets to the quarterback position.
From top to bottom, the Bills have one of the best rosters in the league. There just aren't many weak spots on their team, and their wide receiver trio of Stefon Diggs, John Brown and Cole Beasley gives Josh Allen plenty to work with on offense. The question is whether he can take the next step in his game and become a more accurate quarterback. It's hard to have sustained success when your quarterback is earning PFF grades in the mid-60s, which is exactly what Allen has done in each of the past two seasons.
The Miami Dolphins and New York Jets both invested heavily in improvements this offseason, both through free agency and the 2020 NFL Draft, but they should be a step behind both the Bills and Patriots. Both teams will need to see major improvement from their offensive lines after putting resources towards fixing those groups this offseason.
8. NFC EAST
Average team win total: 7.48 (8th)
Average team ELO ranking: 1472 (8th)
This once again figures to be a two-team race at the top of the division between the Dallas Cowboys and the Philadelphia Eagles. The conversation between those two teams is closely tied to their quarterbacks — Carson Wentz and Dak Prescott — who have each been the quarterback held in higher esteem at various points in their career.
A lot of that has had to do with the supporting casts. Wentz's near-MVP season in 2017 came with Alshon Jeffery and Nelson Agholor playing well alongside Zach Ertz and a strong offensive line, while Prescott's spike in 2019 came in his first full season with both Amari Cooper and Michael Gallup together. After adding CeeDee Lamb in the 2020 NFL Draft, the Cowboys project to have one of the most talented offenses in the NFL again this season. And that gives them the edge as division favorites heading into the season; they're projected to come away with one more win than the Eagles in 2020.
The Washington Football Team and New York Giants are in a similar boat with second-year quarterbacks who need to show signs of improvement in 2020. Daniel Jones will have the luxury of better offensive weapons than Dwayne Haskins (outside of Terry McLaurin), but both will be supported by questionable offensive lines and defenses. They have some of the lowest win projections in the NFL next season, which is a big reason the NFC East comes in last in these rankings.