The AFC West was the NFL’s best division in 2016. They were the only division in football with two 12-win teams, while the Broncos won nine games and had one of the best defenses in football. The Chargers weren’t an easy out, either; they dealt with some of the worst injury luck in all of football, yet still had a chance to win most of their games going into the fourth quarter. They were 5-11, but nine losses came by one-score or less.
The NFC East wasn’t all that far behind. They were the only NFC division to send two double-digit-win teams to the playoffs, while the Eagles and Redskins were in the hunt going into December. This division could be even better in 2017 if the Eagles emerge in Carson Wentz’ second year, while the Cowboys and Giants have rosters that would be severely disappointed with anything less than a playoff appearance.
The AFC East was predictably dominated by the Patriots, but the Dolphins won a surprising 10 games en route to their first playoff appearance since 2008. The Bills and Jets were disappointments, but the division was one of only three to poise two 10-win teams in all of football.
So who will this year’s top dog be? The NFC South.
This shouldn’t be shocking since the Panthers and Falcons represent both the MVP trophy and NFC champions in consecutive seasons. Despite losing both Super Bowls, it still speaks volumes to the level of elite competition at the top of the division.
The Falcons are loaded, and I don’t think we’ll see a “Super Bowl hangover” from them a la the 2016 Panthers — they did a great job of returning most of their roster as they’re set to play in a brand new stadium in 2017. Their defense was the weak link last year, but they’re going into their third year under defensive-minded Head Coach Dan Quinn and have the talent to make great improvements going into 2017. I think we’ll see them in the playoffs for the second year in a row.
About those Panthers… Last year was a disastrous season after a historic 2015 year in which Cam Newton won the MVP and led the Panthers to a 15-1 regular season record. In that magical season, the Panthers were 14-0 when leading at halftime. Last year, that record dropped to 6-4 in such cases. They struggled to sustain leads in part because of their incompetent run game and disastrous offensive line. Rookies Christian McCaffrey and Curtis Samuel should help the offense be more unpredictable, while Kelvin Benjamin should be a lot better after a fully healthy offseason. I think the Panthers defense will be better in 2017, and I expect them to compete atop the division after taking 2016 off.
The Buccaneers are a team that a lot of people are high on going into 2017, and rightfully so. They had a solid second half of the year last season; they were in the hunt for a playoff spot after winning five straight from Weeks 10-14, but lost two of their last three to close the year. Thanks in large part to the additions of DeSean Jackson and OJ Howard, I think we’ll see a much-improved Jameis Winston going into his third year. Their defense is already strong — it’s really on the offense to take the next step in Tampa Bay. I’m betting they take that step in 2017.
The Saints have underachieved for years because of their incompetent defense; It’s been one of the worst units in all of football for three straight seasons, all of which resulted in 7-9 records for the Saints. Seven of those nine losses in 2016 were by seven points or less; one-score games are typically coin flips, and I expect them to see better results in 2017. Because of how strong the top of the division is, the Saints have gone overlooked going into the upcoming season, even with the addition of Adrian Peterson. How much he has left in the tank is yet to be seen, but the Saints’ offense should strive with or without his production because of Drew Brees and their passing attack. If they can run the ball, control the game script and keep their defense off the field, we can see the Saints make some noise for the first time in a while.