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The NFL standings are very muddy. Scoring is down and a lot of games, while close, still lack much pizzaz. Through seven weeks, things feel awfully weird.
I’ve sorted through a lot of it to rank the divisions by intrigue, and they hardly stack up the way I would have predicted in August.
NFL Divisional Intrigue Rankings
No. 1 – AFC East
Hey, the Jets are only half a game behind the Bills, a team virtually everyone concedes is the AFC’s best. Miami endured two-plus games without Tua Tagovailoa, losing all three, but the Dolphins are an intriguing upstart with the QB who has the best yards per attempt in the NFL (9.0) under Mike McDaniel.
The Jets suffered a terrible loss in Breece Hall and immediately made an aggressive move to try to patch the hole, trading for James Robinson from the Jaguars. The Patriots, meanwhile, blew a chance to pull even with Miami with Monday night’s upset by the Bears, which left them mired in a QB debate and in last place.
I can’t see the Bills not winning this division, and probably pulling away in doing so. But the fight between the other three should be highly entertaining and with two of them being long-suffering franchises who had big offseasons, It’s the most intriguing division in football.
Top storylines: The Bills talked to the Panthers about Christian McCaffery. Do they make a move before the deadline for a back, perhaps Kareem Hunt? Does Tagovailoa avoid further injury? Can Zach Wilson up his game? Who’s the Patriots QB?
No. 2 – NFC East
This group has the most wins of any division in the league. Philadelphia is the only undefeated team and the Giants are the breakthrough story of the season. Those two teams play Dec. 11 at MetLife Stadium and on the final Sunday of the season in Philadelphia.
Meanwhile, we can’t count out the Cowboys and their second-rated scoring and sixth-rated yardage defense. They’ve beaten the Giants, lost to the Eagles and have rematches remaining with each. All three could earn playoff spots considering the overall weak NFC field.
Top storylines: How long can the Eagles avoid their first loss? Is Brian Daboll going to run away with coach of the year? If the Cowboys get to the playoffs, how will they mess it up once they get there?
No. 3 – NFC West
The Seahawks are right behind the Giants as the surprise story of the NFL season (and they host New York on Sunday.) Outside of Seattle, though, quality football isn’t what’s landing the NFC West third on this list. The intrigue comes from how tight the standings are with .500 and losing football.
The Rams wanted to make the Christian McCaffery move, but the 49ers beat them to it. Still. L.A. holds the final playoff spot in the NFC with San Francisco just on the outside. Either or both could catch the Seahawks.
Meanwhile, the Cardinals have the same record as the 49ers and just got 10 receptions for 103 yards from DeAndre Hopkins in his first game back from suspension. In the midst of that, Kliff Kingsbury is the favorite to be the next coach fired.
Top storylines: Can Geno Smith keep it up and if so, when do we start hearing about him as comeback player of the year? Can the Rams figure out Allen Robinson? Can the 49ers get healthy on defense and get a boost from McCaffery?
No. 4 – NFC South
Crazy right? This isn’t a list of the best divisions, it’s the most intriguing, and it’s certainly interesting that a division most of us thought would be the biggest runaway not only has everyone within a game, but doesn’t have a team with a winning record.
Tampa Bay has all sort of issues, but the root of their problems is probably the NFL’s worst run offense, which averages just 64.4 yards a game. That’s not much for Tom Brady to build off of and he’s averaging 6.1 yards per pass play, fewer than both New Orleans QBs and Marcus Mariota.
The Falcons don’t have a great roster, but Arthur Smith is a maximizer. His team is running a ton – over 33 times a game – and making it work. It still seems preposterous to think the Falcons, who are absorbing $78.5 million in dead cap charges this season, are contending in any form or fashion. But double check those standings above. There they are. They lost to the Bucs and Saints so they’ve got work wo do in the division. But they’ve beaten Seattle and San Francisco, so they can contend with talent.
Top storylines: Brady, Brady, Brady. Can the Falcons throw it enough and improve the NFL’s worst pass defense? How is New Orleans fourth in offense and 14th on defense?
No. 5 – AFC North
It’s a two-team race and I think Cincinnati will end up in fine shape, even though it lost the first head-to-head, 19-17, in Baltimore on Oct. 9. The Bengals are figuring stuff out and Joe Burrow is looking more and more like the guy who led the charge to the Super Bowl last year.
Meanwhile the Ravens defense is surprisingly unreliable while Lamar Jackson is shockingly unpredictable. They just don’t feel like the Ravens we are used to. At 2-0, the Browns felt like a team that might hang around a while. Now they’ve lost four in a row including last week to the Ravens when their star kicker’s last-second attempt to tie never had a chance.
And the Steelers don’t even have Pittsburgh’s backbone qualities: 3.7 yards per carry ranks 28th and 23.1 points allowed per game is 22nd. That’s not a playoff team.
Top storylines: Mike MacDonald’s adjustments as the Ravens’ first-year defensive coordinator while Wink Martindale excels with the Giants. Burrow’s protection and Cincinnati’s underrated defense. Kenny Pickett’s growth. Deshaun Watson’s Week 11 return.
No. 6 – AFC West
Before the season, this was supposed to be No. 1 and a lot of people were wondering about the math of all four teams making the playoffs. Now the Chiefs are establishing themselves again as one of the AFC’s two best teams and while the Chargers are in range, there are a lot of reasons for faith in them to fade – the passing offense still ranks well, but Justin Herbert is only 13th in passer rating (91.8). They’re without Joey Bosa, J.C. Jackson was bad and is now out for the season and they have beaten up wide receivers. And while Brandon Staley’s analytics approach is interestingly different, I’m starting to wonder if he’s a good coach.
The Raiders traded for Davante Adams and have gone from sixth in passing offense last year to 12th, down 31 yards a game, which would seem to be a Josh McDaniels issue. The Broncos are fascinating because of how inept they are offensively and how people who knew him in Seattle are now willing to toss Russell Wilson under the bus.
Top storylines: Can the Chiefs win a playoff game in Buffalo? Might the Chargers get healthy and live up to preseason hype (including a lot from me) by stringing some wins together? Nathaniel Hackett’s job security with new ownership in place.
No. 7 – NFC North
Congrats to the Vikings for pulling out five wins so far, including an opening-day victory over the Packers. Nevertheless, the story here is the Packers, who lost three games in 2019, three in 2020, four in 2021 and have lost four already in 2022 including their last three to the Giants in London, the Jets at Lambeau and the Commanders on the road.
The primary intrigue here is about what Matt LaFleur and Aaron Rodgers can do to get things on track and if they have the people to do it with. The rematch with the Vikings in Green Bay comes in Week 17. Perhaps Minnesota will have earned more respect by then, than wins over the Pack, the Lions, the Saints, the Bears and the Tua-less Dolphins has gotten them so far.
Chicago is coming off a terrific win in New England, and it could be the start of smarter use of Justin Fields, but it’s not a very talented roster and just traded away Robert Quinn. The Lions scored a lot for a while and they’ve got the worst record in the league despite all the Dan Campbell hype.
Top storylines: Who’s really in charge in Green Bay? Can Justin Jefferson top the receiving yardage list? Can the Bears, first in rushing and last in passing, be more balanced on offense?
No. 8 – AFC South
The Titans have swept the Colts, who’ve benched Matt Ryan and are moving to Sam Ehligher. A more mobile option may be better, but while Indianapolis upset the Chiefs it really has not played well and its talent has been consistently overrated by national media enamored with accessible Frank Reich and Chris Ballard.
The mystery in this division is very likely about what the Titans can do in a home playoff game. They’ve lost one the last two years, last season’s as the AFC’s No. 1 seed coming off a bye despite nine sacks of Joe Burrow, mostly because of three interceptions thrown by Ryan Tannehill. This intrigue is a) a long way off and b) likely going to end in predictable fashion despite how good a coach Mike Vrabel is.
Key storylines: Can the Titans win more than one way with such limited offensive weapons? Are Reich and Ballard on the hot seat? What’s with Trevor Lawrence’s development? The Texans will have an interesting offseason with their first-rounder as well as the Browns’.
Paul Kuharsky hosts OutKick 360. Read more of him at PaulKuharsky.com.