The NFL’s 100th season will not be one lacking in intriguing narratives.
Going into a season, in which the 31 other teams will again set out to dethrone the New England Patriots, there are a plethora of storylines sure to attract headlines throughout the campaign.
But which of the eight divisions is worthy of the most hype heading into 2019? We attempted to answer that question by ranking the five most interesting divisions in the NFL.
5. NFC North
Will 2019 be the year of the Aaron Rodgers revenge tour? After back-to-back losing seasons, though he missed much of 2017 through injury, the Packers quarterback figures to be on a mission to prove their recent failings were the fault of former head coach Mike McCarthy.
He will do so running the offense of Matt LaFleur, who comes from the Kyle Shanahan-Sean McVay tree. If his attack proves as potent as that of the Los Angeles Rams, the Packers could be a forced to reckoned with once more in a division the Chicago Bears will try to keep hold of as they recover from the mental scar of Cody Parkey’s missed field goal in the playoffs.
Throw in Kirk Cousins trying to finally prove he can deliver in the clutch for a Minnesota Vikings team still superbly set up for a playoff run and the race for the NFC North promises to be absolutely fascinating.
4. NFC South
The deepest quarterback division in the NFL has been under the ownership of the New Orleans Saints for two seasons, but Drew Brees’ evident decline in the playoffs hinted at a vulnerability for a team that would have been in the Super Bowl if not for a pass interference no-call.
Looking to capitalize on a possible Saints downturn is an Atlanta Falcons club back healthy on defense and still with a former MVP leading an extremely talented offense, along with a Carolina Panthers team that was 6-2 before losing seven of their last eight games in 2018.
The question over whether Cam Newton can lead them back into contention after offseason shoulder surgery adds another layer of intrigue and if he returns to his best there could be four prolific quarterbacks in the division, with Bruce Arians having undertaken the Jameis Winston reclamation project in Tampa Bay.
Arians and offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich have taken charge of a stacked attack and, should they succeed in making the most of the Buccaneers’ offensive talent, Tampa could well challenge to go from worst to first and make the NFC South the most competitive division in the league.
3. AFC North
Will there be a changing of the guard, or will the AFC North remain a division largely run by the Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers? Most expect it to be the former as the Cleveland Browns, having pulled off a sensational trade for Odell Beckham Jr, look to build on last season’s long overdue resurgence and end a tortuous playoff wait.
You will find few backing against Baker Mayfield, Beckham and a supremely talented defense making that dream a reality for a Browns team that enters the season as the NFL’s hottest property. However, Ben Roethlisberger is seen as a dark horse MVP candidate by some and will not be lacking motivation to show he can lead a contending team still blessed with huge firepower into the postseason without Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell.
The Ravens have put more weapons around Lamar Jackson as they look for him to make a second-year leap and blossom into an explosive playmaker with his arm as well as his legs. Expect this to be a three-team division battle that goes right to the wire once again if the Ravens’ hopes for their offense come to pass.
2. AFC West
If the thought of Patrick Mahomes’ second full season as an NFL starter isn’t enough to convince you to pay significant attention to the AFC West, then how about the prospect of the Chiefs again going head to head for the division title with a Chargers club that added substantially to its already excellent defense with the arrivals of Thomas Davis and rookies Jerry Tillery and Nasir Adderley but could start the season minus contract holdout running back Melvin Gordon.
The Chiefs and Chargers each went 12-4 in 2018 but, with Kansas City having retooled its defense in the offseaason and potentially facing a large chunk of the season without wide receiver Tyreek Hill, the dynamic of their probable two-way fight has changed.
Joe Flacco will look to put the Denver Broncos in the mix but it is the Oakland Raiders who represent the biggest unknown in the division. After stockpiling draft picks and making numerous high-profile acquisitions the Raiders have the potential to blossom into one of the most exciting teams in the league or slump to a nightmare final season in Oakland. Regardless of which way it goes for Jon Gruden, Derek Carr, Antonio Brown and Co. events in the East Bay are sure to dominate headlines in 2019.
1. NFC West
How the Rams react to flopping on the Super Bowl LIII stage was always going to be one of the biggest storylines of the 2019 campaign, but it is the fact they have to do so in a division filled with teams well positioned to topple them that makes the NFC West the most intriguing division in the league.
The Rams have a roster more than capable of returning to the Super Bowl, but the way the Patriots throttled Sean McVay’s offense in Atlanta should give plenty of confidence to their rivals that they can make Jared Goff look as uncomfortable as he did in the biggest game of his career.
The Seahawks will be front of the queue of teams looking to take advantage if Goff’s Super Bowl struggles carry into 2019, Seattle putting its faith in a youth movement and, more importantly, arguably the best quarterback in the league not named Mahomes on their roster.
With Jimmy Garoppolo said to be “good to go” after recovering from a torn ACL, the 49ers will have no excuses for not challenging for the postseason, especially given the additions of Dee Ford and Nick Bosa to a defensive front that could be viewed as on par with that of the Rams if it fires on all cylinders this year.
Health is the big issue for San Francisco after Kyle Shanahan’s first two seasons in charge were largely hindered by injuries. If they stay relatively healthy in 2019, the Niners will feel they have the personnel and the coaching to become the class of the division.
The X-factor putting the NFC West over the top, however, resides in Arizona. The hiring of Kliff Kingsbury as head coach and selection of Kyler Murray could prove to be a masterstroke by the Cardinals that sees them take the league by storm as the Redskins and Robert Griffin III did in 2012. There is also the distinct possibility of coach and quarterback failing to mesh and Murray enduring a nightmare rookie year behind a bad offensive line. The Rams remain the clear favorites, but it promises to an extremely wild year out west.