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Sports

Smalstig: Predicting the NFL’s division winners

| Monday, September 6, 2021

As a college student at the University of Notre Dame, nothing gets me fired up like football season. While everyone knows that the college football atmosphere is unmatched, there’s not much that I love more than brushing away the Sunday Scaries with 10 straight hours of NFL football. With that in mind, I couldn’t think of a better time to look at the league as a whole and predict the division winners for the upcoming season.

AFC

AFC East: Buffalo Bills

I can’t move off of the Bills this year, but I think that this race could be a lot closer than many expect. The Patriots were the most affected by COVID opt-outs last year and should be reloaded on defense. Also, they now have offensive personnel that better fits their model of success that has led them to six titles over the past 20 years. For the Bills, Josh Allen and Stefon Diggs should keep up their league-leading production on offense, but the defensive side of the ball is where my attention will be. First round pick Gregory Rousseau, a DE out of Miami, could be their story of the year. If he can give them a more consistent pass rush, then I would feel much better about them keeping distance between themselves and the Patriots throughout the year.

AFC West: Kansas City Chiefs

The Chiefs will likely be slated to win this division for the next 15 years with Mahomes at the helm, and this year is no different. Their offense is undeniable and their defense has more than enough talent to thrive under the circumstances. The more interesting team in this division is likely the Denver Broncos. They have one of the better rosters in the league, top-to-bottom, but lack the elite quarterback play to be picked over established contenders like the Ravens, Chiefs or Bucs.

AFC North: Baltimore Ravens

While the Browns have a lot of talent, I don’t see them stacking up with the Ravens in the long run. Additionally, this seems to be a prime spot for the Steelers to take the final step back into a rebuild phase. The last five weeks of last season exposed their shortcomings and I don’t see them bouncing back in this good of a division. As for the Ravens, the loss of JK Dobbins will hurt their rushing attack, but Gus Edwards is more than ready to assume a starter’s role. Also, Lamar Jackson is still dynamic and their defense should be on par with their typically high-performing units. 

AFC South: Tennessee Titans

While no one in this division has a complete team, the Titans offense is a unit that I can depend on to provide at least 9 wins. Ryan Tannehill, Derrick Henry, AJ Brown, Julio Jones and a solid O-line that will bring back Taylor Lewan — what’s not to love? The Colts should be their top competitor for this spot, but I hesitate to even say that considering the unknown status of Carson Wentz. Additionally, the Colts will be the first team ever to start the season playing 5 straight teams who won double-digit games the last season. It could be hard to recover from a rocky start.

NFC

NFC East: Dallas Cowboys

Much like the Titans in the AFC South, the Cowboys simply have the best unit in the division on the offensive side of the ball. I doubt the Eagles or Giants improve much from their last campaign, so the Washington Football Team will likely be the next team up. They showed flashes of being able to compete with some of the best last season, but I can’t depend on Ryan Fitzpatrick over Dak Prescott to win the division. 

NFC West: Los Angeles Rams

While every team in this division looks good on paper, someone has to come out on top. The Rams have two of the best players in football on defense in Jalen Ramsey and Aaron Donald and just got an upgrade at quarterback. Stafford should thrive in Sean McVay’s system and is a sleeper pick to win the MVP. Overall, the Rams offer the most dependable roster and coaching staff, so I think they’re a safe bet to take this division and be the Buccaneers biggest challengers on the way to the Super Bowl.

NFC North: Green Bay Packers

Aaron Rodgers and Davante Adams on a mission is a scary sight for all of the league. Also, like the Rams, they also have a lethal combo at pass-rusher and corner in Za’darius Smith and Jaire Alexander, which is a recipe. I do like the Vikings and Bears to improve from their last season showings, but the reigning-MVP led Packers should not end up having problems winning the North like they have so many times in recent history.

NFC South: Tampa Bay Buccaneers

This is the most foregone conclusion out of any of these predictions. Other teams in the division lost perennial All-Pro playmakers like Drew Brees and Julio Jones. In the meantime, the Buccaneers managed to be the only Super Bowl winner in history to return all 22 starters. Look for the Buccaneers to have a record setting-season in point-differential, and possibly wins. Tom Brady is settled-in and just as hungry as ever, as anyone would be if they ate the quinoa and kale salads that are included in his TB12 meal plan.

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