Is the NFC East the NFL's Toughest Division?

Which NFL Division Will be the Strongest in 2012?

The National Football League isn’t fair.

The 32-team behemoth that is the modern NFL presents a problem – there is simply not a way to do a fair schedule. The only “fair” way to do a sports scheudle is to have a true round robin, where every team plays every other team. Obviously that can’t happen in the NFL, due to its shear size and the fact we can’t have a 31-game schedule.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not calling for any changes. The NFL has come up with a great scheduling system – eight four-team divisions, and a rotating schedule to ensure every team sees every other team at least every four years. It works wonderfully.

But it’s still not fair. With just four teams in a division, there’s no guarantee there will actually be a “good” team in the division. Or there might be four good teams. And if your team is in a tough division (or scheduled against a tough division for non-dvision contests), tough luck.

Still, I can’t think of a better system to use. We’re stuck with the unfair divisions.

So which division will be the strongest and most “unfair” in 2012? Let’s rank the NFL’s eight divisions from best to worst:

1) NFC EAST

2011 Non-divison record: 18-22

2012 crossover games: AFC North, NFC South

The NFC East certainly wasn’t impressive in 2011: the Giants won the division title at just 9-7. But the G-Men did go on the win the Super Bowl, and there’s reason to believe that’s just the start of an upward swing for this quartet. The Giants are going to be good for quite a while if Eli Manning stays healthy. Philly and Dallas massively underachieved in 2011, but both have had excellent offseasons so far, attacking their areas of weakness aggressively. And Washington won’t be great but rookie Robert Griffin III will make them dangerous. This division is going to be tremendous to watch in 2012.

2) NFC North

2011 Non-divison record: 24-16

2012 crossover games: AFC South, NFC West

Very easily could have been #1. Another division with three good teams. The Packers are awesome. They likely won’t go 15-1 again, but 12+ wins should be attainable. The Lions are on the upswing, but really need some maturity. That passing attack is fantastic, though. Chicago I’m not so sure about, but they were a likely playoff team in 2011 before Jay Culter went down. The black mark against the North is Minnesota, which is going to be terrible again. Worth noting: the North’s crossover games in 2012 season are against two of the league’s weaker divisions.

3) AFC EAST

2011 Non-divison record: 21-19

2012 crossover games: AFC South, NFC West

This division was shaping up to be the best in the game last season before the Jets and Bills faded badly down the stretch. This season could turn out better. New England is still New England and will be very good. The Jets and Bills are wild cards: both could be very strong or both could completely fall apart. Miami has a tough defense and will win some games, but isn’t threatening a playoff bid until they figure out the QB situation. A tough division to figure out. It will help that the crossovers are against the weak AFC South and not-great NFC West.

4) AFC North

2011 Non-divison record: 25-15

2012 crossover games: AFC West, NFC East

This was probably the NFL’s top division last season, as that league-best 25-15 record in non-division games would indicate. But I think the North will take a bit of step back in 2012. Baltimore and Pittsburgh will still be good but it’s not terribly likely both will go 12-4 again. Cincinnati will come back to earth after a charmed run to the playoffs in 2011. Really dragging down the division? The Browns. Cleveland is freaking terrible. The Browns went 4-12 last year and were very fortunate to do that well, believe it or not. Cleveland is a legitimate 0-16 threat in 2012. What a mess.

5) NFC South

2011 Non-divison record: 21-19

2012 crossover games: AFC West, NFC East

A real tough division to figure out: this might end up being ridiculously low for this quad. Will the 2012 Saints resemble the Saints teams of the past few years? How good will Cam Newton be – can he lead Carolina to a playoff run? Will Tampa Bay re-discover its magic of 2010, when the team went 10-6? Or will the Bucs collapse as they did last year? The only sure thing in this division is Atlanta, which will no doubt muddle through a boring 10-6/11-5 season and then roll over and die in the first round of the playoffs again.

6) NFC West

2011 Non-divison record: 18-22

2012 crossover games: AFC East, NFC North

The NFC West has been a punchline around the league for the past few years, but the division finally crawled out of the basement in 2011. A lot of the thanks for that goes to the 49ers, who put up a 13-3 season. Jim Harbaugh’s squad should be tough again in 2012. The Cardinals and Seahawks are wild cards – both were decent last year despite myriad injuries and QB issues. Either could make a run this year (I’m bullish on Seattle, myself). The Rams will suck, but at least have some hope for the future with new coach Jeff Fisher.

7) AFC West

2011 Non-divison record: 19-21

2012 crossover games: AFC North, NFC South

It’s all about the quarterbacks in this division. Is Peyton Manning healthy enough to lead the Broncos to success? Can Philip Rivers bounce back from a disappointing season to get the Chargers over the hump? Is Carson Palmer more than a washed-up statue out there in Oakland? Will Matt Cassel ever improve in Kansas City? If the answer is “no” to most of those questions, this division will suck in 2012.

8) AFC South

2011 Non-divison record: 14-26

2012 crossover games: AFC East, NFC North

Speaking of suck, it’s the AFC South! It was a dreadful year for the South in 2011, as this quartet put up a league-worst 14-26 non-division record. And it might be worse in 2012. The Texans will be very good (and should have this division clinched by early December). After that, it gets ugly. I’m not a believer in the Titans – this group was lucky to go 9-7 last year. The Colts will be a little better with Andrew Luck, but they totally blew up that roster

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