When I worked as a scout for the Carolina Panthers in the mid-2000s, then-coach John Fox would break up the season into quarters and set a goal to achieve a 3-1 record in each to ensure a playoff berth.
While it's probably surprising to hear losses factored into a year-long equation, Fox had the perspective to understand that a 12-4 mark would get any team into the postseason. In fact, he frequently suggested that hitting our marks at each checkpoint also would put us in prime position to secure home-field advantage as the top seed in the conference.
Of course, there are a variety of factors that contribute to achieving such goals, but Fox would focus on winning the division, owning our home field (finishing with a home mark of 7-1 or better) and knocking off the top teams in the other divisions. He believed the confidence gained from defeating the heavyweights in the league would pay huge dividends in the playoffs.
To prepare for some of the challenges on the schedule, Fox routinely would have the team face the schemes of unfamiliar opponents during the offseason. Since we were in the NFC South, we were extremely familiar with Atlanta, New Orleans and Tampa Bay, but we didn't consistently face opponents in other divisions/conferences. Thus, we needed to spend extra time catching up on the playing styles that prevailed elsewhere.
With the 2014 regular season on the horizon, teams across the league are diligently studying their non-division opponents during training camp, looking to become better acquainted with the schemes and tactics that could present challenges.
With that in mind, I thought it'd be a great time to get a general feel for how the different divisions stack up -- offensively and defensively -- this season. In this file, I provide a division-by-division offensive pecking order; my defensive divisional hierarchy, of course, shook out quite a bit differently.
Without further ado, here's the offensive countdown, which I formulated by reviewing rosters and studying the All-22 Coaches Film:
8) AFC South
Stellar quarterback play is the common denominator for the most explosive offenses in today's NFL. Therefore, it's no surprise to see the AFC South holding up the rear in these rankings. Outside of Indianapolis (where wunderkind signal-caller Andrew Luck resides), this division is fraught with QB question marks. The Jaguars are looking to tread water with Chad Henne while breaking in No. 3 overall pick Blake Bortles, the Titans are still trying to figure out what they have in injury-prone 26-year-old Jake Locker, and the Texans are planning to open the season with journeyman Ryan Fitzpatrick under center. Despite the presence of quality runners on each of those teams, the lack of consistency at quarterback makes it hard to imagine this division producing multiple top-10 offenses in 2014.
7) AFC East
The Patriots' vise grip on the division -- New England has taken the AFC East crown in 10 of the past 11 seasons -- stems from the excellent play of Tom Brady. The two-time league MVP is one of the few NFL quarterbacks capable of single-handedly carrying an offense while enduring a host of changes to this supporting cast. The Pats' division rivals, however, are waiting on their young quarterbacks to emerge as difference makers in the professional game. The Bills and Dolphins both possess the weapons to field top-10 units, but they need EJ Manuel and Ryan Tannehill, respectively, to make major strides. Meanwhile, the Jets clearly want second-year pro Geno Smith to be the guy, but Michael Vick continues to compete, whether he's getting a fair shake or not. If this actually evolves into a true quarterback controversy, Gang Green's offense could pay the price.
6) AFC North
The AFC North's reputation for dominant defense frequently overshadows the presence of three quality starting quarterbacks within the division. While each QB has his own issues -- Ben Roethlisberger's spotty pocket discipline, Joe Flacco's inconsistency and Andy Dalton's big-game woes -- the Steelers, Ravens and Bengals all have the potential to boast a top offensive unit in 2014 because of positive quarterback play. This is particularly true in Baltimore and Cincinnati, where new offensive coordinators (Gary Kubiak and Hue Jackson, respectively) are revamping the offensive structure to maximize the talent on the roster. In Cleveland, the arrival of Johnny Manziel should give the offense a boost, but optimism remains tempered by the potential that a lengthy suspension will be handed to All-Pro receiver Josh Gordon.
5) NFC West
The wild, wild West has produced the NFC's two most recent Super Bowl reps (San Francisco and Seattle), but those teams got there with stifling defenses carrying the load. Now, I know traditionalists will point out that the 49ers and Seahawks both possess potent running games, but the pass-centric nature of today's NFL during the regular season makes it hard to rank "ground and pound" attacks highly when discussing the most explosive offenses in the league. Granted, both teams have the pieces to field a more dynamic throwing offense this season, but it's hard to imagine their old-school coaches completely deviating from successful blueprints. In Arizona, Bruce Arians has the makings of a strong unit, with Carson Palmer tossing bombs to Larry Fitzgerald and Michael Floyd, but the team needs Andre Ellington to emerge as a steady factor in the run game. If Sam Bradford returns to health, the Rams' offense could surge up the board.
4) NFC South
Not a bad QB division, eh? New Orleans (Drew Brees), Atlanta (Matt Ryan) and Carolina (Cam Newton) all have proven franchise quarterbacks, giving each team the opportunity to field an imposing offense. Of course, I would rank New Orleans and Atlanta significantly ahead of Carolina, due to their spectacular receiver groups and fearless play callers. While I believe Tampa Bay certainly has the potential to create problems for opponents with a collection of big, imposing pass catchers and a rugged running game, I'm not sold on the Josh McCown experiment at quarterback. If the cagey veteran can extend last season's hot streak into this fall, though, the Buccaneers will have a balanced offense that could spark a playoff run in Lovie Smith's debut season.
3) AFC West
The division houses two of the most efficient quarterbacks in NFL history (Peyton Manning and Philip Rivers) and a wide array of prolific pass catchers (Demaryius Thomas, Wes Welker, Julius Thomas, Antonio Gates and Keenan Allen). With the Broncos and Chargers boasting that collection of talent, it's no surprise they rate as two of the top offenses in the NFL. (Denver ranked No. 1 in total offense in 2013, while San Diego finished at No. 5.) The Chiefs are not as explosive as their division rivals, but the emergence of Jamaal Charles as arguably the most complete back in football makes them a threat to top the 30-point mark in any contest. If Dwayne Bowe and De'Anthony Thomas make enough home-run plays on the perimeter and help Alex Smith excel from the pocket, the Chiefs will be a sneaky offensive outfit with intriguing potential. The Raiders definitely field the division's most underwhelming offense, but the Maurice Jones-Drew/Darren McFadden combo gives them enough firepower to pose problems for opponents with a hard-nosed running game.
2) NFC North
The best offenses in football have a set of triplets (quarterback, running back, wide receiver) that strikes fear in the hearts of opponents. The NFC North features some of the best trios in football, with Green Bay (Aaron Rodgers, Eddie Lacy, Jordy Nelson), Chicago (Jay Cutler, Matt Forte, Brandon Marshall/Alshon Jeffery) and Detroit (Matthew Stafford, Reggie Bush and Calvin Johnson) boasting spectacular groups. While the Vikings currently lack the quarterback to join the conversation, the presence of the top running back in football (Adrian Peterson) and the most dynamic young playmaker in the game (Cordarrelle Patterson) could help Teddy Bridgewater/Matt Cassel play at a level that produces a number of W's in Minnesota this season.
1) NFC East
The NFC East has been pegged for mediocrity by some observers, but there's no denying the offensive firepower that currently resides within this division. The NFC East houses four talented quarterbacks: Eli Manning (two-time Super Bowl MVP), Tony Romo (three-time Pro Bowler), Nick Foles (2013 Pro Bowler) and Robert Griffin III (2012 Offensive Rookie of the Year). Yet, the division also features three spectacular runners (LeSean McCoy, Alfred Morris and DeMarco Murray) capable of single-handedly taking over games. Not to mention, the division now has the league's most explosive receiving corps in Washington, as well as a number of individual pass catchers who make it hard for defensive coordinators to sleep at night (see: Dez Bryant and Victor Cruz). Factor in Eagles coach Chip Kelly's innovative offensive scheme -- which seems to be inspiring the rest of the division to push the pace -- and it's clear the NFC East is the epicenter of offensive football in 2014.
Follow Bucky Brooks on Twitter @BuckyBrooks.