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NFL division races in 2017: Competitiveness rankings

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While the regular season is still months away, the on-paper prognostication season is in full swing. Following free agency and the draft, the power structure in a few divisions might have changed significantly. That's why we're here to re-rank the tightest divisional races of 2017, based on some way-too-early guesses ...

1) AFC WEST

Potential playoff teams: 4
Potential 10-win teams: 4
Division will be decided in: The final week of the NFL season.

This requires a certain amount of belief in the very trendy Chargers and their first-time head coach, Anthony Lynn. However, the team has an incredibly experienced overall coaching staff, the reigning Defensive Rookie of the Year and one of the five best quarterbacks in the league. Had it not been for the impending move to Los Angeles, this may have been the most desirable head-coaching job available this offseason (and it still might've been, regardless). Should Mike Williams be able to provide any relief for Philip Rivers, this is a 10-win team in the making. The Raiders and Chiefs have not lost any major pieces this offseason, while the Broncos have at least made an attempt to fix their patchwork offensive line and bring the defense around. Denver was a nine-win team a year ago with an unsure combination of Trevor Siemian and Paxton Lynch. Both quarterbacks are now a year older and a year wiser. In what should not be considered a fun coincidence, the Chargers and Raiders face off against each other in Week 17 in Los Angeles, while Denver and Kansas City meet at Mile High.

2) AFC SOUTH

Potential playoff teams: 4
Potential 10-win teams: 3
Division will be decided in: The final week of the NFL season.

The AFC South earns second place here because, while the division has four teams that could make the playoffs, it's a quartet defined by a sort of middling quality that brings the whole operation back to earth. Unlike in the AFC West, I don't see a legitimate Super Bowl contender in this division, but that doesn't mean it won't be thrilling to follow. The division has budding stars -- Marcus Mariota, Jalen Ramsey, Jadeveon Clowney -- alongside a bedrock of accomplished stars like Andrew Luck and J.J. Watt. A few rookies, like Leonard Fournette and Deshaun Watson, have the capability to change the power structure for the long term. The Texans and Colts end the season facing off against one another, while the Jaguars and Titans also have a campaign-ending date. How good are the odds that one of these games decides the division?

3) NFC EAST

Potential playoff teams: 4
Potential 10-win teams: 2
Division will be decided in: early December.

I would not be surprised to see the Cowboys come back to earth a bit. Their schedule is much more difficult than a year ago and, with the exception of the Redskins, every team in the division got at least marginally better this offseason. (In my mind, Washington maintained the status quo, losing DeSean Jackson and Pierre Garcon while adding Terrelle Pryor.) Even so, the Redskins are good enough to win this division. So are the Giants and Eagles. Two teams -- Dallas and New York -- have double-digit-win talent and are favorites to take the NFC East, but no team has won the division two years in a row since the Eagles stacked up four consecutive crowns from 2001 through '04.

4) NFC SOUTH

Potential playoff teams: 4
Potential 10-win teams: 2
Division will be decided in: middle of November.

At the moment, I have the Panthers and Falcons as teams good enough to log 10-win seasons, but much like the NFC East, this is a division where all four teams are capable of finishing on top should everyone bury themselves in a 2014-style slog through the season. Drew Brees' presence and the rise of the Buccaneers make projections like this complicated. On one hand, Tampa Bay has weaknesses, and the Saints are still a year or two away from truly building a defense good enough to complement Brees' offense. On the other, New Orleans and Tampa Bay could catch fire with some of their critical young role players and change the landscape for the future. Some games to keep an eye on? Carolina has back-to-backs against Tampa Bay and Atlanta twice -- Oct. 29 and Nov. 5, then Dec. 24 and 31 to close the regular season. Those sets could dramatically impact the outcome of this division.

5) AFC NORTH

Potential playoff teams: 3
Potential 10-win teams: 3
Division will be decided in: late November.

With the exception of the Browns, none of these teams are more than two seasons removed from their last 10-win season. Most of these teams also boast largely the same group of core players and key contributors as last season. Given the aggressive nature of Cincy's draft, I feel it's hard to cast the Bengals away from the division's power players simply because of an injury-fueled drop-off in 2016. The reason I note that the division could be decided in late November, though, is a fortuitous opening schedule for the Steelers. As I noted in my 2017 easiest schedules piece, Pittsburgh has a decent chance of rolling into the bye week in early November undefeated. All of the Steelers' difficult games come with a caveat in their favor -- for example, their first matchup against the Ravens comes the week after Baltimore returns from London. Should Pittsburgh get this type of head start, the competitive nature of the division might force a bit of a logjam behind Mike Tomlin and Co.

6) NFC NORTH

Potential playoff teams: 3
Potential 10-win teams: 2
Division will be decided in: middle of November.

I see the Packers and Vikings as teams with 10-win potential, but there's also a clear path for Green Bay to edge out the rest of the division with about a month to go in the season. One midseason stretch has the Packers going to Minnesota, then returning home for a game against the Saints, a bye week and a visit from Detroit. After that, a road game against the Bears. By that Nov. 12 matchup, the Packers will have gotten both games against the Bears out of the way, along with a difficult road game in Minneapolis. Should they come out of this stretch thriving, it's going to be tough for the Vikings, who are not significantly better than the Lions, to make up a lot of ground with an end-of-season slate that includes games at Detroit, at Atlanta, at Carolina, vs. Cincinnati and at Green Bay.

7) NFC WEST

Potential playoff teams: 2
Potential 10-win teams: 2
Division will be decided in: early December.

This division is fairly simple: If the Cardinals do not rebound and return to form, it's Seattle ... and everyone else. The 49ers and Rams might have gotten better this offseason, but they undoubtedly still lack the talent foundations boasted by Arizona and Seattle. It would take a stunning second-year performance from 2016 No. 1 pick Jared Goff to shake things up. Arizona and Seattle end the season against one another. However, Seattle has an ever-so-slightly friendlier end-of-season stretch after a Nov. 20 game against Atlanta (drawing the 49ers, Eagles, Jaguars, Rams, Cowboys, Cardinals) than the Cardinals do in that same window (Jaguars, Rams, Titans, Redskins, Giants, Seahawks).

8) AFC EAST

Potential playoff teams: 2
Potential 10-win teams: 1
Division will be decided in: September.

The Patriots had the best offseason in football and have the best supporting cast for Tom Brady since their 18-1 season. If someone wants to step up and bet against New England this season, I'm all ears.

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