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Chiefs, Jaguars among most vulnerable division winners

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A year ago at this time, the Cowboys, Packers, Falcons, Seahawks and Texans were riding high as the reigning champions of their respective divisions. By January, all had been usurped.

Who among the current sitting division winners is most at risk of being knocked from their perch in 2018? Below, I've ranked all eight according to how vulnerable they are, presented in reverse order (that is, from the safest team, ranked eighth, to the least safe, ranked first):

8) New England Patriots (AFC East)

New England has gone through some unusual offseason drama. But the Patriots drafted well, adding two players who can help right away in Round 1: Isaiah Wynn, who can play left tackle, and Sony Michel, who was the third-most-productive rusher, in terms of yardage, in history at Georgia. And then there's Tom Brady. What else is there to say about him? He's an amazing player who just seems unstoppable, even at age 40. The concern, of course, is that when the end comes for aging quarterbacks, it can come in a hurry. But there have been no signs his decline is anywhere close to imminent.

The competition: Teams that lose in the Super Bowl tend to deal with something of a hangover the following season. But New England will be the exception to this rule -- because if the Patriots don't win the AFC East, who will? The Bills, Jets and Dolphins all made moves, but they do not appear capable of mounting a serious challenge to New England at this point.

7) Los Angeles Rams (NFC West)

The Rams already had a sound defense under coordinator Wade Phillips -- and then they added corners Aqib Talib and Marcus Peters to the secondary and Ndamukong Suh, who will team up with Aaron Donald to form the stoutest pair of defensive tackles in the NFL, up front. The question is, now that people have seen a full season of Sean McVay's offense, will Jared Goff and Co. keep soaring? I have faith, not least because new receiver Brandin Cooks is an upgrade over departed free agent Sammy Watkins. Both have excellent speed, but Cooks presents more of a challenge as a route runner.

The competition: Russell Wilson is a great quarterback, but the Seahawks are in rebuilding mode. Jimmy Garoppolo makes San Francisco a theoretical threat, but we still can't be sure yet that last year's five-game winning streak to close the season means the Niners are actually going to take a big step forward in 2018. As for the Cardinals, it's hard to win with a new coach and quarterback, whether Sam Bradford or rookie Josh Rosen is starting.

6) Minnesota Vikings (NFC North)

The only position Rick Spielman had failed to address adequately in his tenure as GM heading into this offseason was quarterback -- and I think he righted that wrong by signing Kirk Cousins. Running back Dalvin Cook -- who showed plenty of promise before tearing his ACL last season -- will be back, while veteran signee Sheldon Richardson and corner Mike Hughes (Round 1, No. 30) will make a good defense that much better. And there's stability under coach Mike Zimmer, which I value a lot, as he heads into his fifth season at the helm. If anything, we should expect Minnesota to improve on last season now that Cousins is in the fold.

The competition: The NFC North will be tough. Green Bay (Aaron Rodgers) and Detroit (Matthew Stafford) have quarterbacks who can fuel strong seasons, while Mitch Trubisky's Chicago Bears are trending upward. But the Vikings are in a stable place with established leadership and a settled quarterback situation, and that combination should keep them at the front of the pack.

5) Philadelphia Eagles (NFC East)

Salary-cap restraints kept the Eagles from retaining some key contributors to their Super Bowl run, including corner Patrick Robinson, pass rusher Vinny Curry and receiver Torrey Smith. But Philly also has people in place -- like Sidney Jones, Michael Bennett and Mike Wallace -- to step up for the departed. Losing quarterbacks coach John DeFilippo to the Vikings hurts. But general manager Howie Roseman is sensational and has an amazing ability to make the team better, while head coach Doug Pederson is one of the more unsung coaches working in the NFL today. And, of course, don't forget about QB Carson Wentz, who put up a strong argument for MVP before suffering an ACL tear last season. Whenever he returns to the field, he'll be a force.

The competition: The Giants made some huge additions, drafting stud running back Saquon Barkley and beefing up the O-line with Nate Solder and rookie Will Hernandez -- New York's ground attack will be significantly better, only serving to further enhance an offense that was already loaded with pass catchers like Odell Beckham, Sterling Shepard and Evan Engram. The Redskins helped themselves a great deal with the selection of running back Derrius Guice, who will give Barkley a run for his money in the Offensive Rookie of the Year race. And the Cowboys are coming off a season in which they won nine games despite down years from Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott. Philly is still the team to beat, but this division is no gimme.

4) Pittsburgh Steelers (AFC North)

This is an interesting team. Pittsburgh will field a roster that is in many ways very similar to the group that went 13-3 in 2017, with Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown and Le'Veon Bell serving as the powerhouse headliners. But Bell's ongoing contract situation could become an issue. The key players are getting older. Former offensive coordinator Todd Haley is in Cleveland. And I have questions about their defense. Losing Ryan Shazier is huge -- he was a vocal leader who made plays all over. I'm kind of shocked that the Steelers used their first-round pick on safety Terrell Edmunds. The hope would be that Edmunds and veteran free-agent signee Morgan Burnett will boost the secondary. To that end, we might see more three-safety sets, with Edmunds in a hybrid role.

The competition: Don't forget that Baltimore's season went down to the wire, with the Ravens just missing out on the playoffs in Week 17. They improved this offseason and remain a potent threat in the AFC North. The Bengals will straighten things out after a terrible year, and the Browns should be much friskier than they were in '17. Pittsburgh is going to have a tougher time winning the division.

3) New Orleans Saints (NFC South)

The Saints continued to stockpile defensive talent to complement Drew Brees and the offense, signing Kurt Coleman, Demario Davis and Patrick Robinson and trading up to snag pass rusher Marcus Davenport in Round 1 of the 2018 NFL Draft. That deal, in which they coughed up a first-round pick for 2019, shows you how close the Saints think they are to a Super Bowl berth -- it indicates a now or never feeling within the organization. And while he's just a rookie, Davenport will be a good pass rusher. That kind of win-now trade can also have positive ripple effects across the rest of the roster, with players recognizing that the team is trying to maximize its current window. It's similar to the move the Cowboys made for John Dutton -- we gave up a lot to get him in 1979 (a first- and second-rounder in the 1980 draft).

The competition: I had the Saints in a much safer spot before news broke of running back Mark Ingram's four-game suspension to start the season. Ingram is a heckuva football player, and losing him for that stretch -- which includes matchups against the division-rival Bucs and Falcons -- will make life harder for backfield-mate Alvin Kamara. The Falcons have an excellent QB and outstanding WR -- they're well put together. Carolina reached the playoffs last season and Tampa is going to be better. Given that Ingram's absence will put the Saints in a position of relative weakness early on, they could ultimately be overtaken by one of those teams. Of course, should Ingram's suspension somehow change, you can slide the Saints back into safer territory.

2) Jacksonville Jaguars (AFC South)

The Jaguars are going to continue relying on their ground game and a strong defensive line, as evidenced by the signing of guard Andrew Norwell and the first-round selection of defensive tackle Taven Bryan. I have concerns, though, about the pass-catching corps. Austin Seferian-Jenkins should be a serviceable replacement for Marcedes Lewis at tight end, but the Jags did lose two good receivers in Allen Robinson and Allen Hurns. Can Keelan Cole continue to build on his breakout season of 2017? Will ex-Colt Donte Moncrief thrive with a change of scenery? Rookie burner D.J. Chark has the potential to scare the heck out of opposing defenses. As always, Jacksonville will be better off if Blake Bortles plays like he did in the first half of the AFC title game and not the second.

The competition: The AFC South should be tremendously better in 2018. Houston should have Deshaun Watson healthy and winning games. The Colts have been fortifying a roster that seemed barren not too long ago -- if Andrew Luck gets on the field, Indy could be special. The Titans have a new coach and a quarterback in Marcus Mariota who keeps getting better. Yes, the Jaguars are strong -- but they're vulnerable.

1) Kansas City Chiefs (AFC West)

When Alex Smith (33 interceptions over the past five seasons) was at quarterback, the Chiefs knew he wouldn't turn the ball over. They can't assume the same with second-year pro Patrick Mahomes taking the reins in 2018. Mahomes' future is bright, but I don't think he'll be off-the-charts great immediately -- he's only started one game in the NFL, and you have to expect hiccups when working in a younger, less-experienced player like that. And, of course, former offensive coordinator Matt Nagy -- now coaching the Bears -- will be missed. Kansas City did add some offensive firepower by signing receiver Sammy Watkins, but the real issue here is the defense, which gave up points and yards by the bushel last season. Marcus Peters, Derrick Johnson and Tamba Hali are gone, while Justin Houston hasn't reached double digits in sacks since 2014. Signing linebacker Anthony Hitchens was a smart move, and cornerback Kendall Fuller -- who came over in the trade that sent Smith to Washington -- is a good player, but I don't see anyone on the roster who can rush the passer like Houston in his heyday. The key is safety Eric Berry. Will he be fully recovered from the Achilles tear that wiped out his 2017 season?

The competition: The Chargers, who finished 9-7 last season, are much improved, especially on defense -- and with veteran kicker Caleb Sturgis on board, I don't think they'll have the kicking problems that effectively kept them from making the playoffs last year. Jon Gruden's Raiders will be better. Denver has a QB in place (Case Keenum) who will help win some games, while the Broncos' defense will get a huge boost from the addition of rookie Bradley Chubb. This collection of teams will make it very difficult for Kansas City to defend its division title.

Follow Gil Brandt on Twitter @Gil_Brandt.

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