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NFL Division Power Rankings: NFC South easily reigns supreme

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No division can match the NFC South's quartet of quarterbacks. No division possesses a more talented team trying to escape the basement than the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. No other division sent three teams to the playoffs a year ago.

The easiest part of making the division power rankings below was where to start: in the NFC's Dirty South.

NOTE: Each divisional subhead presents the teams in the order they finished last season.

1) NFC South: Saints, Panthers, Falcons, Buccaneers

Great divisions are competitive from top to bottom, and the Bucs' stirring comeback win over the Saints in Week 17 of last season was a reminder that there are no easy games here. It was also a window into Tampa's potential, which should be more fully realized now that the Bucs have bolstered their defensive line this offseason.

This is the only division where all four teams are realistic threats for double-digit wins, which comes back to their quarterbacks. Productive passing games are more consistent from year to year than strong defenses, and this is a division led by quarterbacks: Matt Ryan and Cam Newton have won two of the last three MVPs, while Drew Brees was playing at a championship level last season. The 2017 Bucs finished fifth in drive success rate, according to Football Outsiders, with a fluky dead-last ranking in lost fumbles per drive torpedoing their season. No lead is safe in a division with quarterbacks this good.

Key game: Falcons at Saints, Week 12 (Thanksgiving night)

2) NFC North: Vikings, Lions, Packers, Bears

This is no longer the Aaron Rodgers Invitational. The Vikings kept all the best parts of their NFC title game squad while upgrading at quarterback, defensive tackle and the No. 3 receiver spot. Matthew Stafford has the perfect combination of scheme continuity, weapons and a bolstered offensive line to enjoy a career season. Rodgers is due for another MVP campaign that reminds everyone he might be the most talented ever at his position, while the Bears finally look interesting again.

Chicago's anticipated revival is the key. I don't need to watch another six-minute montage prior to a Bears-Packers national television game calling it the sport's greatest rivalry before another 38-13 target-practice sesh for Rodgers. If the Bears' hype pans out, the NFC North has the highest ceiling of any division: Two true title contenders and two dreaded "teams no one wants to face."

Key game: Vikings at Packers, Week 2

3) NFC West: Rams, Seahawks, Cardinals, 49ers

Sean McVay and Kyle Shanahan are set up to have the best coaching rivalry of the next decade, with Shanahan having the edge at quarterback. The Rams' aggressive remodeling effort could wind up costing people jobs, with owners from other franchises wondering: Why can't we do that?

Any team led by Pete Carroll, Russell Wilson, Bobby Wagner and Earl Thomas can't be counted out, while any offense with Josh Rosen and David Johnson should be fun to watch. This has been the best division in football on balance for the decade -- and it's on the way back up.

Key game: Rams at 49ers, Week 7 (Sunday Night Football)

4) AFC South: Jaguars, Titans, Colts, Texans

After spending most of the decade as the worst division in football, the AFC South has finally turned a corner. There is a lot of room for growth, too, with Andrew Luck and Deshaun Watson coming off injuries and Marcus Mariota capable of playing better than he did for much of 2017.

I love the Titans' young nucleus and general manager Jon Robinson's conclusion that coach Mike Mularkey wasn't going to get the team over the top. I love the Jaguars' entire defense, at least while it stays together. I love how watchable Watson and Luck should make these division games, even if the rosters in Houston and Indianapolis aren't quite balanced yet.

What the division lacks in obvious title contenders, it makes up for in saucy possibility. Get on board before the rest of the nation does.

Key game: Jaguars at Texans, Week 17

5) AFC North: Steelers, Ravens, Bengals, Browns

The Steelers rank with the Patriots and Eagles as the safest picks to make it back to the playoffs. The onus on lifting the AFC North to greater overall relevance lies with the other three teams, which all have major bounce-back potential. Joe Flacco and John Harbaugh are fighting for their careers, with a strong defensive base to build off. The Bengals boast a roster without huge weaknesses ... and a lot of players in their prime. The Browns' depth chart barely resembles the 0-16 squad from a year ago.

This was the last AFC division to send three teams to the playoffs, back in 2014. While it's a longshot, the North has the best chance of any AFC division to do it again.

Key game: Bengals at Steelers, Week 17

6) AFC West: Chiefs, Chargers, Raiders, Broncos

A division power rankings done last offseason might have had the AFC West first. That came before the bottom fell out for the Raiders and Broncos, and before the Chargers did in Los Angeles what they mostly did in San Diego.

Look past the 2017 results, however, and there is a lot of firepower. The Chiefs have an offense that the rest of the league is trying to copy. That Chargers roster -- the one that seduces writers like me every offseason -- still ranks among the league's best. Derek Carr and the Raiders offensive line that thrilled the NFL in 2016 remain intact. Denver's defense still has championship bones, and John Elway's changes on offense make a lot of sense on paper.

The AFC West might rank first in unpredictability, and second only to the NFC South in top-to-bottom competitiveness. Shake up these four teams, and they could finish in any order by the end of the season.

Key game: Chargers at Chiefs, Week 15 (Thursday Night Football)

7) NFC East: Eagles, Cowboys, Redskins, Giants

Consider the NFC East the rich man's AFC East. It has one team that should make the playoffs, barring the end of days. It has three other squads that are hard to envision as title contenders, but which can be compelling if everything breaks right.

The Cowboys and Giants boast plenty of star power to keep their inevitable NBC matchups afloat, even if they both appear to be in a transition year. The Eagles only play one division game before Week 10, giving them an opportunity to run away and hide early, before even facing their biggest rivals.

Key game: Cowboys at Eagles, Week 10 (Sunday Night Football)

8) AFC East: Patriots, Bills, Dolphins, Jets

The Patriots rank near the top of any respectable strength-of-schedule analysis heading into the 2018 season -- as in, the easiest -- because they get to play the Dolphins, Jets and Bills six times. The same competitive imbalance has existed for most of the Belichick-Brady era, with only the peak-level Rex Ryan Jets resembling anything close to a team ready to win a Super Bowl.

The Bills show signs of working toward true post-Brady success, smart enough to rebuild and address weaknesses after a nine-win playoff campaign instead of taking the cheese and believing they arrived. Jets coach Todd Bowles and Dolphins coach Adam Gase could be battling to keep their jobs this season, which puts extra pressure on the early portion of the season.

The AFC East ranks last here despite the presence of the NFL's longest-running dynasty because none of the division games sound like appointment television. It's been too long since a December Jets-Dolphins game or some variation involving the teams here truly mattered.

Key game: Patriots at Dolphins, Week 14

Follow Gregg Rosenthal on Twitter @greggrosenthal.

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