The NFC East during the 1980s was as tough a division as the NFL has ever seen. In New York, there was Bill Parcells coaching Phil Simms to sling the ball around the windy Meadowlands. In Washington, there was Joe Gibbs and Joe Theismann in RFK with the band playing "Hail to the Redskins" all day long. In Dallas, there was Tom Landry and Danny White in Texas Stadium, with a hole in the roof so God could watch America's Team play. And in Philadelphia, where Buddy Ryan and Randall Cunningham whipped the infamous Eagles fans into a frenzy at the old Vet.
Everyone called the NFC East the best division in football back then because any team that could survive had a legitimate Super Bowl chance. So what is the best division today? Defining the best division requires three critical factors:
A. Great coaches
B. Great quarterbacks
C. Tough home venues
Based on that criteria, here are my current rankings of the toughest divisions in football: (Interesting note: Based on my blue-chip rankings, there are not two blue-chip quarterbacks in the same division)
1. NFC NORTH
Home to the Super Bowl champ Packers and elite quarterback Aaron Rodgers, the North is my winner for the best division. All teams have unique venues to play -- two domes in Minnesota and Detroit, two tough weather outdoor stadiums in Green Bay and Chicago -- and each team has a quarterback capable of playing well. The reason the North has moved to the top is based on the resurgence of the Lions. With Matthew Stafford leading the charge, an awesome defensive front and a fan base that loves football, the Lions have bought into what head coach Jim Schwartz is building. From top to bottom, the North is tough and each game between one another will be a war.
2. NFC EAST
It might not be as good as the mid-80s, but this division is filled with quality teams, quality coaches (three of the four have been to the Super Bowl) and quality quarterbacks. Even though the Cowboys no longer play on the field with the hole in the roof, or the Skins in RFK, or the Eagles at the Vet, or the G-men at the windy Meadowlands, all are still tough places with changing weather and loud fans. I expect the Redskins to be much better this season, giving this division four quality teams. Each game played between each team is a must-watch.
3. AFC EAST
The division is top heavy with the Jets and Patriots. Both teams hate each other, and both can beat any other team in the league. The Pats won 14 games last year, and the Jets went to the conference championship game for the second straight season. And don't forget that the Dolphins went 6-2 on the road last season. Buffalo has been the pushover for some time, but the top two make this division tough to deal with. Some might argue the AFC East could be No. 1 since the Pats beat every team in the NFC North in 2010, but the Jets finished just 2-2, and thus the present ranking.
4. NFC SOUTH
The South features a team that won 13 games last year (Atlanta) and another one year removed from winning the Super Bowl (New Orleans). The Saints who also have a blue-chip quarterback in Drew Brees. Also in the South, the Bucs are an up-and-coming team. My reason for moving this division below the AFC East is because I am not sold on the quality of the Bucs overall, and the Panthers are a team in total transition. But both Atlanta and New Orleans are Super Bowl contenders.
5. AFC NORTH
Baltimore and Pittsburgh is a great rivalry. Each time they play, the physical nature of the game is at the highest level. Both teams are legitimate Super Bowl contenders, but Ohio teams Cleveland and Cincinnati drag the division down. The Browns have an incredible fan base and once the team starts to play better, that will be a tough venue for teams to play. The Bengals are a physical defensive team, but with a rookie quarterback leading their offense, it prevents the Bengals from competing.
6. AFC SOUTH
With Colts quarterback Peyton Manning injured and uncertain about his return, the South is up for grabs. The Texans appear to be the favorite, but the Titans (now with Chris Johnson in the fold) appear to have a solid team that will challenge many in the league. The Jags are in transition and have trouble drawing fans, making Jacksonville an easy place to play. Overall this division does not have a team right now that looks like it could challenge for the Super Bowl, thus the subpar rating.
7. AFC WEST
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As all of you know, I love Philip Rivers and know he is capable of leading the Chargers to the promised land. But there is not another team in the West that puts fear in opponents. When an AFC West team wins a game outside the division, it's surprising. The Raiders won eight games last year, the first time they have not had a double-digit losing season since 2002, but six of those wins were in the division. The West has one legitimate quarterback and three other question marks at the position.
8. NFC WEST
When the leading teams in the division are 7-8 heading into the last weekend of the season, it clearly signals a bad division. Seattle beat St. Louis in that Week 17 game to win the division, but appear to have taken a step back with Tarvaris Jackson now at quarterback. The Rams appear to have improved, however, especially since they have a quarterback with blue-chip potential in Sam Bradford. Kevin Kolb hopes to solve the quarterback problems in Arizona, but even if he is able to take his game to another level, the Cards are not overly talented and have many areas of concerns. And in San Francisco, I wonder what Bill Walsh is thinking as he looks down from heaven and sees the 49ers quarterbacks go from bad to worse. The 49ers need an answer at the position and he's not on the roster right now. In this division, quarterbacking is really bad, which means it could remain in the basement for a long time.