There are many ways to slice up the NFL hierarchy. It might be relatively easy to name the top teams in the league -- but what about the best divisions? I took a stab at ranking the best divisions right now from one to eight below, and the results were somewhat surprising, especially considering how I might have ranked them coming into the season.
1) NFC South
Combined records: 22-15 overall; 18-11 outside of division. Combined point differential: plus-119.
The Saints just rolled to their seventh straight win. The Panthers are up and down but join New Orleans as one of the two credible Super Bowl contenders in this division. The Falcons haven't played great, but they're a threat to flip the switch down the stretch. The offenses of New Orleans (second), Carolina (16th), Atlanta (eighth) and Tampa (14th) are all in the top 16; on defense, everyone but Tampa is ranked in the top eight. (The Panthers are first, the Falcons are seventh and the Saints are eighth, while the Bucs are 27th.) Plus, with Drew Brees, Cam Newton and Matt Ryan, this group is loaded with quarterback talent, Jameis Winston's shoulder injury aside.
2) NFC North
Combined records: 20-16 overall; 14-10 outside of division. Combined point differential: plus-39.
This ranking might seem a tad high, given the lack of on-field star power in the NFC North, but the Vikings, Lions, Packers and Bears boast the second-best combined point differential in the NFL. That figures to change as Green Bay plays more games without Aaron Rodgers, but Detroit should still continue to score in bunches (the Lions are putting up 27.1 points per game, sixth-most in the NFL), while Minnesota's defense is one of the stingiest around (allowing 18.3 points per game, fifth-best in the NFL). The Vikings and Lions are both capable of making the playoffs, with Minnesota having the best shot of the group at reaching the Super Bowl. You also can't count the Packers out yet, considering they're just a game out of a wild-card spot, while the Bears' defense has Chicago poised to play spoiler.
3) NFC West
Combined records: 18-19 overall; 11-12 outside of division. Combined point differential: plus-26.
I gave the NFC North the slimmest of edges over the NFC West based on its superior combined point differential, but you could swap these groups and I wouldn't complain. The Los Angeles Rams have the top point differential in the NFL (134), with the top scoring offense (32.9 points per game) and the third-best scoring defense (18 points per game). They are the biggest surprise in the NFL this year. Seattle took a hit when it lost Richard Shermanto a ruptured Achilles, and the Seahawkshave a tough schedule, but both Los Angeles and Seattle are capable of reaching the Super Bowl. Arizona is talented but has been held back by injuries, while San Francisco is building for the future. How the Rams perform against the Vikings this week will tell us a lot.
4) AFC East
Combined records: 20-17 overall; 15-12 outside of division. Combined point differential: minus-58.
New England alone is the reason for this division to be ranked in the top half. The Patriots have an elite quarterback and are perennial Super Bowl contenders. The rest of the teams aren't very strong. Consider that the AFC East's combined point differential is worse than that of every division but the AFC North. Buffalo is above .500, but unless the Bills can beat the Patriots twice, they'll have a hard time making the playoffs. The Dolphins rank poorly on offense (31st) and defense (17th) -- I give Adam Gase credit for keeping that team afloat -- while the Jets have outpaced expectations but are leaning on a 38-year-old quarterback and have been doing it with smoke and mirrors.
5) NFC East
Combined records: 18-18 overall; 13-13 outside of division. Combined point differential: plus-19.
The Eagles rank in the top 10 on both offense (fourth) and defense (10th) and look like a Super Bowl team. This division would rank higher if Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott weren't going to miss the next five games with a suspension, and if the Redskins hadn't been decimated by injuries. Dallas isn't out of it, but squeezing into the playoffs is going to be a lot harder without Elliott. The AFC East and NFC East are nearly interchangeable, with the quality of the Patriots, the bum luck of the Cowboys and Redskins and the negative pull of the Giants providing the separation here.
6) AFC South
Combined records: 18-19 overall; 12-13 outside of division. Combined point differential: minus-22.
Jacksonville is legitimate, possessing the NFL's sixth-ranked offense and third-ranked defense. Both the Jaguars and Titans have wins over quality opponents (Jacksonville at Pittsburgh; Tennessee at home over Seattle). But the Titans have somehow managed to win six games while being outscored by eight points, which is hard to do. The Texans, meanwhile, are in freefall after losing Deshaun Watson for the season, and the Colts have a league-worst point differential of minus-101.
7) AFC West
Combined records: 16-20 overall; 9-13 outside of division. Combined point differential: minus-51.
This group is spared from the bottom only because it doesn't include the Browns. Coming into the season, all four teams were seen as contenders, and the idea that the AFC West would produce three playoff teams was not considered outlandish. Now, the Chiefs are the only team above .500, and even they have cooled off after a hot start, losing three of their last four games. Kansas City is also the only team in the division with a positive point differential. The Chargers might be in last place, but they're barely being outscored (minus-5 point differential), evidence that they've lost some close games. Oakland and Denver, meanwhile, are the biggest disappointments in the NFL's most disappointing division.
8) AFC North
Combined records: 14-22 overall; 8-16 outside of division. Combined point differential: minus-72.
This division has the worst combined overall and out-of-division records in the league, plus the lowest point differential. The Steelers have a strong shot at securing home-field advantage in the AFC playoffs, but after that, it's ugly. The Bengals have greatly underachieved and the Ravens have been affected by injuries since the offseason, but the Browns are the true albatross of group.