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The Questions That Will Define Each NFL Division Race

Pittsburgh is undefeated. Buffalo controls the AFC East. And Tennessee suddenly looks vulnerable. With eight weeks nearly in the books, let’s take stock of the playoff picture—and the factors that could shape it the rest of the way.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Tuesday is the NFL trade deadline, and that means teams have to decide if they are buyers or sellers. Before teams can make those determinations, their front offices must look in the mirror and honestly assess whether their squad is a playoff contender. Some have already decided. The Vikings decided they were sellers two weeks ago and traded defensive end Yannick Ngakoue to Baltimore. The Cowboys traded and cut a number of defensive contributors last week. As the rest of the league decides whether to hold a garage sale, go shopping, or merely stand pat, let’s take stock of the playoff race and examine where things stand. Here is a breakdown of every division race—and the question that could define who wins.

AFC East

Buffalo Bills (6-2)
Miami Dolphins (4-3)
New England Patriots (2-5)
New York Jets (0-8)

Can Josh Allen stop playing like Jekyll and Hyde?

Josh Allen is the biggest reason the Bills might win the AFC East for the first time in 25 years. He’s also the biggest reason they might not. The quarterback looked like a second-tier MVP candidate for the first month of the season, passing with touch and displaying a calmness under pressure that he had, uh, lacked during his first two seasons in the NFL. These improvements spurred Buffalo to a 4-0 start. But in the past month Allen has reverted to his rookie and sophomore year form. Just look at the splits.

  • Allen in Weeks 1-4: 12 passing touchdowns, one interception, 71 percent completion rate
  • Allen in Weeks 5-8: Four touchdown passes, four interceptions, 63 percent completion rate

Last season, the Bills defense was good enough to overcome Allen’s bad stretches. No longer. Buffalo’s defense has gone from one of the league’s best to below average, dropping from the seventh-most efficient group in 2019 to 21st this season, per Football Outsiders’ DVOA. Now Allen has to carry the team.

The AFC East has somehow gone back to 1995: The Bills are good, the Patriots are bad, and the Jets completely suck. After Sunday’s 24-21 win over New England, Buffalo’s biggest threat to the division isn’t the Pats—it’s the Dolphins. Miami has handed its offense to rookie quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, and sits 1.5 games out of first place after beating the Rams in Week 8. For just the third time in the last 20 years, the Patriots will almost certainly not win this division.

AFC North

Pittsburgh Steelers (7-0)
Baltimore Ravens (5-2)
Cleveland Browns (5-3)
Cincinnati Bengals (2-5-1)

Can Lamar Jackson and the Ravens recapture their 2019 form?

Lamar Jackson came out of Baltimore’s bye week and committed four turnovers in a game that the Ravens lost by four points. That 28-24 result against Pittsburgh changes their season. A win would have tied Baltimore with the Steelers for the division lead. Now they are two games out of first place. Regression has hit the Ravens hard: Jackson has been less effective as both a passer and a runner than he was in his MVP-winning campaign, and the entire offense has taken a step back. Turnovers have been particularly costly, as this group is built to protect leads, not retake them. Baltimore runs the ball at an elite level when it is ahead, but the offense hasn’t clicked when attempting to come from behind. That was a huge issue in its playoff loss to Tennessee and Monday Night Football loss to Kansas City, and reared its head again Sunday against Pittsburgh. Apparently, Baltimore receiver Marquise “Hollywood” Brown is so fed up with the team’s play-calling that he tweeted (and deleted) the following:

Now the Ravens will have to come from behind to win the AFC North, and they’ll have to do it without All-Pro left tackle Ronnie Stanley. Stanley left Sunday’s game in the first quarter, and has since been ruled out for the season with an ankle injury.

To retake the division, the Ravens have to catch the Steelers, who are 7-0 for just the second time in franchise history. Pittsburgh’s next three games are against Dallas, Cincinnati, and Jacksonville, giving the Steelers a serious chance to start the season 10-0 before hosting Baltimore on Thanksgiving.

AFC South

Tennessee Titans (5-2)
Indianapolis Colts (5-2)
Houston Texans (1-6)
Jacksonville Jaguars (1-6)

Can Tennessee’s defense wake up before it’s too late?

If defense wins championships, the Titans are going to be relegated to the Big 12. Their offense is built to protect leads, with running back Derrick Henry serving as a human bulldozer and quarterback Ryan Tannehill repeatedly proving that he can rise to meet big moments. The problem is Tennessee’s defense. The Titans have perhaps the worst pass rush in the NFL, with just seven sacks in seven games. They spent more than $20 million to acquire Jadeveon Clowney and Vic Beasley this offseason, and have almost no production to show for it. Without a pass rush, the Titans’ weak secondary has been exposed. Tennessee is allowing opponents to convert on an astonishing 62.5 percent of third downs, which is not only the worst mark in the NFL, but would be the worst in NFL history. The Titans are allowing opponents to convert on third down more consistently than Ben Simmons made free throws for the Philadelphia 76ers last season.

Meanwhile, Indianapolis’s defense has vastly improved after trading for defensive tackle DeForest Buckner. The Colts lead the league in interceptions (11) and rank third in yards allowed per play (4.9). They have done this despite blitzing less often than any team in the NFL (11 percent of snaps). Not only is the Colts defense good on paper, but it has a knack for making big plays when it counts.

This division could be decided before the end of the month. Tennessee and Indianapolis will play each other twice in a three-week stretch from Week 10 to Week 12. If Indy’s defense shows up to those games while Tennessee’s defense keeps ghosting everyone, we may very well forget the Titans.

AFC West

Kansas City Chiefs (7-1)
Las Vegas Raiders (4-3)
Denver Broncos (3-4)
Los Angeles Chargers (2-5)

Can anyone stop the Chiefs?

The Chiefs didn’t need to blow out the Jets to show that they’re still the best team in the NFL, but it didn’t hurt. The question here is not whether the Raiders or Broncos can catch Kansas City, but whether the Steelers can stay ahead of the Chiefs for the AFC’s lone bye. Kansas City’s coming month features a home game against Carolina, a bye week, and then trips to Las Vegas and Tampa Bay. If Kansas City doesn’t trip against the Panthers or Raiders, they would be 9-1 heading into a potential Super Bowl preview of Mahomes vs. Brady. Considering how easy Pittsburgh’s schedule looks, the Chiefs may need all of those wins to get that first-round bye.

NFC East

Philadelphia Eagles (3-4-1)
Washington Football Team (2-5)
Dallas Cowboys (2-6)
New York Giants (1-6)

Is this a social experiment?

In the fourth season of The Wire, there’s a scene in which Prez is asked who is winning a football game. “No one wins,” he says. “One side just loses more slowly.” He must have been watching Dallas play Philadelphia on Sunday Night Football. NFC East teams are 1-15 against opponents with winning records this season, a record that will drop to 1-16 when the Giants inevitably lose to the Bucs on Monday.

The Eagles, who at one point were down nine of their 11 projected offensive starters, are in first place. The Cowboys, who allowed the second-most points through seven games in NFL history and are starting Ben DiNucci at quarterback, are just 1.5 games back. The New York Giants or Washington Football Team could plausibly win this division. No matter which wretched team emerges with the East title, though, it’s clear that they are all slowly losing.

NFC North

Green Bay Packers (5-2)
Chicago Bears (5-3)
Detroit Lions (3-4)
Minnesota Vikings (2-5)

Are the Bears good enough to make this a race?

Sisyphus was condemned by the Greek gods to push a boulder uphill for eternity. Bears fans are condemned by the McCaskey family to watch terrible offenses waste good defenses for the better part of a century. Chicago averages 4.8 yards per play this season, worse than every team except Washington and the Jets.

The Bears have two quarterbacks, Nick Foles and Mitchell Trubisky, who couldn’t hit water if they fell out of a boat. They play in a scheme that creates the NFL’s smallest throwing windows, according to Next Gen Stats. They also can’t run the ball effectively, with the third-worst yards-per-carry average through seven weeks. Still, they aren’t out of the divisional race yet, because their defense has carried them to a 5-3 record. As ridiculous as it sounds, Chicago is the only serious challenger to Green Bay in the NFC North.

The Bears’ next four games are against Tennessee, Minnesota, Green Bay, and Detroit. They could keep their division title hopes alive with a strong month. Green Bay’s loss to Minnesota on Sunday shows that the Packers are not invincible. All Chicago has to do is, you know, put together some scoring drives. Even Sisyphus could move the ball.

NFC South

New Orleans Saints (5-2)
Tampa Bay Buccaneers (5-2)
Carolina Panthers (3-5)
Atlanta Falcons (2-6)

Can Tom Brady and Tampa Bay’s defense keep playing this well?

Barring a massive upset by the Giants against Tom Brady for the third time in his career, the Buccaneers will take the NFC South lead heading into Week 9. Given how things are trending, Tampa Bay could hold that lead for good. When Brady signed with the Buccaneers this offseason, the talk was all about their offense. With Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, and Rob Gronkowski, the Bucs were expected to have the deepest receiving corps in football. Injuries have decimated this group, prompting head coach Bruce Arians and general manager Jason Licht to sign Antonio Brown. But despite the injuries, the Bucs offense has been rolling. In Tampa Bay’s last five games, Brady has 15 touchdown passes and just one interception, and entered Week 7 with the fourth-best odds to win MVP behind Russell Wilson, Patrick Mahomes, and Aaron Rodgers. Brady is just part of the story.

Tampa Bay also has the NFL’s top-ranked defense, according to Football Outsiders. The Bucs have the league’s best linebacker duo (Devin White and Lavonte David), one of the deepest defensive lines, and a secondary full of rising stars. With a defense this dominant, Brady could get away with being merely the most overqualified game manager of all time. Tampa Bay is the rare team with the offensive firepower to keep up with Seattle and Kansas City, and a defense on par with those in Pittsburgh and Baltimore. As long as one of those units keeps playing like it has, the Bucs could cruise to a division title.

New Orleans has been inconsistent since knocking off the Bucs in Week 1, and a Tampa Bay win over the Saints next Sunday could give it the division lead for good. If Tampa Bay’s offense and defense stay at such lofty perches, this team could become the first ever to play a home Super Bowl.

NFC West

Seattle Seahawks (6-1)
Arizona Cardinals (5-2)
Los Angeles Rams (5-3)
San Francisco 49ers (4-4)

Can Russell Wilson make up for the Seahawks’ defensive deficiencies?

Wilson has 26 passing touchdowns through seven games, the second most in NFL history behind Brady’s 2007 season. He is one touchdown ahead of where Peyton Manning was through seven games in 2013, when he set the all-time record of 55. Wilson’s celestial year has lifted the Seahawks above their competition in the league’s best division, and helped them dismantle San Francisco 37-27 on Sunday. The quarterback’s connection with Tyler Lockett remains the prettiest in football, and his rapport with DK Metcalf is consistently breathtaking.

Seattle’s defense, however, is inept. Through seven games, the Seahawks are allowing a mind-bending 461 yards per game, one of the worst marks of all time. Seattle’s defense was long defined by dominance. Now it is defined by being a doormat.

Yet that defense seems poised to improve. Star safety Jamal Adams appears close to returning after missing a month with a groin strain, and the team just traded for defensive end Carlos Dunlap to give its pass rush a much-needed boost. If Seattle has made it this far with perhaps the league’s worst unit, it’s scary to think what it could accomplish with a defense that’s even league average.

The NFC West was expected to be the class of the NFL this season, and thus far it has not disappointed. Seattle’s next three games are against the Bills, Rams, and Cardinals, so the Seahawks could either put the division on ice or turn this race into a dead heat.