The four divisions generally regarded as the toughest in the NFL (in no particular order) are: the NFC East, AFC North, NFC North and NFC South.
In my opinion, the NFC East is the strongest division in the NFL. The division boasts 3 teams that are perennially in the playoff hunt, including the reigning Super Bowl champion New York Giants, as well as team that should be vastly improved in the Washington Redskins. All 4 teams in this division have gone a long way to help themselves be in a position to improve their record from a year ago. The Philadelphia Eagleshave added some veteran help in the secondary with O.J. Atogwe, whose experience and professionalism should be invaluable to the younger players the Eagles already have on the roster. The Dallas Cowboys also sured up their secondary, which was their Achilles heel in 2011, through the draft and free agency. The Redskins should show a marked improvement this year with the addition of Robert Griffin III, as long as he has enough weapons around him to be effective.
I would have to say that the AFC North is right behind the NFC East in terms of difficulty, but that hinges annually on the performance of the Cincinnati Bengals. The Pittsburgh Steelers, despite the turnover they experienced this offseason, are constant contenders for the division and conference title late into the year and rarely miss the playoffs. They have a quarterback that wins and a lot of explosive players on offense. And everyone knows about the quality of their defense. Even with the coaching changes, I expect this group of veterans to have a good showing in 2012. The Baltimore Ravens are the other team in the AFC North that is more often than not in playoff contention. Similarly to the Steelers, their foundation is a hard-nosed defense that intimidates the opposition. They don’t have quite the amount of weapons on the outside that Pittsburgh does, with the exception of Torri Smith, but they do have Ray Rice to mitigate any deficiencies. Nobody really knows what to expect from Cincinnati on a yearly basis, but they managed to bounce back last year and make the playoffs. They have a solid, young offensive core that is going to produce for quite some time. And the Cleveland Browns…well they seem to be in a perpetual state of rebuilding, relying on yet another quarterback this year. They drafted fairly well, though, and the addition of Trent Richardson should take some of the burden off of rookie QB Brandon Weeden.
The NFC North is by no means a cakewalk with the likes of the Green Bay Packers, Chicago Bears, Minnesota Vikings and the much improved Detroit Lions. Detroit is still a team that is learning how to win. The Bears, who finished with an 8-8 record last year, have a major question at running back. If they can’t figure out a way to make Matt Forte happy, there will simply be too much pressure on Jay Cutler and a slightly above average passing attack. The Vikings are working on getting the pieces in place to improve on their 3 win season last year. Much of their fortunes, however, rest on the shoulders of young quarterback Christian Ponder. The Vikings have to hope that Adrian Peterson is ready to go to start the season. The Packers are far and away the best team in the North and one of the best in the NFL. As usual, they will be in the discussion of teams with a chance to win it all late in the season.
The NFC South is a crap shoot, in my opinion. The Atlanta Falcons have been on the upswing as of late, winning 10 games a year ago and 13 the year before that. They are going to be in contention for a playoff spot for the foreseeable future. If the New Orleans Saints don’t get something done with Drew Brees and his contract, there is a good chance they could be looking at the cellar of the South. Missing your head coach for the entire year and several defensive players for differing numbers of games is bad enough, but this team simply can’t afford to not have Brees at the helm. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers lost their last 10 games of the season in 2011. They made some good decisions in the draft and made some splashes in free agency, but are likely at least a year away and are still well behind the Falcons and Saints. With Cam Newton running the offense and the resurgence of Steve Smith at wide receiver for the Carolina Panthers, this team can score with the best of them. Their big question is the defense, especially in a division that can score points in bunches.