We see it every year in every sport. A team from the prior season takes a progressional step forward expected by no one outside of the club’s doors to win its division and, in turn, qualify for the postseason. While it’s a tad different in the NFL due to injury-riddled campaigns, a front office shuffle, or many other underlying factors that contribute to a down year, usually, the most talented teams stay afloat and competitive for years on end.
As the league continues to progress with headlining talents arriving in waves on both sides of the ball, the return of 2020 COVID opt-outs and players who spent the majority of their fall on the shelf has begun to formulate the projection of each race to the top of each division. In fact, since divisional realignment nearly 20 seasons ago, we've only experienced two seasons in which at least one team didn't go from worst to first (2014 and 2019), with the Washington Football Team serving as the most recent club to do so.
Although very little has changed at the top of the totem pole across both conferences, one division cellar-dweller stands out among the rest with the chance to go from worst to first. The other potential option… well, buckle up.
San Francisco 49ers
A 6-10 club with a 1-7 mark at home last year, the 49ers, who currently sit with the second-best odds to win the NFC behind the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (+300), are a retooled machine primed to earn their way to a spot in Los Angeles come February.
When healthy, the 49ers roster stacks up toe-to-toe with any roster the league has to offer. Headlined by a stout front seven littered with All-Pro talent in Nick Bosa, Javon Kinlaw, Fred Warner, and Dre Greenlaw, San Francisco is able to pin their ears back week to week, consistently wreaking havoc within any opposing pocket. A roster completely ravaged by injury the last couple of seasons, a fully available 49ers roster has no limit on its capabilities, let alone winning the division.
They return every weapon within their arsenal on offense while adding Trey Sermon and Wayne Gallman to a packed running back room, and looked primed to trot out a receiving duo of Deebo Samuel and Brandon Aiyuk that has rapidly progressed into one of the NFL’s best pass-catching tandems, again, when healthy.
While the NFC West is surely no slouch and will represent one of the closest neck-to-neck division races as we creep toward the middle of winter, the Kyle Shanahan-led unit has all the makings on paper to win their second division title in the last three seasons.
It’s time for Zac Taylor to show up or get lost. With a LOADED group of weapons on offense for Joe Burrow headlined by the No. 5 overall selection in Ja’Marr Chase, Burrow, who’s now been dealt a clean bill of health, and the Bengals, yes the Bengals, could challenge for the AFC North crown.
With a fortuitous schedule to start the season, it’s not hard to envision a scenario where the Bengals find themselves in a groove come the second quarter of the year.
The departures of Carl Lawson (New York Jets), William Jackson III (Washington), and Geno Atkins (FA) will surely have their effect on the overall success of the defense, but the addition of Trey Hendrickson and Larry Ogunjobi within the front seven and Mike Hilton within the secondary add a nice bit of pop to an underwhelming group last year.
But again, it comes to Taylor finally, and welcomingly, leading the Bengals into the fire. Now in his third season with just six total wins to show for, his relationship with Burrow will be excruciatingly important if Cincy were to surprise.
It’s about time we shift our attention to the group in Cincinnati; they’re a unit on a rapid rise who possesses everything necessary to steal the show this fall.
Honorable Mention: Denver Broncos
Questions are obvious under center, but Denver is an exciting ball club with the deepest roster in the division. Sure, their success will single-handedly rely on the overall play of whoever starts under center, but the Broncos, if Drew Lock or Teddy Bridgewater were to shine, could trump the Kansas City Chiefs.