The NFL has structured the league in a way that promotes parity every season. The salary cap, draft order and injuries all play a role in keeping the field competitive. This coming season should be the most competitive yet.
Building a dominant football team is extremely difficult. Not only do front offices need to find above average players at multiple premium positions in the draft, they must then retain these players under the salary cap, or sign free agents to cost effective contracts while hoping the key players stay injury and suspension free. Add the relatively short career arc in the sport of football, and it it nearly impossible to build a team that has enough players at the peak of their abilities to dominate week in, week out.
There does not appear to be any dominate teams in the NFL this season. Even the best constructed rosters across the league have major flaws. Out of the 32 franchise, 24 have legitimate and reasonable playoff aspirations. Only about eight teams are clearly in rebuilding mode.
The AFC in particular is absolutely wide-open. Suspensions to star players, namely Tom Brady, Rob Ninkovich, Martavis Bryant and Le’Veon Bell have limited the ceilings for the favored Patriots and Steelers. In the North, the season is shaping up as a three-way slugfest between the Steelers, Bengals and Ravens. The Patriots will be pushed by all three of there division mates in the East, the Jets, Dolphins and Bills are all capable of making playoff runs on the strength of high quality defense.
In the AFC South, the Texans have a solid roster of players who compliment one another and are a sneaky pick to earn a playoff bye. They are trying to stay ahead of the Colts, who hope to get back on track with better health, and the up-and-coming Jaguars who feature an exciting roster with an abundance of speedy playmakers on both sides of the ball. The West should also be closely contested as the Broncos defend their title with serious questions at quarterback. The Chiefs are lead by their imposing defense and ball control offense. They could win the division if they hold off a well crafted and talented but inexperienced Raiders team.
It would not be surprising at all to see six or more AFC teams vying for the final wild card spots in Week 17. The top seed in the playoffs could also be earned with 11 wins this year. Top to bottom, this is the most evenly matched AFC in recent memory.
The NFC has more separation between the top tier of teams and the rest of the conference, but the best teams still have weaknesses. The Seahawks and Cardinals are the cream of the crop, but the Seahawks have questions on the offensive line and their defense is aging. The Cardinals are very well balanced and well coached, but their secondary has a gaping hole at #2 corner and Carson Palmer has struggled badly in the playoffs.
Green Bay will be battling with the two NFC West juggernauts for playoff seeding, and their underrated pass defense personnel will complement their potent offense. But the Packers are vulnerable on their offensive line and defensive front. The Vikings feature a tough young defense and should vie for a playoff bid, even without Teddy Bridgewater. In the East, the Giants, Redskins or Cowboys could win the division, but each has major flaws that will be exposed if they make it to the playoffs.
And in the South, the Panthers are the favorite but should take a step back against a tougher schedule without Josh Norman. The Falcons and Buccaneers could reasonably push the Panthers if multiple pieces on their defenses fall into place. The NFC playoffs will be a battle of attrition, health should eventually separate the top contenders.
The Baltimore Ravens are one of the most challenging teams to peg. It is certainly feasible that they could represent the AFC in the Super Bowl if certain elements break their way. It is also completely possible that the Ravens could earn another Top 10 draft pick if the issues not related to injury from last season resurface. The margin for error is slim. Slim for the hometown team and slim for the rest of the field, providing a great opportunity for the Ravens.
In 2016, parity reigns supreme across the NFL landscape. Enjoy the ride.