Uncertainty about how an upcoming season will turn out is a big part of the excitement for NFL fans (and a source of anxiety for team execs). There always is turnover among division champs and playoff teams. Just this decade, there were five new division champions in 2020, and four new teams won division titles in both 2021 and 2022.
Now that we’re at the post-draft juncture with the bulk of free agency wrapped up, here are my confidence ratings for the chances of the eight division champs repeating in 2023.
>> READ: Betting Analysis of Division Winners
Confidence in Division Winners Repeating
1. Kansas City Chiefs, AFC West
No big surprise here that I see the defending Super Bowl champions with the best shot at repeating in an AFC West they have won seven straight seasons. The Los Angeles Chargers finished four games back of the 14-3 Kansas City Chiefs last season and melted down in their playoff loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars. They are the closest to challenging the Chiefs, as the Las Vegas Raiders and Denver Broncos have a long way to go (but I like Sean Payton’s chances to get Denver and Russell Wilson headed in the right direction).
This is basically the same Chargers team as last year, and they’re close to the Chiefs talent-wise except at the most important position of quarterback, where Justin Herbert is a top-10 quarterback, but Patrick Mahomes is clearly No. 1. Mahomes has led the Chiefs to the division title in all five of his seasons as the starter.
The other thing that separates the Chiefs from the Chargers is that Andy Reid is a far superior head coach compared to Brandon Staley, who makes too many poor decisions, such as playing his starters in a meaningless final regular season game with a playoff game on the horizon.
2. Philadelphia Eagles, NFC East
I hate to be predictable by picking last year’s Super Bowl teams — the Chiefs and Philadelphia Eagles — as the best bets to win their divisions again, but I think it’s the right call.
Yes, the NFC East may be the league’s best division (it was last season with three playoff teams in the Eagles, Dallas Cowboys and New York Giants. Even the Washington Commanders were at .500). But I think the Eagles are still significantly stronger than their division foes with a more potent offense and better all-around defense.
Philadelphia has done enough in the draft and free agency this offseason to overcome several starters leaving on defense. It’s a loaded team on both sides of the ball led by the best quarterback in the division — last year’s MVP runner-up Jalen Hurts — who should continue to improve in his third season as the starter.
Dallas has plenty of talent, but something’s missing either with Mike McCarthy’s coaching or Dak Prescott throwing too many interceptions (a career-high 15 last season). The Giants are on the rise but, like Dallas, are not ready to challenge the Eagles, and the Commanders have a shaky quarterback situation that will be their downfall despite the league’s best defensive line.
3. Jacksonville Jaguars, AFC South
Having this much confidence in the Jaguars to pick them third in this exercise may seem risky for a team that won the division with a 9-8 record and had to beat the Tennessee Titans in the final week to do so. But the Jags have confidence after their great finish last year (five straight wins and then the epic comeback to beat the Chargers in the wild-card round before playing the Chiefs tough in a seven-point divisional round loss).
Jacksonville has the best quarterback in the division — an emerging Trevor Lawrence — and a Super Bowl coach in Doug Pederson to direct a top-10 offense. Lawrence has plenty of weapons, with Calvin Ridley added to the wide receiver mix.
My belief in Jacksonville also is based on playing in a weak division, with Tennessee likely the only threat in 2023, and the Titans are coming off a 7-10 season that ended with seven straight losses. Tennessee has basically the same team coming back (unless second-round pick Will Levis makes a grand entry at quarterback). The Indianapolis Colts and Houston Texans have a long ways to go (with rookie QBs Anthony Richardson and C.J. Stroud needing time to ascend).
4. Cincinnati Bengals, AFC North
It’s unlikely to be as easy as last year, but with a top-three quarterback in Joe Burrow leading a dynamic offense and having an underrated defense, the Cincinnati Bengals should be able to win their tough division after their 12-4 finish in 2022.
The Pittsburgh Steelers and Cleveland Browns should be improved over last season with their quarterbacks — Kenny Pickett and Deshaun Watson, respectively — more settled and confident in their second season as starters with their teams. But I don’t see either team at the level of Cincinnati or Baltimore.
The Baltimore Ravens should be the Bengals’ biggest threat with a happy quarterback in Lamar Jackson after getting his massive new contract and two exciting additions to his receiver corps in Odell Beckham Jr. and Zay Flowers. The 10th-ranked defense should be solid again, so the best chance for the Ravens to win the division is for Jackson to play great and stay healthy, which has not been the case the past two seasons, as he’s missed 11 games. I have more confidence in Burrow over Jackson, so I’ll stick with Cincy.
5. San Francisco 49ers, NFC West
The Los Angeles Rams should be better than last year’s dismal and injury-filled 5-12 team if Matthew Stafford, Cooper Kupp and Aaron Donald stay healthy and return to top form. But it’s highly doubtful the Rams will keep pace with the San Francisco 49ers and Seattle Seahawks in what should be a two-team race.
San Francisco won the NFC West by four games over Seattle last season. Still, the Seahawks clearly have narrowed the gap by fortifying their No. 26 ranked defense with several quality free agent signings, including the return of eight-time Pro Bowl linebacker Bobby Wagner as a team leader. Geno Smith was a revelation last season at quarterback and has a new weapon in first-round wide receiver Jaxon Smith-Njigba.
The 49ers signed a premier defensive tackle in Javon Hargrave in free agency to add to their top-ranked defense led by NFL sack leader Nick Bosa. Their big question is at quarterback as Brock Purdy tries to return from his elbow injury and hold off Trey Lance and Sam Darnold. I think the 49ers will win a close race with the Seahawks, and their Thanksgiving night matchup in Seattle should be one of the season’s highlight games.
6. Buffalo Bills, AFC East
This division is now loaded with good teams, with Aaron Rodgers joining the New York Jets; the Buffalo Bills and Miami Dolphins coming off playoff seasons; and we can never count Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots out.
The 13-3 Bills won the division by 4.5 games over the Dolphins last season, and Buffalo beat Miami, 34-31, in the wild-card round before a disappointing home performance eliminated them against Cincinnati.
I like the Bills to repeat as AFC East champs — especially if star QB Josh Allen cuts down his costly turnovers. Still, so many quality opponents within the division have lessened my confidence level. The Bills wide receiver talent beyond Stefon Diggs also is a concern. First-round tight end Dalton Kincaid will help the passing game, and the return of Von Miller from his ACL injury will aid the pass rush.
The Dolphins added Pro Bowl corner Jalen Ramsey to aid last season’s No. 27 ranked pass defense. But it’s obvious the Dolphins need a healthy Tua Tagovailoa (four games missed last season because of concussions) to have a chance to overtake the Bills, and he hasn’t yet played an entire season.
Rodgers is the wild card as he seeks to elevate a Jets team with a top-five defense that was 7-4 before quarterback issues derailed the team with six straight losses at the end of last season. I see a motivated Rodgers leading the Jets into playoff contention and likely on an even keel with the Dolphins, with both teams falling short of the Bills.
The Patriots should bring up the rear but could surprise as their defense is good enough (No. 7 ranked last season). The pressure is on QB Mac Jones to return to his rookie season form when he led New England to the playoffs before his play declined last season. Free agent wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster and new offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien should help Jones’ cause.
7. Minnesota Vikings, NFC North
The Minnesota Vikings were an amazing 11-0 in one-score games during their run to the division title with a 13-4 record. Their offense — led by QB Kirk Cousins and superstar receiver Justin Jefferson — was excellent at No.7, but the defense was No. 31, and neither unit played well in the wild-card loss to the Giants. Minnesota is counting on new DC Brian Flores and several cornerbacks coming off injuries to revive a defense that also needs pass-rush help after trading Za’Darius Smith (and they’re hoping free agent signee Marcus Davenport can be a factor if he can stay healthy). Lots of questions and a fair amount of doubt about the Vikings ability to repeat as division champs.
The Chicago Bears are improved through free agent signings and the draft, but their pass rush is still suspect (last in the league in 2022), and they must protect Justin Fields better (first-round tackle Darnell Wright and free agent signee at guard Nate Davis should be a big help). Newcomer via trade DJ Moore gives Fields a much-needed new threat at wide receiver.
The Detroit Lions have a powerful offense (fourth ranked last season). They are the popular pick to supplant Minnesota at the top of the NFC North after solid additions to their last-ranked defense with corners Cameron Sutton and Emmanuel Moseley, safety/slot corner C.J. Gardner-Johnson and first-round linebacker Jack Campbell to help rising star defensive end Aidan Hutchinson.
I see the Lions making the playoffs after their good finish last season, but I’m not yet convinced they’ll overtake the Vikings. The division race should come down to Minnesota and Detroit playing twice in the last three weeks (including the season finale in Motown).
8. Tampa Bay Buccaneers, NFC South
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers won the league’s weakest division (with no winning teams) last year at 8-9, and that was with Tom Brady in his final season (or so he says). Neither Baker Mayfield nor Kyle Trask will likely play close to Brady’s level as the new starting quarterback. The Bucs had the league’s worst rushing attack and have only added second-round guard Cody Mauch to help the offensive line. The Bucs’ defense was top 10 last season and added first-round defensive tackle Calijah Kancey, but it’s doubtful they can play well enough to overcome a shaky offense.
I don’t see the Bucs repeating in the NFC South, as the New Orleans Saints and Atlanta Falcons look like better teams going into the season. The Carolina Panthers have added enough talent to contend if No. 1 overall pick Bryce Young quickly develops as a productive starting quarterback.
This looks like a division that any of the four teams could win. I can’t pick the Bucs with their offensive issues, and I don’t trust QB Desmond Ridder for the Falcons (although Bijan Robinson should be an impactful rookie running back). I think Carolina needs a year with Young before it can ascend to the top.
So I’m picking the Saints, who have a top-five defense from 2022 (and added first-round DT Bryan Bresee) and should have the best quarterback in the division this season: Derek Carr. But he needs Alvin Kamara to return to his Pro Bowl form, and it would help if Michael Thomas can stay injury-free for the first time in several years to help Chris Olave, who had a 1,000-yard rookie season at wide receiver.
Jeff Diamond is a former Minnesota Vikings general manager and Titans team president. He was selected NFL Executive of the Year after the Vikings’ 15-1 season in 1998. Follow him on Twitter at @jeffdiamondnfl.