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2021 NFL Divisional Power Rankings: AFC North makes case for No. 1 while AFC West tumbles after rough week

Five weeks of the NFL season are in the books, painting a clearer picture of which division is the best in football. There are still contenders for the top spot, but Week 5 games showed what divisions should be near the top for the majority of the season. 

The worst division in football may be remaining in last place for a long time, thanks to an out-of-division record that continues to worsen as the season progresses. The real division races are in the middle of the pack, as teams battle for strong representation as the second quarter of the season progresses.

The NFC West had intra-divisional matchups the last two weeks that helped its case to remain in the top spot, but the AFC North continues to climb. Based on Week 5 games, it’s hard to envision the AFC West being the No. 1 ranked division two weeks ago — which showcases the beauty of these rankings. Teams continue to play their way toward how their division will fare in 2021. 

8. AFC South

Last week’s ranking: 8

This division solidified its last place standing by going 0-2 in inter-divisional games, which included the Indianapolis Colts blowing a 22-3 lead to the Baltimore Ravens late in the third quarter on “Monday Night Football.” The Houston Texans lost a close one to the New England Patriots, but Houston blew a huge lead, too.

The AFC South just isn’t any good. The division has a combined record of 5-15 and is just 2-12 in inter-divisional matchups through five weeks. Three teams in the division have one win or fewer. Don’t expect the AFC South moving up these rankings anytime soon. 

7. AFC East

Last week’s ranking: 5

The AFC East took a massive drop off this week — and this is with the Buffalo Bills beating the Kansas City Chiefs handily at Arrowhead Stadium. Buffalo is the favorite to represent the conference in the Super Bowl, so let’s not even put the Bills in this discussion. They are a dominant team in a division that just hasn’t lived up to the hype thus far in 2021.

The Miami Dolphins were blown out by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the New York Jets fell to the Atlanta Falcons, and the Patriots barely survived the Texans. The combined record of those three teams through five weeks is 4-11.

The AFC East is 5-9 in inter-divisional games, but three of those wins belong to the Bills. Outside of Buffalo, this is a poor division. 

6. NFC East

Last week’s ranking: 6

I never would have thought the NFC East would be this high after five weeks, but the Dallas Cowboys continue to show why they are one of the best teams in the conference. Dallas had a dominant intra-divisional win over the New York Giants, who lost Daniel Jones and Saquon Barkley for the game — not a great sign for a 1-4 team barely staying afloat with a head coach that’s on the hot seat. 

The Philadelphia Eagles had an impressive comeback victory over the Carolina Panthers on the road, which is why the NFC East was able to stay above the AFC East this week. A bad loss by the Washington Football Team to the New Orleans Saints (at home) makes one wonder if Washington will ever get its problems corrected. The Football Team’s next two games are against the Kansas City Chiefs and Green Bay Packers. 

Outside of Dallas, the combined record of the NFC East is 5-10. The division is 6-8 inter-divisional games, though, showcasing why the NFC East isn’t close to being the worst division in football. 

5. NFC North

Last week’s ranking: 7

A major jump for the NFC North is well deserved thanks to the Green Bay Packers’ overtime victory over the Cincinnati Bengals (on the road) and the Chicago Bears beating the Las Vegas Raiders (also on the road). With Justin Fields at quarterback and a very good defense, all of a sudden the Bears have the look of a playoff team. (They would be the No. 6 seed right now.)

The Minnesota Vikings survived a massive upset bid by the Detroit Lions thanks to a 54-yard field goal by Greg Joseph to stay relevant. A loss would have been a bad look for Minnesota.

The NFC North is just 6-8 in inter-divisional games, but this was a good week for the division. Beating over .500 teams on the road isn’t easy in the NFL. 

4. NFC South

Last week’s ranking: 4

If the Carolina Panthers were able to hold on against the Philadelphia Eagles, this would have been a banner week for the NFC South. The Saints earned an impressive victory over Washington on the road and the Falcons took care of the Jets in London. Tampa Bay continued to flex as a conference favorite by thrashing Miami. 

The Buccaneers have a good test against the Eagles on a short week and the Panthers host the Vikings. The other two teams in the division are on a bye, so there’s a strong chance the NFC South stays at No. 4. The division is an impressive 10-6 in inter-division matchups. 

3. AFC West

Last week’s ranking: 2

The AFC West has certainly fallen since earning the top spot two weeks ago. The Denver Broncos were beaten convincingly by the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Las Vegas Raiders were taken care of by the Chicago Bears. The Kansas City Chiefs — still in last place in this division — did not play well in their loss to the Buffalo Bills. 

This week would have been a disaster for the AFC West if the Los Angeles Chargers didn’t survive a shootout win over the Cleveland Browns that involved a furious second-half comeback. This division is still very good, but the Raiders and Broncos falling back down to earth take its ranking down a notch. 

The AFC West is 10-6 in games outside the division, which is still very good. If the Chiefs can get rolling again, this division will compete for the top spot. 

2. AFC North

Last week’s ranking: 3

The AFC North flexed its muscle this week despite a 2-2 record. The Cincinnati Bengals were a field goal away from beating the Green Bay Packers, taking one of the best teams in the NFC to overtime, while the Cleveland Browns were the first team to score 40 points and commit no turnovers in a game — and lose. The Bengals and Browns showed they are good teams despite their losses this week, and will play a factor in this division race. 

The Pittsburgh Steelers had an impressive win over the Denver Broncos and the Baltimore Ravens rallied from 19 points down to beat the Indianapolis Colts, a game which Lamar Jackson willed his team to a win. The Ravens lead a very talented division, which will be determined by their intra-divisional matchups coming up. 

The AFC North is 11-7 outside the division, but this division is stacked top to bottom. Its 12-8 combined record — with just one team with a losing mark at 2-3 — showcases how good this division is. The AFC North could give the NFC West a run for its money as the season progresses. 

1. NFC West 

Last week’s ranking: 1

A second consecutive week of intra-divisional games kept the NFC West at the top spot. The Arizona Cardinals remain the league’s only unbeaten team and the Los Angeles Rams are right behind them for first place at 4-1. (Arizona holds the tiebreaker by beating Los Angeles in Week 4.)

Let’s see how the Seattle Seahawks fare without Russell Wilson and if the San Francisco 49ers can get back on track now that Jimmy Garoppolo may be returning after the bye week. Seattle has a big game against Pittsburgh this week while Arizona will be tested against Cleveland — both games on the road. The Rams travel east to face the Giants. 

The NFC West is No. 1 because of its 9-3 record in inter-divisional games. That mark will be challenged this week. 

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