"Which division is the strongest" is an ever-evolving debate in the NFL. The 2021 season is the second year in which seven teams will advance to the playoffs from each conference. More places means more opportunity, and it is likelier than ever that three teams from the same division will reach the post-season.
Last year, the Pittsburgh Steelers, Baltimore Ravens and Cleveland Browns carried the torch for the AFC North, but there were no triplets leading the way in the NFC. Change happens fast in the NFL, so here's a look at which three divisions are best placed to fill those wildcard spots in 2021.
The divisions most likely to have 3 teams reach the 2021 NFL playoffs are...
#1 NFC West
There’s every chance that all four teams in the NFC West will finish with a winning record. Kyle Shanahan’s San Francisco 49ers placed bottom of the division last year after being decimated by injuries and going 6-10, but the addition of rookie quarterback Trey Lance could power an already high-octane offense.
Last season, the Los Angeles Rams went 10-6 and won a wildcard game with Jared Goff under center. Adding Matthew Stafford to head coach Sean McVay’s creative offense could be transformative for the team and for the former Detroit Lions quarterback, who has every chance of becoming an MVP contender in his new home.
Meanwhile, Russell Wilson and the Seattle Seahawks have gone to the playoffs nine times in the past 10 seasons, and Kyler Murray’s continued development gives Kliff Kingsbury’s Arizona Cardinals the chance to compete in a loaded division. It will be an uphill battle for the Cardinals, but it would be far from surprising to see three NFC West teams in the post-season.
#2 AFC North
This could be one last run for Ben Roethlisberger. The AFC North champion Pittsburgh Steelers have retooled around their long-term quarterback by taking first-round running back Najee Harris and a clutch of other offensive pieces in the draft.
Lamar Jackson has led the Baltimore Ravens to three straight playoff appearances, coming up short in the divisional round last year. Meanwhile, the Cleveland Browns broke their 18-year post-season drought in 2020 and look set to make the playoffs their own domain under head coach Kevin Stefanski.
With Joe Burrow back at quarterback, the Cincinnati Bengals are the outsiders. But if one of the three main contenders drops off, it is not beyond the realm of possibility that Zac Taylor’s underdogs could mount a challenge if all of the pieces were to fall into place.
#3 AFC West
It's a tight call for the final place on this podium, but the AFC West gets the edge over the other divisions in that conference. It would take major breakout seasons from rookie quarterbacks Zach Wilson of the New York Jets or Trevor Lawrence of the Jacksonville Jaguars to add a third playoff contender in their respective divisions – although that is not beyond the realm of possibility.
If Patrick Mahomes stays healthy, the Kansas City Chiefs are a lock to advance from the AFC West. The Denver Broncos have an almost Super Bowl-ready roster if they can extract above-average quarterback play from Teddy Bridgewater, and with Justin Herbert running the show, the sky is the limit for the Los Angeles Chargers.
General manager Mike Mayock is claiming the Las Vegas Raiders "need to be in the playoffs" this season. For that to happen, at least one division rival has to miss out. However it breaks, there is a decent chance that a third AFC West team can beat out an AFC North side to a wildcard spot in the race for January football.