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NFL playoff picture: Considering the toughest NFL divisions

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Is the NFC West the toughest division in football? Or does the AFC West or North get that designation?

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The Chicago Bears were unable to help out the San Francisco 49ers on Thursday, losing 41-28 to the Dallas Cowboys to open Week 14. The Bears seemed poised to put together a potentially remarkable comeback, but they came up short. Thanks Bears!

The NFC playoff picture has tightened up with seven teams competing for five spots. The 49ers have a shot at the NFC West, but in reality are probably competing for a wild card berth. The seven teams include the 49ers, Seahawks, Cardinals, Lions, Packers, Cowboys and Eagles. We don't really count the NFC South spot because it is guaranteed to a team that will not qualify for a wild card berth. And while the AFC South has a strong first place team in the 8-4 Indianapolis Colts, the rest of the division is kind of a mess.

We all know that the NFC South is the worst division in the NFL. I don't see how anybody could argue otherwise. But what's the best division? The NFC West remains a tough division, but after last season's strong performance, does it still qualify for that designation? The worst team in the division, the St. Louis Rams, are 5-7 and have wins over the 49ers, Seahawks and Broncos. The top of the division is not quite as strong as last year, with the Arizona Cardinals at 9-3, but trying to avoid falling into a tailspin.

Here are the other candidates:

AFC North: All four teams are above .500, but none really stands out as the proverbial world beater. Even with all four over .500, it is entirely possible they only get one team into the playoffs. And even if they somehow managed two or three teams (division winner and wild cards), two of them very well could go down in the first round. It would be fitting if the AFC North division winner had to face a wild card team from its own division, just to advance them on.

AFC West: The Raiders drag the division down, but ahead of them you have the 9-3 Broncos, 8-4 Chargers, and 7-5 Chiefs. That's a strong 1-2-3 that might surpass the NFC West given the Cardinals injury issues, and the 49ers consistency issues.

AFC East: This division gets dragged down by the 2-10 New York Jets. However, even their 7-5 teams are questionable. The Miami Dolphins and Buffalo Bills are both 7-5, but neither is exactly wow'ing anybody. Both teams are capable of big wins, but they struggle with consistency. And of course, they still have the Jets.

NFC North: You've got two teams over .500, and two teams under .500. The Green Bay Packers are playing some great football during their current 4-game winning streak. The Lions are 8-4, getting a win this past week over the Bears after dropping two straight road games to the Cardinals and Patriots. We're all rooting for the Lions to go into some kind of tailspin, and I don't think anybody would be shocked if that happened.

NFC East: There are two really solid teams, and two really bad teams. On top, we've got the 9-3 Eagles and 9-4 Cowboys. At the bottom, we've got 3-9 New York and Washington. Good times! The division has a solid chance of sending two teams to the playoffs, but those two 3-9 squads are brutal.

The NFC West is not as top heavy as the other divisions, but the occasionally strong play of the Rams brings it up a bit. I would go with the AFC West as the best division, even with the Raiders, but the NFC West is certainly in the conversation.

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