It’s not a secret that free agent Kirk Cousins’ main goal is to sign with a winner, to surround himself with a team that could give him the opportunity to play for Super Bowls in the next stage of his career. That means finding the easiest path to that goal — and that path may very well reside with the Denver Broncos and the AFC West.
Denver is one of four teams that are reportedly finalists for Cousins’ services, along with the Arizona Cardinals, New York Jets and Minnesota Vikings. While pundits proclaim that the Vikings have the easiest path to get to the Super Bowl in short order thanks to their NFC Championship appearance last season, it’s more complicated than that — and looking at the big picture reveals that Denver may actually be in better position.
Cousins will be paid handsomely, regardless of the team he goes to, and only Minnesota can boast a team that is head-and-shoulders better than the rest, but landing Cousins starts a clock ifor his new team that they must begin to act on, very much like how Denver treated the Peyton Manning era when they won over his services in 2012.
Denver has also done this before — recently, and with great success — and a deeper look inside the four divisions where the finalists for Cousins’ services play could potentially alter his decision.
The AFC West
The AFC West has already seen a lot of change this offseason — and change generally means vulnerability in the NFL. This fall, the Kansas City Chiefs will reboot with second-year quarterback Patrick Mahomes as its starter, and the Oakland Raiders will attempt to revive the magic they once had with returning head coach Jon Gruden.
But neither of these are sure bets. The unproven and inexperienced Mahomes takes over a team that couldn’t find playoff success, even after what many qualify as a very good year from Alex Smith, and Gruden hasn’t coached in the NFL in 10 years. Even in his prime, Gruden held a .541 win percentage as a head coach, far from dominant. Mix in the Los Angeles Chargers, with Philip Rivers coming to the tail end of his career for a team that hasn’t won ten games in a single season since 2009, and you get rather uninspiring division on the whole.
Denver has already proved that a the right free-agent quarterback can tip the scales in the Broncos favor when they signed Peyton Manning back in 2012. They won four straight division titles under Manning, and while Cousins isn’t Manning, it still provides proof that Denver — who still has a talented roster — can walk the talk when it comes to the ‘one quarterback away’ narrative.
The AFC West is very much up for grabs — and that benefits Denver greatly in their chase for Cousins.
The NFC West
Competing for Cousins’ services with the Broncos are the Arizona Cardinals, who reside in the NFC West, a division that features two up-and-coming teams in the NFL that Cousins would have to go toe-to-toe with for a long time.
The San Francisco 49ers caught fire under new quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo and won five straight games to end the season; major steps in the right direction. Add to that a big-spending off season for the 49ers, and you’ll see a team ready to compete as they grow with their talented young signal-caller.
And don’t forget about the Seattle Seahawks. While they may be moving on from aging veterans, they have perennial MVP candidate Russell Wilson, who’s capable of making the Seahawks competitive almost single-handedly.
The AFC East
To consider the Jets, Cousins must swallow the idea of facing Tom Brady and Bill Belichick. Twice. Every season.
Good luck with that.
While many assume that Brady may only play another year or two and then retire… that’s also what they said five years ago. Armed with Super Bowl rings and many wins later, the Patriots continue to plow ahead as the premiere team in the entire conference, including claiming the division title for nine straight seasons and in 14 of the last 15 years.
So long as Brady, or Belichick, or both stand in the way, the AFC East becomes a very difficult division to win, casting a pall over the New York Jets as they remain in the cellar of the AFC East. The Jets boast money, sure. But that’s not the only thing Cousins desires.
The NFC North
With a story that very much mirrors the AFC East, one team — and one player — stands in the way and that’s the Green Bay Packers and their future Hall-of-Fame quarterback Aaron Rodgers.
Rodgers, when healthy, is a uniquely special talent that’s nearly as dominant as the Patriots are in their own division.
The Packers have won the NFC North title in five of the last seven years. The only two years where they didn’t win the division title, were in 2015 and last year, where — surprise — Rodgers missed more than half the season due to injury. In 2015, the Packers still finished just a game out of the division title with double-digit wins. Trying to outrace Rodgers and the Packers yearly is not easy task, but don’t sleep on the Detroit Lions, who finished second in the division with nine wins or better in three of the last four years. A division that also features frigid weather in Green Bay and Chicago, the NFC North isn’t for the faint of heart.
In-division competition may not be what Cousins is thinking about, but it should be. Teams that don’t win their respective divisions titles and play instead on Wild Card Weekend have only won the Super Bowl six times. Six times in 52 years — and it’s never happened since Cousins was drafted in 2012. So if Super Bowl titles are truly what Cousins is chasing, the percentages say it starts with winning the division title. Advantage, Denver. Since Cousins entered the league, no team owns more division titles of the four finalists than the Mile High City — and no one has an easier path to win another.