49 days from right now, on September 5, the NFL regular season will kick off in the Meadowlands as the New York Giants begin their Super Bowl defense against the Dallas Cowboys.
Those Giants finished the 2011 NFL season victorious, and 31 other teams—regardless of how successful they may have been—ultimately failed in the one universal goal: win a Lombardi Trophy.
Those 31 teams have spent the last few months attempting to improve their rosters, hoping to catch the Giants in pursuit of the greatest championship in sports. For their part, the G-Men are trying to be the first team to repeat as Super Bowl champs since the New England Patriots in 2004-05.
So which teams, right now, are closest to the goal of Super Bowl glory?
There's a ton to like about the Cleveland Browns.
Frankly, in July, it's difficult to put any team at 32. Hope springs eternal in the NFL offseason, and few fanbases are as rabid and faithful as the long-suffering crew in Cleveland.
But some team has to be 32nd, and the Browns are as bad as any.
The defense, statistically, was solid in 2011 but will be missing nose tackle Phil Taylor for at least part of 2012. It's hard to quantify exactly how much a good nose tackle means for a defense, but so much of the scheme revolves around the big hoss in the middle. Without a good linchpin, the whole defense can suffer.
On offense, the Browns will feature a rookie QB (Brandon Weeden), a rookie RB (Trent Richardson) and—potentially—a supplemental-draft rookie wide receiver (Josh Gordon).
Those are all quality pieces, but it is difficult to predict good things in year one.
Depending on whom you talk to, Andrew Luck is the best quarterback prospect since Peyton Manning or John Elway, or he's simply the best ever. He's got arm strength, accuracy, mobility and intangibles that make offensive coordinators blush.
The Indianapolis Colts will need every bit of Luck's talent to win football games in 2012.
The defense will be in transition under new head coach Chuck Pagano, and the offense will struggle to adapt to a new scheme and quarterback—no matter how talented he is.
Yes, the Colts are on the right track after floundering in 2011 with zero direction and even less talent, but 2012 will not be their year.
Before the 2011 season, I remarked (repeatedly) that Blaine Gabbert was one of my lowest-rated rookie starting quarterbacks in years. The grade I gave Gabbert in my pre-draft evaluations was that of a fringe-starter in the NFL—someone who could eventually win some football games but needed a ton of work before that could happen.
If last year didn't convince anyone that that was the case, 2012 will.
The Jaguars have doubled down on Gabbert like a drunk guy on his first trip to Vegas. Hiring Mike Mularkey (who was on the outs as Atlanta Falcons offensive coordinator) wasn't an inspired move, nor was paying through the nose for Laurent Robinson.
The Jaguars aren't a horrible team—they have a great defense and one of the more underrated NFL superstars in Maurice Jones-Drew—but they are built on a flawed cornerstone and will succeed only as much as their quarterback allows them to.
As Adrian Peterson goes, so go the Minnesota Vikings.
AP is still one of the most talented individuals in an NFL uniform and has been remarkably durable for a guy who had injury concerns coming out of Oklahoma. He hits the hole faster than just about anyone and runs over tackles as though someone stole his lunch money.
The rest of the Minnesota roster isn't as impressive.
The defense is aging, past its prime and still running a scheme (a variation of the Tampa 2) that was created to combat the West Coast offense. While that defensive style would be a mistake in almost any division, it is especially problematic against the likes of Jay Cutler, Matthew Stafford and Aaron Rodgers.
On offense, Christian Ponder is learning on the fly but doesn't have a whole lot of weapons outside of Peterson, who still comes off the field on passing downs.
Ponder has NFL talent and fits the offensive system, but he needs more help before he's ready to compete in the NFC North.
Ryan Tannehill is a ray of sunlight for a team that hasn't had a long-term solution at quarterback since Dan Marino. However, he isn't pro ready, and he won't be facing the same Big 12 defenses that he and offensive coordinator Mike Sherman faced at Texas A&M.
After trading away Brandon Marshall, the only real weapon Tannehill has is Reggie Bush, who is a fine multidimensional weapon when he isn't forced into a role as an every-down workhorse. As that type of back, Bush would keep the chains moving but isn't going to scare any defensive coordinators out of their bread-and-butter plays.
The Miami Dolphins are extremely talented on defense, but in the AFC East, they will need to win shootouts no matter what.
The offense is simply not there.
For the long term, the Dolphins are (probably) in a better place than they were 12 months ago.
But if Dolphins fans expect short-term gains, they will be disappointed.
Somewhere between the overrating of 2010 and the underperforming of 2011 exists a Tampa Bay Buccaneers team that is young, talented and suddenly has a coach who can give them direction.
Thankfully, the Buccaneers also finally got a much-needed infusion of talent, signing free agents like Vincent Jackson, Carl Nicks and Eric Wright in the offseason.
It is possible that the Buccaneers catch fire in 2012, but the smart money is on them being a year away—one more draft, one more year of weeding out the bottom of the roster and one more year of acclimating to Greg Schiano's system.
Then, the Buccaneers should be able to compete in the (suddenly) competitive NFC South.
Without a doubt, Robert Griffin III will bring excitement to the Washington Redskins.
He is a good fit for Mike Shanahan's offense and can make plays with both his legs and his arm. While he isn't as pro ready as Luck, he's dynamic enough to beat defenses by himself.
Luckily, the Redskins got him some help, bringing in Pierre Garcon (among others) to catch passes from the rookie.
The defense didn't get a ton of help this offseason, though it needed it.
While the offense is a year away, the defense was a year (or more) away last year. With only one real upgrade—Josh Wilson at cornerback—that is still the case. Although the linebacking corps has a ton of talent, both the defensive line and the backfield need some serious work before the Redskins can be considered a great defense.
It was the right move to trade the farm for RGIII, but it's legitimately impossible to expect much out of the Redskins this year.
Even after winning the "Matt Flynn Sweepstakes," the Seahawks have a three-way quarterback battle that also includes a third-round rookie and Tarvaris Jackson.
On top of that, the starting running back is, according to ESPN, getting in trouble with the law (and likely Roger Goodell), and one of the starting wideouts has worked his way off a roster once again.
The Seahawks are in disarray, and the offseason additions of Kellen Winslow Jr. and an over-drafted/undersized defensive end are not going to stop the free fall.
Once the drama clears for Pete Carroll and staff, I expect the Seahawks to win some games in 2012. Right now, though, it's hard to see anything but a talented defense and a whole lot of offensive mediocrity that would have trouble scoring against Carroll's old USC teams.
When Jeff Fisher joined the St. Louis Rams, he immediately improved the young team with the same amount of talent as many of his Tennessee Titans squads. Then the Rams brought in a ton of help, such as Cortland Finnegan, Janoris Jenkins, Michael Brockers, Jo-Lonn Dunbar, Scott Wells and more.
Suddenly, St. Louis looks as if it could actually stay in most football games, which puts a lot of pressure on Sam Bradford to man up and actually start winning more of them.
Yes, Bradford has had a rough start to his career, with multiple offensive coordinators and injuries to deal with, but the former Oklahoma Sooner has a ton of talent and should persevere.
The Rams look better than before, but Fisher still has his work cut out for him.
The Cardinals bet a lot of money on Kevin Kolb being their franchise quarterback, but injuries and ineffectiveness have convinced some that John Skelton could be that guy. While I doubt Skelton has that kind of upside, the fact that Kolb has even left the window open is troubling.
Outside of Larry Fitzgerald, the rest of the offense is suspect, and the Cardinals' only other scoring threat is Patrick Peterson's ability to return kicks.
The Cardinals will be able to stop some of the low-powered offenses in the NFC West, but they are still a few defensive pieces away from even slowing down the NFL's best.
With a revamped coaching staff and a new way of doing things in the front office, the Oakland Raiders seem to have direction for the first time in a long time.
However, that doesn't mean they'll be ready in 2012.
Carson Palmer might be the quarterback of right now in Oakland, but it's hard to envision him as the quarterback that leads the Raiders to any real success. He doesn't have a lot of help, either, as the dinged-up Darren McFadden is his only multi-talented weapon.
The receiving corps that Al Davis drafted is still a one-dimensional speed group, so they could be multiple years away.
On defense, the Raiders have looked competent in recent years. However, adapting to a new scheme and new coaching isn't going to pay dividends overnight.
Overall, Oakland has good decision-makers in place, but the work has just begun.
In 2011, Cam Newton might have been one of the most dynamic rookies in years, but that didn't equal a winning season. A lot of the blame falls on a defense that kept Newton on his toes, needing to score a lot more points than most rookies could even dream of.
So, the Panthers' defensive-minded head coach Ron Rivera drafted Luke Kuechly to help solidify that side of the ball.
The defense is still depending a little too much on average talent on the defensive line and in the backfield, but it should be better than it was last year.
Most importantly, Newton finally gets a real offseason to learn a pro-style offense.
And his getting even better should scare the daylights out of the rest of the NFL.
The old adage goes: When you have two quarterbacks, you don't really have one.
The Titans have been reluctant to pull the trigger on Jake Locker, and while Matt Hasselbeck deserves a real competition, the uncertainty has stymied the offense. Adding Kendall Wright to an already dynamic offense will create real matchup problems for opponents, but a lot depends on the quarterback's ability to efficiently get the ball to his teammates.
The defense should be better, and it will look pretty great statistically after facing the Colts and the Jaguars twice each.
2012 will be a big year for the Titans, as they'll let the rest of the league know if they're on the right track or if they have to go back to the drawing board.
It's a little too soon to know which way this team will go, but this is probably the most talent it's had in years.
Mario Williams, a switch to the 4-3 and drafting Stephon Gilmore will help a Bills defense that struggled to stop opponents in 2011.
It isn't going to be immediate, but (if healthy) the Bills should find themselves in a lot more games this season.
Offensively, Ryan Fitzpatrick isn't going to have a lot of help, so Chan Gailey plans to supplement the scheme with plenty of gadgetry from Brad Smith and heavy doses of Fred Jackson.
It isn't the formula for long-term success in this NFL, but it should be more than enough to keep the Bills competitive against lesser opponents.
If Tim Tebow could lead the Broncos to the playoffs in 2011, then Peyton Manning should be able to do so in 2012, right?
As crazy as Tebowmania was for America, it's important to realize that his uniqueness made him difficult to game-plan for, and the AFC West was so down last year that none of the four teams truly deserved a playoff game.
Manning should be a quick study in Denver, though, and the offense around him will improve with his help.
The defense, propped up statistically by Tebow's low-scoring ways, will need to endure the loss of Brodrick Bunkley and prove they can win high-scoring affairs. Von Miller will have to step up, as well, and learn the nuances of the defense he failed to in last year's shortened offseason.
Manning's time in the NFL is coming to a close, so the Broncos will have to be at their best to get him back to the playoffs.
But it just doesn't seem feasible in year one.
The San Diego Chargers and their quarterback Philip Rivers seriously underachieved in 2011 as they dealt with injuries and the malaise of constant mediocrity.
It's hard to envision A.J. Smith putting together a real winner after all of this time, and it's even harder to consider Norv Turner coaching one.
But with Rivers at the helm, this team has a puncher's chance in almost any matchup.
Expect Rivers to bounce back in 2012, with the return of a revitalized Antonio Gates and a receiving corps that added Eddie Royal and Robert Meachem—two speedsters who can stretch the field.
I don't expect a lot of Ryan Mathews, but he should be good enough to take advantage of the yards defenses give him.
On defense, the Chargers have a bevy of pass-rushers to rotate in and out of games, which should put a ton of pressure on opponents and allow one of the NFL's best safeties in Eric Weddle to get his hands on more passes.
Mike Vick is starting to look a little bit like the NFL's version of fool's gold. Sure, he can put together a string of exciting games, and (at times) it looks as though he's taken to the coaching of Marty Mornhinweg and Andy Reid.
But when it's crunch time, he reverts to old habits and looks more like a 12-year-old playing Madden than a polished NFL quarterback.
If the offense improves in 2012, it will be because Reid learns to lean more heavily on LeSean McCoy and McCoy stays healthy.
Where the Eagles will certainly improve is on defense, where the linebacking corps has been entirely revamped. The defensive line got a huge boost in talent from the drafting of Fletcher Cox in the first round. Nate Allen, when healthy, is a better safety than most give him credit for, too.
The Eagles can compete in the NFC East, but there are a lot of "ifs" between them and a division championship.
I've been all in on the Chiefs for some time.
Looking back at 2011, it's clear that either a healthy Jamaal Charles or even mediocre quarterback play would've equated to an easy AFC West title.
Neither happened, but the Chiefs were still in the mix all season, even after numerous injuries and a fired head coach.
Romeo Crennel is back with his fearsome defense, and it's gotten even more fearsome with Dontari Poe manning the middle and Eric Berry back to roaming the deep third.
The Chiefs aren't going to have as easy of a road to the playoffs in 2012—the Chargers, Broncos and Raiders all look better than last year—but they should still make the playoffs. That is, if Matt Cassel can get out of his own way.
On paper, the Dallas Cowboys are a talented team.
On offense, Tony Romo gets way too much grief from the national media and his critics. The receiving corps is solid, and the offensive line has overachieved through years of being overlooked in roster management.
The running backs in Dallas are always talented and can fire off top rushing performances no matter who is back there. DeMarco Murray and Felix Jones might be one of the most dynamic rushing tandems no one is talking about.
On the other side of the ball, the defense has improved and should look better with a real offseason under Rob Ryan.
The defensive backfield will need time to gel, but Brandon Carr (though overpaid) was a good addition and will pair nicely with Morris Claiborne down the road.
This is the NFC East, though, and games aren't played on paper.
When healthy, the Cowboys can stick with almost anyone, but the entire team (not just Romo) needs to do a better job of stringing quality performances together if it wants to get that elusive playoff win.
Thanks to new general manager Phil Emery, the Bears look like a playoff contender all over again.
Emery finally pulled the trigger on some fantastic (if risky) roster decisions, acquiring the troubled but talented Brandon Marshall from Miami and drafting the troubled but talented Alshon Jeffery from South Carolina. Those two pieces give Jay Cutler the best receiving weapons he's had in a Bears uniform.
Paying Matt Forte was a good decision, as well.
Defensively, the Bears are not getting better nearly as quickly, but I think critics need to give Shea McClellin a real chance in that scheme before they judge him. Brian Urlacher is still playing well, and the cornerback tandem is solid.
It isn't enough to catch the Packers, but Detroit Lions fans should be worried about what's happening down Interstate 94.
Mark Sanchez is not nearly as good as his draft status or his East Coast-bias-driven hype would indicate. He's Alex Smith with a Jheri curl, and the Jets just aren't ready to accept that.
Still, he's hardly the worst starter in the league, and the Jets can still win plenty of games with him under center.
Shonn Greene, however, might be one of the worst starting running backs in the league, and the Jets don't have a good enough offensive line to mask his deficiencies. The receivers aren't much better, and Santonio Holmes is the last guy any team really wants to count on for 16 games.
Rex Ryan is a great defensive coach, but it's difficult to like the additions of Quinton Coples, LaRon Landry and Yeremiah Bell.
I don't see a steep decline for the Jets in 2012, but I don't see them getting any better either.
The cracks are starting to show, and this team isn't mentally tough enough to persevere.
The Falcons gave up a lot for Julio Jones in the 2011 draft, and the move worked, paving the way for a new-look, modernized offense with Matt Ryan at the helm. I still have my doubts that Matt Ryan will ever join the ranks of the NFL's truly elite QBs, but he should have plenty of fun putting up points with the weapons at his disposal.
The offensive line is a bit of a mess, especially after Sam Baker and Will Svitek staged one of the NFL's sadder training camp battles at left tackle. Peter Konz should end up as a starter at either guard or center, but it will leave question marks at the spot he doesn't lock down.
The defense gets a boost from Asante Samuel but will suffer from letting Curtis Lofton walk and trusting Lofa Tatupu to fill that void.
Unless Ray Edwards steps up, teams will find it easy to stick in the pocket until receivers get free.
Ultimately, the Falcons will always be judged against the Saints, and in 2012 they're not quite there.
Andy Dalton was the epitome of a "game manager" in 2011, and for all the right reasons.
Pressed into duty as a rookie, Dalton was able to hand off and hit open receivers. He was smart enough to play to his strengths and not force his hand. He also had a quarterback's best friend: a receiver in A.J. Green that could win a lot of matchups.
2012 shouldn't be any different.
With a year in the offense, an offensive line that got a big boost from new guards Kevin Zeitler and Travelle Wharton and (hopefully) the reins taken off a little bit, Dalton should continue to improve.
The defense will still be counted upon to win games and will be trusting in Nate Clements and Taylor Mays to step up more than they did last year. Dre Kirkpatrick will be waiting in the wings if Clements screws up.
The AFC North is a tough division in which to earn a wild-card spot, but the Bengals have the tools to compete for one this year.
After getting scored upon at will in Week 17 versus the Packers and against the Saints in the playoffs, the Lions defense has taken a little more criticism than it deserved after it spent most of the season around the middle of the pack.
Still, this is a young and undisciplined team that needs to put strings of error-free plays and (eventually) games together before it can be considered a real contender.
Off the field will be a bigger concern for the Lions this year than on it, as numerous arrests and incidents have left the Lions looking more and more like the Bengals of old.
If the Lions can maintain some sort of professionalism, they have the talent to challenge the Packers and certainly to get an NFC wild-card spot.
After a sad end to the 2011 season for Pittsburgh, the questions loomed. Would the Steelers reload once again for 2012, or would the cracks start to widen in a franchise that annually faces questions about age? Will this be the year everything falls apart?
If and when it does fall apart in Pittsburgh, it won't be because of the play of Ben Roethlisberger, who has shown again and again that he can win with whatever talent is around him.
The offensive line is still suspect—Maurkice Pouncey isn't nearly as good as Steelers fans think he is—but David DeCastro will make them better than last year, and Big Ben has overcome worse in the past.
The defense is going to depend on players like Ike Taylor, Larry Foote and Ryan Clark, who are all trying to convince themselves that it's still 2008. Ziggy Hood is apparently having a great offseason, but he has yet to do anything notable on the field.
The Steelers have built one of the great franchises in pro sports, but an injury or two could send this team reeling.
They still have enough talent to make the playoffs, but it is not the foregone conclusion it once was.
Terrell Suggs, one of the best defenders in the NFL in 2011, is out for a substantial part of this season with an injury he reportedly sustained playing basketball.
Behind him, the Ravens have drafted Courtney Upshaw to fill the void and are hoping for good things from Sergio Kindle. The loss of Suggs will hurt, but it's hard to get the feeling that Baltimore will truly feel it.
The Ravens get Ray Rice back on offense, and he will shoulder a big load this offseason as the wide-receiving talent will leave Joe Flacco dumping off to Rice again and again.
Fantasy owners should keep an eye on Torrey Smith, who will get a chance to develop some real chemistry with Flacco and may start to succeed at running routes other than "go."
It isn't going to be easy, but the Ravens look like AFC North favorites right now.
It is a huge testament to the New Orleans Saints that things did not get worse—much worse—this offseason. With Bountygate looming large, a head coach and general manager forced to sit and tons of bad press, lesser teams would've crumbled.
The Saints, to their credit, did not.
There was no free-agent exodus, and plenty of solid moves put the Saints in a position to win in 2012.
The position of the player (Jonathan Vilma) whose suspension was most heavily publicized is actually better now, after the Saints added Curtis Lofton this offseason. Add in David Hawthorne, and the Saints' linebacking corps is more talented than last year.
Things won't be handed to the Saints this season. Sean Payton means a lot to this team.
Still, they look like the class of the NFC South, and Bountygate could just be a speed bump on the path to another NFC championship.
2011 was the year everything seemed to click into place for the Houston Texans: Indianapolis finally took a nose dive, the running game was clicking on all cylinders, and Schaub-to-Johnson looked better than ever.
Yet it wasn't all roses for the Texans, who overcame injuries to Schaub, Johnson and others; still made the playoffs; and actually won a playoff game with T.J. Yates under center.
By overcoming all that adversity, the Texans look like an early favorite this year.
Eric Winston will be a big loss on the offensive line, though, and Schaub still doesn't have a quality second receiver to throw to.
The defensive backfield is still a mess, and Connor Barwin, Brooks Reed and Shaun Cody will need to continue to step up and improve under Wade Phillips' tutelage.
Just over a year has passed since the Packers' Super Bowl victory, and Green Bay is coming off a 15-1 season in which they featured a nearly unstoppable offense.
These Packers have to be considered serious contenders for another Super Bowl run.
Aaron Rodgers' returning at 100-percent health is better than any possible offseason addition, but the Packers did pick up a solid free agent in Jeff Saturday and improved their defense with the selections of Nick Perry and Jerel Worthy at the top of the 2012 NFL draft.
Nothing's going to be handed to the Packers in a tough NFC North, but it's tough not to like their chances for another trip to the playoffs and a run at another Lombardi.
The San Francisco 49ers were only one fumbled punt away from a trip to the Super Bowl, but they did as much as anyone to correct their deficiencies this offseason.
The offense wasn't high-octane enough, so Randy Moss, Mario Manningham and A.J. Jenkins were added to give Alex Smith some receiving weapons. Brandon Jacobs was brought over to keep Frank Gore fresh and provide different looks in the running game.
Alex Smith still isn't a great quarterback, but he showed he could win games with a little consistency and help, and he reminded people that he can still extend plays with his feet and hit open receivers.
That's all Harbaugh will ask of Smith, and he should be able to deliver.
It's a tough road to get through the top of the NFC, but the 49ers have the talent to compete with anyone.
The New England Patriots didn't have much of a defense in 2011, and they spent a ton of draft picks trying to correct that. Chandler Jones and Dont'a Hightower will both be expected to contribute right away and should help stop some of last year's bleeding.
Free agency was busy for New England, as well—Jonathan Fanene, Bobby Carpenter and Trevor Scott should all pitch in.
The Patriots also improved their biggest strength: the receiving corps.
Brandon Lloyd is exactly what Brady needs to stretch the field across from Gronkowski, and he will give Wes Welker room to maneuver between the hashes.
The Patriots made it to the Super Bowl last year and should be considered one of the favorites again.
To be the best, you have to beat the best.
Until someone takes it to the New York Giants and proves they're not the top team in the NFL, the Giants will continue their reign atop these power rankings.
What's scary for the rest of the NFL is that, like the Packers prior to last year, the Giants are returning a host of players off injured reserve and should be even better on both sides of the ball than they were during their Super Bowl run.
The defense is scary, and the offense is multi-faceted and as potent as any.
The New York Giants are, right now, still the best team in the NFL.
Michael Schottey is an NFL Associate Editor for Bleacher Report and an award-winning member of the Pro Football Writers of America. He has professionally covered both the Minnesota Vikings and the Detroit Lions, as well as NFL events like the scouting combine and the Senior Bowl.