NFL Preseason Power Rankings, Start of Training Camps Edition
Which team is the best in the NFL right now? We're about to find out.
As teams prepare for training camp, it is time to take a fresh look at the landscape of the NFL after a full offseason. How were teams helped by the NFL draft, by free agency and by coaching changes? Here's your updated reference for which team is expected to be the best during the 2012 season.
What teams did in 2011 matters, but this is a ranking for the upcoming season, so teams are ranked based on how well they are expected to do this season. Just because the New York Giants won the Super Bowl last year doesn't mean they'll start the year at No. 1.
Which team gets the top spot? Check it out now.
32. Cleveland Browns
2011 Week 17 ranking: No. 27
The Cleveland Browns made big changes to the look of their roster this offseason, mostly through the NFL draft. The fact that the Browns will be relying so heavily on rookies this season is a big reason why they start out the year at No. 32.
Cleveland will have a rookie starting at quarterback (Brandon Weeden), running back (Trent Richardson), right tackle (Mitchell Schwartz) and another playing a major role at wide receiver (Josh Gordon). That's four key contributors just on offense.
The defense will again be solid, as D'Qwell Jackson and Joe Haden are the leaders this team needs to remain competitive defensively. Finding a pass rush is the key, and second-year man Jabaal Sheard could become that player this year.
Cleveland's expectations aren't high this season, and playing in a division that sent three teams to the playoffs last year won't help matters.
31. Minnesota Vikings
2011 Week 17 ranking: No. 30
One thing is for sure; the Minnesota Vikings will be able to get after the quarterback in 2012. With Jared Allen and Brian Robison coming off the edges, Minnesota has one of the more athletic duos of defensive ends in the game. But will it be enough to help out an offense that's severely limited?
The Vikings were smart to draft Matt Kalil with the No. 4 overall pick; he'll be the left tackle that the future quarterback Christian Ponder needs.
Speaking of Ponder, this is his year to prove what he can do. A lockout shortened offseason didn't help him in 2011, and neither did the patchwork offensive line in front of him. Ponder will have to be excellent this season, at least until running back Adrian Peterson is back from a knee injury that shut down his 2011 campaign.
The defense is very good on the edges, but the defensive tackles and safeties are a question mark. Kevin Williams remains stout in the middle, but he needs help to avoid double teams. The team will rely on Letroy Guion to be the stop-gap next to Williams, but he's nothing more than an average starter.
The Vikings have the misfortune of playing in the NFC's best division, which can almost guarantee them six losses. With a young offense, just one real threat at wide receiver in Percy Harvin and a shaky secondary, the 2012 season will be a rebuilding year for Minnesota.
30. Indianapolis Colts
2011 Week 17 ranking: No. 27
The Indianapolis Colts are now in the hands of quarterback Andrew Luck. This is his offense and his team. How well the Colts bounces back in their first year without Peyton Manning since 1997 will depend largely on how well No. 12 plays in his first season.
Not many people expect the Colts to be competitive in 2012, but a closer look at what Ryan Grigson and Chuck Pagano did in their first offseason reveals a team that's better than most would expect.
The offense will need a healthy line, something they didn't get in 2011, but Anthony Castonzo has the potential to be a Pro Bowler at left tackle. If Ben Ijalana can play healthy, the Colts have two very good young linemen.
The receivers and tight ends will be solid, thanks in part to the drafting of Coby Fleener and Dwayne Allen in Rounds 2 and 3, respectively. The run game will be a question mark, but Donald Brown and Delone Carter are capable of sharing the load.
On defense, the move to a 3-4 will at least add fire to a stale unit from 2011. Robert Mathis and Dwight Freeney will be asked to attack the backfield from a stand-up position, and newcomer Cory Redding should be a force along the three-man defensive line. The secondary isn't great, but there is enough good play to put up a fight each week.
The Colts aren't ready for the playoffs yet, but this is a good nucleus for a team headed in the right direction.
29. St. Louis Rams
2011 Week 17 ranking: No. 31
The St. Louis Rams will get a fresh start to 2012 under new head coach Jeff Fisher, and boy do they need it after an abysmal 2011 season.
The offense should be much improved, if only because Sam Bradford will be healthy. Outside of Bradford and running back Steven Jackson, there are tons of question marks. The talent at wide receiver took a huge blow when Brandon Lloyd left for New England, leaving Brandon Gibson and Danny Amendola as the starters.
The offensive line has talent and potential, but key players have failed to put together consistent seasons. Both tackles, Rodger Saffold and Jason Smith, need to have good seasons or they could potentially be benched. The interior line is better, with Harvey Dahl very good in run situations, but the entire unit is a question mark.
On defense the Rams are in good shape. Chris Long and Robert Quinn are a deadly duo at defensive end, and the secondary gets a big boost from the additions of Janoris Jenkins and Cortland Finnegan. Jeff Fisher's teams always play well defensively, and the Rams have the talent to put together a scrappy defense this fall.
Besting their two wins from 2011 should be easy to do, but more than six wins would be considered a big success for Fisher.
28. New York Jets
2011 Week 17 ranking: No. 18
Jets fans can skip straight to the comments now.
There is a lot of individual talent on the Jets' roster this year, but the question marks they face are bigger than that talent. What are those questions?
Question 1: Is Mark Sanchez the starter?
The Jets traded for Tim Tebow after missing out on Peyton Manning, and while Rex Ryan says Sanchez is the starter, there is no question that should Sanchez struggle, the fans and media will clamor for Tebow, much like they did in Denver.
Question 2: Where are the receivers?
The depth at wide receiver was an issue last year, and it will be again in 2012. Santonio Holmes is the team's best option, but outside of that, they are lining up Chaz Schilens and rookie Stephen Hill, who is incredibly athletic but very raw. The Jets can't ask too much of Hill early on, because he's just not there developmentally.
Question 3: Can the defense hold up?
The Jets will use more of a four-man front this year, which should benefit the talent they've assembled, but who on this roster scares offensive linemen? Muhammad Wilkerson was so-so as a rookie. Quinton Coples comes in as a first-rounder, but he has had trouble playing on the edge in the past. Darrelle Revis can hide a lot of issues up front, but the Jets have to find a way to get to the quarterback.
There's talent here, but the Jets don't have the look of a team that can win week in and week out.
27. Oakland Raiders
2011 Week 17 ranking: No. 17
The Oakland Raiders and their fans are banking on a healthy Darren McFadden and a full offseason for Carson Palmer being the driving force behind an AFC West title this season. While optimism is good, it's hard to see that actually happening.
The AFC West not only got better over the summer, but the Raiders cannot be sure that McFadden will be healthy this year. During his four-year career, McFadden has never played in all 16 games. That's an issue that led to the team trading for Mike Goodson, but the loss of Michael Bush to Chicago will sting more than folks are letting on.
The wide receivers and offensive line are solid, with a ton of potential in a wide receiver pool that runs five-deep right now. The line should be anchored by Jared Veldheer, a player who started out great in 2011 before tailing off near the end of the year. Adding Mike Brisiel at right guard will help the run game, as will Stefen Wisniewski's development at center.
The defense has talent, but there is also a lot of age here. Asking for another big season from Richard Seymour is unrealistic, as he turns 33 at midseason. Lamarr Houston is an absolute beast, and Aaron Curry did look better after settling into his role, but the secondary and the rest of the defense are weak enough to allow the quarterbacks in the AFC West to dominate.
26. Miami Dolphins
2011 Week 17 ranking: No. 22
Anyone looking at the Miami Dolphins' chances in 2012 has to start with the quarterback position. This team will be defined by the choice between Matt Moore, David Garrard and Ryan Tannehill. Moore and Garrard offer more experience, but the team did spend a top-10 pick on Tannehill in the 2012 draft.
No matter who starts at quarterback, the targets at wide receiver are a massive hole. With Davone Bess and Brian Hartline scheduled to start, Miami may have the worst starting duo in the NFL. And if you're counting on Chad Johnson (formerly Ochocinco) to help here, you're delusional.
Reggie Bush looked amazing in 2011, but no one knows how Mike Sherman and Joe Philbin will use the multi-talented back this year. Daniel Thomas is a bigger back, but he's been disappointing. No matter who is at running back, left tackle Jake Long is still one of the best in the game and will open up rush lanes for them.
The defense moves to a 4-3 front, which should be interesting considering its personnel. Cameron Wake has played defensive end before, and the Fins need him to be a 15+ sack player if the defense is expected to keep up in the AFC East. The cornerbacks have great potential, but neither Vontae Davis nor Sean Smith showed it during 2011.
The Dolphins are looking at another season below .500, but the building blocks are in place if they can find the right guy at quarterback and a game-breaking wide receiver.
25. Washington Redskins
2011 Week 17 ranking: No. 26
If you hadn't heard, the Washington Redskins traded two future first-round draft picks to move up and select quarterback Robert Griffin III in the 2012 draft. Now, this is his team, and by the looks of the roster, the Redskins added the targets he needs to take off as a rookie.
RGIII will be aided greatly by newcomers Pierre Garcon and Josh Morgan at wide receiver, not to mention incumbents Santana Moss and Leonard Hankerson. Finding targets won't be an issue for Griffin, especially once you add in tight end Fred Davis, who is back from a four-game suspension.
The offensive line has a Pro Bowl talent in left tackle Trent Williams, but the rest of the unit is average. Thankfully, Griffin is able to run well, because he'll need to in order to stay alive behind this line.
On defense, the Redskins are paced by outside linebackers Brian Orakpo and Ryan Kerrigan. The two are able to crash the backfield as well as any duo in the game, and they'll be the pace-setters for the entire defense.
The defensive line and secondary are merely average. DeAngelo Hall continues to get name recognition despite average play at cornerback, but he's the team's best cover man. If free agent additions Cedric Griffin, Tanard Jackson and Brandon Meriweather hit the ground running, the Redskins could surprise a lot of people this year.
24. Jacksonville Jaguars
2011 Week 17 ranking: No. 28
Many expect the Jacksonville Jaguars to be one of the worst teams in the NFL this season, but when you look at the actual talent they have on the field, it's hard to see that happening.
Jacksonville will rely on second-year quarterback Blaine Gabbert, who did have a rough first season, but there's more to the puzzle than Gabbert. The team added an insurance policy in Chad Henne to backup Gabbert, but they also added help at wide receiver. Too little was made of just how terrible the wideouts were in Jacksonville last year.
Helping Gabbert at wide receiver will be Laurent Robinson and Justin Blackmon, huge upgrades from last season's corps. There is also this guy called Maurice Jones-Drew, who just so happens to be the best all-around back in the NFL. If he can get his contract situation figured out, MJD is primed for another huge season.
The defense will once again be strong. The interior line is anchored by Tyson Alualu and Terrance Knighton, but the outside pressure may be even better now that the team added Andre Branch to go along with Jeremy Mincey. At linebacker, the Jaguars are stacked. Daryl Smith and Clint Session make up one of the best duos in the game, and middle 'backer Paul Posluszny is a wrecking ball.
The secondary is underrated and talented. William Middleton and Derek Cox are two of the better players in the game that no one is talking about.
The Jaguars aren't quite out of the rebuilding stage yet, but if Gabbert can make a sizable improvement in Year Two, they'll be well on their way back to respectability.
23. Arizona Cardinals
2011 Week 17 ranking: No. 15
The Arizona Cardinals are about to play a serious game of "who is the quarterback?", and the winner will dictate the style of play this team will take on offensively.
John Skelton is the favorite to win the job, at least in my book, and if he does, the team will be able to play more of a vertical style of football than if West Coast offense posterboy Kevin Kolb takes the job. Whomever is at quarterback, Arizona added a new weapon in first-round wide receiver Michael Floyd, who will hopefully give Larry Fitzgerald a legit No. 2 running opposite him.
The offensive line is still an issue. Levi Brown was cut and then re-signed. Adam Snyder was one of the worst starting right guards last year in San Francisco, but the Cardinals are banking on him to improve the line play. Needless to say, there are major issues here.
Defensively, Arizona will be a top-10 team. There is talent across the board and enough veteran leadership to help the youngsters along. Darnell Dockett, Calais Campbell, Sam Acho and Adrian Wilson will all be in the running for Pro Bowl invites after the season, and Patrick Peterson is a likely addition as a return man if not a cornerback.
22. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
2011 Week 17 ranking: No. 29
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are technically still on a 10-game losing streak, but they are hoping new head coach Greg Schiano can restore the team to its 10-win ways of 2010 soon.
Schiano will bring a no-nonsense approach to Tampa, which is needed with the behavior of LeGarrette Blount and Aqib Talib causing off-field issues. On the field, Tampa Bay has the talent to get closer to 10 wins than 10 losses.
Josh Freeman should be much more comfortable after the Buccaneers signed Carl Nicks to help bolster the offensive line. Add in new receiver Vincent Jackson, and Freeman should be down right ecstatic. Another plus will be the drafting of running back Doug Martin, who fits as a strong, inside runner with the speed to get outside and make plays.
On defense, there is room for worry. Adrian Clayborn was very good in his first season and should improve at the defensive end spot. Da'Quan Bowers's health is a question mark, leaving Michael Bennett to play more of a three-down role. On the inside, the team is still waiting on Gerald McCoy and Brian Price to live up to their potential.
The secondary added Eric Wright and Mark Barron, which should help in a passing heavy NFC South, but young linebackers could hurt their ability to cover up athletic tight ends and slot receivers and let running backs get to the second level.
21. Carolina Panthers
2011 Week 17 ranking: No. 23
Can Cam Newton build on his record-setting rookie season? People in Carolina sure hope so.
Newton was amazing in his first season, but now the pressure is on as defensive coordinators have had a full offseason to study the Rookie of the Year's play. Newton has to continue to develop, but it's easy to see him taking the next step.
The Panthers will be a run-first team with backs DeAngelo Williams, Jonathan Stewart and Mike Tolbert all on the roster. Each is capable of carrying the load alone, which will make their shared carries all the more powerful when each player is rested.
The wide receivers are led by Steve Smith, and the team hopes Brandon LaFell takes the next step. A pre-camp trade for Louis Murphy will add much-needed speed at the position. Tight end Greg Olsen should be more of a factor in his second season with the Panthers.
On defense, health is the question. Jon Beason looks to return from an injured left Achilles tendon. If healthy, Beason will anchor a defense that added rookie linebacker Luke Kuechly to shore up the linebacker corps. The defensive line is solid on the edge with Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy, but the defensive tackles are a major weakness on this roster.
For the Panthers to win the NFC South, or even a wild-card spot, their secondary has to be tough. Playing Drew Brees, Matt Ryan and Josh Freeman six times will test the defensive backfield, which has talent but no stars.
20. Seattle Seahawks
2011 Week 17 ranking: No. 25
Before Marshawn Lynch decided to drive drunk in a Ford Econoline van, the Seattle Seahawks were at least a little higher in the pre-camp rankings. But Lynch's season is now in question, at least parts of it, due to his repeat-offender status.
Lynch was the offense in Seattle last year, but the front office went out and added quarterbacks Matt Flynn and Russell Wilson to compete with Tarvaris Jackson. The trouble is that Pete Carroll hasn't announced a starting quarterback yet, so knowing who will be leading the Seahawks in 2012 is impossible at this point.
The offensive line has talent, but it has to stay healthy. That all starts with left tackle Russell Okung, a player with the potential to be an All-Pro but with horrible luck when it comes to staying healthy.
If Okung can stay on the field and protect the quarterback, there is talent to throw to at receiver. Doug Baldwin, Sidney Rice and Golden Tate can produce when given chances. Tight ends Zach Miller and Kellen Winslow are both athletic targets up-field as well.
The defense is the strength of the team. The secondary was dominant in 2011 and will be again this year, led by safety Earl Thomas. Thomas is becoming one of the best in the game, and with Brandon Browner, Kam Chancellor and Richard Sherman surrounding him, Seattle is loaded against the pass.
Newcomer Bruce Irvin will be asked to generate a pass rush on the defensive line, but my concern is with the linebackers. Relying on Barrett Ruud and Leroy Hill could lead to a decline over last year's faster unit.
19. Buffalo Bills
2011 Week 17 ranking: No. 19
During the first half of the 2011 season, the Buffalo Bills looked like a playoff team, even beating New England in Week 3. But around midseason, the wheels fell off and the Bills limped to a 6-10 finish. The hope is that they'll be able to stay healthy and consistent enough this season to make a playoff push.
Helping the offense will be a fully healthy roster. Ryan Fitzpatrick was playing very well before Fred Jackson (RB) and Stevie Johnson (WR) went down with injuries. With his two top targets back, Fitzpatrick should be able to keep up his early pace from 2011.
The offensive line isn't great on the edges, but the interior is one of the best in the game. If rookie Cordy Glenn can contribute at left tackle, Buffalo could be in very good shape up front for a long time.
The defense is led by newcomer Mario Williams, who the team hopes can pressure Tom Brady and put him into into the turf early and often. Mark Anderson and Shawne Merriman will rotate opposite Williams, and if healthy, both can be factors.
The back seven on defense is good, but will look much better with a consistent pass rush in front of them. Aaron Williams looks to emerge as a second-year star at cornerback, rookie Stephon Gilmore was a top-10 player in the 2012 class, and the safety duo of George Wilson and Jairus Byrd is lights out.
Expectations are higher in Buffalo than they've been in a decade, and this team is talented enough to get to a wild-card berth.
18. San Diego Chargers
2011 Week 17 ranking: No. 16
It is the same story in San Diego as every offseason over the last five years—the Chargers have the talent to win a Super Bowl, but is the head coach holding them back?
Philip Rivers had his worst season as a pro last year due largely to injuries around him. The Chargers were without Antonio Gates for a period, without Ryan Mathews for two games and they didn't get good left tackle play until November 30 when they signed Jared Gaither. The 2011 season wasn't the rule for Rivers; it was the exception.
Speaking of Gaither, San Diego is banking on him to anchor the offensive line after losing Marcus McNeill and Kris Dielman. The line should be good if Gaither can stay healthy. This will give Rivers time to get the ball to Gates, Mathews, Robert Meachem and Eddie Royal. If everyone is clicking, this offense can roll.
The defense is a bit of a mystery. The front office added Melvin Ingram and Jarrett Johnson to help Shaun Phillips on the outside. The team is hoping Antoine Cason and Quentin Jammer have better seasons in 2012, and they should. Free safety Eric Weddle is the best in the game at what he does, so there are no worries here.
17. Dallas Cowboys
2011 Week 17 ranking: No. 11
The Dallas Cowboys are seemingly always a favorite to at least win the NFC East, if not the Super Bowl. This season those expectations aren't realistic.
The Cowboys face a tougher division, with Philadelphia and Washington much better than their 2011 versions, not to mention the reigning Super Bowl champions in New York. As the division got better, Dallas actually got worse.
The team lost No. 3 wide receiver Laurent Robinson to Jacksonville and never replaced him. Add in the off-field issues of Dez Bryant, and the depth here is a real concern. The offensive line added two new guards, but neither player is a standout and will still be a weak link in the line. The offense will once again underperform, and once again too much of the blame will go on Tony Romo's shoulders.
The defense should be good, but that's mostly due to DeMarcus Ware. Anthony Spencer is a below average pass-rusher on the other side, and the team is relying on role players to be stars on the defensive line. While the secondary should be better with Brandon Carr lining up opposite rookie Morris Claiborne, the safeties need to prove themselves.
The Cowboys are in position to be very good, but they'll have to play well over their collective heads for the playoffs to be a reality.
16. Tennessee Titans
2011 Week 17 ranking: No. 13
The final season outcome may not rely too much on who starts at quarterback, but the training camp battle between Jake Locker and Matt Hasselbeck should be very fun to watch.
The Titans looked loaded on offense for a postseason run, right up until the moment Kenny Britt was arrested for a DUI. Britt has now been in trouble with the police eight times since being drafted in 2009. Needless to say, the Titans are looking at losing their best wide receiver for several games, if not the entire season.
Thankfully, Tennessee drafted Kendall Wright in the first round. Wright will step in to replace Britt, a player the team learned to live without during 2011 when he was out with injury. Look for Jared Cook and Damian Williams to help pick up the slack.
The offensive line will be better thanks to the addition of Steve Hutchinson, even if he's only a short-term solution to Tennessee's problems up front. This should allow for better play from Chris Johnson and Javon Ringer now that there is a mauler opening up holes for them.
The defense has youth at almost every position, and while that speed will be welcomed, the inexperience may show up too often. The good news is that those young players are very talented.
Linebackers Akeem Ayers and Colin McCarthy gained experience in 2011 and will be key leaders this fall. With safety Michael Griffin back and Jason McCourty stepping in, the defense shouldn't miss cornerback Cortland Finnegan as much. With Kamerion Wimbley joining one of my favorites, Jurrell Casey, up front, the defensive line has potential to dominate.
15. Denver Broncos
2011 Week 17 ranking: No. 21
Gone is Tim Tebow;, in is Peyton Manning. Where I come from, that's called an upgrade.
Manning will look to take the Denver Broncos back to the playoffs, but he'll be asked to do so with a tougher division in front of him than the one Tebow faced in 2011, and with a supporting cast well below any he played with in Indianapolis.
Manning is an all-time great, but there are still questions about how healthy he is, how long he can stay healthy and what the effects of a hard hit to the neck will do. We're all hoping for the best, but the reality is much closer to an unknown.
The Broncos have a decent offensive line, but they are built for a run-first offense. Ryan Clady is the lone upper-level player here, and thankfully he'll be the one blocking Manning's blindside. With how fast Manning delivers the ball, the offensive line doesn't have to be great, but it needs to improve.
Manning will be working with Demaryius Thomas, who may be the best deep threat he's ever had, and possession receiver Eric Decker. What's missing on paper is someone to work the slot on hot routes and a good tight end. Brandon Stokley may become that guy in the slot, but he's nothing to write home about in matchups.
The defense has stars in Von Miller and Champ Bailey, but they need more production from the other players. Elvis Dumervil has had off-field issues this summer and needs to get past those to get on the field. There is youth in the secondary, especially at safety, which could be a blessing and a curse.
The expectations are for a postseason run, but with Kansas City healthy and San Diego reloaded, the Broncos may actually be a better team in 2012 and still miss the playoffs.
14. Detroit Lions
2011 Week 17 ranking: No. 6
For all their problems this offseason, and there have been a lot of them, the Detroit Lions are still talented enough to make serious noise this year...if they can stay focused.
The downside of the Lions' playoff run in 2011 was that they lost focus at times, leading to losses and letdowns along the way. The Lions were simply out-matched in the playoffs, but a team with this much raw talent should be better if it can play disciplined football.
The Lions' 2012 season will hinge on Matthew Stafford, who in his first full season as a starter tossed for over 5,000 yards. Stafford has had trouble staying healthy in his three years, and for the Lions to make it back to the playoffs, he'll need to be on the field every week.
To keep Stafford healthy, the Lions invested in Riley Reiff with their first draft pick. The former Iowa tackle will help immediately. Giving Stafford more time only means good things for Calvin Johnson, who was uncoverable at times during the 2011 season.
The defense is mean, nasty and at times uncontrollable—both good and bad. It's time for Ndamukong Suh to take the next step and become a better all-around player, same for Nick Fairley. If these two can man-up in the middle, Detroit's defense could be epic.
The secondary has question marks, especially after the release of Aaron Berry, but if the pass rush delivers, it will help ease the pressure off over-matched cornerbacks in Detroit's secondary.
13. Pittsburgh Steelers
2011 Week 17 ranking: No. 7
The Pittsburgh Steelers have had an amazing run over the last decade, but that run has to end sometime. Why not this year?
Here's an interesting statistic about the Pittsburgh Steelers since 2001: Over the last 10 seasons, they miss the playoffs every third year.
2001 and 2002? Playoffs. 2003? Missed. 2004 and 2005? Playoffs. 2006? Missed. 2007 and 2008? Playoffs. 2009? Missed. 2010 and 2011? Playoffs. Now we're at 2012, and if history holds true, the Steelers will be on the outside looking in.
Not only that, but the division is at its best in that time. The Baltimore Ravens and Cincinnati Bengals both made the playoffs last season and improved over the summer. Pittsburgh did too, but the turnover at key positions is adding up.
Superstition and stats aren't enough to fully back up the reasons Pittsburgh will take a step back, though. What's real is the fact that the Steelers are relying on two rookies (David DeCastro and Mike Adams) to start on the offensive line.
Their best wide receiver (Mike Wallace) still isn't signed, and the run game is a big question mark with Rashard Mendenhall hurt and Isaac Redman inconsistent.
The defense will be great, as always, but no one should be comfortable with the idea of Ziggy Hood as a force on the defensive line. Steve McLendon has to fill in at nose tackle, another player who is biting off more than he's chewed in the past. Replacing James Farrior will be Larry Foote, and he's solid, but he's no Farrior. The secondary looks solid compared to the front seven, but even at its best, the backfield isn't elite.
The Steelers have talent—that's unquestioned—but there are enough holes and question marks to add up to a Pittsburgh-less postseason.
12. Cincinnati Bengals
2011 Week 17 ranking: No. 10
Yes, the Cincinnati Bengals are above the Pittsburgh Steelers. And no, I'm not on bath salts.
The Bengals aren't the same team we all grew up making fun of. These Bengals feature a second-year quarterback who has the goods to lead his team to the playoffs like he did in his first season, along with a wide receiver who could be Top 3 in the game by season's end.
The Bengals are talented, like it or not. Andy Dalton and A.J. Green are just the tip of the iceberg, too. Add in guys like Andrew Whitworth at left tackle, Jermaine Gresham at tight end, the potential of Kevin Zietler at guard and a defense that punished teams under Mike Zimmer, and you have a playoff team again in 2012.
The biggest question mark will be how well Dalton does in Year Two with defenses knowing more about him. To ease the pressure on him, Cincinnati added BenJarvus Green-Ellis at running back and drafted two wide receivers (Marvin Jones, Mohamed Sanu) in addition to getting back a healthy Jordan Shipley.
If the defense takes another step forward this year, the Bengals won't just make the playoffs, they'll walk in as division champions.
11. Kansas City Chiefs
2011 Week 17 ranking: No. 20
It would be easy to look at what the Chiefs did in 2011 and write them off as pretenders in the AFC West, but that would be ignorant. This isn't the same team from last season.
Gone is Todd Haley; in his place is Romeo Crennel, who engineered a surprise beatdown of the Green Bay Packers last season as head coach.
Back are Matt Cassel, Jamaal Charles, Tony Moeaki and Eric Berry; four starters who missed key playing time (if not the entire season) in 2011.
Scott Pioli also added Eric Winston (the best right tackle in the game), Peyton Hillis, Kevin Boss, Dontari Poe, Stanford Routt and Brandon Siler. To say the Chiefs are a better team would be an understatement.
Adding insult to injury for the rest of the West? Every single player on this roster is under 30 years old. The Chiefs aren't just set up to win the AFC West this season; they are in a great position to win it for years to come.
10. New Orleans Saints
2011 Week 17 ranking: No. 2
The New Orleans Saints have the talent to win a Super Bowl, but they'd have to do it without their head coach for the entire season. If that seems impossible to you, it does to me too.
I'd argue that the Saints are actually a better team this year than they were in 2011, thanks to the additions of Curtis Lofton, Brodrick Bunkley and David Hawthorne, but the loss of Sean Payton over "Bountygate" is too much to expect them to get past.
Sure, Joe Vitt is a good coach, but he's also sitting out four games for his part in the pay-for-performance scheme. Asking coordinators, even great ones, to take on the role of Payton is too much to ask.
Drew Brees, recently signed for a whopping $40 million this year, will have the weight of the franchise and city on his back. Even Brees himself is likely to apply the responsibility of saving the team, but realizing he lost Robert Meachem and Carl Nicks on offense while the rest of the NFC South got better on defense may be too much for one man to handle.
Brees is great, but fans expecting him to be the franchise quarterback and de facto head coach this season aren't accepting the reality of the Saints' predicament. There's nothing saying New Orleans won't make a run this year at a playoff berth, but anything more than a wild-card spot should win Brees an MVP award and a Coach of the Year trophy.
9. Baltimore Ravens
2011 Week 17 ranking: No. 5
The Baltimore Ravens are the returning AFC North champions, but that title may be short-lived. Despite star players Ray Rice, Ray Lewis, Ed Reed and Haloti Ngata, this is still a team with holes big enough to be exploited on game day.
Joe Flacco has received major attention in the offseason as people in the media set out on a quest to prove he's better than his playoff win-loss record or regular season stats may prove. Flacco is a good quarterback, but that's all right now. He's not elite, and to get to that level he needs to elevate the talent around him. That starts with Torrey Smith and Jacoby Jones.
The Ravens offense could breakout if Smith and Jones can stretch defenses and allow room for the slower Anquan Boldin. If this happens, expect more running room for the unstoppable Ray Rice behind a big, strong offensive line. Rice remains one of the best in the NFL and is a true threat on first, second and third down as a runner and receiver.
The line will have its hands full in the AFC North, but it did play well last year. Bryant McKinnie is a question mark at left tackle, as is Bobbie Williams at left guard; but the rest of the crew makes up for it. Marshall Yanda is one of the best right guards in all of football.
On defense the team must try to move on from a torn Achilles tendon suffered by Terrell Suggs in the offseason. Replacing the reigning Defensive Player of the Year won't be easy, but the Ravens have great depth at every position. With their high-pressure defense and soon-to-be-elite cornerback Lardarius Webb on the field, moving parts around so Suggs isn't missed as much is possible.
The Ravens are Super Bowl-talented, but the road will be tough for them to overcome if they can't get better play from their secondary wide receivers, the left side of the offensive line and whoever they roll out to replace Suggs.
8. Atlanta Falcons
2011 Week 17 ranking: No. 8
The Atlanta Falcons have been consistently high in my power rankings, and they've consistently met expectations without providing an inch more. Here's hoping 2012 will be different.
The Falcons addressed some weaknesses this offseason by replacing both coordinators, installing Mike Nolan on defense and Dirk Koetter on offense. This should be an upgrade from Mike Mularkey and Brian VanGorder, respectively. Fans can hope for more ingenuity on 4th-and-inches this season.
Back is most of the offense, as Matt Ryan returns with Roddy White, Julio Jones and Tony Gonzalez as his main weapons. Michael Turner will again carry the load at running back with Jason Snelling and Jacquizz Rodgers spelling him. The offensive line features the same cast of characters, save the addition of Peter Konz at guard. Status quo is the word around the Falcons offense.
On defense, changes were subtly made with the addition of Lofa Tatupu and Asante Samuel. Samuel is the big addition of the year, as he'll allow the team great flexibility against three-wide offensive sets. Samuel should flourish in the slot in Nolan's scheme.
This looks a lot like the Falcons team from 2011, which is both good and bad. Management is banking on the new coaches being difference enough to get over the playoff hump with the same key players from season's past.
7. Chicago Bears
2011 Week 17 ranking: No. 24
How good would a healthy Chicago Bears team have been down the stretch in 2011? We'll never know just how far they could have gone in the playoffs, but what we do know is that Lovie Smith and Phil Emery loaded up in an effort to make 2012 a "super" season in Chicago.
Jay Cutler is back at quarterback with the team hoping he can stay healthy this season behind an offensive line that gets back Gabe Carimi and plays under a new scheme with Mike Martz out as offensive coordinator. If Cutler can stay healthy, he has a cast of targets lined up who can absolutely fly.
The Bears had ignored the receiver position under the previous regime, but Emery made it his goal to add talent for Cutler to work with. In are Brandon Marshall, Alshon Jeffery and Eric Weems. With three new targets in addition to Devin Hester and Earl Bennett, the Bears are in great shape at the position.
Matt Forte is back at running back, with Michael Bush in tow to spell him for the stretch run. Both can carry the load and offer a nice contrast between speed and power in this offense.
The defense is getting older, especially Brian Urlacher, but this may be the best crew Chicago has had under Smith. Julius Peppers and Henry Melton are beasts on the defensive line, and they'll get help from rookie Shea McClellin. Urlacher and Lance Briggs are still great at linebacker, and the secondary will be better thanks to development from Tim Jennings and Major Wright over the summer.
Realistically, the Bears could win a Super Bowl with this team. The division is tough, but a wild-card berth is expected in 2012.
6. New York Giants
2011 Week 17 ranking: No. 9
The New York Giants are the reigning Super Bowl champions, but that doesn't guarantee them anything in the 2012 season except a big bullseye on their backs.
Looking at the Giants roster and schedule, anything short of a playoff berth would be a disappointment this year. Eli Manning has come into his own as a quarterback, and with Hakeem Nicks and Victor Cruz at wide receiver, he has the targets to put up major yards and break defenses down. Add in tight end Martellus Bennett, a great blocker and massive body, and Manning may have his new best friend in the red zone.
The run game won't be great, even with David Wilson coming in via the first round of the 2012 NFL draft. That's mostly because of the offensive line, which is solid but can be weak in opening up the ground game. The line's job will be to protect Manning, hopefully improving on the 42 sacks last season.
The defense will be one of the best in the NFL. Jason Pierre-Paul and Justin Tuck are as fierce a duo as there is in the league at defensive end, and chief backup Osi Umenyiora is pretty good himself. The case can be made that the linebackers are just average, but they play well within the system as chase-and-tackle players.
The secondary will get a boost from Terrell Thomas's return and a full offseason for Prince Amukamara. The safeties need to get better, but they proved last year that in big moments, they'll show up.
A Super Bowl repeat may be too much to ask for in today's NFL, but the Giants are definitely one of the game's better teams heading into 2012.
5. Philadelphia Eagles
2011 Week 17 ranking: No. 14
Michael Vick thinks the Philadelphia Eagles are built for a dynasty, and while that may be a touch optimistic, there is no doubting the Eagles are talented enough to make a run in 2012.
Vick is explosive and dangerous in Andy Reid's offense, but there's also the counterpoint of Vick's health. He's not played a full season since 2006 in Atlanta. If Vick goes down for any time at all, the team is left with Mike Kafka or rookie Nick Foles to manage the offense.
The talent around Vick is elite. LeSean McCoy, DeSean Jackson, Jeremy Maclin and Brent Celek make up an excellent first-line offense. An offensive line that struggled at times in 2011 will be tested this year without Jason Peters, but Demetress Bell is a very good fit in this offense, and while he's not at the same level as Peters, he's reliable.
The defense is fast and aggressive and should be much better than the 2011 version. Jason Babin and Trent Cole set the tone up front with a nasty pass rush. They'll get help from rookie Fletcher Cox at defensive tackle alongside Cullen Jenkins. At linebacker, big changes were made. DeMeco Ryans comes via trade from Houston, and Mychal Kendricks was added in the draft. The two new additions should give the Philadelphia defense immediate credibility at linebacker.
The secondary shouldn't miss Asante Samuel at cornerback, but it does need young safeties Nate Allen and Kurt Coleman to continue their development. Both have breakout ability this season.
Andy Reid expects a Super Bowl, Michael Vick definitely does and the fans of the Eagles believe this is the team to get them back to the big game. The talent is here, but staying healthy is the key to a ring.
4. Houston Texans
2011 Week 17 ranking: No. 12
The Houston Texans, who finished the season ranked No. 12 in power rankings, were demolished by injury. Now that they have a fully healthy squad, the Texans have the power to roll to an AFC championship.
Matt Schaub is good enough to lead the Houston offense deep into the playoffs, but he's had trouble staying healthy over the course of his career. T.J. Yates is a very good backup who happens to have a playoff win under his belt. Should Schaub go down again, Yates can be counted on to carry the team.
It helps that Houston has a one-two punch at running back like Arian Foster and Ben Tate. Foster may be the game's best runner with his combination of patience and vision, and Tate showed early in 2011 that he has starter ability, too. At wide receiver, the Texans will hope for a full season from Andre Johnson after leg issues slowed him down last season. There still isn't a great No. 2 option here, but rookie DeVier Posey will have plenty of chances to step into the starting lineup.
Questions abound on the offensive line after Eric Winston was cut in a salary cap move and guard Mike Brisiel was allowed to leave in free agency. The Texans are betting on their system to be better than the individual talent, and that's a big gamble.
The defense under Wade Phillips is elite. Led by Brian Cushing, J.J. Watt and Johnathan Joseph, this is a defense that can go toe-to-toe with the best offenses the NFL has to offer. With Brooks Reed, Connor Barwin and rookie Whitney Mercilus bringing the heat off the edge, Houston has the makings of a top defense.
Super Bowl expectations are a real thing in Houston this year if the stars can all stay healthy and new starters on the offensive line learn on the job.
3. New England Patriots
2011 Week 17 ranking: No. 4
Tom Brady and the New England Patriots just played in their fifth Super Bowl in the last 10 seasons, so it's hard to imagine them not being the top AFC team in the power rankings, which is why they come in atop the AFC.
Brady and Co. are nearly unstoppable on offense over the course of a full season. Now that he has Brandon Lloyd to go with Wes Welker, Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, Brady should be downright terrifying for defenses.
An underrated offensive line in New England deserves a ton of credit. From Nate Solder at left tackle to Sebastian Vollmer on the right side, the Patriots have four players with Pro Bowl potential. Brady shouldn't have to worry about keeping his No. 12 jersey clean behind this group.
The defense is re-worked after a failed attempt at the 4-3 defense that might have suffered from the lockout shortened offseason. In are rookies Chandler Jones and Dont'a Hightower at linebacker via the draft. In free agency the team signed safety Steve Gregory and added defensive lineman Jonathan Fanene to bolster an already strong group up front. If the secondary plays better than it did in 2011—and you'd think it has to—the Patriots will be tough to get past on defense.
A sixth Super Bowl appearance, and a fourth win, are what everyone associated with the Patriots expects this season. On paper at least, they're in a better position to win it all this season than they were in 2011.
2. Green Bay Packers
2011 Week 17 ranking: No. 1
The Green Bay Packers strolled through the 2011 season to a 15-1 finish and the top seed in the NFC playoffs. And then they met the New York Giants and got punched right in the face.
Sure-handed receivers dropped easy passes. Aaron Rodgers couldn't set his feet in the pocket. The secondary seemed to play with blindfolds on. All that will be in the memory of the Packers when they take the field Week 1 against the San Francisco 49ers.
The Packers have as much talent as any team in the NFL, especially on offense. Rodgers' 2011 season was one of the better ones by a quarterback in our generation, but his 2012 could be even better as all his targets at receiver return, and the offensive line will be more stable.
Speaking of those options, the Packers have six legitimate options in the passing game. Jordy Nelson had an amazing season last year, but most of the attention goes to stud Greg Jennings. Add in James Jones, Donald Driver and Randall Cobb; and Green Bay has more talent at wideout than they know what to do with. And that doesn't even include big-money tight end Jermichael Finley.
The line should be better, but this isn't a flawless group. The left side is questionable with Marshall Newhouse and T.J. Lang anchoring. They'll need to be better than they were in 2011, especially in the playoffs, to get back to the Super Bowl.
The defense should step up with a healthy Tramon Williams and the addition of Nick Perry at outside linebacker. Charles Woodson is still amazing, even at 35 years old, and the front seven should be plenty active with Clay Matthews and a motivated B.J. Raji.
Picking the Packers to win the Super Bowl wouldn't be a poor choice in any way. They have talent, experience and one of the best coaches in the NFL all on their side. The line will be a question mark, though, and until that's answered, Green Bay remains an underdog against at least one team.
1. San Francisco 49ers
2011 Week 17 ranking: No. 3
The San Francisco 49ers were this close to being in the Super Bowl last season. This year they'll make it.
The offense is still led by Alex Smith, but the 49ers wisely added the type of high-end talent around him to make an average quarterback look good. Randy Moss, Mario Manningham, A.J. Jenkins, Brandon Jacobs and LaMichael James were all added to the offense as new weapons for Smith. Oh, and they still have Frank Gore, Vernon Davis, Michael Crabtree and Delanie Walker.
The offensive line will once again be solid. The right side will undergo a change at guard, with Daniel Kilgore or Alex Boone the likely starter next to Anthony Davis. The left side is tough with Joe Staley, a Pro Bowler in 2011, and Mike Iupati manning the spots next to Jonathan Goodwin at center.
The defense returns all 11 starters, which is very bad news for San Francisco's opponents. This was a team that dominated all season last year, shutting down everyone in its way. Aldon Smith, Patrick Willis, NaVorro Bowman and Justin Smith anchor a defense that should be the best in the game this year.
The expectations are very high in San Francisco, but Jim Harbaugh's team has every piece to the Super Bowl puzzle on the roster. It's his job to put them all together.