The best team in the NFL, right now, is...?
While it's tough to gauge talent levels from the preseason, much can be learned about each team.
For most NFL teams, Week 3 of the preseason is a dress rehearsal for the regular season. Starters play more often, more of a game plan is used, and overall we get a better sense of how the starters look in preparation for the regular season.
Which teams move up or down in this week's NFL power rankings?
Keys to the Season: Offensive Line Play
The Arizona Cardinals' offensive line has been absolutely terrible in the preseason. The poor play has been amplified by the loss of left tackle Levi Brown, and also by the below-average quarterbacking the team has seen.
For Arizona to win this year, the offensive line has to step up.
The Cardinals haven't decided on a starting quarterback yet, but whether it's John Skelton or Kevin Kolb in the backfield, the front five will dictate how good the overall offense is this year. Both Skelton and Kolb can play well when given time to set up and scan the field, but expecting the quarterbacks to settle in and the receivers to get open in a two-second window isn't realistic.
Keys to the Season: Rookies Stepping Up Early
The Cleveland Browns will be relying on rookies more than any other team in the league.
The Browns are asking a rookie quarterback, running back, wide receiver, right tackle and defensive tackle to fill starting roles. No other team in the league is asking so much of their youngsters. The Browns will live and die with their first-year players.
Brandon Weeden at quarterback, Trent Richardson at running back, Josh Gordon at receiver, Mitchell Schwartz at right tackle and defensive tackle John Hughes have to make big plays this season. If the Browns are to win more than a few games, it will be because their rookies step up.
Keys to the Season: Ryan Tannehill
The Miami Dolphins have managed to trade away two of their best players—Brandon Marshall and Vontae Davis—and now they're an even younger team relying on a quarterback who started 17 games at the position while at Texas A&M.
Ryan Tannehill will be the focus for the Dolphins in what is quickly becoming a throw-away season. No one expects the Dolphins to do much this season, but the goal for 2012 will be evaluating Ryan Tannehill to see what type of quarterback he can be in this league.
The offensive line is good enough that Tannehill will have time to operate, but will the wide receivers be good enough to get open for him?
Keys to the Season: Sam Bradford and the Offensive Line
The St. Louis Rams have the head coach to win. The defense is definitely good enough. The running back is a guaranteed 1,000-yard rusher.
What's missing? Solid quarterback play and an offensive line that can protect him.
Quarterback Sam Bradford is facing what may be a make-or-break season. He's been good at times, not so good at others, and in a new offensive system (again), he'll be asked to carry this team. Bradford doesn't have great talent around him at receiver or on the offensive line, which means we need to see him step up and take over a role as the leader of this team.
Bradford's in a tough spot, as it's hard to be confident behind an offensive line that almost gets him killed. Tackles Rodger Saffold and Jason Smith need big seasons to avoid being replaced on the edges. If they can finally live up to expectations, and if Bradford can regain some lost confidence, this team could surprise people.
Keys to the Season: A Healthy Darren McFadden
Since being drafted by the Oakland Raiders with the fourth pick in the 2008 NFL draft, Darren McFadden has yet to complete a full season without being injured. Not good, considering he's the best offensive player on the roster.
The Raiders have the talent to win games and upset people, but to win consistently, they'll need McFadden as the key piece of this offense for 17 weeks. If McFadden goes down again, especially for an extended period, the offense reverts back to a one-dimensional shell of what Dennis Allen and Co. have planned.
Keys to the Season: Andrew Luck and the Offensive Line
You've surely read by now about how great Andrew Luck looks in the preseason. And it's true, he really does look like a veteran quarterback playing under center for the Indianapolis Colts. Now he needs to keep doing it every week.
The Colts aren't expected to win 10 games, but they can win six if Luck can continue to play like he has this preseason. Luck's vision, timing and poise are uncanny for a player of his experience. If he can carry that moxie over to the regular season, Indy has a shot at some upsets.
For Luck to be as great as we all think he can be, the front five has to protect him better than they have thus far in the preseason. This is a unit that's still gelling together, and there's plenty of upside, but before the Colts can be taken seriously as an NFL team, Luck has to be protected.
Keys to the Season: Quarterbacks and the Right Tackle
Rex Ryan's defense is good enough to win ballgames for the New York Jets, but it can't be expected to hold opposing teams under 15 points every week. If the Jets are to have a winning season, it will be because the offense holds up its end of the agreement and finds life after a rough preseason.
The Jets offense will only be as good as the quarterback and offensive line are, and based on the preseason, that could be pretty rough. The starting offense didn't score a touchdown in the first three preseason games, and the right tackle position became a joke of itself with Wayne Hunter and Austin Howard rotating at the spot.
Mark Sanchez looks average, but he's not throwing the ball with the placement or velocity of a starting quarterback. He's hot one play, cold for two, hot for another. That level of inconsistency won't win games for the Jets.
Keys to the Season: Robert Griffin III
Ready or not, the Washington Redskins will put all of their eggs in the basket of first-year quarterback Robert Griffin III.
After trading a slew of picks to move up and select RG3 with the No. 2 overall pick in the 2012 NFL draft, the Redskins are trusting that Griffin can be the man for them in 2012 and beyond. Based on his preseason performance, which was very guarded and conservative, it's tough to see exactly what the Redskins have in Griffin.
This we know: Griffin is an exciting talent. He's a capable playmaker with a deadly-quick release and the arm strength to drive the ball downfield in a hurry. He can get out of the pocket and make plays with his feet, too.
For Washington to have a shot in a loaded NFC East, Griffin has to be spectacular.
Keys to the Season: The Development of Josh Freeman
In his first three NFL seasons, Josh Freeman has been way up and way down. You can rightly put some of that on the talent around him, but in Year 4, the pressure is on Freeman to rise up and become the starting quarterback this team needs.
There are few excuses available if Freeman repeats his 2011 performance. The team upgraded the line by bringing in Carl Nicks at guard and moving Jeremy Zuttah to center full-time. At wide receiver, the team added Vincent Jackson and tight end Dallas Clark. They drafted running back Doug Martin.
In short, Freeman has very good talent around him. Now it's his time to get back to the quarterback who led the Buccaneers to 10 wins in 2010.
Keys to the Season: Adrian Peterson's Healthy Knee
If anyone is looking for a surprise team in the 2012 NFL season, look to the Minnesota Vikings. That is, of course, if Adrian Peterson is healthy.
The Vikings offense is built around a strong rushing attack, and Peterson is the key to that happening. Toby Gerhart might be a good second option, but the Minnesota Vikings need Peterson. You can't easily replace one of the best running backs in the NFL, and the team found that out last season.
For second-year quarterback Christian Ponder to develop, he needs a running back who can draw defenses into the box. That allows Percy Harvin and Kyle Rudolph room to get open. It also allows the offensive line to get comfortable and bait defenders into making mistakes.
If Peterson can't go early this year, Minnesota could fall into a hole they can't climb out of.
Keys to the Season: An Elite Philip Rivers
For most of his career, Philip Rivers has been considered an elite quarterback. That talk ended in 2011 when Rivers struggled to make plays while Antonio Gates, Vincent Jackson and Malcom Floyd missed time to injury.
Rivers needs to get back to his old self in 2012 if the San Diego Chargers are to live up to expectations. Even in a year when their expectations aren't at the high levels we've seen in years past, Rivers needs to play up to his talent level if the team is to win more than a handful of games.
The talent is there for San Diego to win the AFC West, but that will only happen if the Rivers from pre-2011 shows up.
Keys to the Season: Blaine Gabbert
The Jacksonville Jaguars have a very good defense—better than most people reading this will realize—and they've done a nice job upgrading the skill positions on offense. The biggest question mark remaining is at quarterback.
Blaine Gabbert wasn't good in 2011, no matter how you slice it. Gabbert has been better during the 2012 preseason, but now he needs to carry that over into the regular season. The Jaguars need the confident, sharp Gabbert we've seen the last three weeks to show up when the games really matter.
If Gabbert can play up to his talent level, the Jaguars could be a surprise team in the 2012 season.
Keys to the Season: Who Wins the Quarterback Battle
Russell Wilson will get the starting nod in Week 1 of the 2012 season, but if he keeps the job and how the team rallies around him will determine their level of success.
For all intents and purposes, the Seattle Seahawks will be a run-heavy offense led by a very good defense. Anything the team gets from the quarterback position is an added bonus—or at least that's what we thought before the preseason. After seeing Wilson energize the offense against the Kansas City Chiefs, it's easy to see the offense evolving into more of a balanced unit.
Matt Flynn is still waiting in the wings as a $19 million backup, and there's no guarantee that Wilson will keep the starting job. What we do know is that the Seahawks offense looks a lot better with Wilson under center.
Keys to the Season: Year 2 of Cam Newton
The Carolina Panthers have one of the most exciting players in the NFL under center, but unless Cam Newton develops in his second season, they won't live up to expectations.
Newton was excellent in his rookie season, but there were times during the last six weeks of the season when he looked very human. Put Newton in the red zone and he failed to find his reads. Ask him to check down to a third option in a route and he'd struggle.
What Newton does best is improvise, and while the Panthers don't want to take that away from him, they have to get Newton to a point where he can make plays while reading a defense to exploit matchups.
If Newton can build on his Offensive Rookie of the Year performance, the 2012 season could be magical in Carolina.
Keys to the Season: Tony Romo and the Receiving Crew
On paper, the Dallas Cowboys look to be very solid at most positions. They're set at offensive tackle, cornerback, linebacker and running back. The other positions are the biggest question marks and the reason why a team with enough talent to win a Super Bowl is ranked so low.
Which Tony Romo will we see in 2012? During stretches last season, Romo looked great, but overall he was a second-tier quarterback for Dallas. At wide receiver, the team has a banged-up Miles Austin and a questionable (on and off the field) Dez Bryant. Jason Witten has been the best option for Romo, but he's out with a lacerated spleen that needs time to heal.
The Cowboys always enter the year with high expectations, but unless the receivers get healthy in a hurry, they'll be falling behind in a tough division.
Keys to the Season: Jake Locker and Chris Johnson
Jake Locker has parlayed a strong preseason into a starting job for the Tennessee Titans, and now the pressure is on.
Locker was very good to end the 2011 season and looked sharp in the preseason, but how well he'll do in a full-time starting role remains to be seen. The athletic ability is there, but until we get an extended look at Locker in a regular-season game, not much can be learned.
What will help Locker greatly is a strong running game. The Titans hope Chris Johnson is back to his old form this year after giving him a huge contract before the 2011 season. Johnson needs to be the type of back who can draw defenses into the box, allowing Locker to light it up with Kendall Wright, Jared Cook and Kenny Britt downfield.
Keys to the Season: Peyton Manning and the Offense
It's almost been a foregone conclusion that Peyton Manning would dominate once healthy, but we really don't know that.
Manning has looked good in the preseason, but the Denver Broncos of 2012 aren't the Indianapolis Colts of 2009. Manning has young, inexperienced wide receivers, an unknown running game and an offensive line that's far from solid across the board.
For all the greatness of Manning—and there is a lot—he needs the talent around him to step up this year. At 36 years old, Manning can't bounce back from the big blindside hits like he used to, and there will be some rust to shake off after sitting out the 2011 season. The question is if the players around Manning on offense can support him enough to keep Denver in contention until Manning is back to being Manning.
Keys to the Season: Finding Consistency
The Kansas City Chiefs move down in the power rankings this week after poor showings in the preseason. Ranked No. 9 last week, the Chiefs settle down to No. 15 here.
There's something missing in Kansas City, and maybe that's just time to gel after so many players missed the 2011 season with injury. There are also many new faces here, and they might need more than three preseason games to find continuity. Whatever it is, Romeo Crennel must find a fix in a hurry.
The spotlight will be on Matt Cassel to carry the team from the quarterback position, and with an improved offensive line and added targets at the skill positions, Cassel should have his best season yet. If he doesn't, Chiefs fans will be upset and the team will be on the outside looking in at the playoffs.
Keys to the Season: Ryan Fitzpatrick and Cordy Glenn
Two players on offense, one old and one new, will make or break the season for the Buffalo Bills. No pressure.
Quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick and rookie left tackle Cordy Glenn are those players, and we'll all be watching to see how they perform this year. Fitzpatrick needs to prove that the big-money deal the team gave him mid-way through the 2011 season wasn't a mistake. That means playing like he did in the first five games of 2011 and shaking off the memory of the last 11 games.
Glenn will step into the left tackle job in his first season, and he's joining an offensive line that is otherwise solid. In the AFC East, Glenn has to protect Fitzpatrick from the Cameron Wakes of the world if the Bills hope to capitalize on a very strong offseason.
The Bills will field a dominant defense in 2012, thanks in part to Mario Williams and Stephon Gilmore coming to town. Across the board, Buffalo's defense will be one of the best in the game if they get Gilmore up to speed early in his first season. The defense is good enough to carry the team, but Glenn and Fitzpatrick have to do their part too.
Keys to the Season: Continuity
There's not much to complain about in Pittsburgh. The Steelers are continually one of the best teams in the game, and that probably won't change much in 2012.
There are issues we could point out—like the offensive line—but for so long Pittsburgh has defied what us experts think they're missing. It's tough to pick out an area on paper where the Steelers are bad and then expect that to carry through to the actual play on the field.
If there's a weakness here, it is on offense. The team has a new offensive coordinator in Todd Haley and is without starting wide receiver Mike Wallace due to a contract holdout, and the offensive line took a major blow when David DeCastro hurt his knee. If these issues are all added up, Pittsburgh's potent offense may be weaker in 2012 than we've seen in the past.
It's tough to bet against Mike Tomlin and Co., but if ever there were a season to be down on Pittsburgh just a little, this is it.
Keys to the Season: Consistency and Composure
For the Detroit Lions to make it back to the playoffs in 2012, they mostly need to remain consistent. A strong 2011 season has the Lions in position to be very good this year if they can build on the connections built last year and stay healthy.
Staying healthy is a major key. The team needs Matthew Stafford more than ever. They need someone to emerge in the backfield as a producer. They need the secondary, especially at cornerback, to get better over the course of the year.
As important as health and consistency are, the Lions need to play with composure. Having an edge is great; stomping opponents after the play isn't. If the team can stay healthy and get another big year from Stafford and Calvin Johnson, they'll be playoff-bound.
Keys to the Season: Taking the Next Step
Andy Dalton, A.J. Green and Geno Atkins all had breakout seasons for the Cincinnati Bengals as they marched to a playoff season in 2011. Now they need to take the next step.
Dalton and Green have the look of an elite pass-catching combination. Dalton played well above his draft stock, and Green lived up to his. The two managed an excellent season despite a lockout-shortened offseason, which means there is room to grow after a full summer of workouts and meetings.
Atkins is the key to the Bengals defense, and he's a great one. His play at defensive tackle sets the tone for the entire team. If Atkins can get pressure up the middle, the edges open up for an outside pass rush. This all allows the secondary to be more aggressive.
The pieces are in place, and the Cincinnati Bengals look like a contender again in the AFC North.
Keys to the Season: A Healthy and Consistent Michael Vick
The Dream Team season of 2011 is thankfully gone. Now it's time for a seriously loaded Philadelphia Eagles roster to show up and shut up the doubters. To do that, they need a healthy Michael Vick for all 16 games.
Like him or not, Vick is the key to the season for Philadelphia. Vick's ability to deliver the ball with room to run is key to DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin using their explosive speed post-catch. Vick's running ability opens up rushing lanes for LeSean McCoy and makes it tougher for defenses to stick with McCoy in the flats when Vick commits to passing the ball. It all centers around No. 7 in Philly.
It wouldn't be a surprise for Philadelphia to have one of the best defenses in the game; the talent is definitely there. To take the talent they've built and turn it into a winner, the Eagles need Vick.
Keys to the Season: Joe Flacco
Looking around the roster of the Baltimore Ravens, you could easily see this team winning a Super Bowl. To do that, Joe Flacco has to step up at quarterback.
Flacco isn't bad by any means, but he's not been great either. No matter how many pundits say that Flacco's win-loss record is all that matters, when it matters most, Flacco hasn't been able to deliver. Throw out stats and look at the play in the playoffs—it's easy to see that the Ravens need a big year from the quarterback.
Flacco has talent around him to have a big season. Ray Rice is one of the best running backs in the NFL, and the duo of Anquan Boldin and Torrey Smith should be great this year. We know the Ravens defense will be dominant. The only thing standing between Baltimore and a Lombardi Trophy is the play of Flacco.
Keys to the Season: The Offensive Line
Matt Ryan, Michael Turner, Julio Jones, Roddy White and Tony Gonzalez make for a potent offense, but none of that will matter if the offensive line doesn't protect Ryan and open holes for Turner.
The Atlanta Falcons have built a team with the speed to win on both sides of the ball. The offense is loaded with the playmakers listed above, but for those players to produce, the offensive line has to open things up.
Whether it's Sam Baker at left tackle or Tyson Clabo on the right side, this unit needs to play much better than they did in 2011. When the line gets no push, it won't matter how good the talent around them is.
Keys to the Season: Staying Healthy
You could easily argue that had the Houston Texans stayed healthy in 2011, they would have played in the Super Bowl. We'll get a chance to see just how good this team can be this year, assuming they can stay healthy.
The team lost Matt Schaub, Arian Foster, Andre Johnson and Mario Williams for at least part of the 2011 season—something that allowed youngsters like Connor Barwin and T.J. Yates to show their value to the team, but it also kept them from realizing their potential.
With Schaub and Foster healthy in 2012 and Johnson hopefully back to full strength soon, Houston has to be considered a favorite to win the AFC.
Keys to the Season: The Offensive Line and Secondary
The reigning Super Bowl champions have the talent to win a second straight Lombardi Trophy, but they'll face a tough road to New Orleans if the offensive line and secondary don't improve.
The offensive line was marred by injury in 2011. While it is back healthy this year, there are still holes in the unit. Trusting William Beatty and Kevin Boothe on the left side is brave, especially considering the pass-rushers they'll be asked to stop in the NFC East. The offensive line is a better unit than the individual parts, and the scheme will help, but the Giants need Beatty and Boothe to play their best football yet.
The secondary has been banged up this preseason, but the team needs top play from Corey Webster and Prince Amukamara at cornerback against the wide receiver talent they'll face within the division. Antrel Rolle and Kenny Phillips have to play better than they did last season, but that should happen, as the scheme allows them to play more in deep coverage and less in man situations.
Keys to the Season: J'Marcus Webb and the Offensive Line
It's no secret that Cutler has been abused the last two seasons. Some of that goes to the scheme of Mike Martz, and some goes to the lack of talent on the offensive line. The team is hoping the removal of Martz and the improved play upfront will result in a healthy season for Cutler and bigger production in the passing game.
J'Marcus Webb will get the most attention at left tackle. He'll be asked to shut down Clay Matthews, Cliff Avril and Jared Allen within the NFC North—no small feat. Webb has looked better this year, and Mike Tice's scheme should protect him better, but the individual players must step up too.
The entire line is the biggest question mark for a team that has the talent to go deep into the playoffs this year.
Keys to the Season: Replacing Sean Payton
This might be the most talented New Orleans Saints team ever. No, really.
Drew Brees at quarterback. Mark Ingram, Pierre Thomas and Darren Sproles in the backfield. Jimmy Graham, Marques Colston, Lance Moore and others catching the ball. Pro Bowlers across the board on the offensive line.
Not only is the offense potent, the defense looks much better. Curtis Lofton and Brodrick Bunkley were huge additions to the team. Getting top production from second-year pass-rusher Cameron Jordan will be huge as well.
The key, though, is replacing head coach Sean Payton. How well Brees and the assistant coaches acclimate to the loss of their leader will determine if the Saints are a Super Bowl contender or on a one-year layoff.
Keys to the Season: Improvement on Defense
As long as Bill Belichick and Tom Brady are in New England, the Patriots have a legitimate chance to win a Super Bowl every season. That's been proven over the last decade. For the Patriots to go from Super Bowl appearance to Super Bowl champions, they have to be better on defense.
With an offense as potent as the Patriots should be in 2012, the defense doesn't have to be great. But why shouldn't they be? The Patriots have long relied on their offense to bail out the defense, when the best teams Belichick has had in New England were dominant on defense.
With a strong draft class coming in, Belichick's defense should be much better in 2012, and for New England to shake their string of playoff disappointments, they'll have to be. The pressure is on for Chandler Jones and Dont'a Hightower and Co. to make big impacts in their first season.
Keys to the Season: Rushing the Passer
One look at the Green Bay Packers' draft class tells the story of where this team needed to improve. The defense.
Green Bay's first six picks in the 2012 NFL draft were on defense. Dom Capers may be a great coordinator, but even a genius needs players to do the work on the field. For Green Bay to win another title, Capers' unit has to be better in 2012.
Nick Perry and Jerel Worthy were added to the roster with one purpose—rushing the passer. With Perry at linebacker and Worthy at defensive end, Green Bay now has two more speedy players who can come in and terrorize the opposition.
With an offense as dangerous as Green Bay has, any improvement on defense will be good enough to get Aaron Rodgers and the Packers back into the Super Bowl.
Keys to the Season: Alex Smith
After President Obama, Alex Smith might be under the most pressure in the United States. The expectations in San Francisco are Super Bowl or bust, and Smith's shoulders will be the ones that that responsibility rests on.
Jim Harbaugh and Trent Baalke have built a team that can win in any situation, as long as the quarterback is good. The defense will be elite, the run game is loaded, and the offensive line is very underrated. All that's missing is a quarterback who can win ballgames.
Smith had his best season in 2011, and with the additions of Randy Moss, Mario Manningham and A.J. Jenkins, he should be even better in 2012. Smith will have to be at his best for the 49ers to meet the expectations of a fanbase that's anxious for a Super Bowl.