The 2012 NFL season is finally here. Now the real question: Who is the best team heading into the season?
The reigning Super Bowl champions in New York look good, but the Giants are being counted out by some even in their own division. Can Eli Manning get the G-Men back to the Super Bowl? To do so, he'll have to get them past likely heavyweights the San Francisco 49ers and Green Bay Packers. Are the Giants the NFL's best team?
In the AFC, the New England Patriots have dominated for so long that it's easy to forget there are 15 other teams there. The Houston Texans hope to remind the Patriots of that this season, but it's tough to see anyone taking down this Patriots squad.
Who is the best of the best as the season gets underway? Find out as we rank all 32 NFL teams.
It's easy to see why the Arizona Cardinals are ranked No. 32. Their offensive line might be the worst in the NFL, the quarterback position is a mess and even a tough defense is lacking at cornerback.
The Arizona Cardinals are in for a long season; one that should kick-start top-down changes in the organization. Unless Kurt Warner and Levi Brown show up in helmets and pads on Sunday, it's unlikely that the Cardinals will see more than a handful of wins this season.
There is reason for optimism in Cleveland, but the 2012 edition of the Browns will be another rough season.
The Browns are counting on rookies at quarterback, running back, wide receiver and right tackle. Counting on so many first-year players is reason for excitement and a potential future of success, but expecting much from them in the year one isn't realistic.
Cleveland's defense will be good enough to keep it in games, and if/when Trent Richardson returns, he'll be a beast; but there will be more bad than good in Cleveland this season.
Rookie quarterback Ryan Tannehill could be the second coming of Joe Montana, and it wouldn't change the Miami Dolphins' fortunes for the 2012 season.
Not only will a rookie quarterback be starting, but who will he throw to? The Dolphins managed to trade or cut every talented wide receiver they have. Tannehill, a former wide receiver at Texas A&M, may be the best wide receiver on the Dolphins roster.
It will be a tough year for Tannehill and the Dolphins, exposing the fact that Jeff Ireland hasn't built a solid team. Questions at receiver and on defense will be enough to keep Miami below .500 this season.
Betting against the St. Louis Rams is tough to do, and that's all Jeff Fisher.
The new head coach of the Rams, Fisher is one of the better coaches of our era. He won in Tennessee many times in spite of his roster, and there's no reason to think he can't do that again in St. Louis.
With a defense tougher than most realize, Fisher has the framework for a very good team; but the offense will give him trouble. Brian Schottenheimer looks to have done a great job with Sam Bradford to date, but the offensive line is a gigantic question mark. If the front five cannot protect Bradford, the Rams will be drafting in the Top 10. Again.
The 2012 Indianapolis Colts season will be largely about Andrew Luck, but don't overlook an up-start defense and a talented crew of offensive talent.
The Colts may not win more than six games, but they're worth watching. The offense will be talented at times, but frustrating at others due to the young players taking on big roles. Luck, T.Y. Hilton, Dwayne Allen and Coby Fleener are all first-year players to keep your eyes on.
The defense should be good thanks to Chuck Pagano and Ryan Grigson's first offseason together. The 3-4 defense isn't completely filled out yet, but Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis should be able to pressure opposing quarterbacks into mistakes.
An argument could be made that the Oakland Raiders will finish last in the AFC West, and a pretty good argument can be made that they will also win the West. Oakland is one of the NFL's true enigmas heading into the 2012 season.
There is talent here, a lot of it, but how Oakland will actually play is questionable. Can Carson Palmer shake off the rust and become a top-level quarterback? Will Darren McFadden finally play a full season? Can any of the cornerbacks on the roster cover a starting wide receiver?
If the Raiders can answer these questions, winning the AFC West isn't out of the question.
How much do you trust Mark Sanchez?
That's the question fans and analysts alike are asking themselves this week. With the NFL season so close, does anyone think Sanchez can get it done for the New York Jets?
Forget Tebow-mania for now. Can the actual starters in New York win football games? Sanchez isn't alone here. The offensive line has looked terrible in the preseason, and trading for Jason Smith probably isn't going to help much. Even when the line protects, Sanchez can't find an open wide receiver.
To say the Jets offense is under fire would be an understatement. For a team with a potentially dominant defense, the offense is sorely lacking.
The Robert Griffin III show will be a fun one, but expecting a huge increase in wins wouldn't be fair to the rookie quarterback.
Griffin enters the NFL with huge expectations, some fair and some unrealistic. The Washington Redskins have built a solid roster, especially on offense, but a rookie quarterback can only do so much. Griffin has elite potential and will be a serious Offensive Rookie of the Year candidate, but getting the Redskins more than eight wins would be a magic act that the Heisman Trophy winner can't pull off alone.
The Redskins might be a wild-card team if they played in another division, but expecting more than a 2-4 record against the NFC East would be unfair.
The Minnesota Vikings may not be a playoff team in 2012, but they'll surprise anyone who overlooks them on the roster.
Let's start with running back Adrian Peterson. Before going down with a knee injury last fall, Peterson was playing his best football. If he's back to 100 percent, NFL defenses should start worrying now. The offensive line paving the way for Peterson is better thanks to the addition of Matt Kalil and Geoff Schwarz (when healthy), and that will only make the life of Peterson and quarterback Christian Ponder easier.
The defense will get after the quarterback with a front seven that's downright talented. The secondary has holes, but there is enough of a pass rush that the cornerbacks and safeties won't have to cover for long when Jared Allen and Co. are firing off the line.
The era of overrating the San Diego Chargers based on paper talent is over. These are the real Chargers, and a ranking in the low 20s is where they belong.
Philip Rivers has the potential of an elite quarterback, but his 2011 play didn't show that. Rivers needs help from an offensive line that frankly hasn't been good this preseason, and he'll also need Robert Meachem and Eddie Royal to step up at wide receiver once the games start to matter.
The defense should be solid, but in the AFC West the Chargers will need to score more than 13 points per game in order to win. For that to happen, Rivers has to rise above the limitations of the talent around him and play like an elite quarterback.
Take what you think you know about the Jacksonville Jaguars and forget it. Ready to start fresh?
The Jaguars are not as bad as many in the media think, which means they are nowhere near as bad as most fans think they are. This isn't a team competing for the No. 1 overall pick in the 2013 NFL draft, this is a team with a chance to win eight games in 2012.
Blaine Gabbert has shown remarkable improvement over the course of the preseason, and there's no reason to think that can't carry over to the regular season. With an improved Gabbert and Maurice Jones-Drew reporting to the team this weekend, the Jaguars offense will be much more dynamic than they were in 2011.
Add in an underrated, potentially Top-5 defense, and it's easy to see why Jacksonville must be taken seriously in 2012.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are currently on a 10-game, regular-season losing streak. They're hoping that comes to an end against the Carolina Panthers in Week 1, but even when the streak does end, this could be a long season for Greg Schiano's Buccaneers.
Tampa is talented, but much of that talent is waiting to be fully developed.
Doug Martin, Mark Barron and Lavonte David are three rookie starters who need to acclimate quickly to the NFL. Other young starters include Adrian Clayborn, Mason Foster and Gerald McCoy. All six are talented, but they've yet to prove their worth as pros.
The offense could be great behind a strong offensive line. With Martin running the ball effectively, quarterback Josh Freeman will have more time to get the ball outside to Dallas Clark, Mike Williams and Vincent Jackson.
In a tough division, winning more than eight games would be a great season for Tampa Bay.
So much rides on the shoulders of rookie quarterback Russell Wilson for the Seattle Seahawks. If Wilson can execute like he did in the preseason, the Seahawks may be looking at the playoffs sooner rather than later.
Wilson hopes to become only the second quarterback drafted outside the first round to start all 16 games and take his team to the playoffs as a rookie. For that to happen, Wilson will have to play lights-out in a division featuring very good defensive play.
It helps that Seattle's defense is so good. It has the talent to be a Top-5 defense overall, especially in the secondary. If Wilson can be bailed out by his defense when the going gets tough, Seattle could sneak in to the postseason as a nine-win team.
How far can Cam Newton take the Carolina Panthers in 2012?
Newton was electric in his first season, setting records and giving NFL defenses nightmares before and after facing him. Newton did much of the work alone in 2011, with Steve Smith providing the speed to stretch the field in the passing game. If Newton and the Panthers are to win in '12, the rest of the team has to step up.
Defensively, the Panthers will be better with Jon Beason back healthy and Luke Kuechly in at linebacker. The secondary has great potential, but when facing Drew Brees, Matt Ryan and Josh Freeman six times each year, even a great defense would have trouble.
It's an exciting time to be a fan of the Tennessee Titans. With Jake Locker and Kendall Wright taking on big roles in the offense and a young defense adding Kamerion Wimbley, it's easy to see the Titans surprising people this year.
The team has the defense to pitch shutouts. Wimbley, Michael Griffin, Jurrell Casey and Colin McCarthy are all exciting players to watch this year. It wouldn't be out of the question for the Titans to have a Top-10 defense by season's end.
The offense will go as far as Locker can take them, but the big hope is that Steve Hutchinson can aid a run game that struggled in 2011. They'll need it if they hope to knock off the Houston Texans in the AFC South.
The Dallas Cowboys could easily finish the season ranked as the No. 1 team in the league. They have the talent on both sides of the ball, but betting on a team full of inconsistencies in 2011 to overcome itself isn't easy.
We know that Tony Romo is better than this win/loss record would indicate, and the offense should be better all-around if healthy. That's a gigantic if, as Jason Witten, Dez Bryant and Miles Austin are all banged up.
DeMarcus Ware is primed for his best NFL season, and the overall look of the defense is much improved with Brandon Carr and Dan Conner in place; but playing as a unit was tough for Dallas in 2011. It needs Sean Lee to step up and take charge of the defense, or it will be another disappointing year in the Big D.
If the Buffalo Bills are to make a return to the playoffs for the first time since the 1999 season, it will be because of the defense.
Sure, Ryan Fitzpatrick and the offense have a huge responsibility to play up to expectations this year. Fitzpatrick, Fred Jackson and Stevie Johnson will all be counted to play key parts in the team's success this year, but still, the defense matters most.
To stop Tom Brady and the New England Patriots, the Bills added Mario Williams and Mark Anderson through free agency and then drafted cornerback Stephon Gilmore in the first round. The three newcomers will look to bolster a Bills team that split with the mighty Patriots last season.
The Broncos have talent at wide receiver with Eric Decker and Demaryius Thomas, but they're lacking along the offensive line. Manning is an expert at orchestrating a quick-strike offense, but with a team so new to his way of working, bumps are to be expected along the way.
Manning will get help from a defense that features a dangerous pass-rusher in Von Miller and a future Hall of Famer at cornerback (Champ Bailey). There are questions at defensive end, linebacker and safety, but the Broncos defense is more of a unit than individual stars.
It's almost expected that the Pittsburgh Steelers will make the playoffs each year, but it's worth noting that the team has missed the playoffs every third year since the 2001 season. That third year is now.
The Steelers have talent, but they also have concerns. New offensive coordinator Todd Haley hasn't exactly been a great play-caller in his previous stops. Deep threat wide receiver Mike Wallace came to camp late after a contract holdout. Rookie guard David DeCastro will miss time with a torn MCL. James Harrison was just recently activated off the PUP list.
There is enough talent here to win the division, but if ever there was a year when Pittsburgh was going to take a step back, this is it.
The expectations are high in Kansas City after general manager Scott Pioli added a load of talent in the offseason. How well it pays off depends on the incumbents, not the newcomers.
The Chiefs offense will only be as good as Matt Cassel is at quarterback. He struggled in the 2011 campaign minus Jamaal Charles and Tony Moeaki, and the team hopes a shuffling on the offensive line plus the addition of Eric Winston will help Cassel play more consistently.
The defense was a great unit in 2011, but the front three in the 3-4 defense is a major issue. Glenn Dorsey and Tyson Jackson haven't lived up to their draft stock, and even 2012 first-rounder Dontari Poe is on the second team right now.
The Chiefs have stiff competition in the West, but the division is theirs if they play up to their potential.
After a playoff run in 2011, the Cincinnati Bengals think they can take the division this year. And they can.
The team will be better in year two of the Andy Dalton-A.J. Green connection. The addition of BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Kevin Zeitler on offense will help tremendously, but the team is still reliant upon a defense that has great potential but needs better execution.
Geno Atkins has quickly become one of the best defensive tackles in the NFL, but the Bengals need an outside pass-rush this season. If they can find that, and consistency and health at cornerback, the team is in position to finally take home a division title.
Despite having the NFL's most dangerous passing duo, the Detroit Lions are on the verge of falling out of the Top 10.
Matthew Stafford to Calvin Johnson is truly amazing, and damn near unstoppable, but the two can only do so much on their own. For the Lions to win in 2012, they need consistency and reliability from players who didn't always show up in 2011.
That all starts on both sides of the ball. The offensive line hopes Riley Reiff can shore up some issues at tackle, and he should once he sees the field. On defense, Cliff Avril and Ndamukong Suh must be more aware this year and play to stop the run and attack the pass.
If the Lions get max effort and production from their many stars, they can make a run at the Green Bay Packers.
For all the talk about the Philadelphia Eagles being an elite team, we've yet to see it. They'll have their chance to show their worth against the Cleveland Browns in the opener, but even a dominant win in Week 1 will do little to silence critics.
The Eagles are loaded and have very good coaches, but the risk surrounding a franchise who would trust Michael Vick for 16 games is thick. Nick Foles looked good against backups in the preseason, but the rookie isn't ready to take down the NFC East. Not yet.
Philadelphia's talent on both sides of the ball is impressive. From position to position, you can find All-Pro and Pro Bowl players, sometimes running two-deep. Taking that on-paper talent and turning it into a winning football team is another story.
The Atlanta Falcons ripped off an impressive 2011 season, and once again they made the playoffs; but losing in the first round wasn't in their plans.
The 2012 Falcons are better on defense, and two new coordinators should make life easier. With Asante Samuel added at cornerback and a full offseason to implement Mike Nolan's schemes, Atlanta should be in a better position to match up against the New Orleans Saints in the NFC South.
The offense will roll through the season if Matt Ryan gets protection up-front. The left side of the line has been an issue in Atlanta, and an injury to Will Svitek does little to help that.
No Terrell Suggs, no problem. That's the mantra in Baltimore right now as the Ravens prepare to face the Cincinnati Bengals in an opening-weekend game that could determine the AFC North pecking order. How the Ravens actually look without the reigning Defensive Player of the Year is another story.
What we do know is that the Ravens have an incredible amount of proven talent. This team knows how to win, and the leaders on both sides of the ball will keep the team together. Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, Ray Rice and Marshal Yanda are reason enough to think the Ravens can win another division title, but that may not be enough. The Ravens want a Super Bowl.
For a Lombardi Trophy to land in the hands of the Ravens, quarterback Joe Flacco must be at his best. That will come from Flacco himself, but the offensive coaches must also trust their quarterback to win games. If they do, and the team can replace Suggs in the lineup, a second Super Bowl title is possible.
Fans outside Chicago haven't liked our placement of the Bears in this year's power rankings. They won't like this one, either.
The Bears are hated outside Chicago, but they are set up as one of the NFL's most talented teams heading into the 2012 season. The experience of the roster and coaches, combined with that on-paper talent, leads many to think the Bears could make a deep playoff run this year.
Jay Cutler receives a ton of criticism for his play at quarterback, but when healthy, Cutler is capable of elite play. He's struggled with injury behind a patchwork offensive line and in a terrible scheme last season, but that should be changed with Mike Tice replacing Mike Martz as offensive coordinator.
We know the defense will be good, even if Brian Urlacher is hobbled early in the year. Julius Peppers, Lance Briggs and Henry Melton are more than capable of holding it down for Urlacher until he's healthy.
The reigning Super Bowl champions don't start the season atop our power rankings, and for good reason. The Giants have a chance to be elite again, but they have to prove that last season's improbable playoff run and not their average regular season will return.
Eli Manning has finally become the quarterback he was supposed to be when he left Ole Miss. With Hakeem Nicks and Victor Cruz working at wide receiver, he has two playmakers to get the ball out to consistently. The question will be how well this offensive line plays. They've struggled with injury and poor play in the past, and keeping Manning clean is the key to the offense.
The defensive front four should be stellar again. The concern comes at linebacker and safety; two areas where the team struggled last year. As the offenses in their division return a ton of talent, the Giants need their pass coverage to step up in 2012.
Losing Sean Payton was the story of the offseason for the New Orleans Saints. How well they replace him will be the story of the regular season.
Drew Brees has been tabbed as the guy most responsible for keeping the Payton system in place, but Brees missed part of the offseason workouts in a contract dispute. With a great number of players returning—only Robert Meachem and Carl Nicks left in the offseason—the Saints have the continuity on offense to once again dominate.
The defense is where the real improvements were made. Steve Spagnuolo comes in as coordinator and adopts a defense with much more talent than the 2011 team had. Curtis Lofton, Broderick Bunkley and David Hawthorne will all make major contributions in their first season with the Saints.
The Saints will be able to rally around the "us vs. them" mentality this season. If Brees and the offense can produce without Payton calling the shots, this can be a Super Bowl team.
The conventional wisdom around the NFL is that a healthy Houston Texans team would have gone to the Super Bowl following the 2011 season. They'll get their chance to remedy that.
Houston returns almost every key starter from the 2011 season, and in a few instances, they're actually better prepared for the 2012 campaign. Should Matt Schaub go down with injury, something he's been known to do, the team trusts T.J. Yates. Should Arian Foster get dinged up, Ben Tate has proven he can step up.
The overall depth is better, but the big question mark is: Who will step up at wide receiver? Andre Johnson is an elite talent, but he's been bothered by injuries for the last year. If Johnson is out, the Texans are relying on a number of young, unproven players. With Johnson in, the offense is still one-dimensional when it comes to the passing attack.
Houston's front office has done a great job adding talent, and if the youngsters at receiver step up and produce, the Texans could very well make their first Super Bowl appearance.
For the first time during the 2012 NFL calendar year, the San Francisco 49ers are not the top team in our power rankings. What changed?
This isn't a knee-jerk reaction to the preseason, but more so a recalibration based on the entire offseason. The 49ers were great in 2011, and they were one play away from a Super Bowl berth; but expecting the same level of dominance this year may be unrealistic.
This isn't to say the 49ers aren't going to be great. They will be, but being a 12-win team is more realistic than expecting a run through the regular season and playoffs en route to a Super Bowl appearance.
No surprise here. The New England Patriots are the team to beat in the AFC, and maybe in the entire NFL.
Consider what Tom Brady and Bill Belichick have done together, and there's really no other alternative for the AFC's top spot. In 11 seasons together, 10 with Brady starting all 16 games, they've never had a losing record. That's not something you'll see elsewhere.
Belichick's Patriots aren't the homer pick to win the AFC; they are the smart pick. There's a reason this team has been so good for so long during the NFL's days of parity-inspired offseasons. Belichick and Brady are the constant here, and that constant is good enough to get the Patriots back to the Super Bowl for a sixth time in 12 seasons.
When you have the NFL's best passing attack and a defense built to take the ball away, chances are you're going to be pretty good. That's the case for the Green Bay Packers as the NFL's best team entering the 2012 season.
Aaron Rodgers' offense has reached almost legendary status among NFL writers. What they're able to do from a schematic standpoint, and even from a raw numbers approach, is fantastic. Rodgers' 2011 season was one of the better all-around passing performances most of us will see in our lifetimes, and with a healthy offensive line and improved run game this year, Rodgers may be better.
The concerns about this defense aren't warranted. Sure, they struggled at times last year, but those who look at "yards per game" allowed are quoting the NFL' s most worthless statistic. Let's look instead at points allowed per game (No. 19 overall) or point differential (No. 2 overall). The Packers defense wasn't terrible in 2011, and they'll be better in 2012 thanks to a very strong draft class that adds six new defenders.
There's no other option as the NFL's best team heading into Week 1. Now, they just have to beat the 49ers.