The action on the NFL gridiron preceding Week 1 of the 2013 regular season has been more of a formality than anything. All 32 teams are simply trying to stay healthy while laying the foundation for a successful campaign—without giving too many schematic secrets away.
It's a delicate balance to strike, so analyzing what has happened to date becomes difficult. Power rankings of the entire league could conceivably become totally antiquated by the end of the impending weekend.
That is simply the nature of pro football.
In looking back at ESPN's power rankings at this juncture last year, the teams at the bottom at Nos. 31 and 32, respectively, were the Minnesota Vikings and Indianapolis Colts. Both franchises experienced massive turnarounds and made the playoffs.
With all of that in mind, here is a look at each team just a few moons away from Thursday evening's kickoff.
Note: Teams analyzed in greater depth are italicized and are in biggest contrast to where they finished last year.
1. Denver Broncos
Even with superstar linebacker Von Miller suspended for the first six games, opponents still have to deal with Peyton Manning throwing to the likes of Demaryius Thomas, Eric Decker and Wes Welker. That should be good enough to keep Denver rolling strong.
After an AFC divisional playoff game rematch against the Baltimore Ravens on Thursday, the Broncos face five teams that didn't go to the playoffs in 2012. Getting through that stretch with a record of at least 4-2 is very possible.
2. Seattle Seahawks
The loss of Percy Harvin until at least Week 7 hurts, but this is the first time second-year QB Russell Wilson went through training camp as the unquestioned starter. Given the physicality of Seattle's stable of backs in Marshawn Lynch, Robert Turbin and Christine Michael, this should still be an elite rushing attack.
Then there's the defense, which sports a magnificent secondary featuring Richard Sherman and Pro Bowlers Brandon Browner, Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor. As long as the Seahawks generate a better pass rush, they should be Super Bowl contenders.
3. San Francisco 49ers
Quarterback Colin Kaepernick doesn't have many targets to throw to, which doesn't necessarily forecast doom but could harm the explosiveness of the Niners' offense.
Speedy running back LaMichael James unfortunately sprained his MCL at the end of the preseason, too, and that at least temporarily hurts the depth of the backfield and the return game:
RB-PR LaMichael James has a sprained MCL. Prognosis unclear at this point. Kyle Williams is the backup PR; Quinton Patton backup KR?— Matt Barrows (@mattbarrows) August 30, 2013
The good news is that most of the vaunted San Francisco defense is intact. First-round rookie Eric Reid will be key to the unit's success, filling in at free safety for departed All-Pro Dashon Goldson.
4. Atlanta Falcons
Steven Jackson is going to pack a pernicious punch as he always has on defenders, and he will provide a necessary boost to the Falcons' running game.
Wide receiver Roddy White's status for Week 1 is a bit up in the air, but head coach Mike Smith expects him to play. Julio Jones will certainly be in action for QB Matt Ryan to throw to, and the additions of DE Osi Umenyiora and first-round corner Desmond Trufant should immediately enhance the defense.
5. New England Patriots
As long as Tom Brady is still quarterback and Bill Belichick is still roaming the sidelines, all is fine in Foxboro.
The defensive tackle tandem of Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly has to be a big help to the defense overall, while Dont'a Hightower will only continue to progress in Year 2 at strong-side linebacker. Hightower now wears the "green dot" radio device, taking the duties from veteran Jerod Mayo.
6. Green Bay Packers
It's no secret the NFL is a quarterback-driven league, and if the Packers didn't have Aaron Rodgers as their catalyst, their prospects would look significantly worse.
GM Ted Thompson's most recent first-round picks in linebacker Nick Perry and rookie defensive end Datone Jones will help the front seven immensely and hopefully better what is a talented Dom Capers defense.
7. Baltimore Ravens
The current Lombardi Trophy bearers have shuffled the roster after last season's triumph, and the departures of locker room leaders and legends in Ray Lewis and Ed Reed significantly alter the team chemistry.
Sure, Reed has been replaced with Michael Huff, and Elvis Dumervil should serve as an intriguing pass-rushing linebacker opposite Terrell Suggs.
But that doesn't mean all of those parts will mesh right away.
Joe Flacco (11 TDs, zero INTs, 117.2 passer rating) is coming off of one of the most epic postseason runs in history but doesn't have No. 1 target Anquan Boldin anymore, because Boldin was shipped to San Francisco.
Tight end security blanket Dennis Pitta hasn't been ruled out for all of 2013, though it seems very possible. That will make any championship repeat aspirations all the more difficult.
With this much flux, the Ravens could be in for a Super Bowl hangover.
8. Houston Texans
J.J. Watt's imposing presence and defensive coordinator Wade Phillips' complex calls will allow the Texans to remain strong on that side of the ball, but there are questions on offense.
This has to be a make-or-break year for quarterback Matt Schaub. There can't be any excuses, because Arian Foster has recently proclaimed himself to be fine and DeAndre Hopkins is meant to serve as the long-awaited No. 2 receiver opposite Andre Johnson.
9. Washington Redskins
Fans in the nation's capital can rejoice, because quarterback Robert Griffin III has officially been cleared to play:
Operation Patience....Complete. Cleared. To God Be The Glory http://t.co/GxYMw8Cs57— Robert Griffin III (@RGIII) August 30, 2013
Griffin isn't guaranteed to be quite as dynamic of an athlete as he was last year, but Washington star Brian Orakpo returns to wreak havoc as a pass-rusher—an element the team definitely needs more of to take the next step.
10. Indianapolis Colts
As mentioned before, the expectations for this team were minuscule entering 2012, but even in losing head coach Chuck Pagano in the midst of his inspiring battle with cancer, the Colts managed to win 11 games and qualify for the playoffs.
Last year's No. 1 overall pick Andrew Luck is reunited with his college offensive coordinator in Pep Hamilton; so is his former Stanford roommate, tight end Coby Fleener.
Both Luck and Fleener should see their production and efficiency increase in Hamilton's system. Meanwhile, GM Ryan Grigson has fortified the defense with marquee free-agent signings and by drafting Bjoern Werner in the first round.
11. Cincinnati Bengals
Until Marvin Lewis' bunch proves the capability to beat the NFL's elite, the Bengals will still be a mere fringe playoff team.
Not to diminish the way QB Andy Dalton has guided the historically putrid franchise to the playoffs in his first two years under center, but how much more can he improve?
There doesn't seem to be much more upside with regard to Dalton's development. In this tightly competitive league, Cincinnati may be lagging just a bit in the long run at the game's most important position.
12. Chicago Bears
It's yet another new offensive system for Jay Cutler under new head coach Marc Trestman, but the West Coast style suits him well.
Cutler can get the ball out of his hand faster, not get pummeled in the pocket as much and lean more on Matt Forte, whose role as a receiver out of the backfield should increase in this system.
13. St. Louis Rams
It's hard not to like what the Rams have done and how competitive they were in 2012. Despite a 7-8-1 record, the team competed strongly against the Seahawks and 49ers in the NFC West.
The Rams have played it close to the vest in the preseason, revealing very little of how they plan to use Austin, as head coach Jeff Fisher recently admitted.
A strong defensive line bookended by Chris Long and Robert Quinn should put pressure on opposing quarterbacks, and Alec Ogletree is a sideline-to-sideline player who, along with fellow linebacker James Laurinaitis, will make a ton of plays in space for St. Louis.
A physical secondary featuring corners Cortland Finnegan and Janoris Jenkins gives the Rams plenty of hope. As long as safety play is solid, this could be a playoff team.
14. New York Giants
Question marks are all over the place, but that's always the case with the G-Men. Eli Manning is still as clutch as they come, and his receiving duo of Victor Cruz and Hakeem Nicks rivals any in the NFL.
Removed from the PUP list just days ago, the Giants definitely need a bounce-back season from star defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul. Otherwise, it may be a struggle on defense, and safety Stevie Brown being lost for the season with a torn ACL doesn't help matters.
15. Pittsburgh Steelers
The lack of a truly reliable running back hurts QB Ben Roethlisberger both figuratively and literally, because defenses will likely pin their ears back and come after him even harder.
Roethlisberger has a penchant for extending plays with his feet, paying the price with big hits frequently. This is the Steelers, though, and a characteristically fantastic defense will continue to be prolific, with playmaking linebacker Jarvis Jones also joining the fold as a first-round draft choice.
16. New Orleans Saints
Head coach Sean Payton's return will boost locker room morale for sure, but questions still remain about what was the league's worst defensive unit last season.
Rob Ryan was brought in to call the shots, yet he doesn't have a stupendous track record with the Raiders, Browns or Cowboys. Drew Brees' passing precision will keep the Saints in games as it did in 2012, but a substantial improvement on defense will be crucial if New Orleans wants to return to the playoffs.
17. Carolina Panthers
A four-game winning streak to cap off last season may not mean much to the team as a whole. For Cam Newton, it is rather significant.
It is Newton's third year in the league; the time is now to take the next step into true postseason contention—something the Panthers haven't experienced to date in his tenure. The need for a No. 2 receiver is still palpable, but the need to win more games is even more pressing.
18. Minnesota Vikings
Adrian Peterson is the best running back in football, but he can only carry the Vikings so far.
It comes down to quarterback Christian Ponder and how well he plays. Winning 10 games with the league's second-worst passing attack is almost unheard of in the modern age, and Ponder averaged a woeful 6.08 yards per attempt.
The Vikings did crush the draft, though, bringing in a playmaker in Cordarrelle Patterson who is raw but has the upside to help Ponder long-term—and make an impact on special teams in the return game.
Head coach Leslie Frazier is defense-minded and was awarded two other first-round picks in addition to Patterson to help: defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd and cornerback Xavier Rhodes.
None of the three aforementioned first-year players are likely to be instant stars, which could lead to a down year in Minnesota after a surprising trip to the playoffs.
19. Detroit Lions
A minus-16 turnover margin is no recipe for consistent victories. That's what ultimately doomed the Lions last year, but the offense is bolstered by the addition of all-purpose RB Reggie Bush.
Nick Fairley and Ndamukong Suh are among the best defensive tackle duos in the game as well. The problem is that the NFC North had three 2012 teams that won 10 or more games, putting Detroit in a precarious position to succeed in that context.
20. Kansas City Chiefs
Andy Reid should help lift this team substantially after holding the top pick in the recent draft with his innovative offense and a fresh, more competent quarterback in Alex Smith at his disposal.
Smith can hand the ball to the electrifying Jamaal Charles, whose receiving talents will undoubtedly be utilized by Reid's crafty screen plays. The quick decision-making that helps Smith thrive is also a great fit for this system.
The defense is stacked with talent thanks to Pro Bowl linebackers in Justin Houston, Derrick Johnson and Tamba Hali.
Brandon Flowers has always been a rock at cornerback but should now have a far better complement opposite him in Sean Smith.
Vaulting the Chiefs this high up so early on is bold but justified on paper, with a proven winner in Reid as the overseer and another proven winner in Alex Smith as the leader of a new era.
21. Dallas Cowboys
This team isn't all that much different than the one that has disappointed heavily in recent seasons. Another playoff misfire would reflect poorly on head coach Jason Garrett and even newly extended QB Tony Romo.
Big change in the form of wins must happen for America's Team. The questions are whether the defense under new coordinator Monte Kiffin can step up and whether Romo can get more support from last year's 31st-ranked rushing offense.
22. Miami Dolphins
All of the new pieces assembled by GM Jeff Ireland have to fit together immediately for Miami to have substantial success. There are too many moving parts to rank the Dolphins higher than this.
Ryan Tannehill has to rapidly improve as a second-year quarterback, Lamar Miller is being counted on to emerge as the featured back, and Jonathan Martin is far from a sure thing at left tackle.
23. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Assuming Darrelle Revis is healthy, his ability to shut down the other team's No. 1 receiver is going to be invaluable to what was recently the worst pass defense in the NFL.
Phenomenal running back Doug Martin will be asked to shoulder the offensive load, while Josh Freeman must find more consistency throwing the football and avoid lapses in decision-making. Freeman's play could be the difference between Tampa making the playoffs and picking in the top five of next year's draft.
24. Cleveland Browns
Positive change looks to be on the horizon for the Browns in the latest switch in regimes. Brandon Weeden has looked great throwing the ball in the preseason in an offense called by Norv Turner that far better suits his strong-armed strengths.
Cleveland's hopes start and end with RB Trent Richardson, who has the abilities that could allow the Browns to control the clock against the majority of their opponents.
Combine that with Ray Horton's hybrid, attacking 3-4 defensive scheme and a slew of pass-rushers in Paul Kruger, Jabaal Sheard and Barkevious Mingo, and the Browns could shock the world in 2013.
25. Arizona Cardinals
The connection between Carson Palmer and superstar receiver Larry Fitzgerald should prove to be magnificent in Bruce Arians' vertical passing game.
That also makes good use of Michael Floyd's talents and ball skills on the perimeter, as Palmer should have two big targets to toss 50-50 balls to.
Cornerback Patrick Peterson is apparently getting a huge role in the Cardinals' offense, with 60 plays or so in the package he's learning. An athlete of his caliber could make a huge difference even as Arizona plays in arguably the best division in football.
26. Tennessee Titans
Running back Chris Johnson and athletic QB Jake Locker form a dangerous combination, and due to the arrival of guards Andy Levitre and Chance Warmack, the Titans' offense should be vastly improved.
Locker has a ton of receivers to throw to in Kenny Britt, Nate Washington and Kendall Wright, with rookie Justin Hunter possibly entering the picture at some point. If the Tennessee defense can take even a small step forward, it will go a long way in determining how the Titans' season will go.
27. Philadelphia Eagles
The uptempo offense being implemented by Chip Kelly is designed to keep defenses on their heels. Michael Vick is the ideal trigger man for it, and LeSean McCoy and Bryce Brown are two tailbacks who should thrive in it.
Philadelphia's entire secondary is filled with free-agent starters, though, so it remains to be seen how that will impact a unit that actually finished in the top 10 in pass defense a year ago.
28. Buffalo Bills
The new era under head coach Doug Marrone may not look immediately promising, but Buffalo can bring along its prized signal-caller at a deliberate pace thanks to the presence of running backs C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson.
Manuel's mobility is also an X-factor and something that can help him make a bigger impact early on. He just needs to have two healthy knees for that to matter.
29. New York Jets
The only thing saving the Jets from sinking to No. 32 is the defensive coaching brilliance of Rex Ryan, who always seems capable of putting together a respectable bunch in that phase of the game no matter how anemic the offense looks.
Sources tell ESPN.com's Rich Cimini that Geno Smith will likely start at quarterback in Week 1 with Mark Sanchez ailing. Throwing Smith into the fire didn't work out all that well in the third preseason game, where he threw three interceptions.
30. San Diego Chargers
Absent any substantial improvements in terms of personnel, new head coach Mike McCoy has a lot to overcome to guide the Chargers to respectability this season.
The biggest issues are a quarterback in Philip Rivers, who has been to multiple Pro Bowls but has turned into a turnover machine the past two years, and a No. 1 running back in Ryan Mathews who has a history of injuries.
31. Jacksonville Jaguars
Selling oneself on Blaine Gabbert as the quarterback of the future is difficult to say the least, especially when he enters the season with uncertain status due to a fractured right throwing thumb.
GM David Caldwell drafted well and added two probable starters to the defense in CB Dwayne Gratz and safety Jonathan Cyprien, but it won't be enough to key a huge turnaround in Gus Bradley's first year at the helm.
32. Oakland Raiders
Beyond that, the defense is all patchwork with only two returning starters and a top pick in D.J. Hayden not yet ready to live up to his draft status as a No. 1 corner. It's looking as dark as a Black Hole for the Raiders.