Our first power rankings of the 2009 season feature a familiar team at the top of the list. Our rankings are a reflection of the success teams experienced in 2008, combined with the moves they made in the offseason and how they have looked in the preseason.
1. Pittsburgh Steelers (12-4)—Until someone dethrones the Super Bowl champions, they start the season No. 1. While the Steelers did not add any big free agents, they return the best defense in the NFL and almost all of the key contributors from the 2008 team that won the Lombardi Trophy.
Brady and Randy Moss have looked great in the preseason, although Brady did suffer a shoulder injury in the preseason game against Washington. New England has an excellent chance to dominate the AFC this year, but they need Brady to stay healthy.
3. Philadelphia Eagles (9-6-1)—The Eagles have a lot of expectations with the additions of WR Jeremy Maclin and RB LeSean McCoy via the draft, and veteran free agents OTs Jason Peters and Stacey Andrews to the offensive line. They also have a lot of attention since they decided to add QB Michael Vick. If RB Brian Westbrook and McNabb can stay healthy, this team should be in position to win their first Super Bowl and first NFL Championship since 1960.
4. New York Giants (12-4)—The Giants have to find a receiver to replace WR Plaxico Burress, otherwise they are doomed to suffer the same slump they went through at the end of last season without a dependable No. 1 option. If first round pick Hakeem Nicks can have a breakout rookie season, the Giants could easily be playing February football, as their running game and defense are second to none and Eli Manning has the experience at quarterback to win a Super Bowl.
5. Minnesota Vikings (10-6)—With the addition of QB Brett Favre, the Vikings shoot up into my top five. Defenses are going to have to decide whether they want to play RB Adrian Peterson with eight or nine in the box and allow Favre to have single coverage in the pass game, or whether they want to try to stop Peterson with six or seven guys. DTs Kevin and Pat Williams might still be forced to sit out the first four games of the 2009 season, but the schedule is pretty forgiving to start the season with games against the Cleveland Browns, Detroit Lions, San Francisco 49ers and Green Bay, none of which had winning records in 2008. The addition of Favre gives the Vikings a complete team and a chance to compete for a Super Bowl, provided his 40-year-old body can stay healthy.
6. Atlanta Falcons (11-5)—The Falcons won’t be able to sneak up on the rest of the league this year, as they have a great young offensive core on with QB Matt Ryan, RB Michael Turner and WR Roddy White. TE Tony Gonzalez adds another dimension to the offense if he can play at the same level he has played his entire career in Kansas City. The question is whether the defense can improve from its 2008 showing, in which it ranked 24th in yards allowed.
7. Tennessee Titans (13-3)—They have a great running back combo with Chris Johnson and LenDale White leading the way, and QB Kerry Collins gives them veteran leadership at quarterback that does not make many mistakes. Albert Haynesworth left in free agency for the Redskins, which is going to hurt the defense, but they still should be very good in 2009.
8. Carolina Panthers (12-4)—The Panthers had one of the best rushing attacks in the NFL with 2,437 yards and a league-high 30 touchdowns. DE Julius Peppers was franchised, which kept them from adding a lot of free agents but kept on of the best defensive ends in the NFL on their team. The biggest concern is whether QB Jake Delhomme at 34-years-old can still make the plays to keep defenses guessing. Having WR Steve Smith is huge, but Delhomme has to play better if Smith is going to dominate the NFL as he did in 2005.
9. San Diego Chargers (8-8)—Having DE Shawne Merriman back from knee surgery on defense will be a big help, and if RB LaDainian Tomlinson can stay healthy, defenses are going to find it tough to stop both him and QB Philip Rivers. I have them going to the AFC Title Game, but I think they will be around the ninth spot in the NFL power rankings for the regular season, because Head Coach Norv Turner always manages to have this team underachieve in the regular season.
10. Baltimore Ravens (11-5)—Losing defensive coordinator Rex Ryan, LB Bart Scott, SS Jim Leonhard and DE Marques Douglas to the Jets was a big loss. The leaders of the defensive front seven (MLB Ray Lewis, OLB Terrell Suggs and DL Haloti Ngata) remain with the team, and QB Joe Flacco should progress in his sophomore season, especially seeing WR Derrick Mason decided not to retire. Baltimore is still a dangerous team, but they probably fell a little bit further behind the Steelers in the AFC North.
11. Indianapolis Colts (12-4)—I have reservations about putting them in the top 10 with Coach Tony Dungy and defensive coordinator Ron Meeks no longer with the team, and offensive coordinator Tom Moore and offensive line coach Howard Mudd relegated to “special consultants.” This team has underachieved in the playoffs the last two years, going 0-2 against the Chargers, a team that finished 8-8 last year. I think this team takes a step back in 2009.
12. Arizona Cardinals (9-7)—Keep in mind that this is a 9-7 team that got hot at the right time to qualify for the Super Bowl. Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin led the receiving core and QB Kurt Warner had a fantastic year, but he is still turning 38-years-old. Unlike Favre in Minnesota, he isn’t going to be able to hand the ball of 25 times to a player like Adrian Peterson; they need him to sling the ball all over the place in order to win. The Cardinals desperately need Tim Hightower and rookie Chris “Beanie” Wells to give them some solid runs and provide balance to this offense. The defense has looked pretty bad this preseason, in particular against the Green Bay Packers, when they gave up 38 first half points.
13. Dallas Cowboys (9-7)—The question isn’t with the talent, if it was just about talent, the Cowboys would be worthy of a top five ranking. This team sacrificed the talent of Terrell Owens for better chemistry. The Cowboys still have offensive firepower with QB Tony Romo, RB Marion Barber and TE Jason Witten; all have made the Pro Bowl in the past. I am not going to lie, I was not happy with their 31-10 loss to the Oakland Raiders, even if it is just preseason. The Raiders were crushed 45-7 by the Saints, when Sean Payton had to pull the starters out before the end of the half. The Cowboys have no business losing to the Raiders, EVER, and that loss gives me concern that the Cowboys are going have the same problems playing hard and smart every game, something that kept them out of the playoffs last year.
14. New Orleans Saints (8-8)—The Saints have the best pass offense in the NFL, led by Drew Brees. Brees was the first quarterback to throw for over 5,000 yards since 1984 and missed Dan Marino’s league record by just 16 passing yards. The running game is going to improve with Pierre Thomas appearing to be the starting back and Reggie Bush more of a receiving option. I also like the fact that TE Jeremy Shockey appears healthy and ready to contribute this year. If the Saints defense can play better this year, the NFC South is going to have three teams again competing for the title.
15. Chicago Bears (9-7)—QB Jay Cutler is really going to help this offense, but it might not be enough this year because they don’t have a No. 1 receiver at his disposal. Matt Forte can help both as a running back and as a receiver out of the backfield. They need the defense to get back to playing the solid ball they played in 2005 and 2006, but their job of winning the division just got a lot tougher with the signing of Favre in Minnesota.
16. Miami Dolphins (11-5)—The Dolphins went from 1-15 to 11-5 in one season, but it is going to be hard to repeat that success in 2009. In 2008 they had the the fewest turnovers in the NFL and went 7-1 against the AFC West and NFC West, which were easily the two worst divisions in football.
The Dolphins draw the toughest schedule in the NFL this year, which should reduce their win totals slightly. The Dolphins aren’t going to sneak up on anyone this year, so QB Chad Pennington and RB Ronnie Brown are going to need to have their best seasons to survive this schedule.
17. Green Bay Packers (6-10)—The Packers have a promising young offense led by QB Aaron Rodgers, who has been the MVP of the preseason this year. The Packers first unit offense hasn’t even had to punt this preseason. I am still not sold on the 3-4 defense the Packers are implementing; I think it has looked good because of the teams they played in Cleveland and Buffalo and the players that didn’t play for Arizona in WRs Boldin and Steve Breaston. That said, their good play has not gone unnoticed and they appear to be ready to contend in a NFC North that went from being a weaker division to one on the rise.
18. Houston Texans (8-8)—The Texans have to keep QB Matt Schaub healthy if they are going to compete in the AFC South; his health will greatly impact RB Steve Slaton and WR Andre Johnson for the better. Mario Williams is becoming a top defensive end, but he can’t carry this defense alone and it is time for the other high draft picks to step up on defense. I like Houston as a dark horse to win the AFC South, but for the power rankings they have to start in the middle of the pack until they can prove they are better than the .500 record they have finished with the last two years.
19. Washington Redskins (8-8)—DT Albert Haynesworth was the biggest signing of the offseason, but if the Redskins are going to win the tough NFC East, QB Jason Campbell has to step up and show he was worth the first round pick the Redskins invested in him a few years back. If he struggles, RB Clinton Portis will struggle to carry the team alone and the Redskins will have a hard time competing in the brutal NFC East.
20. New York Jets (9-7)—The Jets will benefit from MLB Bart Scott and CB Lito Sheppard, as their defense was pretty solid in 2008, especially against the run. QB Mark Sanchez takes over as the starting quarterback, but the loss of Laveranues Coles leaves the receiving core very thin. The Jets need big years out of RBs Thomas Jones, Leon Washington and rookie Shonn Greene to keep the defense off the field and give the offense a chance to score some points. The Jets are headed in the right direction, but it is going to take time for them to win with a rookie QB.
21. San Francisco 49ers (7-9)—Mike Singletary changed the culture in San Francisco, as they played smarter and harder to finish the season 5-4. Promising young LB Patrick Willis leads the defense, and the offense has a very productive back in Frank Gore. The big question is at quarterback, where Shaun Hill beat out Alex Smith for the starting job. Rookie WR Michael Crabtree should help Hill, if he ever signs. His hold-out is a major setback for an offense that was looking to take a step forward in 2009.
22. Seattle Seahawks (4-12)—The key for them is for QB Matt Hasselbeck to stay healthy in 2009 like he has been in preseason. He looked very good against Denver, but Denver is not exactly a great measuring stick for offensive progress. T.J. Houshmandzadeh will really help their offense at WR and LB Aaron Curry should be a welcome addition on defense. I have them starting this low, because of their 2008 4-12 record, but I expect them to be much higher when the season ends and possibly take back the NFC West.
23. Buffalo Bills (7-9)—Bringing in WR Terrell Owens was a big move to help bolster a sluggish offense. If he can fit in with this team and return to his 2007 form, the Bills have the potential to score a lot of points through the air. QB Trent Edwards needs to take the next step, and they have to survive a costly three-game suspension to Pro Bowl RB Marshawn Lynch. They’re in a tough division and have a tough schedule, so the Bills have a lot of work if they are to make the playoffs for the first time this decade.
24. Jacksonville Jaguars (5-11)—The Jaguars rebuilt their offensive line in the draft hoping to help Maurice Jones-Drew realize his potential by becoming a 1,000-yard back for the first time in his career. QB David Garrard needs to return to his 2007 form and the addition of veteran WR Torry Holt could help in that regard. The 2009 season is going to be tough for the Jaguars: they have a good enough team to win some games, but are stuck in a division with a lot of talent.
25. Cincinnati Bengals (4-11-1)—QB Carson Palmer injury really setback this offense and was a big reason they scored a league-worst 204 points last season. If he can come back healthy, WR Chad Ochocinco should have a much more productive year, which should then help Cedric Benson give them a running threat. If the defense can build on a decent 2008 season, the Bengals could really surprise some people in 2009, but it starts with Palmer staying healthy.
26. Oakland Raiders (5-11)—The Raiders have some talent, but it’s hard to have that talent mesh well when they have such little direction from ownership and the front office. They have a strong running game and a good pass defense, but it’s hard to see those qualities when the defense cannot stop the run and when the offense was last in the NFL in passing yards in 2008. The good news is that the rest of the division is in such turmoil, that the Raiders might actually be the second best team in their division.
27. Cleveland Browns (4-12)—It’s not a good sign that new coach Eric Mangini has still not decided on a starting quarterback, which means that neither Derek Anderson nor Brady Quinn has established themselves as a good starting option. WR Braylon Edwards was a big underachiever and starting RB Jamal Lewis is 30-years-old this season. The defense is still a work in progress and with the division they are in, they will be very lucky if they can finish out of the cellar in 2009.
28. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (9-7)—QB Byron Leftwich won the starting job, which means the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have a statue for a quarterback. Head Coach Raheem Morris is a good defensive mind, but he had better hope that free agent RB Derrick Ward has a big season on offense and that TE Kellen Winslow is able to live up to his potential. That is because I don’t see WR Antonio Bryant repeating his success from 2008, which means this offense has the potential to be one of the weakest in the NFL.
29. Kansas City Chiefs (2-14)—This is a team in turmoil. QB Matt Cassel hurt his knee and is in doubt for the season opener, and coach Todd Haley gave offensive coordinator Chan Gailey a pink slip just two weeks before the season is set to begin. The Chiefs were 2-14 last year and they have the potential to start very slow if their defense doesn’t improve and their offense can’t get their act together.
30. Denver Broncos (8-8)—This team just keeps plummeting in my rankings. First, they traded QB Jay Cutler to Chicago. Then Kyle Orton looked awful, Chris Simms hurt his ankle and now Orton has a dislocated finger that may keep him out a while. Star WR Brandon Marshall is suspended for the rest of the preseason for being a circus in practice. Josh McDaniels looks to be over his head and incompetent. This looks like a locker room that has already turned against him, as they have looked awful going 0-3 in the preseason. This could become very ugly in Denver and I wouldn’t be surprised if they finish last in this terrible division.
31. St Louis Rams (2-14)—It’s going to be another long season for the Rams, as they are a rebuilding project in a division without a dominant team. Despite playing in one of the weakest divisions in the NFL, the Rams managed only two wins last season. Marc Bulger and Steven Jackson need to stay healthy and play like they did in 2006. Former Giants defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo was hired as coach to turn around a Rams defense that gave up 465 points last season, which was only outdone by the 0-16 Lions.
32. Detroit Lions (0-16)—Until the Lions win a game, they are the worst team in the NFL. The pressure is going to be on them to win early, because the longer that losing streak goes on, the bigger the distraction will become. WR Calvin Johnson and promising second year RB Kevin Smith give them something to work with on offense. Unfortunately, neither QB Daunte Culpepper nor Matthew Stafford have played well enough to win the starting job, but the good news for whoever earns the nod is that there is nowhere to go but up in 2009.