NFL Power Groupings: Steelers Reign, but One-Man Armies Threaten Champs

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NFL Power Groupings: Steelers Reign, but One-Man Armies Threaten Champs
(Photo by Matt Sullivan/Getty Images)

The 2009 NFL season is officially upon us, and with it comes the first real opportunity for premature evaluations and knee-jerk reactions.

With the meaningless preseason out of the way, now is the appropriate time to cue every optimist with a pen, tossing around reminders that it’s only Week One. All positivity aside, the reality of the regular season is that a loss only serves as a step away from the ultimate goal.

Oddly enough, the ultimate goal is actually open to interpretation. Many would lead you to believe it’s all about the Super Bowl, except it’s really not in some cases.

If you’re Minnesota Vikings quarterback Brett Favre, the goal is to break Jim Marshall’s record for most consecutive starts and stick your tongue out at the Green Bay Packers.

If you’re the Detroit Lions, the goal is to not supplant the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the record books for the most consecutive losses.

If you’re Marvin Lewis, the goal is keep your job with the Cincinnati Bengals through the end of the season. Actually, that probably wouldn’t be in his best interest.

But that’s enough tone-setting rhetoric for right now.

Doing a little Nino Colla swagger-jack, I’ve decided to break the NFL down into my own four tiers of power, with an irrefutable leader sitting atop. How comfortable they are up there will be open to my interpretation, of course.

The categories will be subject to change as I settle into this new task, but you’re all thoroughly encouraged to rock with me in the meantime. Let the scorn begin.

 

Competition Is None

Carolina Panthers, Cincinnati Bengals, Cleveland Browns, Detroit Lions, Houston Texans, Miami Dolphins, St. Louis Rams

The thrill of starting the NFL season may have dissipated very quickly if you pledge your allegiance to any of these teams.

While the Bengals, Lions, and Rams remain constant from 2008, the expectations for the others made their losses even more deflating than the final scores would indicate.

Browns coach Eric Mangini looked most ridiculous in his first outing with his new-ish team. His ridiculous handling of the quarterback situation backfired severely. Someone should remind the Mangenius that the best competitive advantage comes from having better players — not castaways from the franchise that fired you.

But if there's a coach who’s in legitimate danger of not finishing the season, it has to be Marvin Lewis.

Sure, the Bengals were victims of circumstance, as their loss transpired in a scenario that no one could have foreseen. Somehow it feels like we’re always saying this about Cincinnati.

Without question, Carolina suffered the most disturbing defeat of all, receiving no return on their good faith investment in Jake Delhomme.

With each turnover more crippling than the previous, the Panthers are in a legitimate soul-searching situation.

Was this an embarrassing setback for their freshly extended $42 million quarterback or a gross miscalculation of a 34-year-old’s ability?

 

You’re Doing It Wrong

Arizona Cardinals, Buffalo Bills, Chicago Bears, Denver Broncos, Kansas City Chiefs, Oakland Raiders, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Washington Redskins

ESPN’s Monday Night Football kicked off with what should’ve been a doubleheader of upsets. But then again, “should have” really has no place in NFL discussion, does it?

We deal in "what was" around these parts.

The Bills and Raiders failed to cash in on opportunities against reputedly stronger teams, letting victories slip away when they were all but guaranteed.

Bills cornerback Leodis McKelvin should have taken a knee in the end zone, and the Raiders defense should have avoided the prevent defense, as the aggressive approach slowed Chargers running back Darren Sproles all night.

They didn’t, they lost, and so they did it wrong.

Joining them are the Bucs' defense for allowing three Cowboys receivers to make emphatic statements about life after Terrell Owens with long touchdown receptions, and the defending NFC Champion Cardinals for not looking like a team that nearly won the Super Bowl seven months ago.

The Bears mortgaged their future on quarterback Jay Cutler and left no opportunity to build a team through the draft. Maybe receiver Michael Crabtree, who has yet to sign with the San Francisco 49ers, can re-enter the draft and fall to one of the picks Chicago didn’t give away in desperation for a franchise passer.

The only winning team in this tier is the Broncos. Outside of Brandon Stokley’s circus catch, I’m open to suggestions of anything they did right.

 

Results Were Inconclusive

Green Bay Packers, Indianapolis Colts, Jacksonville Jaguars, New England Patriots, New York Giants, New York Jets, Philadelphia Eagles, San Francisco 49ers, Seattle Seahawks

This was the tricky section to piece together.

Technically, the teams could’ve been broken up into two more categories, but I wanted to avoid redundancy. The objective here is to identify the teams who aren’t quite there yet.

Without tip-toeing around it, the Patriots belong here. The return of Tom Brady was never enough to make me believe the NFL should tremble again. New England’s offseason moves only validated that for me.

The offense aged with receiver Joey Galloway and running back Fred Taylor. But the defense took the biggest hit with all the lost leadership. A Bills team that scored six points in four preseason games and fired their offensive coordinator exposed that glaring weakness.

Brady is Brady, and he can still stage thrilling fourth-quarter comebacks. But that defense might make him do it more often than ever before.

While the Eagles abused the Panthers at every turn(over), it’s another injury to quarterback Donovan McNabb that hangs in the balance for Philly.

Backup Kevin Kolb will emerge from the Eagles' sideline, although two capable quarterbacks — Jeff Garcia and Michael Vick — will look for a shot to start if McNabb can’t play.

The Colts and Jaguars played a close game, and the NFC West teams only won because both can't lose. The Jets carved the Texans up real nice, but they easily dispatched of a team that’s been known for their slow starts to the season.

 

Pursuit of the Throne

Atlanta Falcons, Baltimore Ravens, Dallas Cowboys, Minnesota Vikings, New Orleans Saints, San Diego Chargers, Tennessee Titans

Trying to pick the most impressive of all the bunch is no simple task.

The Falcons' decision to trade for future Hall of Fame tight end Tony Gonzalez will compete with the free agent acquisition of LB Mike Peterson for smartest offseason move.

Or, if you prefer, we can discuss the Saints, Drew Brees, and his machine-like passing touchdown performance. The addition of Darren Sharper to a defense in need of a leader could be exactly what Brees needed to keep his season alive.

The Chargers are probably receiving the most generous position on this list. At times they looked like every bit of the 8-8 team they were in 2008 against Oakland. Then they showed flashes of that threatening postseason team when it mattered.

Ultimately, San Diego receives credit for coming to terms with LaDainian Tomlinson's ineffectiveness in the Philip Rivers-driven offense, and turning to Darren Sproles for his explosiveness. There was a game to be won in the final minutes, and Norv Turner asked Sproles to pick up where he left off late last season.

As for the Titans, it's actually quite simple: lol @ the Redskins for paying Albert Haynesworth so much money.

But the best settling point in this discussion has to be Vikings running back Adrian Peterson and how he bullied the Browns on Sunday.

Favre made his debut with the Vikes, and it didn't even matter. The man who was expected to be the difference-maker for a young team was rendered useless by a running back who can win games alone.

Was there anything the old gunslinger did that Tarvaris Jackson or Sage Rosenfels couldn't?

 

View from the Top

Pittsburgh Steelers

It’s not going to be so lonely for the Steelers up here much longer.

They default to the top position for winning their first game as defending Super Bowl champions and should hold it until they’re defeated convincingly; or maybe until a team like the Saints or Vikings obliterates a contender of yesteryear—not sure yet.

But between now and then, the Steelers have to figure out where their running game went and how to get it back.

Ben Roethlisberger continues to show his worth as a legit quarterback, but can his offensive line protect him well enough to keep him alive when the running backs struggle?

Losing Troy Polamalu after a monster first half of play is going to hurt.

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