As the NFL season began Thursday night with a rematch of the NFC Championship Game, another year of football kicked off with a...disappointment.
As it has been in many of the past several Thursday night opening games, which features the defending Super Bowl Champion hosting a nationally televised matchup, the highly anticipated battle has been a low-scoring, sub-par spectacle. Only once since 2005 has the kickoff game's final score been within a four-point margin (that was last year in Pittsburgh's 13-10 overtime win over Tennessee), and never in that same time period have both teams topped 20 points.
New Orleans's 14-9 victory over Minnesota had plenty of major names included, such as the Vikings's Brett Favre and Adrian Peterson and the Saints's Drew Brees and Marques Colston, but instead the only player that stood out among a collection of below-average performances was unheralded tight end Visanthe Shiancoe.
Now as Week One really gets into gear with a variety of intriguing games Sunday, followed by a back-to-back Monday Night Football doubleheader, NFL predictions are beginning to come to a close while last-second power rankings are heating up.
Which teams will jump out to an early start? Which typical dynasty will falter quickly? How will each division fare against each other?
We can't answer those questions yet. The tale of the 2010-2011 NFL season will have to be left with that job. But, as the first round of NFL games draws closer and pulls fans to the edges of their seats, here are our final preseason power rankings, the first in a chain that will continue every week into the sheer cold of January.
1. Indianapolis Colts
The defending AFC Champions have a plethora of talented receivers returning, including headliner Reggie Wayne, and the return of Anthony Gonzalez only adds to unflappable superstar Peyton Manning's options. Second-year running back Donald Brown should continue to take over more carries from aging Joseph Addai, but the duo should also be sufficient.
The defense isn't what it used to be, and Indianapolis faces a tough schedule including games against Houston, San Diego, New England, Cincinnati, Dallas, Philadelphia, and the Giants, but this is still the best team in the National Football League.
2. Dallas Cowboys
Mark your calendars on December 5th, folks, because you're going to want to be watching the 2010 edition of the regular season Super Bowl preview, when the Colts host the Cowboys. Dallas, despite their usual "playoff choker" reputation, could be the team to beat in the NFC this year, as 2009 breakout Miles Austin will have a full season of targets from now-fully developed Tony Romo.
However, Romo will also have rookie Dez Bryant and Jason Witten to look to, and when the play doesn't involve them, the rotation between Felix Jones, Marion Barber, and even Tashard Choice is one of the NFL's best. The defense also looks to be an improving unit ready to jump to elite status. A huge game Sunday night against rival Washington is likely to be a major tone-setter.
3. San Diego Chargers
The departure of longtime stud LaDainian Tomlinson has left the usually-dominant running game to rookie Ryan Mathews and limited-role back Darren Sproles, but Philip Rivers can handle the addition attention.
A contract with Vincent Jackson, or another worthy WR acquired through trade, would be nice, but the Chargers have a ridiculously easy schedule (ten of their 16 games are against Kansas City, Denver, Oakland, Seattle, Arizona, St. Louis, or Jacksonville) for a defending division champion that will help soften the blow.
4. Baltimore Ravens
Baltimore may have been a playoff team last season, but they're still a vastly improved roster going into this autumn. Joe Flacco's WR corps have been upgraded amazingly with the signings of former Cardinal Anquan Boldin and former Bengal/Seahawk T.J. Houshmanzadeh, who will force veteran Derrick Mason to become a very talented WR3.
The center of the Ravens' team isn't even the passing game, though, as the running game centered by budding superstar Ray Rice also has "sophomore" LeRon McClain and trade bait Willis McGahee to lean on. The defense, although not quite as good as it was at the beginning of the decade, is also still a stingy unit. While the brutal schedule against the AFC North, AFC East, and NFC South should take its toll, Baltimore is a team to watch.
5. Green Bay Packers
Aaron Rodgers broke all expectations last season, and he's due to exceed them again in 2010. Tight end Jermichael Finley, one of Rodgers' new favorite targets, joins Greg Jennings and Donald Driver in the passing picture, and Ryan Grant is an underrated weapon on the ground.
The defense also sets up to be one of the league's best, and Green Bay is also beginning to boast a threatening special teams unit, led by kicker Mason Crosby. Only Brett Favre and the Vikings stand in Green Bay's path to a well-earned division title.
6. New Orleans Saints
Thursday's outing got the job done, but was not an overwhelming performance, and you never know when the Madden Curse will begin to set in on Drew Brees. The defense, who stepped up and produced a boatload of turnovers and momentum-changing TDs last season, is an unpredictable group, and the Saints can't afford their receiving group to continue to fail to find one go-to guy.
7. New York Jets
The Jets proved they were rising from mediocrity last winter, and they've settled themselves high in the NFL ranks for 2010. Newcomers Santonio Holmes and Braylon Edwards greatly improve the air attack, and former star LaDainian Tomlinson should push new starter Shonn Greene in the backfield. The Jets should also be one of the outright leaders in points against with their defense.
However, the division isn't lacking competition, and dates against Baltimore, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, Houston, Green Bay, and Minnesota all loom.
8. Minnesota Vikings
Brett Favre's streak of consecutive games played may be the most among any active player, but that's not without more than a few retirings in-between, and this spring's fiasco took much longer than usual to resolve.
We can't tell if that was what was bothering Favre in Thursday's contest, but something obviously was, as the loss of Sidney Rice threw the usually-explosive offense into pandemonium. The defense certainly did its job, but Minnesota looks like a shaky team suddenly.
9. Atlanta Falcons
After a disappointing season, the Falcons could be poised to challenge New Orleans for the NFC South. Michael Turner was a major bust in 2009, but with the attention now elsewhere, he could jump back into the spotlight. If not, Matt Ryan should still have a good shot to re-establish his connection with Roddy White and always-open Tony Gonzalez.
Atlanta will need to score plenty of points to win games, conversely, because a mediocre defense and games against New Orleans, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Cincinnati, Green Bay, and Minnesota could tear up the opposite endzone
10. Houston Texans
After year after year as one of the league's worst teams following their creation, the Texans have had two consecutive 8-8 years in a tough division and could be even better in 2010. Matt Schaub has become a spectacular QB, with Andre Johnson and Owen Daniels to throw to, and although the season-ending injury to rookie RB Ben Tate will hurt, decreased fumbles from the duo of Arian Foster and Steve Slaton could improve the rushing game.
The defense is now an above-average unit, too, and newcoming kicker Neil Racker's training camp position battle victory over Kris Brown proves that the special teams should also be strong.
11. New England Patriots
New England has been seeing something they're not used to lately; competition for the division title, and the rise of the Jets could lose New England the crown again. Julian Edelman will be pushed a lot to step into the second wide receiver role, and the defense as well as the running game, with inconsistent Lawrence Maroney and ancient Fred Taylor, are both falling in legitimacy.
12. Cincinnati Bengals
Carson Palmer will have a pair of talented yet arrogant wide receivers to throw to, Chad Ochocinco and Terrell Owens, and rookies TE Jermaine Gresham and WR Jordan Shipley should also be targeted. Cedric Benson may have been given too high expectations, but the running game, with Bernard Scott as the backup, should be sufficient. The Bengals will need to take advantage of the first four weeks, as division rival Pittsburgh will be without Ben Rothlisberger, to build a good lead.
13. San Francisco 49ers
Teams long for a position like San Francisco's. They're still a rebuilding team, as QB Alex Smith and WR Michael Crabtree are both very inexperienced, and Frank Gore is now on his own with supposed-future starting RB Glen Coffee retired, leaving the team to rest on an intimidating defense. However, with a schedule as pathetic and the 49ers, even a college team could make the playoffs.
14. New York Giants
Eli Manning's Giants were disappointing last year, as the running game dropped suddenly as Brandon Jacobs collapsed. While the passing game did find some solutions, as Steve Smith and Hakeem Nicks developed into solid receivers, but, with the defense's decline thrown in, it was far too much to overcome. New York will start anew in 2010 as, unfamiliar to them, the weaker team in the region, and could sneak under the radar for a while with only one 2009 playoff team out of their first six opponents.
15. Pittsburgh Steelers
Weeks One through Four starter Dennis Dixon will have the benefit of of three weak defenses to start with, but a Week Four battle against Baltimore should truly test Pittsburgh without suspended Ben Rothlisberger. New starter Rashard Mendenhall should be getting a lot of carries during this time, and he's yet to prove he can handle the rushing game completely alone for more than a month or so. The defense, which was underwhelming in 2009, should thankfully take their usual role as a brutal group up again as soon as this Sunday.
16. Chicago Bears
Jay Cutler was overwhelmed with hype last season, throwing pick after pick as the receiving core continued to falter, but more handoffs to Matt Forte seem part of this fall's agenda. The defense must improve for Chicago to overcome a division that's improving readily and leaving the Bears in the dust.
17. Miami Dolphins
The arrival of Brandon Marshall in South Beach has Dolphins fans optimistic, but a lot relies on how well he can handle triple-coverage with a shaky quarterback like Chad Henne heaving pass after pass his direction. With this in mind, a healthy Ronnie Brown, Ricky Williams, and defense are absolutely the determining factor for Miami.
18. Tennessee Titans
Point number one: There's Chris Johnson.
Point number two: ...and...who else?
Vince Young hasn't exactly become a "stable" player yet, and his WR corps are even more depressing. The defense is back to average after a huge season in 2008, and kicker Rob Bironas might have a long range, but he can't kick 70 yard field goals every three-and-out.
19. Philadelphia Eagles
The most controversial ranking on this list, Philadelphia is due for a awful season, at least by their fans' standards. Kevin Kolb is being handed the reigns on a very young offense with no experience at all, and Jeremy Maclin and DeSean Jackson don't score touchdowns by themselves. LeSean McCoy can break big gains often, but an increased workload may not be a good thing, too. Furthermore, the defense has been getting worse and worse as the years go by.
20. Carolina Panthers
Steve Smith has the potential to be one of the best pass catchers in the entire NFL, but Matt Moore and Jimmy Clausen are both young and were awful during an important preseason. The defense came up huge at the same time, but they aren't the most star-studded group, and DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart are becoming the only threats the Panthers have anymore.
21. Jacksonville Jaguars
The Jaguars will be able to sleep soundly with their rushing game resting on Maurice Jones-Drew, but the rest of the offense could be erratic at best. David Garrard has yet to show he can lead a team to the playoffs, and his WR squad is far too depleted on its own. Jacksonville is going to need to win all the close ones this year, starting with Denver on Sunday.
22. Washington Redskins
Donovan McNabb is here, but where is everyone else? Mike Shanahan can eventually turn this team around if he's given the chance, but Washington is destined to be buried in a stronger-than-usual NFC this season.
23. Detroit Lions
My, how far the Lions have come from 0-16. Former first overall draft pick Matthew Stafford is showing more promise by the day, and his targets are becoming formidable as Nate Burleson and Tony Scheffler join speedster Calvin Johnson. Jahvid Best is also a massive improvement to the running attack over Kevin Smith.
24. Seattle Seahawks
Pete Carrol fled USC, and the Seahawks are now in his hands. Matt Hasselbeck hasn't had a healthy year in several seasons, and Golden Tate may or may not be a decent replacement for Nate Burleson, who's left just Deon Branch as the returning starting WR. The backfield is also unproven with Justin Forsett and Leon Washington heading into this weekend's divisional duel against San Francisco.
25. Arizona Cardinals
Kurt Warner's departure killed the Cardinals. Matt Leinart never did inherit his role, and now Cleveland leftover Derek Anderson will run an offense led primarily by Larry Fitzgerald and injury-prone Beanie Wells. It's unreasonable to expect the defense to help the cause, as well, so a confidence-building game against St. Louis, who is as easy as they get, is essential.
26. Kansas City Chiefs
The arrival of Thomas Jones added to Jamaal Charles will at least give Kansas City one dimension: the rushing game. Newcomers Chris Chambers and Dexter McCluster will aid Matt Cassel's WRs, headlined by Dwayne Bowe. The defense is the unit that seriously needs a breakout year, though.
27. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Cadillac Williams's running and catching skills is a major asset to the Bucs' 'O', but untested QB Josh Freeman will have Kellen Winslow and Kellen Winslow only to secure what might come close to resembling a passing attack. Tampa must beat Cleveland at home, or they're certainly doomed, too.
28. Denver Broncos
The Broncos can become playoff-capable again in two years, but first they must rid themselves of most of the current roster, including coach Josh Daniels, and accept that they've become a rebuilding project. Kyle Orton can be a trustworthy starter, but Eddie Royal and Demaryius Thomas aren't going to help, and nor will the most injury prone backfield in the NFL.
29. Oakland Raiders
As San Diego becomes a pass-first team, the rest of the lowly AFC West is shifting towards the run, and Oakland is the latest to follow that trend. Michael Bush and Darren McFadden could actually be a top-10 duo if they can get some support along the line.
30. Cleveland Browns
Jake Delhomme might've been to the playoffs a few more times than Cleveland has, but even if he can refrain from throwing another 18 interceptions in 11 games, the targets of Mohammed Massaquoi, Brian Robiskie, and Josh Cribbs may be even worse than his group in Carolina. Jerome Harrison and Montario Hardesty can run, though.
31. Buffalo Bills
As with many of the teams around this area (i.e. the cellar of the league), Buffalo does sport a decent running attack, led by the odd two-headed "monster" of yard-eating Fred Jackson and lightning-quick C.J. Spiller. Don't try picking up a Buffalo receiver or defender in your fantasy draft, though.
32. St. Louis Rams
I must admit, Sam Bradford is an improvement over Marc Bulger. But Donnie Avery's season-ending preseason injury is just the least of the Rams problems now, as they'll attempt to lean on aging Steven Jackson will building up from the league's worst passing game and defense. Take a look at St. Louis's first five games, though (Arizona, Oakland, Washington, Seattle, and Detroit), and you can at least find some positive in the 2010 outlook.
Disagree? Agree? Post a comment giving us your opinion. Expect a new NFL power rankings following this week's round of games, furthermore, so check back next week.