This Article was originally featured on New England Sports Online NFL Power Rankings 2011-2012.
I was originally planning to rank the top 16 teams, but I felt it unfair not to include the #17 team given the unexpected success they had last season.
The free agent frenzy has slowed significantly, and with most teams ready to prepare with their most recent acquisitions, it felt right to rank the top half of the league.
Last season was marked by extreme parity, and I think it’s fair to expect the same equality around the league this season, but at the end of the day (last year it was the Packers) some teams will stand out.
Since this article would be painfully long in one post, I will split it into two separate posts, teams 17-8 in this post, and teams 8-1 in the next.
To find out who, read on…
The Chiefs had an unbelievable season last year by exceeding all expectations. For the first time in years they were a playoff team as they went 10-6. Led offensively by Jamaal Charles and Matt Cassel, and defensively by Tamba Hali and Brandon Flowers, the Chiefs surprised the entire NFL.
Flowers has emerged as a legitimate shutdown corner, while Jamaal Charles (1,467 yards, 6.4 YPC) showed he has elite skill as a running back.
Matt Cassel will continue to develop, and the Chiefs hope he can build on a season which saw him throw 27 TDs to just seven Interceptions (93.0 QB rating). Throw in the speedster Dexter McCluster on special teams, and Kansas City looks to have a dangerous squad.
The Chiefs were the best rushing team in the NFL last year averaging 164.2 yards per game. Still, the Chiefs had arguably the easiest schedule in all of football last year, and although the team will be better, their record will not.
The 6-10 Vikings were obviously hurt by their lack of a starting QB last year, as the revolving door of Tavaris Jackson, Joe Webb and Brett Favre was not successful.
The addition of Donovan McNabb will immediately transform their offense and help hide the offensive line deficiencies which led to Favre getting hurt in the first place. Maybe Bernard Berrian will finally live up to his potential with an elite quarterback tossing him passes, but without Sidney Rice the Vikes have only one real receiving option in Percy Harvin.
Minnesota (and McNabb) will sorely miss Rice’s production in the form of 1,312 yards and 8 TDs from his healthy 2009 campaign.
The Vikings will look for rookie tight end Kyle Rudolph (an athletic player from Notre Dame) to be a consistent underneath option for McNabb who has the speed to roll out of the pocket, but relying on rookies (especially as receivers) is always a risky proposition.
Although Minnesota benefits from having an All-Pro running back in Adrian Peterson, they will struggle because of their lack of offensive depth.
Defensively, they were solid against the run and pass (9th and 10th in the league last season, respectively), and are led by pass rushing extraordinaire Jared Allen. Barring injuries, there is enough talent on both sides of the ball to make a run, but in a league where depth is so vital, the Vikings will be in trouble.
Further, Minnesota faces the Bears and Packers twice each during the season, and their success will depend on how they fare against these two divisional rivals.
15. Dallas Cowboys
As always, the Cowboys have the talent to be a big time postseason contender. But will their talent translate into wins? Last season it did not, as the ‘Boys ended up 6-10.
Offensively Dallas has studs throughout the field, including Miles Austin and Felix Jones. Austin had 1,041 yards and 7 TDs last season, and looks to continue on his success from the past 2 seasons. Jones has seen increasing responsibility with each NFL season, as last year he had 800 yards on 185 carries (4.3 YPC).
Throw the ever-dangerous Jason Witten into the mix, plus the young but fast Dez Bryant, and the Cowboys are looking to explode on offense.
The offensive line of the Cowboys, however, has always been a major concern for the team. It should be bolstered by the drafting of Tyron Smith, but the larger question remains: Can Tony Romo be the quarterback the Cowboys need him to be?
History says no, and their defense has too many holes to carry the load.
In 2010 Terrence Newman had 79 tackles and 5 picks, while DeMarcus Ware totaled 15.5 sacks, 66 tackles and 2 FF. These two Pro-Bowlers are clearly elite players, but can they cover for the massive liabilities throughout their squad, including cornerback Mike Jenkins?
If a team does not have the depth to support their stars in the NFL, then that team is beatable, no matter who their stars are.
The 5-11 Cardinals needed a legitimate quarterback last season, but could not get much out of Matt Leinart or Derek Anderson. The weapons are in place and with a high level QB the Cards made it to the Super Bowl (Kurt Warner).
After trading for Kevin Kolb, the Cardinals think they’ve found their answer, and frankly he’s certainly an upgrade over the players they let onto the field last season. Kolb picks up yards, but is susceptible to the interception (7 TDs and 7 INT).
I don’t think Arizona is an exceptionally strong team, but in an extremely weak NFC West anybody has a chance (see the 7-9 Seattle Seahawks who made the playoffs last year).
Offensively, the Cardinals hope rookie RB Ryan Williams will immediately upgrade their 32nd-ranked run offense (86.8 YPG), and he will. Larry Fitzgerald, even without a real QB, amassed 1,137 receiving yards.
Defensively, Arizona will look for Patrick Peterson to make an impact as soon as he steps onto the field, adding another solid athlete to their already stacked secondary (Adrian Wilson, Kerry Rhodes).
Darnell Dockett is a great defensive tackle (5.0 sacks last year), and will bolster the front seven. The problem with this team is depth, as it is with many rebuilding teams.
They have their stars, but like the Vikings and Cowboys, lack depth. If one of their key guys goes down the whole team might follow.
There’s no secret in Indy’s formula for winning. Let Peyton Manning score as many times as possible, and hope the defense can allow one less score. Indy limped into the playoffs at 10-6, but were not the dominant team that Colts fans had seen in years past.
With Manning’s neck injury a cause for concern, the Colts might be in trouble. They have no running game to speak of, and very little defense after losing Clint Sessions.
The (10-6) Buccaneers are the real deal. Offensively, they have a trio of young players in QB Josh Freeman, WR Mike Williams, and RB LeGarette Blount. Not only do they have a strong top three, but those key guys are also young, improving players.
Last year, Freeman threw 25 TDs to just six interceptions. LeGarette Blount averaged 5.0 YPC on his way to a 1007 yard rushing season, while Mike Williams finished with 11 TDs and 964 yards receiving.
The Bucs addressed their defense with their first-round selection of DE Adrian Clayborn. Clayborn, with his explosive athleticism, should provide the Bucs pass rush with a needed boost and put less pressure on a secondary led by a still effective Ronde Barber (65 tackles, 3 interceptions last season).
The Buccaneers are building their defense from the trenches, a strategy that has proven successful in the past (2000-2010 Patriots).
Raheem Morris has set the proper attitude for his young team, highlighting responsibility, passion and ownership. His players clearly love to play for him.
However, the major flaw with this team is the division they play in. Forced to compete with the New Orleans Saints and Atlanta Falcons, the Tampa Bay's playoff drought will continue for another season.
11. Chicago Bears
The Chicago Bears finished11-5 last season, but viewers always seemed skeptical about their success. Similar to the squad that reached the 2006 Super Bowl, the Bears put a lot of faith in an erratic quarterback. In 2006 it was Rex Grossman, now it is Jay Cutler.
Cutler had 23 touchdowns to 16 interceptions last season, and having a young, fairly unproven receiving squad will not help his high interception total. Also, the Bears parted ways with Greg Olsen during the offseason. Arguably Cutler’s favorite target, the tight end’s absence will be noticed if the receivers cannot step up. Devin Aromashodu will likely be a top receiving target.
This offense has question marks at every position, although the drafting of OL Gabe Camiri will immediately strengthen the miserable offensive line and should inherently have a positive impact on Cutler’s inconsistencies.
Cutler is unquestionably a superior player when compared to Rex Grossman, and if Chicago can prevent Cutler from getting hit every time he drops back, they will have a dangerous offense.
Defense is of course a strong point for the Bears. Led by Lance Briggs and Brian Urlacher, the group certainly commands respect from opposing offenses.
The biggest positive for the Bears comes in their return game, as they can consistently expect sparks from speedster Devin Hester.
A team with a lot of weapons and a lot of question marks.
10. Houston Texans
Offensively, this team is rock solid. Led by Matt Schaub, Andre Johnson and Arian Foster, Houston relied on their offense for their 6-win season.
Andre Johnson: 13 games, 1,216 yards, 8 TDs.
Arian Foster: 1,616 yards, 16 TDs.
Matt Schaub: 4,370 yards, 93.0 QB rating.
Clearly, the offense should not be a problem for Houston.
Defense, however, is an entirely different story. Although strong up front, the Texans had an atrocious pass defense last year, allowing a league worst 267.5 YPG passing. They will be looking for first-year corner Brandon Harris to support Jonathan Joseph as the second corner, but the Texans made very few improvements in their secondary over the offseason as they failed to sign Nmadi Asomugha.
What does bode well for Houston is their front seven. Mario Williams, Demeco Ryans and hopefully steroid-free Brian Cushing (76 tackles in 12 games) will lead their front 7.
By drafting DE J.J. Watt, the Texans are clearly looking to solve their CB deficiencies with a strong pass rush and run defense, forcing offenses to be predictable.
Houston has an exceptionally talented offense, but will need its defense to improve in order to have any legitimate success.
Last year, the Chargers were the epitome of the “stats lie” adage in the NFL. The Chargers ended up a mediocre 9-7, but led the league in both total offense and total defense (395.6 YPG and 271.6 YPG respectively).
The biggest problem for San Diego came on special teams, as their return defense was one of the worst in the NFL. Yet, they were able to go on a late season run last year as they closed out the campaign with a 7-2 record over their final 9 games. They hope the big-hitting rookie corner Shareece Wright can have an immediate impact on Special Teams.
Offensively, San Diego should see an improvement in their running game as Ryan Matthews makes a healthy return. San Diego will have a far more balanced attack with a healthy Matthews if Rivers can continue having success with Vincent Jackson, Malcolm Floyd and Antonio Gates.
Defensively, Shaun Phillips leads the front seven (11 sacks) while CB Quentin Jammer is a tone setter in the secondary. He is a big, physical player who lays down punishing hits.
The Chargers will win the AFC West if their special teams can become an even mediocre unit, and will be a very threatening playoff team.
What do you think? Did I miss any teams you think will do better than expected? Do I have any teams on this list that will end up under achieving? With the season coming up, we’ll see…
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