Alas, the 2011 NFL season is nearly here! After a long, stressful, drawn out lockout, and the fast and furious free agent frenzy that followed, the NFL is back and as exciting as ever.
There are plenty of story lines to follow this season—Can the Packers repeat now that they are healthy? Will the Eagles off season spending spree result in a Super Bowl? Will Peyton Manning’s streak of consecutive games started come to an end in Week One? Is Brett Favre retired for good this time? Will Chad Ochocinco tone down his antics under Bill Belicheck? How many front page quotes will Rex Ryan and the Jets provide us with this season? How will the Falcons bounce back after an embarrassing playoff loss at home? Is Cam Newton the answer the Panthers were looking for? Did the Cardinals make the right move by investing $63 million into a quarterback with seven career starts? Is this the year the Lions and Texans are considered serious playoff contenders? These are just a few of the headlines NFL fans everywhere will be following this season.
And now, it is time to unveil the 2011 Power Rankings, heading into Week One. Now, these are not how I see the teams finishing at the end of the season (I expect the Cowboys and 49ers, among others, to move up pretty dramatically), but where I believe they should be ranked based on last year’s finish as well as some off season changes. So without any further ado, here are the 2011 Week One Rankings.
1. Green Bay Packers: It is kind of an unwritten rule for me, that the Super Bowl Champions are automatically ranked No. 1 to begin the following season, unless something dramatic happens. However, you can throw that rule out the window this time. The Packers didn’t make any splashes in free agency, but they are coming out of camp (so far) mostly injury free. That means they are adding RB Ryan Grant and TE Jermichael Finley, among others, to the mix that won last year’s Super Bowl. If QB Aaron Rodgers stays healthy, this team has to be considered the favorite.
2. Philadelphia Eagles: In complete contrast to Green Bay, Philly made numerous splashes in free agency. So much so, some are giving the Eagles the nickname of Dream Team for the 2011 season. The Eagles added Nnamdi Asomugha, the most coveted free agent in this year’s class; they also added young star cornerback Dominique Rogers-Cromartie (via trading Kevin Kolb). But it didn’t stop there. The Eagles also added defensive tackle Cullen Jenkins and defensive end Jason Babin to their impressive defense. On offense they added RB Ronnie Brown, WR Steve Smith (formerly of the Giants, not the Panthers) and back up QB Vince Young. The Eagles are loaded with talent at nearly every position and anything short of a Super Bowl victory would be considered a failure for this Eagles team.
3. New England Patriots: The Patriots had the NFL’s best record in 2010 and only got better in the off-season. As usual, they had an exceptional draft and they traded for high profile guys in Chad Ochocinco and Albert Haynesworth. And yes, they still have Tom Brady and Bill Belicheck running things so expect the Patriots to be the favorite to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl.
4. Pittsburgh Steelers: It is also my unwritten rule that the Super Bowl loser be ranked No. 2 to start the following season. Unless of course multiple playoff teams add multiple pro bowl caliber players. That was the case this season, so the mighty Steelers begin the season ranked No. 4 but don’t let that fool you; the Steelers are still a heavyweight among NFL teams and expect to be in the mix to being playing in February.
5. New Orleans Saints: The Saints still have one of the best offenses in all of football, and that’s after trading Reggie Bush, their most athletic (and injury prone) offensive player. The Saints bolstered their running game however with the additions of Darren Sproles from the Chargers and drafting Mark Ingram. With Drew Brees behind center, and weapons like Marques Colston and Lance Moore among others, the Saints are poised for an epic showdown on opening night at Lambeau Field with the Green Bay Packers.
6. New York Jets: Rex Ryan guaranteed a Super Bowl win for his Jets this season. As NFL fans, we have come to expect nothing less from Ryan. In fact it’s downright shocking we haven’t really heard much from Ryan since the start of the preseason, but don’t expect that to last long. The Jets reached the AFC championship game each of the past two seasons and still have the talent to make yet another deep playoff run. The addition of WR Plaxico Burress, fresh out of prison for a gun charge, could help young QB Mark Sanchez develop an even better deep threat.
7. Baltimore Ravens: The Ravens need to get more out of QB Joe Flacco this year. He has developed into a very solid quarterback in his first few seasons, and has an impressive four playoff wins under his belt. However, the Ravens have enough talent on both sides of the ball that they have had the potential to reach the Super Bowl the last couple of years and have failed to do so. Much of that has to do with their inability to beat the Steelers. Until Baltimore can accomplish that, they may continue to underachieve.
8. Atlanta Falcons: The Falcons had an impressive season in 2010 but it came to an end in ugly fashion at home against the Green Bay Packers. Matt Ryan has developed into a top 10 QB but needs to continue to progress if Atlanta is going to continue to improve. The addition of WR Julio Jones via the draft could be a big help to this already potent offense. Look for the Falcons and Saints to battle it out for the division right down to the final week of the season.
9. Kansas City Chiefs: The Chiefs had an improbable season last year, reaching the playoffs and getting a Pro Bowl season from QB Matt Cassel. Questions about the defense still remain, but with the addition of WR Steve Breaston in the off season, the offense will not ride entirely on the shoulders or WR Dwayne Bowe.
10. Indianapolis Colts: The Colts signed Kerry Collins as an insurance policy in case Peyton Manning is unable to start the first game of the season. Manning’s neck injury has not healed as quickly as originally thought and has Colts fans sweating bullets. The Colts still have a pretty high powered offense but they are no lock to win the division this year. Expect the Texans to give them a run for their money.
11. San Diego Chargers: The Chargers accomplished quite a feat last season. They led the NFL in total offense and total defense, but failed to make the playoffs. This statistic still boggles my mind. If the Chargers are going to be considered a serious threat, they need to avoid getting off to a slow start.
12. Chicago Bears: It will be interesting to see the reaction Jay Cutler gets this season after an interesting end to the Bears’ playoff run last year which saw Cutler leave the game with an injury, but be seen walking just fine days later. Cutler helped the Bears reach the NFC Championship game but the defense was the biggest reason why. The outcome of the 2011 season will again rest on the shoulders of the Bear’s defense.
13. New York Giants: Turnovers absolutely crushed the Giants last season as they committed 42 of them, yet still nearly made the playoffs. They are a talented team but injuries have been the story of the 2011 preseason as they have already lost four players from their defensive secondary. They are going to need to patch some holes quickly if they want to hang with the Eagles and even Dallas this season.
14. Tampa Bay Buccaneers: There was one statistic that I referred to nearly every week last season regarding the Bucs—that was their record against winning teams. They went just 1-5 against teams with winning records. Yes, they went 9-1 against teams with losing records but if they want to be considered a great team and a legitimate contender, they have to do better against good teams. However, they were the youngest team in the league last year and have a potential superstar still learning the ropes at quarterback. Unfortunately for the Bucs, they play in a very tough division so they still may be a year away from the playoffs.
15. Houston Texans: The Texans have always had a decent offense and with the emergence of RB Arian Foster last season, they had one of the best offenses in all of football. However, their defense has let them down every season and last year was no different. This year however, they drafted defensive players left and right, and signed cornerback Jonathan Joseph in free agency. They also hired former Cowboys head coach Wade Phillips to run their defense. The Texans are primed to make their first ever playoff run this season, but getting past the Colts is never an easy task.
16. Detroit Lions: It’s been years, even decades, since the Lions cracked the top half of the NFL in any good ranking list. But after a respectable season last year and a good draft, the Lions look to be the surprise team of 2011. They have a much improved defense and one of the best offensive players in the league in Calvin Johnson. The Lions must keep QB Matthew Stafford healthy if they want to continue to grow as a team.
17. Dallas Cowboys: The Cowboys started 1-7 last year and simply could not recover. They ended the season winning five of their final eight and were one of the best offenses in the league for the final eight weeks, and that was with backup quarterbacks running the show. They now have Tony Romo back and look to have a bounce back year under Head Coach Jason Garrett. The Cowboys could be playing for a wild card spot however unless they can find a way to finish ahead of the No. 2 ranked Philadelphia Eagles.
18. St. Louis Rams: Sam Bradford proved he deserved to be the No. 1 pick in last year’s draft and nearly got the Rams to the playoffs in his very first season (albeit with a 7-9 record). The Rams simply did not have enough talent around him but they do play in the worst division in football so don’t be surprised if the Rams sneak into the playoffs in 2011.
19. Minnesota Vikings: It’s hard to get younger at quarterback when you bring in a 34-year-old but that is exactly what the Vikings did by adding QB Donovan McNabb in the off-season, in order to replace the retired Brett Favre. However, they lost WR Sidney Rice and their offensive line is a big question mark. Adrian Peterson is still in his prime but it will take an MVP type season from him for the Vikings to be playoff contenders.
20. Arizona Cardinals: The only saving grace for the Cardinals is that they play in the NFC West. The truth is, they are not a very good football team and made a very questionable move by trading arguably their best defensive player for an unproven starting quarterback. It was a gamble they were almost forced to make, however, as they desperately needed a quarterback that could throw to Larry Fitzgerald a top 3 wide out in the league. Arizona did make one excellent move however, when they signed Fitzgerald to an 8-year contract extension.
21. Seattle Seahawks: Not re-signing Matt Hasselbeck was a mistake by the Seahawks. However, bringing in Tarvaris Jackson to replace him was an even bigger mistake. Jackson has proved nothing in the NFL except that he is an average back up at best. Seattle does have some decent talent around him, and brought in a very underrated tight end in Zach Miller. And they do play in the NFC West with three other below average teams, so anything is possible.
22. Jacksonville Jaguars: The Jaguars get absolutely no publicity. This is probably because they play in the AFC South and have to deal with the Colts twice every year. The Jaguars simply don’t have enough talent. They have a dynamic running game with Maurice Jones-Drew but have absolutely nothing in terms of a passing game and a defense that is average at best. Yet somehow, they seem to find a way to be right in the thick of things until the final few weeks of the season.
23. San Francisco 49ers: Outside of the quarterback position, I believe the 49ers have the most talent in the division. The bulk of their talent is on the offensive side of the ball, and without a quarterback that doesn’t do a whole lot of good. Nonetheless if they can get even average play out of the quarterback position, the 49ers are my pick to come out of the NFC West.
24. Tennessee Titans: Needless to say, the holdout of Chris Johnson is monumental to where this team will end up. Without him, the Titans may not win more than three games. With him, they are probably a .500 team at best, and that might be pushing it. They simply do not have much talent outside of their star running back and if he misses anytime due to his holdout, or an injury resulting from it, Titans fans will not have much to cheer for in 2011.
25. Oakland Raiders: The Raiders had a nice season last year, even competing for a playoff spot. However the loss of Asomugha is killer on the defensive side, and losing Zach Miller to the Seahawks is just as big of a loss on the offensive side. Whatever steps Oakland had taken forward last year, they took just as many backward with the loss of those two players. Their division is weak but it’s hard to see them even reaching .500 this year.
26. Cleveland Browns: The Browns had a surprise year last year, even though it was not reflected in their record. They beat a couple of very good teams and hung in there with quite a few others. Colt McCoy looked impressive in his rookie season but overall there is not much talent in Cleveland. The fact is, they play in a very tough division and are still a ways away from being a contender.
27. Miami Dolphins: The Dolphins are in for a rough season, but at least they traded for Reggie Bush to get the fans excited about something. Bush is obviously not a true running back and Miami doesn’t have any talent at quarterback and very little anywhere else on offense. Having to play the Jets and Patriots for 25 percent of their games doesn’t help either. Miami will finish toward the bottom and might be better suited trying to finish dead last so they can draft Andrew Luck.
28. Washington Redskins: Rex Grossman thinks Washington will win the division in 2011. Well, at least someone believes that. You would be hard pressed to find even a Redskin’s fan that truly believe they will come out on top of the other three teams in that division. But hey, confidence is key I suppose. Regardless, the Redskins will not be winning their division and likely won’t have much of a chance finishing third either.
29. Cincinnati Bengals: Carson Palmer appears ready to retire as the Bengals have stuck to their guns and refused to trade the quarterback. After a few seasons of moderate success, the Bengals appear to be back in the cellar of their division and it’s going to take a while to climb out. If anyone can get that team to play well though, it’s Marvin Lewis.
30. Denver Broncos: Kyle Orton will start the season as the Bronco’s starting quarterback, and it appears the Tim Tebow is no lock to be the backup. Tebow impressed many in his limited time last year but continues to have serious questions about his ability to play the position of quarterback. Regardless of who leads this team, the Broncos are in for another rough season. Hard to believe it was just two seasons ago this team started off 6-0.
31. Buffalo Bills: The offense wasn’t terrible last season but losing WR Lee Evans to the Ravens will have an effect. Granted, the Bills weren’t going anywhere with Evans anyway so all in all, the loss is probably minimal. What we do know is the Bills will be fighting the Dolphins to finish third in the AFC East.
32. Carolina Panthers: It looked like Cam Newton was going to get playing time this season, once the Panthers got off to an expectedly slow start. However, it appears Newton may get his shot from the very first week. Jimmy Clausen has not played to his potential yet, but it’s hard to believe Newton will be any more successful. He definitely brings excitement and will put people in the seats, but with little to no talent around him, Newton is likely to struggle in his first season with the Panthers.