With a quarter of the 2011 season in the books, it seems safe to say that football is finally back in full swing.
Teams that ran into difficulties because of the lockout are starting to get their feet back under them, while some of the overachievers have recently been exposed. Things aren’t quite back to normal yet, but they are getting there quickly.
We finally have enough of the 2011 season behind us to begin to draw real conclusions about the states of the teams this year.
To take it a step further, we’re at the point where it is realistic to begin drawing comparisons between this year’s team and last year’s team.
Who are the teams to beat in the NFL? Which teams have had surprising improvements, or disappointing falls from power during the offseason? Read on to find out!
Why they’re 32nd: The Minnesota Vikings have blown four huge halftime leads in four games. They’re having trouble finishing games both offensively and defensively, spending much of the second half of games looking like a high school football team.
Where they were at the end of last season: Despite their 6-10 season record, the Vikings were a team last year that some expected to turn things around at any time with a bit of luck and health at quarterback.
Once Brett Favre officially left the picture as a potential starter, however, it became clear that the Vikings were in for a period of rebuilding. At that point, their position in the Power Rankings chart dropped significantly to 23 at the end of the year.
Overall movement: The rebuilding period is in full swing in 2011, although the situation at quarterback remains unclear. The Vikings have dropped to the bottom of the pile.
Why they’re 31st: Four losses for the most promising team in the NFC West has put this team near the bottom of the Week 5 Power Rankings. Sam Bradford’s mounting health issues and Steven Jackson’s inability to stay on the field for a full game have stalled the St. Louis Rams’ season before it ever got started.
Where they were at the end of last season: The Rams ended the season at 17th in the Power Rankings, a ranking that was largely due to the sheer potential that the rookie-lead team displayed.
Last season, the Rams looked like a rising star among the rubble of the NFC West. Recall that they were a Week 17 win away from representing the division in the playoffs.
Overall movement: The Rams have dug themselves a deep hole in 2011, falling from the middle of the pack to scrape the bottom. The bye week comes at a crucial time for this young team. If they can recover some of their equilibrium, look for the Rams to start trying to gain some ground back in Week 6.
Why they’re 30th: It doesn’t matter if they’ve been blown out or if they’ve lost a close game, 2011 been an embarrassing season so far for the Miami Dolphins.
Chad Henne has failed to get the job done at quarterback because he’s more or less backup material himself. Newly-acquired running back Reggie Bush has not been able to help stop the bleeding. Their opponents have outplayed them on all sides of the ball.
Where they were at the end of last season: The Dolphins were an optimistic 22nd in the Power Rankings at the end of last year. They rode a three-game losing streak into the offseason, allowing what could have been at least an 8-8 season to slip away from them in the final weeks.
Overall movement: A drop down to 30th in the Power Rankings reflects the Dolphins’ continued inability to win a game. They’ve lost seven in a row since last December. If they don’t figure out a new game plan during the bye week you can expect that number to tick up to eight.
Why they’re 29th: By all rights, this should be an 0-4 team. The Seattle Seahawks may have pulled out a close game against the Atlanta Falcons, but the 2011 Falcons have struggled on the road thus far.
The victory against the Arizona Cardinals could legitimately be considered a special teams fluke on the part of the Cardinals.
The Seahawks need to continue looking for answers offensively since Tarvaris Jackson clearly isn't helping the team's cause.
Where they were at the end of last season: The Seahawks were considered the weakest team entering the playoffs last year, ranked at just 19th in the league.
Despite losing streaks of between two and three games defining the second half of their season, they were able to eke out a win against the St. Louis Rams when it mattered most in Week 17.
Overall movement: The Seahawks’ 10-position drop accurately reflects the team’s renewed offensive and defensive struggles.
Why they’re 28th: Call me optimistic, but over the past two weeks the Indianapolis Colts have shown some signs of life post-Peyton Manning. Kerry Collins may not have been what the Colts needed; Curtis Painter has managed to breathe a tiny bit of life back into the team.
Where they were at the end of last season: Led by Peyton Manning, the Colts secured a playoff berth in 2010. They rode a winning streak into the postseason, earning the No. 10 spot on the final week’s Power Rankings.
Overall movement: When Manning’s injury turned into more than a week or two on the bench, the writing was clearly on the wall for Indianapolis. They’ve been bumped up a bit in this Power Ranking list to reflect their improved performance in the past two weeks.
Why they’re 27th: The Jacksonville Jaguars were the team to hand the Tennessee Titans their only loss of the 2011 season in Week 1. Since then, they’ve dropped three in a row, including the Carolina Panthers’ only win to date.
After telling veteran quarterback David Garrard thanks, but no thanks, the Jaguars seem unable to put all of the pieces of a competitive team together. Maurice Jones-Drew is arguably the best thing this team has going for them, and the main reason that the team has not fallen further in the Power Rankings.
Where they were at the end of last season: The Jaguars ended the season on a three-game losing streak, falling in the Power Rankings to 16.
Overall movement: The Jaguars have dropped 11 spots in the Power Rankings, which is not surprising when they can’t seem to find a solution at quarterback. Look for the Jaguars to continue falling in the Power Rankings in the weeks to come as they face a series of tough battles against division rivals.
Why they’re 26th: To be fair, the Denver Broncos have had a somewhat more difficult schedule than many of their fellow 1-3 teams for the first part of the season. There is a certain amount of positive momentum in losing, and the Broncos were able to keep games close against the Oakland Raiders and the Tennessee Titans.
Their team won't come together until they can tone down the quarterback controversy, no matter how much they want to pretend that Kyle Orton is the face of the team. The Tim Tebow situation is going to blow up in their faces—it’s just a matter of time.
Where they were at the end of last season: The Broncos finished the 2010 season at 4-12, one of the worst records in the league. The 2-6 end to their season was good enough for just 29th on the Week 17 Power Rankings.
Overall movement: The Broncos are the first team we’ve come across in this list who have moved up in the Power Rankings. They are currently on pace to match last season’s terrible record, but they have plenty of time to potentially turn things around.
Why they’re 25th: Up until last week, the Kansas City Chiefs have butted heads with three teams that are sitting at 3-1 at this point. The loss of Jamaal Charles hurts, but they fared better against the Vikings last week which is an encouraging sign.
A victory over the Vikings and playing a close game against the San Diego Chargers indicate that there is some fight to this team. They may be sitting at a losing record now, but they are poised to pick up a few games in the coming weeks.
Where they were at the end of last season: Although they lost their final game of the regular season, the Chiefs had a strong showing that was good enough to win the AFC West. They finished the season at 11 on the Power Rankings list.
Overall movement: The Chiefs have fallen badly, although they are a team that may have what it takes to claw their way back into the battle.
Why they’re 24th: Before Philadelphia Eagles fans get their hackles up at their team’s low ranking, perhaps they should take a moment to really think about their team’s 1-3 record.
So far, the Eagles have managed to find ways to lose two close games, and they’re showing no sign of the train wreck stopping.
All the talent in the world at various positions on the roster means nothing if the team can't close out games. Michael Vick's continued health also suspect with the number of hits he's taking is, and Mike Kafka as a backup is not encouraging.
Where they were at the end of last season: Last season, the Eagles beat out the New York Giants for the division title with a 10-6 record. Going into the playoffs, they were ranked at No. 7 in the Power Rankings, despite losing the last two games.
Overall movement: One loss can be excused and two can be overlooked. With three consecutive losses in a row, the Eagles can no longer ride on the coattails of last season’s success. They have fallen hard in the Power Rankings.
Why they’re 23rd: The Carolina Panthers have shown us that they’re more than just the Cam Newton show. They can win, but they're still struggling to close the deal consistently.
Keep in mind that last week they outplayed Chicago for most of the game. If it hadn't been for Devon Hester, they would have beaten the Bears.
Expect to see them moving up the list if they can get their finishing moves figured out.
Where they were at the end of last season: The Carolina Panthers had the dubious honor of finishing the season ranked 32—dead last in the Power Rankings.
Overall movement: Thanks to Cam Newton, the Panthers have a ton of potential to turn things around in the 2011 season. This is a team on the rise as they start to put the pieces together.
Why they’re 22nd: The Cincinnati Bengals got a boost after beating the Buffalo Bills last week, but they’re still the weakest of the league’s 2-2 teams. They’ve struggled all season to put points on the board with an uninspired offense, and their defense has let them down in some close losses.
Where they were at the end of last season: After starting last season 2-1, the Bengals proceeded to lose 10 games in a row. Despite late-season wins over the Cleveland Browns and the San Diego Chargers, the Bengals were not able to demonstrate enough dominance to rise from 31st in the Power Rankings.
Overall movement: Although they are on the rise for now, the Bengals must win another game quickly to avoid suspicion that they may repeat last year’s mid-season slide.
Why they’re 21st: The Arizona Cardinals are a huge disappointment thus far in 2011. Every time it seems like they may be able to hang on to a game, the defense gives up the lead late while the Kevin Kolb-lead offense stalls. They are a combined total of eight points from being 4-0 this season.
Where they were at the end of last season: After a season of quarterback roulette, the Cardinals were ranked just 28th in Week 17.
Overall movement: The Cardinals are holding a spot in the Power Rankings that is admittedly optimistic, especially given their inability to win last year. If they are able to start rewarding that confidence with wins, though, then they are rightfully ranked higher.
Why they’re 20th: The Cowboys could have easily grabbed hold of the momentum from their Week 3 comeback victory and used it to hand the Detroit Lions their first loss of the year. Instead, they practically gift-wrapped the game for the Lions after holding a commanding halftime lead.
Tony Romo's hero-or-zero status aside, the team needs to find a way to stay on the field for the full 60-minutes—not just for the first half.
Where they were at the end of last season: The Cowboys showed signs of life after head coach Wade Phillips was fired in Week 9 of the 2010 season. They were able to go 5-3 in the second half of the season, which was god enough to bump them to 18 in the Power Rankings.
Overall movement: The Cowboys showed their continued inconsistency as a team this week, and lost all of the ground they had gained from the Week 3 come-from-behind victory. All told, this team is about the same as where they ended in 2010.
Why they’re 19th: The Oakland Raiders have lacked consistency so far this year, although it is possible that last week they were simply the innocent bystanders as the New England Patriots made up for their Week 3 loss.
Their passing game is starting to come together under the dual threat of Jason Campbell and Darren McFadden, so we can expect to see scores climb as everything falls into place.
Where they were at the end of last season: They swept the division, and were the first team in history to do so and still fail to make the playoffs. For winning it all in their division, they got the respect of the No. 15 spot on the final Power Rankings.
Overall movement: This year’s Raiders team has showed some signs of life early on in 2011 which could put them on pace for a better year in 2011. Their ranking has dipped for now, but expect it to climb if the Raiders can keep winning against a series of relatively soft teams.
Why they’re 18th: After being blown out by the Baltimore Ravens on Sunday Night Football, it is clear that injuries have hurt the Jets more than previously believed. They will need to figure out their positional depth to have any chance at rebounding.
Perhaps another week of practice will help steady things a bit offensively, but don’t look for the Jets to have what it takes to topple the New England Patriots in Week 5.
Where they were at the end of last season: With a playoff berth and high hopes of a Super Bowl appearance, the 2010 Jets ended the regular season eigth in the Power Rankings.
Overall movement: The injury bug has bitten this team, dropping them nine spots in the Power Rankings since the end of last season.
Why they’re 17th: The Cleveland Browns are fortunate to have two wins this season, eking out a close victory against the struggling Miami Dolphins in Week 3.
When they’ve lost this year, they’ve been thoroughly blown out. The defense is not showing up to help bail out their low-scoring offense.
Where they were at the end of last season: With just five wins for the whole season, it is no surprise that the Browns were at 27 on the Power Rankings list.
Overall movement: Despite their two victories coming from weak teams, the Browns are still on pace to nearly double the number of wins they had last year. They may be able to use that momentum and Colt McCoy’s surprisingly good play thus far to generate some unexpected wins.
Why they’re 16th: Last year’s NFC North champions are really off their game so far in the 2011 season.
They’ve struggled all season long, playing equally poorly against both strong teams weak ones. Despite flashes of greatness that mirror their surprising 2010 performance, they have not been able to hold on to finish games.
If they can figure out the offensive line to get some added protection to Jay Cutler, though, the Bears may still rally. Matt Forte is having a great year, and Devon Hester still has the magic touch on special teams.
Where they were at the end of last season: The Bears ended the season ranked sixth in the Power Rankings. They probably would have been ranked higher had they been able to keep the division rival Green Bay Packers out of the playoffs by handing them a loss in the final game of the season.
Overall movement: The Bears have fallen and will continue to drop in the Power Rankings until they can come up with offensive consistency and earn some wins.
Why they’re 15th: The Pittsburgh Steelers seem to have run head first into the infamous Super Bowl hangover with their slow start in 2011.Both offensively and defensively they’ve been weak against teams that are playing well, and strong against teams that are struggling.
Fortunately for the Steelers, the core of their Super Bowl team has remained on the roster. A slow start does not mean that this team isn’t a force waiting to be unleashed.
Where they were at the end of last season: At the end of the 2010 season, the Steelers looked almost unstoppable. Their strong defense and productive offense earned them the third-ranked spot in the league.
Overall movement: The Steelers have fallen to the middle of the pack in the early part of the 2011 season, but they have never been a team that is content to be average. This is a group that can pull out of their funk at any time and return to their winning ways.
Why they’re 14th: The Atlanta Falcons have continued in the trend they set last year, participating in shootouts at home and struggling on the road. It is fortunate for the Falcons that they are able to overcome their struggles to earn road wins, but they have been inconsistent at best.
It seems that the Falcons may be the next team to fall victim to the trend that no team can win the NFC South division title for two years in a row.
Where they were at the end of last season: Many picked the Falcons to win it all at the conclusion of the regular season. They were the second-ranked team in the league, a spot they earned with their stiff defense and prolific offense.
Overall movement: They’ve managed to cling to the top half of the Power Rankings for now, but their slide will continue if they get blown out by the Green Bay Packers at home this week.
Why they’re 13th: It's hard to tell if the San Francisco 49ers are for real this or if they've simply been in the right place at the right time up until now. One thing is clear, though: Things are starting click for this group both offensively and defensively.
It is encouraging that they were able to hand the Philadelphia Eagles a come-from-behind loss last week in Philadelphia, but so far that has been perhaps the greatest test this team has faced. I’ll be a true believer if they can derail the Detroit Lions in a couple of weeks.
Where they were at the end of last season: The 49ers were 25th in the Week 17 Power Rankings, reflecting a season in which many of their victories seemed to be more the other team’s fault than because the Niners played well.
Overall movement: They’ve climbed significantly in the rankings so far, and if this team continues to show that they are for real they’ve got nowhere to go but up.
Why they’re 12th: The Washington Redskins are sitting atop their division right now at 3-1, a position they probably had trouble even imaging after last year. Mike Shanahan’s offseason maneuvers may have been suspect, but so far they’ve been working.
Before Redskins fans get too excited, though, keep in mind that they've only played relatively weak teams for the last few weeks and they've struggled badly in those games. They’re not putting enough points on the board, a problem that they must address in the bye week to maintain their position on this list.
Where they were at the end of last season: The Redskins had a hard time finding wins last year, rounding out the season at 6-10 and just 25th in the Power Rankings.
Overall movement: We’re looking at a totally different Redskins team from the one that stumbled its way through 2010. They’ve gone up in the rankings for now. Continued victories against more difficult opponents will demonstrate for sure whether this team is for real.
Why they’re 11th: After becoming the first victim to the Detroit Lions’ winning streak in Week 1, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have won three in a row. They’re clicking on offense and keeping points off the board on defense; even against Detroit, they managed to keep the game close.
Where they were at the end of last season: The Buccaneers missed the playoffs by a tiebreaker last year and finished the season ranked 13th in the Power Rankings. They’re hoping to improve on that record in 2011.
Overall movement: They’ve matched up against mostly weak teams thus far, though, so look to the next few weeks to really define where the Bucs should be.
Why they’re 10th: The San Diego Chargers are currently sitting at 3-1, but they lost to the only halfway decent team they played thus far (the New England Patriots). It’s a point of concern that the Chargers allowed themselves to get blown out by the Patriots.
It is hard to rank the Chargers higher than 10 since they perennially have the makings of a great team and have a nasty tendency to fall apart at some point in the season.
Where they were at the end of last season: The Chargers got off to a slow start in 2010, opening the first half of the season with a 3-5 record. They finished strong in the second half of the season, but mostly against teams that were even weaker than they were.
Their ranking of 14 at the end of the season reflected their recent success, balanced with their former struggles.
Overall movement: They’ve moved up a bit for now based on their continued ability to win. Like other teams before them, however, it will take victories against stronger teams than the Dolphins and Vikings to prove that this team is a real contender.
Why they’re 9th: These New York Giants are a scrappy team that is reminiscent of the 2007 Super Bowl championship team.
They’re fighting hard each week to keep putting wins on the board despite key injuries and down-to-the-wire games. Eli Manning has been surprisingly steady under pressure, while Victor Cruz is quickly evolving into a top-15 wide receiver.
Where they were at the end of last season: Despite finishing the season at 10-6, tied for the lead in the division, the Giants stayed home during the 2010 postseason. Their final Power Ranking of 12 is reflective of this: They failed to finish the job against two fellow playoff contenders in the final three weeks of the season.
Overall movement: The Giants of 2011 are looking more reliable than the Giants of 2010, which has given this year’s team a slight edge over their 2010 counterparts.
Why they’re 8th: Who would have guessed that bringing Matt Hasselbeck to a new team would have such awesome consequences?
The Titans are somehow flying under the radar right now, although they handed the Baltimore Ravens their only defeat of 2011 and are riding a three-game winning streak into their confrontation with the Pittsburgh Steelers this week.
Where they were at the end of last season: Lead by Kerry Collins, the Tennessee Titans finished last year with just one win in the entire second half of the season. Despite the poor finish, they had a better record than others in the league—good enough to earn them spot No. 21 on the Week 17 Power Rankings.
Overall movement: These Titans have flown through the Power Rankings. If they continue to click this well on offense, then the sky’s the limit for them.
Why they’re 7th: As the Atlanta Falcons shoot themselves in the foot, the Houston Texans are working on picking up the slack. They’ve had a difficult schedule for the past few weeks, butting heads with a pair of football juggarnauts—and at least hanging in the game, if not winning.
Things don’t get any easier for this team for the foreseeable future, but it looks as though Matt Schaub and Arian Foster have combined to be up to the challenge.
Where they were at the end of last season: The Texans struggled last season, giving up over 20 points per game on average defensively. Their ranking reflected their struggles; they ended the season holding the 21st spot on the final Power Rankings list.
Overall movement: The Texans are off to a promising start this year, provided that they can hold on to their momentum better than they did in 2010. The next few weeks should be telling whether they will remain in the top 10, or whether they belong closer to the middle of the pack.
Why they’re 6th: Despite a promising start to the season, the Buffalo Bills were exposed last week against a weak Cincinnati Bengals team. They did intercept Tom Brady a stunning four times the week before that, though, so the question begs to be asked: Which is the real Bills team?
Where they were at the end of last season: In perhaps the biggest jump on this entire rankings list, the Bills have managed to turn around one of the worst seasons of 2010. They ended the year ranked 30th in the league and wondering what on earth went wrong.
Overall movement: The Bills have flown up the chart, although the No. 6 spot may be a little bit too high for them. It’s worth giving them the benefit of the doubt going in to Week 5, though; they’ll be outed soon enough if their excellent start was merely a fluke.
Why they’re 5th: The New York Jets may be reeling, but the Baltimore Ravens were able to deal a huge blow last Sunday. They dominated one of the league’s better defensive groups with the running game, and shut the Jets down on defense. Special teams is the biggest area of concern for this group.
Where they were at the end of last season: The Ravens ended last year ranked fourth before fizzling out in the playoffs. This year’s team looks even more dominant than last year’s, provided they can keep up the pace.
Overall movement: The Ravens are down a spot in this Power Ranking list, but look for them to stay consistently near the top throughout the season.
Why they’re 4th: The Lions are one of two remaining undefeated teams in the NFL. They would be ranked higher if any of the teams they have beat up on were in the top 10 on this list.
In all seriousness, the Detroit Lions remain one of the most underrated teams in the league. Every week it’s an easy guess that they won’t be able to keep it up, and until now they have managed to surprise us by continuing a winning streak that started in 2010.
Where they were at the end of last season: The Lions were able to turn around a terrible season in 2010 to go undefeated for the last four games. Still, that effort was too little too late: they were ranked 24th in the final Power Rankings.
Overall movement: The Lions are young and hungry after so many losing years. If Matthew Stafford can stay healthy, the Lions will be contenders to go far this year.
Why they’re 3rd: Don’t be fooled by the loss in Week 3. Tom Brady had an off day two weeks ago, which doesn't happen very often. He proceeded to make the Oakland Raiders pay for it the following week.
The Patriots are a present-day football dynasty, lead by one of the league’s best quarterback and coach tandems. They won’t fall often, or easily.
Where they were at the end of last season: They were first in the league at the conclusion of the regular season, and rightfully so. They had the best record in the league, as well as the most valuable player.
Overall movement: They’ve more or less stayed steady at the top of the pile. This early in the season without more games to draw information from, the top three teams in the Power Rankings are largely debatable.
Why they’re 2nd: They’re the second-hottest team in football right now. A Week 1 loss to the Green Bay Packers doesn’t change that, especially given that the Saints hung in there til the last second during the 42-34 shootout at Lambeau.
This Saints Team has spent the last three games manhandling their opponents. With Drew Brees and the new offensive addition of Darren Sproles, there’s no reason to believe that that dominance will not continue.
Where they were at the end of last season: The defending Super Bowl champions faded a bit down the stretch, dropping two games at the end of the season to lose hold of the NFC South. They made it into the playoffs as a wild card, and as the fifth-ranked team in the final Power Rankings.
Overall movement: They’ve climbed back into the top three so far in 2011, and there’s no indication that they won’t stay there. The Saints look to have regained their superiority in the NFC South this year.
Why they’re 1st: The Green Bay Packers are the reining Super Bowl champions and easily the hottest team in football through the first quarter of the 2011 season. They have quieted those who predicted a Super Bowl hangover or who criticized them for their lack of offseason workouts.
Despite the return of most of the Super Bowl roster and the reintegration of the many injured reserve players from last season, all is not quite roses in Green Bay. They’ve clicked offensively, but they have faced some huge defensive woes in 2011.
Where they were at the end of last season: The Packers barely slid into the playoffs, beating out the 10-6 New York Giants and Tampa Bay Buccaneers through tiebreakers to clinch the sixth seed. They went into the playoffs as “the scariest sixth seed in history,” but ranked only ninth in the final Power Rankings.
Overall movement: It seems that the Packers have developed a taste for victory, and they’ve certainly been resourceful about staying on top. They’re the best team in football going into Week 5, but they must find some defensive answers to stay that way.