Full 2012 NFL Power Rankings Heading into Training Camp

Adam LazarusSenior Analyst IJune 24, 2012

Full 2012 NFL Power Rankings Heading into Training Camp

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    One of the most popular and controversial online entities in the world of sport is power rankings. They are an instantaneous and simple way to judge how good or how bad your team is doing compared to the rest of the teams in the league.

    But with the first game of the season not until early September, we all will have to wait more than two months until that first NFL power rankings, right? 


    Even though there are no regular-season standings and training camp hasn't even gotten underway yet, there is plenty to judge all 32 teams on as of this minute. Last year's performance, free-agent signings and departures, the draft, injuries, etc., each allow for some level of tea-leaf reading. 

    So where does your team rank? 

No. 32: Indianapolis Colts

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    2011 Record: 2-14

    Key Additions: Andrew Luck, Coby Fleener, Cory Redding

    Key Losses: Peyton Manning, Pierre Garçon, Dallas Clark, Joseph Addai

    Things really have nowhere to go but up for the Colts. Especially since they now have a quarterback in Andrew Luck, as well as some promising young offensive pieces, including Coby Fleener, Dwayne Allen and T.Y. Hilton. 

    And with Chuck Pagano coming in, that awful defense should be much improved.

    Still, with so much youth coming in, trying to learn brand-new offensive and defensive schemes, it's going to take more than one offseason to improve Indy. Especially since its secondary is in shambles and there isn't much depth in the running game or offensive line.

No. 31: Minnesota Vikings

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    2011 Record: 3-13

    Key Additions: Matt Kalil, John Carlson, Jerome Simpson

    Key Losses: Steve Hutchinson, E.J. Henderson, Cedric Griffin

    This prediction is largely grounded in the status of Adrian Peterson's knee.

    Maybe he'll be back on the field for Week 1, maybe he won't be back until Week 10, maybe he won't be back at all. But no matter when (if?) he returns in 2012, he won't be the Adrian Peterson we've come to unilaterally regard as the game's premier running back. 

    That being the case, since the Vikings have a young, raw quarterback in Christian Ponder, an unhappy star receiver in Percy Harvin and a rookie at left tackle in Matt Kalil, the Vikings will struggle mightily to put up points.

    And since their defense (especially the secondary) was among the worst in the NFL last year and they lost E.J. Henderson, they will be below average on both sides of the ball, even if Jared Allen racks up another 20 sacks. 

No. 30: Miami Dolphins

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    2011 Record: 6-10

    Key Additions: Gary Guyton, Legedu Naanee, Ryan Tannehill, David Garrard, 

    Key Losses: Brandon Marshall, Kendall Langford, Chad Henne

    In short, Joe Philbin has his work cut out.

    Even in light of Cam Newton's incredible rookie season, I doubt Miami will get much out of Ryan Tannehill. So that high first-round pick isn't likely to yield instant results, especially since it shipped away its best wide receiver (Brandon Marshall) for very little in return. 

    A promising running game (Reggie Bush and Daniel Thomas running behind Jake Long) does give Philbin something to work with on offense, but neither Tannehill, Matt Moore nor David Garrard have very many options downfield.

    And while there is talent on defense, now that they are starting all over with a new coordinator, there will be a serious adjustment period. 

No. 29: Cleveland Browns

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    2011 Record: 4-12

    Key Additions: Trent Richardson, Brandon Weeden, Frostee Rucker

    Key Losses: Peyton Hillis

    If you look at the above chart, you'll notice that the Browns didn't really lose that much this offseason. And since they replaced Hillis with a potential workhorse in Trent Richardson and now are in Year 2 of Pat Shurmur's offense, they might seem to be better off than they were a year ago. 

    But they still have one of the NFL's worst collection of wide receivers, and if they do ultimately cut ties with Colt McCoy in favor of Brandon Weeden, they are going to be starting a rookie quarterback. He may be 28 years old, but Weeden won't have a player like Justin Blackmon to throw to, and that should cause him plenty of headaches. 

    The Browns aren't totally hopeless, however. Their defense is really starting to come together: There's two or three potential All-Stars in there (Major League reference for Cleveland fans), Joe Haden is an excellent corner, D'Qwell Jackson remains one of the most overlooked linebackers in the game, and that front four—with Phil Taylor, Jabaal Sheard and now Frostee Rucker—is really impressive.

    Still, the likely flaws on offense, especially at the skill positions (even if he's praised by everyone, Trent Richardson is still going to be a rookie) are so great that it's impossible to put this team very high. 

No. 28: St. Louis Rams

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    2011 Record: 2-14

    Key Additions: Michael Brockers, Cortland Finnegan, Steve Smith, Scott Wells, Brian Quick, Janoris Jenkins

    Key Losses: Brandon Lloyd, Justin Bannan, Fred Robbins

    Although it might not really seem that way by their fifth-lowest ranking on this list, I've been very impressed with what the Rams have done this offseason.

    Jeff Fisher adds instant credibility in the locker room, Cortland Finnegan is a much-needed veteran presence on defense, and Scott Wells is a much-needed veteran presence on the offensive line. And since the Rams have tons of promising talent on both sides of the ball (not just Sam Bradford, but Robert Quinn, Chris Long, James Laurinaitis, Greg Salas, Austin Pettis and Lance Kendricks to go along with Brockers, Quick and Jenkins), there is a bright future in St. Louis.

    But asking all those youngsters to gel in the matter of a few months while learning entirely new systems is a tall order. 

No. 27: Jacksonville Jaguars

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    2011 Record: 5-11

    Key Additions: Laurent Robinson, Aaron Ross, Justin Blackmon

    Key Losses: Leger Douzable, Luke McCown

    This spring has been one step forward, two steps backward for the Jaguars.

    They made a few tremendous upgrades by signing Laurent Robinson and Aaron Ross and drafting Justin Blackmon. But Blackmon's DUI was a minor headache followed by a major one in Maurice Jones-Drew's holdout. 

    No one knows how it is going to play out with their franchise RB, but everyday he misses hurts him—the team and especially the development of Blaine Gabbert, something that is critical if the Jags are to have any success in 2012.

    The one saving grace for this team is a defense that was at times very solid in 2011 and is fortunate to have retained the exact same scheme—Mel Tucker will again be the coordinator. But if the MJD-less offense is repeatedly turning in three-and-outs, that defense will wear out quickly. 

No. 26: Washington Redskins

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    2011 Record: 5-11

    Key Additions: Robert Griffin III, Pierre Garçon, Brandon Meriweather, Josh Morgan

    Key Losses: LaRon Landry, Rocky McIntosh, Sean Locklear

    RG3 brings excitement, energy and most importantly, tons of athleticism to a team sorely in need of all three. But even if he is a quick fix for the quarterback position, he's not going to be one for the entire team.

    The defense has talent, especially in the front seven with Ryan Kerrigan and London Fletcher, but other than DeAngelo Hall, their secondary is really questionable. Don't assume that Brandon Meriweather is a seamless replacement for LaRon Landry or that Cedric Griffin will instantly return to 2008 form. And in the NFC East, holes in your secondary makes for a huge problem. 

    On offense, Mike Shanahan may be able to make seemingly anyone into a 1,000-yard back, but there is a real lack of depth on the offensive line. And even if you discount his drug suspension from last year, tackle Trent Williams has struggled to stay healthy in his two seasons. 

No. 25: Tampa Bay Buccaneers

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    2011 Record: 4-12

    Key Additions: Vincent Jackson, Carl Nicks, Mark Barron, Doug Martin, Eric Wright, Dallas Clark, Amobi Okoye

    Key Losses: Kellen Winslow II, Geno Hayes, Josh Johnson, Micheal Spurlock

    Few teams in the NFL had a more lucrative offseason than the Buccaneers. Via the draft and free agency, they added several very valuable pieces that should improve a team that was borderline awful a year ago.

    So now that Josh Freeman has a true No. 1 wide receiver in Vincent Jackson, an outstanding guard in Carl Nicks, and the ideal complementary back to LeGarrette Blount in Doug Martin, that Tampa Bay offense might occasionally be able to keep pace with the other three high-powered offenses in the NFC South. But the key word in that sentence is "occasionally." There will still be plenty of growing pains for Freeman and those acquisitions as they learn Greg Schiano and Mike Sullivan's new approach.

    Still, it's the defense that yields the most questions. Sure, they are loaded with first-round talents, especially on the defensive line. But Da'Quan Bowers is out for the season, Gerald McCoy is recovering from a second serious injury in two seasons and Amobi Okoye is already nursing a sore knee.

    Aqib Talib, Ronde Barber and presumably Mark Barron give them a solid secondary, but with three dynamic passing attacks in Atlanta, New Orleans and Carolina in their division, even a .500 record seems like asking too much. 

No. 24: Carolina Panthers

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    2011 Record: 6-10

    Key Additions: Luke Kuechly, Mike Tolbert

    Key Losses: Legedu Naanee, Dan Connor, Mackenzy Bernadeau

    It may seem like everything in Carolina will hinge on Cam Newton's play in 2012 (and far beyond), but if the Panthers are going to take that next step and contend for a wild-card berth, there are a handful of positions that will need to improve drastically.

    We all expect Newton to lead an absolutely awesome ground attack: between him, DeAngelo Williams, Jonathan Stewart and now Mike Tolbert, the Panthers seem capable of having four different men rush for 100 yards any given week. But other than Steve Smith, this team is woefully thin at wide receiver, and without a capable second option, that offense will be limited late in games. 

    And then there is the defensive side of the ball. Assuming that Luke Kuechly will step in right away and cure a defense that was one of the NFL's worst in 2011 is absurd.

    Even if the rookie and some of those veterans, like Charles Johnson and the very promising Greg Hardy, have excellent seasons, that secondary will be the X-factor. Whoever they ask to play opposite Chris Gamble (possibly Brandon Hogan) will be picked on repeatedly until he proves a capable starter in a division loaded with excellent skill players. 

No. 23: Buffalo Bills

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    2011 Record: 6-10

    Key Additions: Mario Williams, Mark Anderson, Stephon Gilmore, Cordy Glenn, Vince Young

    Key Losses: Demetress Bell, Roscoe Parrish

    Although the hype surrounding the Bills heading into the 2012 season is as high as it's been in years, this team has not earned "Contender" status as of yet.

    A defensive line featuring Mario Williams, Mark Anderson and Marcell Dareus makes for great headlines and should lead to a solid pass rush, but this team's greatest Achilles' heel is the run defense. They were 28th against the run last year, 32nd the year before. Anderson, Williams and especially Dareus will help, but that linebacking corps will be most important and they haven't made many upgrades.

    Fortunately for Dave Wannstedt, he does have a very deep collection of corners, one that only got stronger with the selection of Stephon Gilmore, who, with Aaron Williams, might make for an outstanding duo for years to come. 

    The other side of the ball is not without similar inconsistencies. They have a strong backfield with Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller, and the Stevie Johnson-David Nelson pairing is poised for a big year. But (other than that one game against the Jets) Ryan Fitzpatrick was horrible during the Bills' eight-game losing skid, throwing 12 interceptions and struggling to complete 50 percent of his throws. 

No. 22: Seattle Seahawks

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    2011 Record: 7-9

    Key Additions: Matt Flynn, Barrett Ruud, Jason Jones, Kellen Winslow II

    Key Losses: David Hawthorne, John Carlson, Robert Gallery, Anthony Hargrove, Justin Forsett

    Remember, this is a team that hasn't even been .500 since 2007. So for all those Seahawks fans that are confident in a playoff berth, keep that in mind. 

    The question mark at quarterback (Russell Wilson, Tarvaris Jackson or Matt Flynn) aside, the Seahawks have additional holes on both offense and defense. 

    Even with the addition of Kellen Winslow and the emergence of Doug Baldwin, their receiving corps is average. And the loss of Robert Gallery is not insignificant. Fortunately for Pete Carroll, Marshawn Lynch is such a hard runner, and because they were able to re-sign him, Lynch will take a ton of pressure of what figures to be a spotty passing game. 

    Over on defense, no one questions the talent of players like Earl Thomas, Chris Clemons and the very impressive young K.J. Wright, but don't underestimate the loss of David Hawthorne. Barrett Ruud is not an even swap there, especially since he's trying to return from multiple injuries. And in the NFC West, where the 49ers have an incredibly strong running game, that Mike linebacker position will be vital. 

No. 21: Arizona Cardinals

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    2011 Record: 8-8

    Key Additions: Michael Floyd, William Gay, Adam Snyder

    Key Losses: Richard Marshall, Deuce Lutui

    For the record, I expect the Cardinals to be one of those surprise teams that contend for (at worst) a wild-card berth. 

    Granted, it's a big assumption, but I assume that a second year in Ken Whisenhunt's offense, coupled with the addition of Michael Floyd, will give Kevin Kolb the tools necessary to excel. Maybe not enough to be an All-Pro, but enough to solidify the starter's job. And if (again, another big assumption) Beanie Wells can stay healthy, the Cardinals should have a pretty solid offense in a division that really doesn't feature a single explosive scoring attack.

    Still, the key to a Cardinals postseason run will be their defense, and at times in 2011 Ray Horton's unit looked very solid. Sam Acho and Calais Campbell are two excellent pass-rushers, they have perhaps the NFC's best safety in Adrian Wilson, and a true superstar in the making with Patrick Peterson at corner. 

    And don't discount what Peterson's special teams contributions (four punt returns for touchdowns as a rookie) can do to a team that isn't necessarily excellent on offense or defense. 

No. 20: Oakland Raiders

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    2011 Record: 8-8 

    Key Additions: Mike Brisiel, Shawntae Spencer, Ron Bartell, Matt Leinart

    Key Losses: Michael Bush, Kamerion Wimbley, Samson Satele, Rock Cartwright

    Oh, that AFC West, so hard to handicap. Neither of the four teams is a bottom-feeder, neither (seemingly) a Super Bowl threat. 

    But as tight as that division should be, the Raiders seem to be the one with the least promising 2012. And not just because they are the only one employing a brand-new, first-time head coach. 

    Carson Palmer struggled mightily down the stretch, Darren McFadden has been unable to stay healthy, and they lost any established backup running game plan when Michael Bush left town for Chicago. And even if he wasn't a Pro Bowler, Samson Satele, who signed with the Colts, was a five-year starter on an offense that relied heavily on the run. 

    The addition of Mike Brisiel and the collection of extremely fast, young wide receivers does suggest the Raiders have the ability to put up points. Protecting any lead they may gain, however, will be the greatest question mark.

    Kamerion Wimbley and Stanford Routt were quality starters who they cut, leaving even greater holes on a defense that was equally porous against both the run (27th in the NFL) and the pass (27th). Dennis Allen may try to install the same kind of scheme that was so successful last season in Denver, but other than Richard Seymour, he does not have the front four personnel or a Champ Bailey in the secondary. 

No. 19: Kansas City Chiefs

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    2011 Record: 7-9

    Key Additions: Kevin Boss, Eric Winston, Stanford Routt, Peyton Hillis, Brady Quinn

    Key Losses: Brandon Carr, Le'Ron McClain, Barry Richardson, Leonard Pope, Kyle Orton

    The Chiefs have their own set of question marks on the horizon, specifically Matt Cassel's value as a true franchise quarterback, the critical returns of Jamaal Charles, Eric Berry and Tony Moeaki, as well as the situation regarding Dwayne Bowe's contract. 

    But there is so much young talent on this team. Peyton Hillis should be a nice fill-in for Thomas Jones and a good place-holder if Charles is slow in his comeback from knee surgery. Kevin Boss is a productive pass-catcher, Jon Baldwin showed tons of promise last year, and the addition of Eric Winston is a huge upgrade over Barry Richardson. 

    Still, the reason I put the Chiefs ever-so-slightly above their rival to the West is its defense. Assuming Eric Berry returns to top form, he will again be one of the game's best young safeties. And with that incredible collection of front-seven talent in front of him (Derrick Johnson, Tamba Hali, Justin Houston, Allen Bailey, Glenn Dorsey, Tyson Jackson and now Dontari Poe), Romeo Crennel has quietly assembled a fantastic 3-4 scheme. 

No. 18: Chicago Bears

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    2011 Record: 8-8

    Key Additions: Brandon Marshall, Michael Bush, Jason Campbell, Shea McClellin, Alshon Jeffery

    Key Losses: Brandon Meriweather, Amobi Okoye, Zack Bowman

    For years (decades?) the Bears have desperately needed a true No. 1 wideout, and they finally landed one by acquiring Brandon Marshall. It's not unreasonable to ask Cutler and Marshall to put up the same type of numbers (over 100 catches and 1,250 yards per season) that the two posted in 2007 and 2008. Especially since Alshon Jeffery can be a serious threat deep downfield.

    So the Bears passing game will have the talent to compete. It's not going to be as potent as their rivals, the Packers and Lions, but with Chicago's front-seven defensive talent, it doesn't need to be.

    So why are the Bears still on the bottom half of this power ranking?

    Well, for one, the secondary lost Brandon Meriweather, and there might not be enough depth in nickel and dime packages to defend against those awesome passing attacks in Detroit and Green Bay. 

    But more to the point, the situation regarding Matt Forte has to be a major concern. His absence may just be limited to OTAs, minicamp and part of training camp, but that's time he could have been learning Mike Tice's scheme. Even if Tice has been with the Bears for several years, his approach figures to be extremely different from Mike Martz's. 

No. 17: New Orleans Saints

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    2011 Record: 13-3

    Key Additions: Brodrick Bunkley, Ben Grubbs, Curtis Lofton, David Hawthorne

    Key Losses: Jonathan Vilma, Sean Payton, Robert Meachem, Carl Nicks, Tracy Porter

    And here we go: what should be the first truly jarring entry on this list. Yes, the Saints were incredible at times last year and a popular choice late in the season to win the NFC. But just look at all the losses they've suffered:

    1. Their head coach, Sean Payton
    2. Their most accomplished defender, Jonathan Vilma
    3. Their best offensive lineman, Carl Nicks
    4. One of their best wide receivers, Robert Meachem
    5. One of their best corners, Tracy Porter

    Although they've made some adequate replacements there, namely Hawthorne and Lofton at linebacker and Grubbs at guard, they won't be able to replace Payton, who is the architect of that historic passing game. 

    And even if Drew Brees' contract is straightened out by mid-July, his absence at OTAs and minicamp has already cost that team precious practice time as well as a chance to distract from the whole Bountygate disaster

No. 16: Denver Broncos

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    2011 Record: 8-8

    Key Additions: Peyton Manning, Justin Bannan, Tracy Porter

    Key Losses: Tim Tebow, Brodrick Bunkley, Eddie Royal, Dante Rosario

    Perhaps no division champion in recent history has ever underwent a facelift quite like the one Denver underwent this spring. Let's be clear: Swapping out Tim Tebow for Peyton Manning will lead to wholesale changes on offense, and perhaps the entire team. 

    Denver featured the top rushing attack in the NFL last year under Tebow. That should come way down in 2012 with Manning behind center. Now is that a bad thing? Not necessarily. But you have to wonder if the Broncos have the personnel to instantly switch to Manning's trademark four-receiver, shotgun sets, especially since they lost Eddie Royal to free agency.

    And just because Manning's play in OTAs and minicamp has been universally hailed as flawless, no one should be convinced about his complete recovery until he stands in the pocket during the regular season, takes a hit and has to get up and throws on the very next down.  

    Furthermore, even if the Broncos do manage to seamlessly transition via a complete 180 in offensive strategy, they haven't really made any significant upgrades to a defense that was 24th in points allowed and 20th in yards allowed. 

No. 15: Tennessee Titans

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    2011 Record: 9-7

    Key Additions: Kamerion Wimbley, Steve Hutchinson, Kendall Wright

    Key Losses: Cortland Finnegan, James Jones, Barrett Ruud

    After surprisingly contending for a playoff spot in 2011, the Titans should once again fly under the radar this year. They didn't make any sexy signings in free agency or any momentous selections in the draft.  But both Steve Hutchinson and Kamerion Wimbley will become key starters, and with Cortland Finnegan's departure to St. Louis, their leadership will be critical. 

    Still, just because this team defied expectations last season doesn't necessarily mean they are poised for a playoff berth in 2012. 

    Kenny Britt's recovery from his torn knee will be essential, as will Chris Johnson's recovery from (by his standards) a terrible season a year ago. And the quarterback controversy—or, at least, quarterback uncertainty—on the horizon could pose a problem once the season nears. Hasselbeck is the safe choice, but Jake Locker's athleticism has to be appealing to head coach Mike Munchak. 

    And even though they signed Wimbley and have some young talent on the defensive line, the loss of Jason Jones will be conspicuous. He was a real pass-rush threat up the middle, and since that run defense ranked 24th with him, it could regress even further. 

No. 14: New York Jets

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    2011 Record: 8-8

    Key Additions: Tim Tebow, Quinton Coples, Stephen Hill, LaRon Landry, Yeremiah Bell

    Key Losses: Brodney Pool, Plaxico Burress

    This team seems like it's filled with conflict and problems, given the Tebow-Sanchez debate, Darrelle Revis' unhappiness over his contract, and Santonio Holmes' continued troublemaking. But there is still a wealth of talent on the roster.

    So there's really no reason why they cannot rebound from a terribly disappointing 2011, and a few of the moves they made this offseason suggest they will.

    Quinton Coples can provide a serious boost to a somewhat sluggish pass rush, Stephen Hill is the ideal tall receiver opposite Holmes, LaRon Landry and Yeremiah Bell fill a tremendous need in the secondary, and Tebow will, well, who knows what they'll get from Tebow. 

    But it would be a mistake to assume this team is not in the race for a playoff berth. And as simple as it is, the Jets probably will live or die by Mark Sanchez's performance. He has a new offensive coordinator, which means he's essentially starting over, but I tend to view that as a good thing. Under Brian Schottenheimer, the Jets never seemed willing to turn Sanchez loose. I expect a much different approach under Tony Sparano, and that could yield a major increase in production. 

No. 13: Dallas Cowboys

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    2011 Record: 8-8

    Key Additions: Morris Claiborne, Brandon Carr, Brodney Pool, Mackenzy Bernadeau, Dan Connor, Nate Livings, Kyle Orton, Lawrence Vickers

    Key Losses: Laurent Robinson, Terence Newman, Abram Elam, Martellus Bennett

    Credit Jerry Jones for this: After a second straight playoff-less season, he didn't sit on his hands this spring.  And for the most part, each of the moves Dallas made were significant upgrades. 

    Depending on whether they keep Mike Jenkins, the Cowboys might have a tremendous secondary, one that can withstand all of Rob Ryan's blitz packages. And since they still have DeMarcus Ware in his prime, they should be able to put pressure on opposing passers. 

    The Cowboys offense should be above average in 2012. They added two good interior lineman in Nate Livings and Mackenzy Bernadeau, a top-notch fullback in Lawrence Vickers, and based on what DeMarco Murray achieved in his short rookie season, they'll have a strong rushing attack.

    But, as was the case with the Jets, everything depends on their quarterback, Tony Romo. Even though they lost Laurent Robinson, who put up very good numbers despite limited opportunities, the passing game still features two explosive receivers (Dez Bryant and Miles Austin) as well as an excellent tight end, Jason Witten. 

No. 12: San Diego Chargers

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    2011 Record: 8-8

    Key Additions: Jarret Johnson, Melvin Ingram, Robert Meachem, Eddie Royal, Roscoe Parrish, Micheal Spurlock

    Key Losses: Mike Tolbert, Vincent Jackson, Steve Gregory

    The Chargers have made fools out of preseason prognosticators for years, so here they get another shot to do so. 

    Despite the loss of Vincent Jackson, Mike Tolbert and Steve Gregory, barring the poor production Phillip Rivers had last season and another year of wear-and-tear to Antonio Gates' lower body, the Chargers will be improved. Just look at all the moves they made.

    Jarret Johnson provides tremendous leadership and strength against the run (critical in the AFC West), Melvin Ingram offers exceptional athleticism in the pass rush, and the four receivers they added via free agency (most notably Robert Meachem) will be enough to pick up the slack in the wake of Jackson leaving for Tampa Bay. Coupled with what could be a breakout season for Ryan Mathews and the Chargers probably have the AFC West's top offense. 

    Still, since this is the highest ranked of the four AFC West teams, clearly they won't run away with the division. 

No. 11: Atlanta Falcons

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    2011 Record: 10-6

    Key Additions: Asante Samuel, Peter Konz, Lofa Tatupu

    Key Losses: Curtis Lofton, Eric Weems, Kelvin Hayden

    Say what you will about the Falcons—their playoff woes, their ill-advised decision on fourth down against the Saints last year, and bringing in two new coordinators—there is oodles of talent on this club.

    Now, the offensive line is spotty and it's unclear if rookie Peter Konz will be able to contribute right away. But they have three outstanding pass-catchers, an above-average back and a solid though not-necessarily-great quarterback in Matt Ryan. Remember, this team has been in the top seven of points scored the past two years, and that probably won't change in 2012.

    But the Falcons' hopes for a division title rest more on the other side of the ball. And while they only really added two players on defense, both were key. Pairing Asante Samuel with Brent Grimes gives Atlanta two very good corners, and Lofa Tatupu should be a worthy replacement for Curtis Lofton.

    And since Ray Edwards has had a full year to recover from his knee issues, he should prove to be worth the large contract the club gave him last summer. 

    Atlanta still has a lot to prove in terms of being a Super Bowl contender, but in this division—filled with such youth (Carolina, Tampa Bay) and turmoil (New Orleans)—it is the most put together. 

No. 10: Cincinnati Bengals

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    2011 Record: 9-7

    Key Additions: Terence Newman, BenJarvus Green-Ellis, Dre Kirkpatrick, Kevin Zeitler

    Key Losses: Nate Livings, Frostee Rucker, Jerome Simpson

    Since they've followed up surprise playoff seasons (2005, 2009) with really bad performances the next year, the Bengals will be a popular pick to be one of those teams that takes the proverbial "step backward" in 2012.

    But given the moves they made this offseason and the fact that Andy Dalton and A.J. Green had a full offseason in Jay Gruden's offense, that might not be a wise position to take. 

    Cincy's secondary is now one of the deepest in the NFL, having added Newman and Kirkpatrick to a group that already had Leon Hall, Nate Clements and Pacman Jones. 

    Still, the most important move the Bengals made this offseason might just be the upgrade at running back. BenJarvus Green-Ellis is not only younger and more productive in the red zone, but he is eminently more reliable in terms of ball security than Cedric Benson. In 2010 and 2011, Benson fumbled 12 times; Green-Ellis has never lost one in his entire four-year career. 

No. 9: Philadelphia Eagles

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    2011 Record: 8-8

    Key Additions: Fletcher Cox, DeMeco Ryans, Demetress Bell, Mychal Kendricks

    Key Losses: Asante Samuel, Steve Smith, Vince Young, Juqua Parker

    I completely understand people who are skeptical of the Eagles. Not only were they the "Dream Team" a year ago only to fall flat on their faces, but their most important player, Michael Vick, seemingly can never stay healthy. 

    Still, I think it would be foolish to assume, for either of those reasons, that the Eagles aren't legitimate contenders to win the NFC East.

    Forget about Vick for a minute and consider how strong their running game is. With Adrian Peterson's short-term future in question, LeSean McCoy might very well be the NFC's best RB. Couple his dual-threat abilities with DeSean Jackson, Jeremy Maclin and Brent Celek, and the Eagles offense is more than capable of scoring 24 points per game with or without Vick in the lineup. 

    But the real undoing of the Eagles last year was their defense, especially up the middle where they were manhandled at times. Now that they've added arguably the best interior defensive lineman in the 2012 draft (Fletcher Cox) and a former Pro Bowler at middle linebacker (DeMeco Ryans), those problems are seemingly solved. 

    And don't forget, much-maligned defensive coordinator Juan Castillo was operating with a hand tied behind his back throughout 2011. Because of the lockout, he had almost no time to install the Wide Nine defense in a team that was loaded with new puzzle pieces. An entire offseason with mostly the same personnel should cure a lot of those growing pains. 

No. 8: Detroit Lions

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    2011 Record: 10-6

    Key Additions: Riley Reiff, Ryan Broyles, Jacob Lacey

    Key Losses:  Bobby Carpenter, Eric Wright

    For better or worse, the NFL is a pass-first league, and as a result, teams with exceptional passing attacks and shaky defenses are able to not only get by, but post stellar records and even win their conference's top seed. Just look at the Patriots and Packers last year, the worst and second worst ranked defenses in the NFL. Together, they won 28 of 32 games and earned home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. 

    Aside from a lack of playoff excellence and much more youth throughout their roster, the Lions aren't much different from Green Bay or New England. They too have an incredible passing game, one that is more than capable of disguising defensive flaws. 

    Matthew Stafford was incredible last season (having Calvin Johnson certainly helps), and if they can post even decent numbers from Mikel Leshoure and Jahvid Best, that won't change. 

    What the Lions and head coach Jim Schwartz are hoping will change is a defense that underperformed much of last year, allowing the 367 yards and 24 points per game. Losing Eric Wright and seeing Nick Fairley repeatedly in the headlines for legal problems won't solve those problems. But another year in Schwartz's scheme and another fine season from Stephen Tulloch and more consistency (and fewer penalties) from Ndamukong Suh will give Detroit enough to stay in the NFC North race. 

No. 7: Baltimore Ravens

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    2011 Record: 12-4

    Key Additions: Ryan McBean, Bobbie Williams, Corey Graham

    Key Losses: Jarret Johnson, Cory Redding, Ben Grubbs

    The Ravens would have ranked higher just a few months ago, and most likely above their archrival Pittsburgh Steelers. But Terrell Suggs' torn Achilles, Jarret Johnson departing for San Diego and Ray Rice's continued refusal to sign his franchise tender have to change their position. 

    Even so, neither of those facts are enough to drop the Ravens out of the race for the AFC North and Super Bowl contention.

    The defense still has perennial All-Pros Ed Reed, Haltoi Ngata and Ray Lewis, saw corner Jimmy Smith have a fantastic rookie season, and are capable (when Joe Flacco protects the ball) of putting up points through the air. For all his detractors, Flacco still got the ball to Anquan Boldin, Ed Dixon and Torrey Smith with some regularity. 

    Nevertheless, the Ravens have to have Rice in the lineup to win. Not only was he the NFL's second-leading rusher last year, but he led Baltimore with 76 receptions.

    Ultimately he'll sign his deal and be in a Ravens uniform for Week 1. The only question is when; if it's soon, the Ravens might not skip a beat and push toward another division title. If it's in mid-to-late August, they'll struggle in the early going. 

No. 6: Pittsburgh Steelers

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    2011 Record: 12-4

    Key Additions: David DeCastro, Leonard Pope

    Key Losses: Hines Ward, James Farrior, Aaron Smith, Chris Hoke, William Gay

    Like the Ravens, the Steelers have both prominent veteran departures and a major contract concern regarding a key offensive piece. And again like the Ravens, the Steelers' depth at so many other spots on the roster should be enough to overcome those issues. 

    As will be the case with Ray Rice, Mike Wallace will ultimately come back to the Steelers from his contract holdup; he has no other option (sitting out a season is not an option). Depending on how much time is missed, it may or may not hurt the Steelers....although every minute he misses the install for Todd Haley's new scheme is problematic.

    But the Steelers have upgraded their offensive line by drafting David DeCastro and moving Willie Colon to guard, so Ben Roethlisberger should have better protection and the running game should improve. I really don't see the injury to Rashard Mendenhall as crippling as some do; he was never an elite back. 

    The retirements of James Farrior, Chris Hoke and Aaron Smith suggest that the championship-caliber defense will take a step backward this year, but only one of those players, Farrior, was really a major contributor in the past few seasons.

    Furthermore, James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley have two excellent young defensive ends (Ziggy Hood, Cameron Heyward) to aid them, and their secondary features the best strong and free safety duo (Troy Polamalu and Ryan Clark) in the league. So don't expect much of a dropoff this season. 

No. 5: Houston Texans

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    2011 Record: 10-6

    Key Additions: Whitney Mercilus, Justin Forsett, Bradie James

    Key Losses: Mario Williams, DeMeco Ryans, Eric Winston, Mike Brisiel, Lawrence Vickers, Jason Allen

    You always have to be careful of a team that is the hot pick for the Super Bowl berth; case in point, last year's Eagles and Jets.

    The Texans nevertheless do seem poised to make a serious run toward New Orleans next February.

    Sure, they lost a good deal of talent on both sides of the ball, but as high profile as Mario Williams and DeMeco Ryans are, they seem to have those positions filled quite nicely. Bradie James has earned Wade Phillips' praises, and with Whitney Mercilus coming into play behind Brooks Reed and Connor Barwin, there should be no setbacks. 

    On offense only time will tell if Brandon Brooks, Antoine Caldwell, Derek Newton or Rashad Butler can step in as offensive line starters or if someone can be a suitable No. 2 WR, but with arguably the game's best back (Arian Foster), a stellar second option (Ben Tate) and Andre Johnson, that offense can score as many points as any team in the AFC. 

No. 4: San Francisco 49ers

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    2011 Record: 13-3

    Key Additions: Brandon Jacobs, Randy Moss, Mario Manningham, A.J. Jenkins, Rock Cartwright, Josh Johnson

    Key Losses: Josh Morgan, Shawntae Spencer, Adam Snyder, Madieu Williams

    Much like the Texans, there should be some hesitation about instantly assuming the 49ers are a Super Bowl favorite. It was just one season. But what a season. They blew through the NFC West, toppled an outstanding Saints team and were one fumbled punt away from the Super Bowl.

    And to ensure that they wouldn't be a one-hit wonder, the 49ers have made a few key upgrades on the offensive side of the ball. After all, there really isn't much need for improvement on the defense—they had the best unit in the NFC. 

    Brandon Jacobs is solid insurance for Frank Gore, so with those two and two excellent change-of-pace backs in Kendall Hunter and LaMichael James, the 49ers have the NFL's deepest backfield. 

    The rest of their noteworthy additions (A.J. Jenkins, Randy Moss, Mario Manningham) are meant to give Alex Smith more help in the passing game. And if even one of those new receivers can catch 50 balls, the Niners very well could make their first Super Bowl appearance in nearly 20 years. 

No. 3: New York Giants

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    2011 Record: 9-7

    Key Additions: Martellus Bennett, David Wilson, Shaun Rogers, Sean Locklear

    Key Losses: Aaron Ross, Brandon Jacobs, Mario Manningham

    The Giants don't really look bulletproof heading into the season. They still have major holes at tight end, wide receiver (given Mario Manningham's departure and Hakeem Nicks' foot injury) and they should, on some level, miss Brandon Jacobs. 

    But in 2011, Eli Manning emerged as arguably the game's premier clutch quarterback, throwing an NFL record 15 fourth-quarter touchdown passes in the regular season, then playing (again) with ice water in his veins in four playoff wins. 

    And since they have an incredible pass rush that perfectly complements a pretty solid secondary as well as several young players not on the roster during last year's playoff run returning from injury (Terrell Thomas, Marvin Austin, Clint Sintim), the Giants definitely have a solid shot at being the first NFC team to repeat as Super Bowl champions since the '93 Dallas Cowboys. 

No. 2: Green Bay Packers

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    2011 Record: 15-1

    Key Additions: Nick Perry, Jeff Saturday, Anthony Hargrove

    Key Losses: Matt Flynn, Scott Wells

    Yes, the Packers were beaten (and pretty handily) on their home turf last January by the Giants, but that doesn't necessarily mean they were the inferior team. 

    There's a reason Green Bay didn't lose a single game in the 2011 calendar year. It featured the NFL's deepest passing attack, led by a quarterback that put up one of the all-time greatest regular seasons in NFL history. Aaron Rodgers is so accurate and so dangerous out of the pocket that the Packers are a threat to score from any spot on the field. 

    As great as that offense was, however, their defensive counterparts were nearly as bad, allowing 416 yards per game last season. One player (especially a rookie) really can't be expected to be a quick fix, but the selection of Nick Perry should bolster the pass rush and maybe re-energize Clay Matthews and A.J. Hawk, as both are coming off down seasons.

    Let's be honest, there's usually a fine line at the top of power rankings, so there really isn't much separation between the 49ers, Giants and Packers. But because Green Bay has the reigning NFL MVP who has all of his tools back on offense, it deserves a higher ranking ahead of all but one, albeit by minuscule proportions. 

No. 1: New England Patriots

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    2011 Record: 13-3

    Key Additions: Brandon Lloyd, Robert Gallery, Steve Gregory, Chandler Jones, Dont'a Hightower, Bobby Carpenter, Joseph Addai, Will Allen

    Key Losses: BenJarvus Green-Ellis, Gary Guyton, Mark Anderson

    Losing a second painfully close Super Bowl in five seasons seems to have the Patriots even more determined. They went after the draft and free-agent market with a vengeance. 

    On offense, they grabbed Brandon Lloyd to be another option in the passing game, Robert Gallery to offset a questionable guard spot (given Brian Waters' possible retirement and Logan Mankins' torn ACL), and signed Joseph Addai to fill the vacancy left by BenJarvus Green-Ellis' departure.

    On defense, they improved the pass rush with Chandler Jones, added great situational depth with Dont'a Hightower and Bobby Carpenter, and made a tremendous upgrade at safety with Steve Gregory.

    Of course, no team wins the Super Bowl in the spring, so earning A+ marks in the draft and/or free agency guarantees absolutely nothing. But since the Pats were already so loaded on offense, with Tom Brady, Wes Welker, Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez and a pretty solid line, this could be the year that Brady and Belichick finally earn that elusive fourth Lombardi Trophy.