INDIANAPOLIS - FILE: Chris Johnson #28 of the Tennessee Titans runs for a touchdown during NFL game against the Indianapolis Colts at Lucas Oil Stadium on January 2, 2011 in Indianapolis, Indiana. According to reports on September 1, 2011 Johnson and the Titans have agreed to a four year extension for $53 million. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
23 - New York Jets - If it weren't for the Jets defense, this team would be at the bottom of these Power Rankings. So dysfunctional that it borders on laughable, this teams needs to find its center before it's too late. Rex Ryan has established an unsustainable core philosophy with his players, and the Jets front office seems to feed the team's borderline anarchy. When they acquired "he who must not be named" in a trade, this team came off the tracks. So far this year, the Jets haven't impressed in any way. Yet the level of talent available on this team is impressive. Rookie wide receiver Stephen Hill could be fun to watch. He has the speed to stretch the field, and the size to create mismatches. Can Sanchez, who like to throw deep, create a reason to keep a starting quarterback who can throw? His replacement surely can't, so maybe Sanchez has a bit of job security. If the Jets have a strength, it their offensive line. Right tackle is the only really weak link in this line, and the acquisition of Jason Smith from the Rams doesn't look like the problem is going away any time soon. I can't see the Jets winning more than five or six games this season, but strange things tend to happen when the Jets are counted out.
22 - Tampa Bay Buccaneers - Still my boom or bust team for 2012, this team has been built by a check book. Vince Jackson can do a great deal with a healthy quarterback who has the time to throw. The Buc's offensive line has pluses and minuses that could make life interesting for Josh Freeman. New head coach Greg Schiano will give the team discipline, but we've seen what happens to college coaches when they step into the NFL, haven't we? Will this team buy into a new philosophy, or rattle apart from Lombardi-esk rants? The thing is, this team has loads of upside. They have a great running back duo in rookie Doug Martin and LeGarrette Blount. Wide receiver Mike Williams could have a career year with Jackson taking some coverage heat away. If the Bucs have a worry, it's on defense. A player I'll be watching will be rookie weak side linebacker Lavonte David. This is a tough kid out of Nebraska who could breath life into a stagnate Bucs pass rush. While it's possible this team could do well, quarterback Josh Freeman is the wild card here. He has to return to his 2010 form, or this team could be in for a long season. Three wins if they fall to pieces, and a division or a possible wild card if they hold it together. There won't be a happy medium for this team in 2012.
21 - Carolina Pathers - While Cam Newton gets the big press, this team's running game is all but unmentioned. Jonathan Stewart and DeAngelo Williams combined for 1597 yards rushing, 548 receiving and 12 touchdowns. A solid one-two punch in Newton's first year, I can see these two improving on their 2011 numbers. This team suffers on defense, and that's not going to change all that much this season. The line-backing corp is top notch, adding Boston College rookie Luke Kuechly this year. Where they struggle is on the defensive line, and I know I'm not alone thinking they should have gone hard after these positions in the 2012 Draft. They needed to take some of the scoring pressure off of their offense. They aren't going to win many shoot outs with Atlanta and New Orleans, and the rest of their schedule is no cake walk. I see six wins as being realistic for the Panthers in 2012.
20 - Tennessee Titans - All things Chris Johnson may not glitter, but when wide receiver Kenny Britt received only a one game suspension for his 8th run in with the law, things brightened in Music City. Jake Locker is still an unknown quantity, but the Titans have a decent offensive line. Now back to what glitters, or doesn't? Chris Johnson's bank account is full of money now, so all he has to do is run like he did in 2009. Did I just say "all"? He was the 2500 all round yards man that year, adding 16 touchdowns too. It's a lot to ask of anyone to have those kinds of numbers again, but here we are waiting, aren't we? Don't hold your breath on Johnson matching his magical season again, but it's entirely reasonable to expect better than his 2011 numbers. Most teams would be satisfied with a player who rushed for 1,047 yards and added another 418 receiving. The problem lays with an inability to create a defined passing game because the fear of C. Johnson has waned. The Titans have to find a way to involve Johnson in new way, or they'll miss out on a golden opportunity to challenge for their division, which very well could happen. The numbers that will bring music to Titans fans' ears is 2000 combined yards and 10+ touchdowns for Johnson. Anything less, and this team is going to struggle. They have no depth at running back to speak of, and their receiving corp is only as good as Britt's attorney. Six wins, and a chance to move higher if karma smacks their league foes. This team could finish with 10 wins if the stars align.
19 - Oakland Raiders - Last year, I was spouting drivel about the Raiders being a talent laden team. This year, they seem far less talented and even less likely to win many games. But I think the ghost of Al Davis will be looking in on his his son as he tries to establish himself as an NFL owner. While I have little doubt the Raiders will threaten to move somewhere in the next couple years, this year is all about a bright young coach, and a quarterback the former management mortgaged the draft farm to secure. Carson Palmer is a could-be/ should-be/ might-not-be. While he appears to enjoy throwing passes to other teams, know that he scowls afterward as he trots to the sidelines. He may even brood too, but that kind of emotion is only on display with the likes of Jay Cutler, isn't it? The bottom line is Palmer will make or break the 2012 season for the Raiders. Most people would thing Darren McFadden's penchant for injuries would weigh heavily on their future, but I'm done even thinking McF will do anything but McFall onto IR at some point this season. The only thing the Raiders have going for them is their weak division, and weak may be an understatement. I have the Broncos-Raiders game in the worst game of the year pool, and I'm feelin' lucky. In any other division, this is a four win team, but in the wild and toothless AFC West, the Raiders pull in six wins, then scurries off the stage till they repeat next season.
18 - Denver Broncos - Peyton Manning will have a tough time staying healthy this season. The future Hall of Famer has a neck with a bulls eye painted on it, and he has to have the thought of being able to walk on his mind when his career comes to an end. Talk about gun shy? The funny thing is, Manning isn't showing any signs of shrinking from the competition, which scares me a little, and impresses me a lot. But this also presents a problem for the Broncos. Quarterback depth is a potential load-stone, with Caleb Hanie as the only insurance for this Mile High team. Brock Osweiler, a rookie out of Arizona State is the third string option. The Broncos defense played out of their minds last season, but with rookie Derek Wolfe at left defensive end, and with Justin "I couldn't make it with the Rams" Bannan at nose tackle, I'm thinking opposing teams will be running the ball more than a little bit. The Broncos secondary is solid though. Von Miller is as a star at strong side linebacker, and right defensive end Elvis Dumervil is solid. This whole season rests on Manning's shoulders...or neck. With that in mind, and the fact they play in a weak division, I can see seven wins for the Broncos, and five if Manning goes down, which I truly hope he doesn't.
17 - San Diego Chargers - This team frustrates the heck out of me every year. In the past, the level of talent at virtually every position should have guaranteed at least a couple of Super Bowls. It hasn't even guaranteed this team a post season, which is beyond sad. I'm part of a growing number of sports writers who've given up on the good ship San Diego. Now having said that, watch the bloody Chargers run the table... I really can't see it happening though. Their offensive line is patchwork, their best running back is rushing back from a broken collar bone, and their quarterback has lost his mojo. They are without a true #1 wide receiver with the departure of Vince Jackson in free agency. Malcolm Floyd has trouble staying healthy, and newly acquired Robert Meachem is a weak #2. There defense will hold its own, but not much more than that, but they do have some decent position depth. Quarterback Phillip Rivers had a Lagrangian point season last year. He hit the mid career hump all professional athletes meet at some point, and I can't see him improving on last year's stats. His 27 touchdown passes sound fine, until you add in the 20 interceptions. With Charlie Whitehurst as his sole back up, the Chargers are running on a single quarterback rail. Can you say train wreck? I can, and I can't look away... The Chargers win seven to eight games, but half will be against contenders. Now if they can just win a few at the beginning of a season for once...
16 - Pittsburgh Steelers - In my last Power Rankings, the Steelers were at #12. In the one I wrote in April before the draft, I had the Steelers at #16. I think they had a stellar draft, so the move up made sense, and why not? They somehow landed Stanford guard David DeCastro and Ohio State tackle Mike Adams. They had suddenly replaced an aging part of the team in one fell swoop. Well DeCastro is out with a knee injury, and Adams is slowly developing. So down we go again. Why you ask? It's the offensive line. The Steelers are close to famous for their position depth, but here is where there's a problem brewing. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is a mobile guy, but his running backs need guys to open holes. Rashard Mendenhal is still recovering from injury, and Isaac Redman seems to have missed his tide. Both are going to have limited in success this year. Wide receiver Mike Wallace is back in camp - finally - but he's way behind on the learning curve for the Steelers' brand new offense. Antonio Brown will have a strong year, but his success will depend on having Wallace on the field for the most part. The Steelers' defense will be strong, but aging pieces tell the tale of a group that could be less of a mainstay for the team. They play in the toughest division in the NFL - the AFC North. The Ravens will be tough, but they have a growing power in Cincinnati that could prove more daunting than in the past. This is an 8 win year for the Steeler Black and Gold, and they miss the playoffs.
15 - Seattle Seahawks - Rookie quarterback Russell Wilson will be a dark horse this season, trotting along in the shadow of the Lucks, RGIIIs, and Tannehills. It's up to him what he does to earn mention in this talented rookie crowd, and he may be on the perfect team to do it. Seattle is a team with a strong offensive line, and a defense that will keep games close. They have a great running back in Marshawn Lynch, though he may have some league discipline coming his way. The wide receiver corps is just shy of being strong, but Doug Baldwin, Golden Tate and Sidney Rice all show promise. They play home games in one of the toughest stadiums for visiting teams, and they actually do pretty well on the road, or at least they did last year. This is where the intangibles come in, and it's also why this team won't win more than nine (possibly ten?) games this season - The Seahawks find ways to lose the easy games. They confound fans with losing games by appearing to not be ready to play one week, then they roll into the NFC East and beat them like a drum. So I guess the big intangible is - Why? I have no idea, but this Seattle team should be one of the best they've had in the last decade.
14 - Houston Texans - This is a quality team, and it should be higher in these rankings. It's not, and it's because this team has injury history at key positions that just keeps on hobbling it. Andre Johnson hasn't had a complete season for a few years now. Arian Foster always seems to be hampered by hamstring pulls. Most don't know this, but the Texans were one of the most injury riddled teams over the last two seasons. Add in the team lost Demeco Ryans and Mario Williams to trade and free agency, and the defense lost position depth they desperately need. They lost right tackle Eric Winston to free agency, as well as #2 wide receiver Jacoby Jones. I guess what I'm saying here is this team has holes and questions I don't see being answered, or at least not until week #4 or #5. What I do like about the Texans is their strong coaching staff, so some of my concerns may not be germane. The Texans are in a moderately weak division, so their win totals for this season should be in the 10 range.They should win their division, with only Tennessee being a possible challenger.
13 - Cincinnati Bengals - This is my choice to out right win their division. The AFC North is tough, and it's been fairly owned by Pittsburgh and Baltimore for years. The Bengals have more than just the pieces-parts they've cobbled together each year. They have a few genuine stars on the rise, like A.J. Green and Andy Dalton. They have a defense that's both talented and position deep. There's lots to like about this team, and gone seems the Bengals penchant for off field issues that strangled Bengals for years; making them the source for many a joke. They have a strong coaching staff, featuring a talented, young offensive coordinator named Jay Gruden. My biggest concern is at running back. In the off season, they acquired BenJarvus Green-Ellis from the New England Patriots. While BGE is famous for not fumbling, he's not really all that known for anything else. Without a ground game, defenses can concentrate on making Dalton's life miserable, and playing nickle packages against the pass. They'll suffer from this "almost there" condition, and it will make the challenge of snatching the AFC North crown all that much more difficult. I still see this team in the eleven win range, and that'll be good enough to see them soundly into the post season.