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#1 New England Patriots – There is a core to this team that is undeniable. Couple this with a coach, Bill Belichick, who is arguably a master when it comes to the NFL Draft, getting the most from his players and touches shady street… Yup! No matter where you fall as an NFL fan, it is hard to deny future Hall of Fame quarterback Tom Brady his due. Solid defense and offense are the rule, not the exception in New England. It’s time for that grudging shake of the head or kicking the dirt and to acknowledge this team exists at the very top of the NFL.
#2 Green Bay Packers – Talent wise, this team could be anywhere in the Top 10. They have a great defense? While they lost a few players, this statement is still true. Great Quarterback? True. Rodgers and the fact this team has the best home field advantage in the NFL give them at least a .500 season before they play a single down this year. The reason they are #2 in my power ratings is how this team plays as a single unit, which is absolutely priceless.
#3 Atlanta Falcons – The football world has been holding its collective breath with this team. They have the tools, and have had them for the last two years to go all the way. The drafting of wide receiver Julio Jones this year, and the massive price they paid for the pick, says the Falcon’s front office believes they are at the point of dotting the "I-s" and crossing the "T-s". Quarterback Matt Ryan has all the physical tools and is as bright as they come. The lockout may very well have worked in their favor. Why? Because I think this team over the last couple years has been too much in its head. I think they have put too much time into thinking they could be great and this season’s rush to get ready may very well carry them to the next level. Just my opinion, but there have been a number of teams in the past who were crowned in the pre-season as great, then fail because they believed their own hype. (see: the Dallas Cowboys)
#4 New York Jets – The Jets have the talent to win it all even with the losses they have suffered this year through free agency. They added some decent players in the draft and free agency to offset most of their losses. Sanchez has the tools to move into the elite class of NFL quarterbacks, but will he? My biggest doubt about a team like the Jets is they are fueled by emotion. Coach Rex Ryan relies heavily on his huge persona to make his team gel. Teams like this have a tendency to burn out. Maintaining emotional highs comes with a cost. Will this talented team have to pay the bill this year or can they ride the wave long enough to make it the permanent fabric of a great team?
#5 New Orleans Saints – How often do you here the phrase "Now or Never"? This former Super Bowl championship team has a great core of players, but they are getting long in the tooth. In my opinion they aren’t hitting the draft in a way that addresses future needs. It’s true they are deep in talent at a few positions, but at what cost to the core of the team? Their most recent drafts make me think of Al Davis. He used to become obsessed with a position or facet of the game, spending draft picks on one position. These players rarely got the playing time needed, making it hard prove their value. Sound familiar? If Saints acquire any more running backs, they can change their name to USC. It’s time to look at the whole picture Saints or lower power ratings will be the least of your worries.
#6 Baltimore Ravens – I wish that Ray Lewis and Ed Reed could be five years younger for this team. While their defense is still worthy of mention with the NFL’s best, it is on the edge of failing to be the dominant force it was only a few years ago. The good news is that the offense, led by quarterback Joe Flacco, is slowly (and I do mean SLOWLY) becoming a very good one indeed. The draft has treated this team to a good, even bright, future due to one of the strongest front offices in the NFL. This is a team that will be there in the coming post season.
#7 Pittsburgh Steelers – The Steelers are at #7 and like every season, they could very well wind up on the top of the NFL by the end of the year. What keeps this team at or near the top of professional football, year after year, is solid drafts and a great coach in Mike Tomlin. He knows his players. Yes, "Big Ben" Roethlisberger is a fine, if not great quarterback. He has the comeback ability by which NFL legends are made, and appears to have turned a personal angst corner in his private life. Yet, just as the Steelers could be a champions this year, they could also wind up in the middle of the pack. Why? Because one thing I’ve learned about the Steelers over the years is you never know when they will become a team in need of rebuilding. It happens in a flash and this could very well be that year…
#8 Philadelphia Eagles – Pay attention Eagles. You have officially been "Dream Team" hexed. Yes, you added some great players to an already good team. But don’t be surprised if Lithuania beats you at the buzzer and every team stretches your pre-season notions of who everyone thought you could be. No matter what anyone tells you, you have only the potential to be great and with this year’s post-lockout effects, it will be hard to meet expectations. DeSean Jackson’s holdout hurt this team. A disaffected Asante Samuel is the last thing this defense needs and will overshadow Nnamdi Asomugha’s arrival long into this season unless something is done to resolve the situation.
#9 St. Louis Rams – The Rams improvement last year was rewarded with the toughest schedule in the NFL. Seriously, did Stan Kroenke’s dog make a mess on Commissioner Goodell’s lawn and this was the payback? The Eagles, Ravens, Packers and Saints in the first six games with the Giants, Cowboys and Packers being away games. The thing is, the Rams are more up to this schedule than 98% of NFL fans think. I’ve mentioned a team’s "core" in some of my other team evaluations and for the first time in a very long time the Rams have the core to win against anyone. Quarterback Sam Bradford is now capable of leading his team against the very best the NFL has to offer. Depth at every team has been addressed for a fluid and vibrant team to take the field. My prediction for their first game against the Eagles? Think Lithuania…
#10 Oakland Raiders – The Raiders team this year should scare quite a few teams. This team has quality when it comes to defense, so much so I’d be shocked if the aren’t in the Top 5 defenses in the NFL this season. Their offense has weapons enough to take this team to the off season, if not all the way to the Super Bowl. The problem they face is a big one: They are the Raiders. Which means not living up to their potential is almost in their genes. Can they get by this genetic flaw and win? Their coach, Hue Jackson, is the key and they may finally have the guy who can open the door to a winning season.
#11 Indianapolis Colts - The Colts have a heart that is missing a beat. While the extent of how much quarterback Peyton Manning’s recovery from neck surgery will affect the Colts season overall, in the short term it is bound cause problems. One of the best teams of the last ten years will have a tough time reaching a 4-4 record by mid-season. I truly believe after the season’s midpoint, we’ll see a more effective Colts team. A 10-6 season wins their division and sees the Manning driven Colts peeking at the right time. Less than 10-6 and they’ll be watching games on their big screen TVs and yelling at the dog for what might have been…
#12Kansas City Chiefs – For the life of me I can’t figure out why the Chiefs aren’t better than they ultimately show us. This is a talented team, with great fans and a respected front office and ownership. One problem may be quarterback Matt Cassel. But how can a guy with a respectable 93.0 QB rating and 27 touchdowns last season be a problem? One reason might be that he was sacked 68 times while he threw for 42 touchdowns over the last two years. I think the biggest failing is the Chiefs brought in Cassel to be Tom Brady 2.0. When the Chiefs and Cassel find a qualitative balance with their vastly improved defense, they'll find who they truly are as a team. I look for AFC West to be the second toughest division this season, and not just in the AFC, in the NFL.
#13Houston Texans – So goes Adrian Foster, so goes this team… Maybe not that fair an assessment, but pretty close to true. The Texans defense has both great and mediocre components with a mix of All Pros and almost-there players. The biggest problem I have with the Texans is their game planning. Maybe I’m alone in thinking the Texans use a Ouija board to pick plays or defensive schemes… Harsh? Maybe, but this is a team that hasn’t lived up to the sum of its whole. This is a quality team that will remain Super Bowl challenged until they figure out 1+1 doesn’t equal 0.
#14Tampa Bay Buccaneers – Here is a team on the rise. I have little doubt I’ll be writing about them a little higher up this list next year. A strong quarterback in Josh Freeman, he is ready to take that next step. I’d like to see Tampa use the next draft to sew up some offensive line weaknesses and finish building a defense that is on the way up. The Bucs are in a division that includes Atlanta and New Orleans, so they will have to earn the right to tread the path to the postseason. I look for Tampa to be a wild card post season invitee this year.
#15Chicago Bears – The Bears are hoping, even praying, that their opponents have bought into the "Jay Cutler is a wimp" nonsense. If they do, the Bears are going to win games by the boat load. Chicago’s defense is as tough as they come, so games will be within winning reach. The Bears offense isn’t exactly a juggernaut, but they really don’t have to average 30 points a game to win. This season, like many before it, will be about getting passed Green Bay and this team almost looks like a direct response to that challenge. I look for a winning record this year from "Da’ Bears". Whether or not it will be enough to see them into the post season is another matter.
#16Seattle Seahawks – The Seahawks are a better team than virtually anyone thinks. Take it from me: This is a team that will fly through this year as the upset king. Do I think they have all the pieces in place to be a serious post season team? No. The arrival of quarterback Tarvaris Jackson and wide receiver Sidney Rice has the potential to transform this team into a more consistent offensive team. The biggest question mark for Seattle is their coach, Pete Carroll. He has had a long learning curve as he transitioned from college success to the NFL. Time to graduate Pete!
#17Detroit Lions – This team’s defensive front has a chance to make football fan recall the Rams "Fearsome Foursome" of the 1960s or the Vikings "Purple People Eaters" of the 1970s. All Pro in his rookie season, defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh anchors a Lions defense that is getting scarier by the day. Their first round pick in this year’s draft, defensive tackle Nick Fairley should recover from a foot injury to complete the transformation of Detroit’s sad defenses of the past into a collection of blue and silver Optimus Primes. Oh the humanity! The Lions offense is far from a reliable entity. Quarterback Matt Stafford has the talent, of this I have no doubt. The problem is a shoulder that has sidelined him ever year he’s been in the NFL. Look for an 8-8 season at best from the Lions this year.
#18San Diego Chargers Answer this question: If I have the #1 offense and #1 defense during the regular season, would I make the playoffs? The answer is No if you’re the Chargers in 2010. Between defensive penalties and special teams play that earned them blue parking spaces instead of accolades, the Chargers finished with a 9-7 record and missed the post season. The Chargers get this #18 ranking because they have the tools and the wherewithal to use them. I’m sure they have fixed their special teams. They would be ranked higher if last year I would have seen the coach, Norv Turner, take every defensive starter off the bench for kickoffs. This was a failure to coach the entire team. Fear the disconnect of a coach and his team.
#19New York Giants – Eli, Eli, Eli… Quarterback Eli Manning is both great and horrifying. First the great: 4002 yards passing and 31 touchdowns in 2010. The horrifying: 25 interceptions, seven fumbles, five of them lost in 2010. Somehow he maintained a QB rating of 85.3, which speaks less of Eli and more of how the rating is calculated. The Giants are a very solid team, but they are like a guy who’s the fastest gun in the west who keeps shooting himself along with his challenger. Even so, the Giants will be there at the end of the season with a shot at the playoffs because their division has only one other good team: See #8 in the list above
#20Jacksonville Jaguars – Why do I respect Jacksonville? Possibly it started when the team first formed? They showed a youthful grittiness, an enjoyment of the game I hadn’t seen in a while. Maybe it was when they hire a coach with a pirate name: Jack Del Rio. Let’s get passed the why of it and look at today’s Jaguars. They have team core inspired by Tom Coughlin and built on by Del Rio. I do see this core being eroded by the tide of professional football’s evolution. As I write this, I happened to look at the score of tonight’s Jaguars – Patriots pre-season game. The Jags lost 47-12. While the pre-season means little in the scheme of things, I think the score will mirror many this year when the Jags play the top tier teams that pack their 2011 schedule. 6-10 will be the best this once very cool team can look for this year.
#21Cleveland Browns - This rank may be a bit high for the Browns, but I like some of their ideas for building a better team. Only "some" of the ideas. McCoy isn’t a long term answer at quarterback, but he can succeed in the short term to a degree with the Browns offensive line, which is pretty darn good. The Browns defense is a smattering of decent parts, but decent parts make for great opposing team offensive moments. They will play strong inside their conference and be savaged outside of it. Cleveland’s front office hasn’t lived up to expectations and will hit the unemployment line at year’s end. 5-11-ish
#22Minnesota Vikings – There were so many great pieces to the puzzle on this team. In puzzle parlance, former head coach Brad Childress found all the corner and edge pieces, then began to twitch when it came to completing the picture. He added pieces that didn’t belong and tried to force a finished product. This is going to haunt the Vikings for some time to come. Their new coach is more a Gerald Ford to Childress’ Nixon. Leslie Frasier is a likeable guy who will stumble until he finds his own path. The Vikings defense is a shadow of what it was only two years ago. The addition of quarterback Donovan McNabb won’t keep this team from the 5-11 record ahead of them.
#23Dallas Cowboys – If Al Davis ever sold cars and wore suits, he’d be Cowboys owner Jerry Jones. Jones has built a house of cards in a windy room. Tony Romo may be the most over hyped quarterback in NFL history. Prediction: Jones mortgages the proverbial farm in the coming Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck derby. This team has a top 10 defense to go with a bottom 10 offense at the moment. 6-10 is the best their immediate future holds.
#24Arizona Cardinals – This isn’t a bad team. In fact, the great Kevin Kolb experiment may even work, but not this year. This team’s core is shallow and I’m talking ankle deep shallow. Problems along the offensive and defensive lines will relegate this team to third in their conference this year. Worst case – 4-12. Best case – 6-10
#25Washington Redskins – NFL owners like to play with their toys. Redskins owner Dan Snyder is one of those guys that as a child he threw his favorite toy off the roof just to see what happened. Well SPLAT happens, and has been happening since Snyder acquired the team. He will continue to torture some of the best fans in the NFL this year as they slink away with a 4-12 record. Could go as high as 5-11.
#26Tennessee Titans – This is a team trying to live down Vince Young. New head coach Mike Munchak has a job few would envy at the moment. Should he get his all-world running back Chris Johnson back to camp and up to speed before the season, things should be a tiny bit easier for the Titan offense. The Titan defense is another matter. Five good players can’t do the job of eleven on this once capable defense. If they find a few hidden treasures from this latest draft, things may turn out better this year. I don’t look for the Titans to exceed a 5-11 season this year. Simply too much to do in Tennessee…
#27Cincinnati Bengals – Blanket stubbornness doesn’t work for NFL owners who actually want to win football games. The Carson Palmer situation has blown a hole in this team’s ability to perform on offense. The Bengals could have let Palmer go and received a few draft picks for their trouble to further build this team. To me this bodes of a team that says "this is all there is, deal with it". Little wonder the Bengals have led the NFL with player pictures taken in profile. 3-13 is "all there is, deal with it" this year. It’s sad though, because this team does have the talent to do far better.
#28Denver Broncos – The Broncos are half a team at the moment. Quality players here and there, but nowhere near enough to make them a contender in the tough AFC West. Kyle Orton gets no respect, which to me is puzzling. The Denver fans want Tim Tebow as their quarterback, cementing the theory that the term "Mile High" may not have anything to do with altitude. I can tell you that the tough fans of Philadelphia and New York don’t even come close to the rabid Denver Broncos fans. Players aren’t under a microscope, they are under a hammer. Think Damocles here folks. 4-12 is the best I see the Broncos doing this year.
#29Miami Dolphins – In the next four power ratings we get a glimpse of the NFL’s abyss. Leading this most dreaded of groups is the Miami Dolphins. Their offensive line is the only bright spot. Everything else about this team screams "Help!" They have no viable quarterback, running back, wide receiver or a defense. 2-14 and a ticket to the Andrew Luck lottery is all they have this year.
#30San Francisco 49ers – I don’t doubt that new head coach Jim Harbaugh will be successful as a coach in the NFL. What I doubt is that his current team has any hope at all of being truly competitive this season. The 49ers do have a few excellent players scattered about the team. They had an above average NFL draft this year and their #1 pick, Aldon Smith, was a good pick for the future. None of these positives outweighs the fact that their offense has no quarterback, a flake at #1 wide receiver (Crabtree) and an offensive line that may or may not show up on Sundays. Their defense has some game, but is far too thin at every position to offset injuries that have plagued this unit. 2-14 – Enough said?
#31Carolina Panthers – This is as bad a team as they are bizarre in their payroll management. After spending jillions keeping players from their dismal 2010 season, they added free agents cut from the same clothe. Cam Newton has everyone staring at the "bust-o-meter" a little too soon. Welcome to the NFL Cam! In my opinion there are very few bright spots on this year’s Panther team. Very sad…1-15#32Buffalo Bills – I like the head coach, Chan Gailey. Other than that this team is beyond dismal. Marcell Dareus was an excellent pick in this year’s NFL draft, but the young man is an island on the weak Buffalo defense. No offense, no defense and even their special teams are a bit less than special (they will give up 5 TDs this year). I just don’t want to think about the Bills anymore…1-15 at best and wouldn’t be surprised with an 0-16 season.