It’s the slowest sports day of the year today – not even a glorified baseball exhibition to keep our attention. In the NFL, it’s no different. Draft picks have been signed (mostly). Free agents have been signed (…mostly). We know who’ll be playing where, and who won’t be playing anywhere. That means it’s time to look ahead to 2012, and try to predict where teams will fall in their quest to hold up the trophy at the end of Super Bowl XLVII. No news to report? No training camps to analyze? That sounds like the perfect time to dust off the ol’ power rankings, and put to posterity how amazingly wrong predictions can be. At this time last year, I thought the Tennessee Titans would finish dead last and be the Luck-y team this year, and that Chicago would surprise everyone to win their division. Well, new year, new start, right? Here’s a look at how I see the teams as they stand before training camps open, noting how they’ve done this offseason.
1. New England Patriots (Last Year: 13-3, won AFC East, lost Super Bowl)
New England still doesn’t have a defense to speak of, but the rich get richer on offense, adding a flotilla of new options for Brady to spend all day studying behind his fortress of an offensive line. I see many 45-31 games in their future.
2. Green Bay Packers (15-1, won NFC North, lost in divisional round)
The Packers have essentially done nothing to improve their team over the offseason, and in fact, with Matt Flynn going to Seattle, are probably, on paper, worse than they were last year. That still leaves them as the favorites in the NFC.
3. Baltimore Ravens (12-4, won AFC North, lost in AFC Conference Championship)
They need Ray Rice’s holdout to end, but that always happens -- these star players always make it back in time for the games to start counting. The larger problem might just be the aging of the players; this defense has to get old at some point.
4. New Orleans Saints (13-3, won NFC South, lost in divisional round)
Hold on here, let me just look up my list of teams who have had their head coaches and key defensive players suspended for most of a season with a quarterback who still isn’t under contract and tell you how the Saints will do…I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt until the losses start piling up.
5. Pittsburgh Steelers (12-4, wildcard, lost in wild card round)
A lot of turnover in the Steel City this offseason, with names like Hines Ward, James Farrior, and Aaron Smith leaving town, but the Steelers have been working players in gradually the past few years, and they shouldn’t suffer too much of a letdown.
6. Houston Texans (10-6, won AFC South, lost in divisional round)
Losing Mario Williams hurts, and the Texans brought in nearly no one new to bolster their lineup. That being said, they managed to survive injuries to their quarterback and star receiver and still make the playoffs, and in the AFC South, they might just do it again.
7. San Francisco 49ers (13-3, won NFC West, lost in NFC Conference Championship)
The 49ers are going to be a tale of two indicators – bringing back 20 out of 22 starters, and arguably upgrading the other two slots, bodes well for future success. However, teams that go 13-3, with a 7-2 record in close games with no injuries tend to slide back to the pack a little. Still, it’s the NFC West…they’ll be fine.
8. Atlanta Falcons (10-6, wildcard, lost in wild card round)
Their window is closing shut on them, a bit – they’re 0-3 in the playoffs in the Mike Smith era, and if they end up 0-4, they might not have a chance to go 0-5. Still, they’re doing things right, and should be contending for another playoff berth again, especially if New Orleans flounders.
9. Chicago Bears (8-8)
I’m gonna get flack for putting them this high – a team that went .500 above the defending Super Bowl champions? But look at it this way: with Jay Cutler and Matt Forte healthy, the Bears were 6-3 and well in the hunt for a playoff berth. With both healthy the offense was…well, mediocre, but that’s better than Caleb Hanie had them. They might be a team to watch this year.
10. New York Giants (9-7, won NFC East, won Super Bowl)
Yes, the Giants won the Super Bowl – but they were actually outscored during the regular season, and could have lost the conference championship if Kyle Williams could hold on to a punt. Don’t get me wrong, they’ll be good, but you can’t make them the favorites.
11. New York Jets (8-8)
I thought the Jets added someone at quarterback this offseason, but for the life of me, I can’t remember the name. Certainly, no one’s talking about one or anything. I’m sure it’ll be another nice, quite year in East Rutherford for the Jets.
12. Buffalo Bills (6-10)
Highest team with a losing record last year! Remember when Ryan Fitzpatrick looked like the answer? That was a fun couple of weeks. The AFC East’s a tough beast to win in, but look at that improved defense, and the schedule ending with four out of five games in Buffalo…
13. Cincinnati Bengals (9-7, wildcard, lost in wild card round)
Four years ago, they were 4-11-1. That’s bad. Three years ago, they won the division title! That’s good! Two years ago they stumbled to 4-12. That’s bad. One year ago, they shot back up to a wildcard berth. That’s good! I guess what I’m saying here is, in 2012, avoid the frogurt.
14. Philadelphia Eagles (8-8)
Didn’t quite live up to that whole Dream Team moniker last year, did they? But their linebackers look sturdier, and maybe with all the attention focused elsewhere, the team can actually gel – there’s no shortage of talent.
15. Denver Broncos (8-8, won AFC West, lost in divisional round)
Denver is the only city Peyton Manning could have gone to where he’ll get less attention than the previous starting quarterback. If he’s healthy, this could go great. If not, well, this could be a long rebuilding process.
16. Tennessee Titans (9-7)
I have no idea what to expect from the Titans, and neither do you. Chris Johnson could run for 1800 yards. He could run for 500. Matt Hasselbeck could game-manage them into the playoffs, or collapse into dust. Just a complete mystery to me.
17. Carolina Panthers (6-10)
Cam Newton is the real deal, though perhaps it’s a tad early for him to be competing for Madden covers. I think the Panthers still have one more year of building to go before making it back into the playoffs, but this train is going in the right direction, slowly but surely.
18. Detroit Lions (10-6, wildcard, lost in wild card round)
Woah! Playoff team at #18? Surely, you can’t be serious. Detroit’s building in the New England style, loading up young talent on offense and hoping the defense can scrape up enough to get by. Yet, I think Stafford will take a small step back, and if I really think Chicago’s going to surprise people, it has to come at the expense of some one – and that secondary does not inspire confidence.
19. Dallas Cowboys (8-8)
The salary cap penalty Dallas was hit with, fair or not, hinders them a bit. To give them credit, they cleared up their horror show of a secondary, but I think we could take five readers of this column, and they could outperform what Dallas laughingly calls their offensive line.
20. Kansas City Chiefs (7-9)
We’re entering the land of questionable quarterbacks, here. Matt Cassel suddenly becomes the worst quarterback in the division, and will have to rely on his teammates if the Chiefs are going anywhere this year. That being said, they CAN’T be as injured as they were last year.
21. Seattle Seahawks (7-9)
Speaking of shady quarterback situations, I’m not sure which of the three-headed monster the Seahawks are trying to sort through would be best, though for the front office’s sake it had better be Matt Flynn. If the 49ers regress, and Flynn plays like he did in his one game last season, the ‘Hawks could fly back to the playoffs…but that’s a fairly big if.
22. Miami Dolphins (6-10)
In the excellent Football Outsiders Prospectus, which I can’t recommend highly enough, they spend the Dolphins chapter making a convincing comparison between GM Jeff Ireland and ex-Lions GM Matt Millen. That about says it all, right there.
23. Oakland Raiders (8-8)
The Raiders, like the Cowboys, were handicapped this offseason – but it was from the trading away of essentially their entire draft for a 32-year old quarterback, rather than salary cap problems. They saw a lot of talent walk away, and this wasn’t a team that could afford that.
24. San Diego Chargers (8-8)
The Chargers have underperformed essentially every year since 2005, and I don’t see anything to indicate that this will be the year they finally capitalize on all their potential. It’s sad, too – a team with Philip Rivers at QB should be out of the mid-20s doldrums, but I’m done giving them the benefit of the doubt.
25. Washington Redskins (5-11)
RGIII! Going to be great! I mean, probably. You never know; he’s a rookie, and is going to go through growing pains. Which would be fine if they were willing to accept that; instead, they’re hoping that Griffin can make players like Pierre Garcon better. He will – just not year one.
26. Minnesota Vikings (3-13)
I’ll wait to see what exactly the situation with Adrian Peterson, nightclubs, and Texas is before commenting on that, but I will note that AP’s coming off of a major injury, and that there’s no one else on the roster to carry this team.
27. Jacksonville Jaguars (5-11)
Hey, Jacksonville! Good news! The NFL has eased up on its blackout policy, so you will almost be assured to get your local team on television for all eight home games! Bad news, your local team is still the Jacksonville Jaguars.
28. Arizona Cardinals (8-8)
Were the Cardinals the worst 8-8 team in NFL history last year? I think you could make that argument. Their 7-2 finish to the season might have some people thinking this is their year, but who plays on their lines? Anyone?
29. Cleveland Browns (4-12)
Is Brandon Weeden the answer at quarterback? They’d better find out soon, because unlike most rookies, he’s already in prime-QBing age, and is not going to get much better. Whoever starts this year will be the 11th opening day quarterback for the new Browns, which is not a very hopeful stat.
30. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (4-12)
The Buccaneers will be better this season! Because, good lord, I’d hate to see them any worse. This is not a one year process. The battle for the best team in Florida should be a heated one this year, for all the wrong reasons.
31. Indianapolis Colts (2-14)
Hey, not last! Peyton Manning’s predecessor as starting quarterback was, of course, Jim Harbaugh. After leaving the Colts, Harbaugh bounced around the league, and then rose through the head coaching ranks. His last QB protégée in college, of course? Andrew Luck. Coincidence, or the start of a meaningful connection? No, it’s coincidence.
32. St. Louis Rams (2-14)
The Cardinals are only a half game out of the wildcard, and they’ve got a huge series against the Reds coming up as they get off of the all-star weekend. If they can sweep Cincinnati, they’ll be in the driver’s seat the rest of the way for a return to the postseason. And even if they are swept, it’s better than watching the Rams.
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