NFL Power Rankings: Arizona Cardinals, Seattle Seahawks, Green Bay Packers at top of a loaded NFC

The National ranks the NFL's 32 clubs ahead of the season's start this Thursday.
Arizona's Larry Fitzgerald scores the game-winning touchdown against Green Bay in last season's play-offs. Rob Schumacher /The Arizona Republic; The National illustration
Arizona's Larry Fitzgerald scores the game-winning touchdown against Green Bay in last season's play-offs. Rob Schumacher /The Arizona Republic; The National illustration

So far the NFL has done nothing but show once again how the league can’t get the pre-season right. Injuries to starting quarterbacks Tony Romo and Teddy Bridgewater (though the latter was a freak occurrence during team practice) and headline-dominating off-field distractions have overshadowed any on-field stories, and fans are still forced to pay to see a fourth pre-season game that equates to little more than a scrimmage filled with backups.

Finally, the real games start Thursday, with a Super Bowl rematch between the Carolina Panthers and the Denver Broncos. Though Denver are the defending champions, their standings in The National’s first NFL Power Rankings reflect their uncertain situation at quarterback, while Carolina are among a group representing a top-heavy NFC.

We will update these weekly. Here’s how we rank each NFL team before Thursday officially kicks the season off.

1. Arizona Cardinals

Last season: 13-3, lost NFC Championship Game

No team has fewer holes or is as stacked talent-wise. Bruce Arians is a fantastic coach, they have the best set of receivers and the best secondary in the NFL, and addressed a weakness at pass-rush by trading for New England’s Chandler Jones. The biggest question mark over the Cardinals, as with any team, is injuries, especially to Carson Palmer, who at his best is an MVP-calibre quarterback. If he is right, the Cardinals will be in the title picture at the end.

2. Seattle Seahawks

Last season: 10-6, lost NFC Divisional Round

It is undeniably Russell Wilson’s team now, as Marshawn Lynch’s retirement leaves no doubt who the offensive captain is. Only Arizona — who happen to be in the same division — can boast a more talented roster, but Seattle have more questions on the offensive line and the running back crop is fairly unproven. Still, the NFC West battle for first will be the toughest in the league.

3. Green Bay Packers

Last season: 10-6, lost NFC Divisional Round

Football cyborg Aaron Rodgers is still here, and this might be the best defence the Packers have given him in years. Rodgers’s favourite weapon, Jordy Nelson, returns from injury. With Bridgewater’s injury (dislocated knee) in Minnesota, the NFC North is Green Bay’s for the taking. The goal is a second Super Bowl for Rodgers and coach Mike McCarthy. Anything less could cost the latter his job, so high are the expectations.

4. New England Patriots

Last season: 12-4, lost AFC Championship Game

When Tom Brady returns from his four-game suspension, he will find himself in a league without his chief nemesis, the retired Peyton Manning, whose Broncos knocked out Brady and Co last season in the AFC title game. Brady should be as good as ever, and there is no reason to think the suspension will impede the Patriots’ march to a potential fifth Super Bowl victory.

5. Carolina Panthers

Last season: 15-1, lost Super Bowl

Another NFC South title is minimum for defending MVP Cam Newton and this stacked defence, one that is admittedly down a key cog with the departed Josh Norman. Receiver Kelvin Benjamin returning from injury will only help the offence. They won a lot of close games en route to a 15-1 season last time out, but that run is unlikely to be repeated. Carolina are still among the favourites in the NFC.

6. Pittsburgh Steelers

Last season: 10-6, lost AFC Divisional Round

If not for boneheaded suspensions – to Le’Veon Bell for three games and Martavis Bryant for the season – the Steelers would have one of the most stacked offence in years. When Bell returns, he will join the league’s best receiver, Antonio Brown, and one of its most battle-tested quarterbacks, Ben Roethlisberger. It is on defence that Pittsburgh must prove they are among the league’s elite teams, and they were solid last season. Pittsburgh might be New England’s biggest challenger in the AFC.

7. Cincinnati Bengals

Last season: 12-4, Lost AFC Wild Card Round

One of the most disastrous, heart-wrenching play-off losses in history — to the hated Steelers, no less — hopefully won’t stain the facade of what is an otherwise loaded roster. Andy Dalton was fantastic last year before getting injured, and backup AJ McCarron was solid in his stead. The defence was a top-10 unit last year, and if Dalton repeats last year’s numbers this team should be play-off bound again. It is winning from there that has proven the problem in the past, though.

8. Kansas City Chiefs

Last season: 11-5, lost AFC Divisional Round

Speaking of teams that never win in the play-offs, the Chiefs finally did that for the first time since 1993 last season when they knocked out the Texans. Football Outsiders’ weighted DVOA had the defence as the NFL’s second best last season. The offence is solid but ageing, and the window for a title might be now or never with a wide open, Peyton Manning-less AFC West there for the taking.

9. Oakland Raiders

Last season: 7-9

Everyone’s pre-season darlings, the Raiders have a young, loaded roster and high expectations. Quarterback Derek Carr will need to take the next step to stardom in his third year for the team to compete with Kansas City and Denver, but the defence should be ferocious, led by football-playing alligator Khalil Mack.

10. Houston Texans

Last season: 9-7, lost AFC Wild Card Round

All that held Houston back last season was the quarterback position, where in spite of a revolving door of also-rans and career backups the Texans rode a fantastic defence to the AFC South title and a play-off berth. They will attempt to shore up that gaping hole under centre after paying free agent Brock Osweiler way more than anyone else was offering. He deputised well for an injured Manning at Denver last season, and has a lot of weapons in Houston, so the move could well pay off.

11. Denver Broncos

Last season: 13-3, Super Bowl champions

Many have the Broncos much lower than this after Manning retired and the team did virtually nothing to address the position, but the defence returns mostly in full force, and that is the unit that won the team the title last season. Still, a second straight Super Bowl run with Trevor Siemian (who?) at quarterback is probably too much to expect.

12. Indianapolis Colts

Last season: 8-8

The holes along the offensive line and defensive front seven are gaping. The Colts have no running backs behind the ageing Frank Gore, and Andrew Luck was an injury-prone shell of his usual self last year. Still, they finished 8-8 and only a game out of the play-offs. I see Luck returning to form this year, and he is so good that it should be enough to keep a flawed roster in the AFC play-off chase.

13. Washington Redskins

Last season: 9-7, lost NFC Wild Card round

With Robert Griffin III gone, the team officially belongs to Kirk Cousins, who was outstanding last year leading Washington to a surprise play-off berth. They added Josh Norman from Carolina to anchor their secondary. There is enough talent here for a repeat NFC East title.

14. Detroit Lions

Last season: 7-9

Yes, they lost Calvin Johnson to retirement, but they used the money he left in their cap to address receiver and other areas. Matt Stafford had a quietly excellent second half of last season as Detroit improved from a 1-7 start to finish 7-9, giving this year’s side cause for optimism. This team could either sneak up on people or sputter out of the gates again, in which case don’t expect Jim Caldwell to last the season as head coach.

15. New York Giants

Last season: 6-10

It looks the same as it always does for the Giants, except for one notable change at head coach, where two-time Super Bowl champion Tom Coughlin stepped down. The rest of the staff mostly stayed intact, which pretty much never happens. Either Coughlin’s tenure had become staid and the team followed suit, or Eli Manning and Co can just no longer form the core of a Super Bowl-calibre squad. This team’s performance is always a coin-flip, and this season looks no different.

16. New Orleans Saints

Last season: 7-9

A long time ago, Drew Brees and Sean Payton were the most feared QB-coaching duo outside of Brady-Belichick. That sheen has long worn off, and this might be the final go-around for the duo, as the 37-year-old team mascot Brees is in the final year of his contract. It is unfathomable fans would forgive the team letting him walk, but another subpar season like the last few might force the Saints’ hands. If the defence improves, the offence is always good enough to carry the team to contention.

17. Minnesota Vikings

Last season: 11-5, lost NFC Wild Card round

Bridgewater’s injury forced a desperation trade for Philadelphia retread Sam Bradford. The team’s thinking must have been that any warm body with a live arm at quarterback would be enough to compete, and indeed the defence is one of the best young units in the league. Adrian Peterson isn’t getting any younger, though, and it is hard to see Bradford, now inexplicably starting for his third team, ever being more than mediocre enough to carry a team to contention.

18. Buffalo Bills

Last season: 8-8

One of last year’s biggest surprises was the play of Bills quarterback Tyrod Taylor. An 8-8 season was a success by this middling franchise’s standards. But training camp has not been kind to the Bills, with several injuries and suspensions deflating optimism. Last year’s .500 showing might have been the team’s ceiling.

19. Atlanta Falcons

Last season: 8-8

Last season’s 5-0 start feels like a billion years ago. Matt Ryan was less-than-good and has to prove he and offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan can coexist, otherwise one of them is out next season. The defence stinks, so it is up to Ryan and human-evolutionary outlier Julio Jones to simply outscore opponents every week. Not ideal.

20. Jacksonville Jaguars

Last season: 5-11

There is a lot of hope for this year’s Jaguars, something that can almost never be said. The offence was spectacular last year, especially at the skill positions. Blake Bortles threw way too many interceptions, but if he cuts down on mistakes and the team’s free agent investments on defence prove good acquisitions, the hope will be justified. A play-off run isn’t out of the question, especially in the weak AFC South.

21. Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Last season: 6-10

The offence surprised by being one of the best units in the league last season, led by rookie quarterback Jameis Winston, and the return to form of running back Doug Martin. That should continue, but the team still looks to have an anaemic pass-rush. There is talent at every level of the defence, though, and they fired coach Lovie Smith to inject some enthusiasm into the team. Tampa Bay could surprise with an NFC South title run, but a lot has to break.

22. Chicago Bears

Last season: 6-10

Minnesota’s newfound misfortune opens the door for either the Lions or Bears to vie for second fiddle to Green Bay in the NFC North. Chicago hired a new general manager but kept coach John Fox, so this feels like a make-or-break year for a lot of players and coaches. Jay Cutler is still there somehow, and has great receivers, but running back Matt Forte’s departure to the Jets takes away the offence’s key component. They spent money to improve the defence in free agency, notably Danny Trevathan from the Broncos, so they should be more competitive on that side.

23. Miami Dolphins

Last season: 6-10

Last year’s defence was near the bottom all year, quarterback Ryan Tannehill regressed and the team played like a bunch of guys who hated each other and hated playing football. They let running back Lamar Miller, one of last year’s few bright spots, leave in free agency and brought in a new head coach, Adam Gase from Chicago. Gase, a reputed quarterback guru, could do wonders with Tannehill, but it is tough to see much improvement elsewhere.

24. New York Jets

Last season: 10-6

I’m calling it now, but last season’s 10-win season was a fluke. Ryan Fitzpatrick, a career backup, played out of his depth and will regress after a contract standoff with the Jets that neither side seemed willing to win. The defence should be stout again, but their first six games are tough: Bengals, at Bills, at Chiefs, Seahawks, at Steelers, at Cardinals. Anything better than a 2-4 start with that fixture list should be considered a success, but don’t expect them to catch the Patriots.

25. San Diego Chargers

Last season: 4-12

The Chargers are not as bad as the four-win team that stank up the joint last year, but their treatment of top draft pick Joey Bosa in a ridiculous contract dispute, plus the team’s continual threat to move to Los Angeles or elsewhere if the city doesn’t build a stadium for them, leaves plenty of reek on this team. Philip Rivers has had a superb career, but it looks more and more like the latter years of it will be spent on a Chargers team not at his level.

26. Los Angeles Rams

Last season: 7-9 (as the St Louis Rams)

They traded the farm to move up and draft Jared Goff No 1, and he has subsequently spent the pre-season looking like he has never played football before. It is a shame, because the Rams have as much defensive talent as any team, especially in Aaron Donald, while running back Todd Gurley is a marvel. But the quarterback situation will once again keep this team well out of the play-offs. Welcome to LA!

27. Baltimore Ravens

Last season: 5-11

Good coach, decent quarterback, bad everything else. This team is a long way from its Super Bowl heyday.

28. Dallas Cowboys

Last season: 4-12

Another team snakebitten at quarterback. Tony Romo is out with a broken bone in his back, but unlike Minnesota the Cowboys don’t have the defensive depth to carry the rest of the team. Rookie Dak Prescott has looked solid in the pre-season, but he is still a rookie, and it is still the pre-season. Romo might never play again, and it might be a mercy at this point.

29. Cleveland Browns

Last season: 3-13

It will be another loss-filled campaign, but there is a lot of reason for hope here. The team has unloaded a lot of dead weight for a ton of future draft picks and the young players with potential will all see playing time this year. They hired a fantastic coach in Hue Jackson and anything they can get out of new signing Robert Griffin III is a bonus. Either he returns to the Pro Bowl form of his rookie year and the Browns finally have a good QB, or he flops and is gone next year while the team keeps rebuilding. It’s as win-win as things get for the Browns.

30. San Francisco 49ers

Last season: 5-11

Still recovering from a historically baffling talent purge from a few seasons ago, it seems like forever ago that Colin Kaepernick and Jim Harbaugh were leading the 49ers to within a few points of a Super Bowl title. Harbaugh is long gone, Kaepernick is still there but making headlines for anything but his play, and only NaVorro Bowman remains on a defence that was once the envy of the league. New coach Chip Kelly has inherited a mess.

31. Philadelphia Eagles

Last season: 7-9

Trading Sam Bradford for a first-round pick was an absolute coup. The Eagles should be really bad this season, but like the crosstown 76ers in the NBA, have stockpiled a lot of assets for the future.

32. Tennessee Titans

Last season: 3-13

No real owner, little fan support, a newly hired coach who is a proven loser — but at least they have a lot of draft picks coming up. Let’s hope Tennessee don’t completely ruin second-year quarterback Marcus Mariota’s promise so early in his career.

kjeffers@thenational.ae

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Published: September 4, 2016 04:00 AM

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