1. Packers (10-6 last year).
You’re the king until someone dethrones you. They bring back the NFL’s best quarterback, Aaron Rodgers, and top defensive star, Clay Matthews — and get all-world tight end Jermichael Finley back. It’s tough to repeat in this league, but the Packers’ stability will carry them far in this shortened season.
2. Patriots (14-2).
Tom Brady and Co. are going to score a ton of points, especially with the addition of Chad Ochocinco. That’s the easy part. If Bill Belichick can unlock Albert Haynesworth’s enormous potential, the Pats could be hoisting their first Lombardi since 2004.
3. Falcons (13-3).
The most talented team ON PAPER. Atlanta upgraded its pass-rush, offensive line and drafted a shiny new toy (Julio Jones) for Matt Ryan to play with. They also will get slot receiver Harry Douglas for a full season. Now, Ryan must prove he can win a playoff game.
4. Chargers (9-7).
Philip Rivers looked like an MVP candidate in the preseason, with the attitude to match. With better special teams play, the Bolts are a legit contender.
5. Steelers (12-4).
They did little to address a secondary that got torched in the Super Bowl. Still, they return 20 of 22 starters from a team that came up one drive short of another title.
6. Jets (11-5).
Rex Ryan guaranteed a Super Bowl victory at the NFL combine. Love or hate Ryan’s bravado, guys like playing for him and his teams always contend.
7. Eagles (10-6).
Mike Vick and the Dream Team. That spells championship, right? Maybe. But the Eagles have six new starters on defense, a new coaching staff and two rookies on the O-line.
8. Saints (11-5).
Even with Drew Brees chucking a career-worst 22 interceptions, Who Dat Nation was still dangerous last season. With the addition of thunder-and-lightning duo Darren Sproles and Mark Ingram, watch out.
9. Texans (6-10).
We’re buying the hype and picking the Texans to make the postseason for the first time in franchise history. With Matt Schaub and?Andre Johnson their offense is straight out of Tecmo Bowl.
10. Ravens (8-8).
With Ed Reed, Ray Lewis and Terrell Suggs leading the defensive huddle, expect 10 wins. The challenge will be on the other side, where Joe Flacco and an inconsistent line need to grow up in a hurry.
11. Detroit Lions.
Matthew Stafford sure looks sexy with his
shirt off, doesn’t he? If the Lions oft-injured QB can keep his shirt on
for a full 16-game slate, Detroit will be the feel-good story of the
12. Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
The Bucs’ young triplets — Josh
Freeman, LeGarrette Blount, Mike Williams — are stars in the making.
We’re just confused why a team with a reported $29 million in cap space
didn’t upgrade on defense.
13. Dallas Cowboys.
Jerry Jones cut the fat and now gives
offensive-minded coach Jason Garrett a full season to work his magic.
And he’s got plenty of magic wands, from Felix Jones to Dez Bryant.
14. New York Giants.
Eli Manning thinks he’s a Top 5 quarterback.
Time to prove it. Manning and the G-Men will find out a lot about
themselves early, with three road games in the first four weeks.
15. Indianapolis Colts.
As Peyton Manning goes, so do the Colts —
and right now Manning is the biggest question mark in the NFL. Even if
the all-world quarterback is healthy enough to play close to a full
slate, we think the window is closed.
16. Kansas City Chiefs.
Matt Cassel is what we thought he was: an
average quarterback with some nice weapons. The Chiefs take a step back.
17. Chicago Bears.
Before a bum knee forced Jay Cutler to remove
himself from a playoff loss, the QB was sacked a league-worst
52 times — and his line might be even more incompetent.
18. Cleveland Browns.
They have a smart coach (Pat Shurmur) who loves
grooming young quarterbacks (Colt McCoy). And Peyton Hillis makes some
19. St. Louis Rams.
They slightly improved Sam Bradford’s supporting
cast by adding speedy receiver Mike Sims-Walker. That should be enough
to win the NFC West.
20. Washington Redskins.
Ranking a team with Rex Grossman this high is
criminal, right? But the Skins boast an improved offensive line, and
will pound the ball in Year 2 of Mike Shanahan’s regime.
21. Tennessee Titans.
Chris Johnson is happy and on the books through
2016. While Matt Hasselbeck provides leadership under center, we just
don’t trust this team without Jeff Fisher.
22. Miami Dolphins.
Chad Henne and Brandon Marshall appear to be on the same
page — and that could lead to some fireworks in South Beach.
23. Seattle Seahawks.
Pete Carroll’s winning attitude is infectious. If
he can turn Tarvaris Jackson into a legit NFL QB, then find him a
running mate for 2016.
24. Arizona Cardinals.
You’re going to hear one of two things this
season: Either Kevin Kolb to Larry Fitzgerald for the touchdown — or
Kolb’s pass picked off, intended for Fitzgerald.
25. Oakland Raiders.
After losing their best player (Nnamdi Asomugha),
the Raiders revert to their old ways. The Terrelle Pryor era could start
by Week 12.
26. Denver Broncos.
The Broncos will have an improved defense under new
coach John Fox, but the offense will struggle with Kyle Orton or Tim
Tebow — maybe even with Jesus Christ himself.
27. Minnesota Vikings.
Too many question marks to even mention. Even
their new stadium isn’t a done deal, despite the cry from their new
signal-caller to name it, “The House That Donovan Built.”
28. San Francisco 49ers.
The Niners should just tank the entire season
and earn the No. 1 pick, so they can re-unite new coach Jim Harbaugh
with Andrew Luck.
29. Cincinnati Bengals.
Andy Dalton and AJ Green could prove a dangerous
tandem — for another head coach. Marvin Lewis can’t possibly last the
whole season, can he?
30. Jacksonville Jaguars.
Two days ago, I had the Jags ranked seven
spots higher and possibly competing (kind of) in a weak AFC South. Two
days ago, they still had David Garrard.
31. Buffalo Bills.
Do we even care? Isn’t this team moving to Toronto?
32. Carolina Panthers.
On a scale, Cam Newton falls somewhere between JaMarcus
Russell and Vince Young. You decide if that’s a good or bad thing.