1. Seattle Seahawks (10-6) Lost to Carolina in the Divisional Round 31-24. Previously: 4
Marshawn Lynch may be gone, and that may make Seattle less interesting, but the run game appears to be in good hands with Thomas Rawls. Now the passing game has to rediscover the hot streak they ended the season on. Little known fact: The defense is fine.
2. Carolina Panthers (15-1) Lost the Super Bowl to Denver 24-10. Previously: 1
The Panthers and Broncos open the NFL season in a Super Bowl rematch with decidedly less at stake. Cam Newton will welcome Kelvin Benjamin back to the fold, and the defense will try to replace Josh Norman, inexplicably allowed to walk. If the Panthers bring some sudden stability to the NFC South with a third straight division title this season, they can fondly remember the seven win 2014 team that started it all.
3. Arizona Cardinals (13-3) Lost the NFC Championship game to Carolina 49-15. Previously: 2
Carson Palmer and the Cardinals have some postseason image redemption to do, but step one is getting there. Despite their place in a division with our No. 1team, they’re still extremely well-positioned to do that. Stay tuned to see if David Johnson can live up to the fantasy hype.
4. Denver Broncos (12-4) Won Super Bowl 24-10. Previously: 3
Peyton’s last hurrah was a great story, but it was the defense that won this championship and that defense is still in town. Mark Sanchez rode a great defense to two AFC Championship games before, he (or Trevor Siemian or Paxton Lynch) can do it again.
5. New England Patriots (12-4) Lost AFC Championship to Denver 20-18. Previously: 5
Lot’s of quarterback issues early on in this list. But you can trust the Patriots’ situation to clear up sometime around Week 5. Tom Brady will get to face the Browns for a welcome back party. After that, even if the Patriots are somehow sitting at 1-4, you might feel pretty good about the way they look.
6. Green Bay Packers (10-6) Lost Divisional Round to Arizona 26-20 (OT). Previously: 10
Jordy Nelson is back! Eddie Lacy is back! The Packers’ offense is back! Don’t listen to Aaron Rodgers, Packers fans. You don’t need to relax.
7. Pittsburgh Steelers (10-6) Lost in Divisional Round to Denver 23-16. Previously: 7
The Steelers’ offense, on the other hand, will be back shortly. Once Le’Veon Bell returns, the best unit in football will hopefully get more help from the defense and take advantage of a depleted Bengals team to grab a firmer hold on the division once again.
8. Minnesota Vikings (11-5) Lost Wild Card Round to Seattle 10-9. Previously: 9
The season can’t start soon enough for Vikings fans or Blair Walsh to get that taste out of their mouths. This is a teamthat ascended a little faster than predicted last season. They should have beaten the No. 1 team on this list in the playoffs. Laquon Treadwell should help the offense keep heading in the right direction.
9. Kansas City Chiefs (11-5) Lost in Divisional Round to New England 27-20. Previously: 6
The Chiefs’ run from 1-5 to 11-5 and a playoff victory was the stuff of legend, but you could see the making of it. This team was expected to be goodand lost several close games to outstanding competition last season. This year they would do themselves a favor by avoiding the slow start. The division is there for the taking.
10. Oakland Raiders (7-9) Third in AFC West. Previously: 16
Speaking of the AFC West being there for the taking, this is the Oakland Raiders ranked in the top 10. Their toughest hurdle to a 5-0 start is the Falcons. Get used to it and stay tuned for the Jacksonville Jaguars appearing in the top 15.
11. Houston Texans (9-7) Lost Wild Card Round to Kansas City 30-0. Previously: 12
The Texans were division champions with some combination of Brian Hoyer, Ryan Mallett, T.J. Yates and a player yet to be named at quarterback in 2015. Now QB whisperer Bill O’Brien gets to try his hand at Brock Osweiler. The sky seems the limit.
12. New York Jets (10-6) Second in AFC East. Previously: 13
Ryan Fitzpatrick. Geno Smith. Last year’s third round pick Bryce Petty. This year’s second round pick Christian Hackenberg. The Jets won’t carry four quarterbacks, will they?
13. Cincinnati Bengals (12-4) Lost Wild Card Round to Pittsburgh 18-16. Previously: 8
The Bengals have some serious departed yardage to replace on offense, meaning Andy Dalton’s task of proving last year was no fluke just got a lot harder. Tyler Boyd should help.
14. Washington (9-7) Lost Wild Card Round to Green Bay 35-18. Previously: 11
Did somebody mention a quarterback out to probe 2015 was no fluke? Look no further than Kirk Cousins. It’s no shame being outgunned by the Packers in the playoffs. Even with Tony Romo back, the NFC East looks as wide open as last season.
15. Jacksonville Jaguars (5-11) Third in AFC South. Previously: 23
The talent. The young talent. Jacksonville only got more Jacksonville by picking up Jalen Ramsey and Myles Jack in the draft this year, and now the defense has excitement to match Blake Bortles, T.J. Yeldon and the brothers Allen at wide receiver.
16. Dallas Cowboys (4-12) Fourth in NFC East. Previously: 30
If the phone you’re writing on because the power is dead autocorrects “Tony Romo” to “Tony tomorrow” is it providence speaking? It seems a good fit for the oft-injured QB’s hope-springs-eternal career in Dallas. And hey, Ezekiel Elliott is a pretty good reason to be hopeful.
17. New York Giants (6-10) Third in NFC East. Previously: 22
It’s about time the Giants go on a Super Bowl winning run, but do the same trends hold true without Tom Coughlin and the defenses of teams past? It’s now firmly the offense’s job to keep the Giants in enough games this season.
18. Buffalo Bills (8-8) Third in AFC East. Previously: 14
The Bills are always a bit stuck. Never good enough to reach the playoffs in a tough division. Never quite bad enough to draft a savior. Don’t expect that to change this season. At least they’re ahead of the Dolphins.
19. Atlanta Falcons (8-8) Second in NFC South. Previously: 19
Which Falcons are we getting? The team that started 6-1, or the one that finished 2-7? If the last three seasons are any indication (4-12, 6-10, 8-8) they’ll be 10-6 this year. And if that’s right, it’ll be because of Julio Jones.
20. Indianapolis Colts (8-8) Second in AFC South. Previously: 15
If it feels weird to rank the Colts this low, start really thinking about the team, and start really realizing it’s the New Orleans Saints with a younger Drew Brees and a worse running game.
21. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (6-10) Fourth in NFC South. Previously: 26
Everyone says watch out for Charles Sims this season, and as a 2015 owner of Doug Martin in fantasy, I can tell you they mean it. There are worse young offensive players than those tailback and Jameis Winston to tie your franchise to.
22. Detroit Lions (7-9) Third in NFC North. Previously: 17
What is it about Detroit superstars retiring too early? Football without Calvin Johnson just seems wrong, but it will go on and on, like a Matthew Stafford deep bomb.
23. St. Louis Rams (7-9) Third in NFC West. Previously: 20
Teams have done great things with recipes strikingly similar to Todd Gurley and a great defense. Add one offensive line, stir and see what happens. This isn’t precise.
24. Baltimore Ravens (5-11) Third in AFC North Previously: 27
Stay tuned, because the Ravens have a history of bouncing back from disastrous seasons. And boy was 2015 ever that. This team had Super Bowl hype, people.
25. Philadelphia Eagles (7-9) Second in NFC East. Previously: 18
Chip Kelly’s one offseason roster overhaul didn’t work, like everything else Kelly tried in 2015. Will the reverse overhaul fare any better? Without any offensive weapons walking through the door in the right direction, probably not.
26. Chicago Bears (6-10) Fourth in NFC North. Previously: 25
After a year of waiting, Jay Cutler finally gets his Brandon Marshall replacement: Kevin White. Whether White (and Jeremy Langford) can live up to the All-Stars they replaced remains to be seen.
27. Miami Dolphins (6-10) Fourth in AFC East. Previously: 24
Take Lamar Miller and Olivier Vernon off a team that failed to meet expectations last year and what do you have? A team with lower expectations. Your 2016 Miami Dolphins, ladies and gentlemen.
28. New Orleans Saints (7-9) Third in NFC South. Previously: 21
Drew Brees has had an astounding career with the Saints. If you look at the numbers, he truly has. He has never thrown for less than 4,300 yards and hasn’t thrown below 32 touchdowns since 2007. He’s missed two games in 10 years. But the Saints have had a winning record just once in the past four seasons. It’s not enough.
29. Tennessee Titans (3-13) Fourth in AFC South. Previously: 31
This just in: Tennessee wants to run the ball, and if half a preseason is anything to judge by, it looks like they might be pretty good at it. The Titans have been doing a great job stockpiling talent in the draft, now it’s time to wait and see how quickly it pans out.
30. San Diego Chargers (4-12) Fourth in AFC West. Previously: 28
The Chargers are engaged in their favorite offseason activity: battling their first round pick over a contract holdout. Neither Joey Bosa or the team show signs of budging with the regular season just weeks away. Sorry San Diego, at least you still have Philip Rivers. Sorry, Philip Rivers.
31. San Francisco 49ers (5-11) Fourth in NFC West. Previously: 29
Nobody doubts the Niners will be bad. Several people doubt that Blaine Gabbert will be the starting quarterback when the season rolls around. And it makes sense; Colin Kaepernick is talented. But the one thing that’s clear from Chip Kelly’s time in Philadelphia is that talent is the last thing he looks for in a player.
32. Cleveland Browns (3-13) Fourth in AFC North. Previously: 32
Despite the Browns just wrapping up the most Browns draft ever by taking four wide receivers in one day, Terrelle Pryor is currently the team’s most hyped wide receiver.