1. Carolina Panthers, Previously: 2
With the Broncos’ quarterback experiment making it impossible to place the defending champs first, the team they beat gets the position by default, and by merit. The Panthers are the reason their two closest competitors for this top spot spent the end of last season at home watching the Super Bowl. Josh Norman may be gone, but Kelvin Benjamin is back.
2. Seattle Seahawks, Previously: 1
Russell Wilson looks primed to continue the streak he ended last season on, and with Thomas Rawls and Christine Michael looking set to go, this could be the most balanced Seahawks offense we've seen.
3. Arizona Cardinals, Previously: 3
The Cardinals have that offensive balance in spades too, but the last time we saw them they were getting ejected from the playoffs with extreme prejudice. Carson Palmer's postseason performance left much to be desired and there's accordingly much to prove for the 2016 Cardinals. Unfortunately they won't be able to prove it until January.
4. Green Bay Packers, Previously: 6
Should we R-E-L-A-X that Jordy Nelson hasn't played a snap yet? Probably. Aaron Rodgers will always find receivers, and Jared Cook could have a renaissance in his first year playing with a quarterback.
5. New England Patriots, Previously: 5
The AFC teams are all held back at the start of the season by suspensions, injuries or quarterback … issues. The Patriots make it to the top of the bunch by virtue of making us pretty confident in how the rest of their season will go once Tom Brady returns.
6. Denver Broncos, Previously: 4
How low can you rank the defending Super Bowl champions? All the luck in the world to Trevor Siemian, but these are uncharted waters. Their defense is still there, but the running game didn't exactly help Peyton Manning last season. The Chiefs and Raiders are chomping at the bit for this division.
7. Pittsburgh Steelers, Previously: 7
Next up in the hamstrung at the beginning of the season AFC sweepstakes, the Steelers. Theoretically, they need another threat to take attention away from Antonio Brown. Though, based on Brown's past performances, do they? If DeAngelo Williams can substitute for Le’Veon Bell as well as he did last season, they're in good hands.
8. Kansas City Chiefs, Previously: 9
The Chiefs retained their key players admirably this offseason, losing Doug Pederson and Chase Daniel aside. If Jamaal Charles is ready, they should be good to go. If he isn’t, well, it didn't really seem to affect them last season.
9. Houston Texans, Previously: 11
Whether or not J.J. Watt makes it back for Week 1, it's looking like the AFC South is the Texans' for the taking, even if it isn't as weak as in seasons past. Brock Osweiler, Lamar Miller and DeAndre Hopkins is as good a trio as they've had since Arian Foster, Andre Johnson and anyone else.
10. Cincinnati Bengals, Previously: 13
If Cincinnati can get off to a good start while the Steelers are dealing with suspensions, it'll help them all the more. You can't expect the Ravens to be the divisional pushover they were last year. You probably can expect the Browns to be. Tyler Boyd has got to give Andy Dalton a target not named A.J. Green, and quickly.
11. Oakland Raiders, Previously: 10
Denver’s problems are the Raiders’ opportunities. It's been a long time since there was this much optimism (and good reason for it) entering a season in Oakland. Probably since the season following their Super Bowl loss. They went 4-12 that year. We're not saying anything.
12. New York Jets, Previously: 12
The Jets have the most to gain from Tom Brady’s suspension. But to take advantage of any early Patriots slump, they’ll have to survive a schedule that begins with the Bengals, Bills, Chiefs, Seahawks, Steelers and Cardinals. If they don’t thrive early on, don’t give up on them; they could be this year’s Kansas City.
13. Minnesota Vikings, Previously: 8
So, the Sam Bradford trade. The Vikings mortgaged the future to get a quarterback who is how much better than Shaun Hill exactly? It remains to be seen. This will be the best team Bradford has been on; maybe he can take them the furthest he's been.
14. Washington, Previously: 14
Washington and the Giants are the beneficiaries of the Romo injury and the Bradford trade without lifting a finger. And the NFC East wasn't that threatening to begin with. They get the highest ranking by default, with Alfred Morris gone from a rushing attack that struggled mightily in 2015 however, they'll have to earn a second consecutive division crown.
15. Jacksonville Jaguars, Previously: 15
Adding Jalen Ramsey and Myles Jack to the defense further makes the Jaguars resemble everyone's fantasy drafted Madden squad heavy on potential and short on age. While the offense has the firepower to score with anyone, the Jaguars had more success last year when keeping the score reasonable. That should be easier now.
16. New York Giants, Previously: 17
Offseason spending sprees in free agency don't often work, so the offense will still probably have to carry this team. But if Victor Cruz returns to health and form that shouldn't be too hard. The division is there for the taking, and the Giants have the best quarterback in it. That always helps.
17. Buffalo Bills, Previously: 18
Bills players are dropping like flies and we haven't hit Week 1 yet. If there's some good news, it's that they're almost all defenders and you can generally trust Rex Ryan to have a pretty good defense. But can we trust the team to eliminate the penalties that cost them so much last season? They're a step behind the Jets.
18. Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Previously: 21
The Buccaneers are heading in the right direction while a lot of teams below them are stagnating, and that's one reason for their placement on this list. Jameis Winston still has all the weapons that surrounded him in year one, and there are no glaring weaknesses on this team.
19. Detroit Lions, Previously: 22
The Lions never seen to quite add up to the sum of their parts. Matthew Stafford to Golden Tate and Marvin Jones is great on paper, and they have threats out of the backfield that certainly ate some teams alive last season. But they aren't as fearsome on offense or defense as when they had Calvin Johnson and Ndamukong Suh.
20. Atlanta Falcons, Previously: 19
There is a proper level of enthusiasm to show towards preseason performances, and with a quarterback as experienced as Matt Ryan it’s probably none. But with a running back with as short a track record as Devonta Freeman’s, it’s concerning that his performances this preseason are far more reminiscent of the second half of 2015 than his torrid beginning.
21. Indianapolis Colts, Previously: 20
The Colts defense was ravaged during the preseason, by injuries and opposing offenses. Andrew Luck is probably in for another season of being ravaged by opposing defenses. It’s very turn of the millennium in Indianapolis, just minus Edgerrin James and Marvin Harrison and a young Reggie Wayne.
22. Baltimore Ravens, Previously: 24
The Ravens poor season in 2015 was due in part to an absent JustinForsett, but it looks like they’ll be doubling down on that approach in 2016. Joe Flacco has spent the preseason reminding everyone he’s well capable of carrying the load however, and the Ravens have bounced back before. Quoth not, “Nevermore.”
23. Dallas Cowboys, Previously: 16
Sorry, Dallas fans, we promise to knock on wood the next time we mention Tony Romo’s name. Knock on wood. The good news is that Dak Prescott looks far more capable than any backup on the Cowboys’ roster last season. It might be better news for the future however, because how good were the Cowboys last season — even with Romo at the helm?
24. Chicago Bears, Previously: 26
All the news is that Jeremy Langford looks great. And then you have Jay Cutler throwing to Alshon Jeffrey and essentially an extra first round pick in Kevin White. But at the end of the day, you just have to promise yourself you won’t get excited about Jay Cutler and the Bears.
25. Tennessee Titans, Previously: 29
Whether it’s DeMarco Murray or Derrick Henry in the backfield, the Tennessee running game has been mauling teams this preseason. While you’d like to see a little more of the load placed on Marcus Mariota’s shoulders in his second season, the Titans look on track to surprise and take a step forward from the bottom of this pile — this season’s Jacksonville, if not quite its Oakland.
26. Miami Dolphins, Previously: 27
If you want to feel good about the Dolphins going forward, you could look at Ryan Tannehill throwing just three interceptions over the final eight games after lobbing nine in the first eight. But the Dolphins still couldn’t right their season, and there’s no doubt that what was to be a leap forward in 2015 was a regression. Let’s see how they respond.
27. Philadelphia Eagles, Previously: 25
The Eagles pulled off a coup by trading Sam Bradford. But unless Carson Wentz is a lot more ready than even the Eagles likely expect, it won’t pay dividends in 2016. The defense tore up the preseason, but this is an offense full of not particularly heralded youth and a Lane Johnson suspension looming over its head.
28. Los Angeles Rams, Previously: 23
Remember when it was Wentz who would sit and Jared Goff who was ready to come in and start? Goff is still third string on the Rams' depth chart. It’s not the exciting opening Los Angeles was hoping for.
29. New Orleans Saints, Previously: 28
The Saints offensive line and defensive … everything make it look like Drew Brees is in for another long year.
30. San Diego Chargers, Previously: 30
The Chargers’ prolonged contract struggle with Joey Bosa coming to an end means they’ll actually have something to show for the third overall pick in the draft.
31. San Francisco 49ers, Previously: 31
None of the headlines the Niners are making this offseason have anything to do with football, which should set the proper level of expectations for their season.
32. Cleveland Browns, Previously: 32
Look, I’m as tired of ranking you here as you are, Cleveland. Do something about it.