NFL Power Rankings: Pre-Week 1
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have only gotten stronger and the Kansas City Chiefs as well. So, no doubt that these two teams will once again be in the playoffs barring injuries.
1. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
While many Super Bowl teams have kept their core together to make another run at a Lombardi, few have managed to keep nearly their entire roster intact like the Bucs have done this offseason. Add in a mix of high-upside rookies and it’s no wonder why Bruce Arians keeps yelping that he’s running things back with Tom Brady and the crew.
2. Kansas City Chiefs
The Vegas favorite to win it all after that Super Bowl setback last season, the Chiefs have significantly addressed their flaws along the offensive line and have gone from putting one of the worst units in front of Patrick Mahomes to one of the best. While they do have a much trickier road to navigate in the AFC than teams like the Buccaneers, there’s little reason to see any drop-off from this contender.
3. Buffalo Bills
Bills Mafia wasn’t around to witness much of their team’s magical run to the AFC title game but luckily they’ll get to witness the bulk of last year’s team back in action again with their sights aimed squarely at a return to the Super Bowl. Josh Allen has firmly worked his way into the MVP conversation after making an incredible leap in Year 3 and now has the big contract extension to match. This is easily the favorite in the AFC East but it will be interesting to see how they handle going from chasing contenders to being the ones chased.
4. Green Bay Packers
Where will Aaron Rodgers play… in 2022? That’s a question that will get asked an awful lot this coming year around Green Bay while conveniently overshadowing the fact that this group is 28-8 under Matt LaFleur and probably should have beaten the Buccaneers in the NFC title game. Could there be a bit of “Last Dance” magic for one final run with the Pack and their superstar QB?
5. Los Angeles Rams
Could a home team win the Super Bowl in their own stadium two years in a row? The Rams hope so and have gone all in with the trade for Matthew Stafford. The loss of RB Cam Akers hurts but such a sting is lessened with the trade for Patriots tailback Sony Michel. This is a team of impact players at key positions but finding depth will be key to making it through the 17-game slate for Sean McVay and company.
6. Cleveland Browns
After years of hype and waiting around for a breakthrough, the Browns delighted their tortured fan base with a thrilling run to the postseason. Now what can Baker Mayfield and others do for an encore? That is particularly pertinent for the signal-caller given that he’s entering a key contract year and expectations have never been higher by the lake. The return of OBJ should provide a nice boost and it looks like rookie Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah — or JOK — is already a fan favorite despite missing much of camp. Add it all up and it seems like the bar is set at a division title and another playoff run.
7. San Francisco 49ers
The debate over Trey Lance vs. Jimmy G. misses the point on this 49ers squad being a legit NFC contender — if they can stay healthy. Kyle Shanahan has become a proven commodity at head coach but will face a challenge in replacing DC Robert Saleh after he left for the Jets. The division is the most competitive in the league but an improved receiving corps could help lift this team to the top and back into contention.
8. Seattle Seahawks
Are you ready for yet another MVP debate about Russell Wilson during the early part of the season? That could be the case if a new offensive approach yields the desired results in the Pacific Northwest. Pete Carroll always has the Seahawks in the mix but will need a number of young players to step up if they want to get back into the postseason given the competition in the division and NFC in general.
9. New England Patriots
Does Bill Belichick dare go with a rookie QB to start the year? Cam Newton may have left him with no other choice. Regardless of who is taking snaps under center early in the year, the roster has seen a number of upgrades across the board and it would shock nobody if we start to see much more of the Patriots we’re used to seeing on the field in 2021.
10. Baltimore Ravens
Baltimore just keeps hoping all these bites at the postseason apple will one year pay off. Much will come down to continued evolution of the offense and the development of QB Lamar Jackson. The loss of J.K. Dobbins is a blow no doubt though and the receiving corps and offensive line have both had a few nicks in the preseason too. Getting over the hump in a jumbled AFC remains a tall task but the Ravens still have tons of experience and benefit from top-notch special teams.
11. Indianapolis Colts
Carson Wentz appears to be healthy enough to start but his backups remain questionable and nobody really knows how the former No. 2 overall pick will do when it’s game time for real with his new squad. There are fewer questions about Frank Reich’s team overall but what kind of output the Colts will get out of their quarterback should largely determine both the floor and ceiling in Indy. The loss of mainstay T.Y. Hilton for the first few weeks doesn’t help the cause either.
12. Miami Dolphins
Drama surrounds yet another quarterback position and recent reports that Miami is in the driver’s seat to trade for Deshaun Watson (legal outcomes such as they are). That has to be some sort of insight into how the team truly feels about Tua Tagovailoa after a shaky rookie campaign landed the team just shy of the playoffs. There was progress made with the franchise a year ago, especially defensively, but the numerous first-rounders on the roster still need to step things up in 2021.
13. Los Angeles Chargers
What can Justin Herbert do as a sophomore after lighting the league on fire a season ago? That’s certainly a national storyline going into the year but there’s still plenty of intrigue around LA’s tenant team with a new (young and inexperienced) coaching staff in place. This group has the top-tier talent and a stocked roster to make plenty of noise in the AFC race but might just be a year away from truly contending.
14. Tennessee Titans
The Titans have plenty of question marks coming into the season, especially given their ongoing COVID outbreak that has taken head coach Mike Vrabel out of the building at a key time. The good news is that even despite the loss of OC Arthur Smith, this is a battle-tested group that has won big playoff games before. Still, those miles are adding up on Derrick Henry and the question marks on the defense keep multiplying and not going away. A step back might be in store but luckily Tennessee has one of the easier division paths in the league.
15. Washington Football Team
Everybody knows the defense will be as salty as they come, especially given upgrades like William Jackson III coming in at corner. The ultimate arbiter however will undoubtedly be the play of veteran QB Ryan Fitzpatrick (or Taylor Heinicke or even Kyle Allen). There should be greater consistency under center but whether that allows for a big enough jump beyond just winning the meh NFC East remains up for debate.
16. Dallas Cowboys
Usually you would see a bit of a trendy “Hard Knocks” bump from the team featured on HBO’s showcase but that doesn’t seem to be happening this time around. Dak Prescott’s injury situation is a key driver on limiting the hype but you do have to think even an average campaign from the QB would result in a big jump in the win total. There’s plenty of game-breaking talent in Big D, but folks have been burned too many times by Jerry Jones’ team to really believe this is the year they make a legitimate run.
17. Arizona Cardinals
It feels like ages ago that J.J. Watt was a flashy free-agent signing and the Larry Fitzgerald saga continues to linger in the background as kickoff approaches. That said, going from solid to a playoff team will require much more from young signal-caller Kyler Murray. If there’s not offensive improvement and the turnovers don’t get cut down, Kliff Kingsbury may start feeling the heat from far more than just the Arizona desert.
18. Denver Broncos
Teddy Bridgewater is QB1 in Mile High but how much of a leash will he have with Drew Lock still involved in the QB room? Getting better at that position will determine just what kind of upside the Broncos have given that they have a pretty loaded roster when you start looking up and down that two-deep. The division is tough, which doesn’t help, but this shouldn’t be a team picking in the top 10 of the draft again.
19. Atlanta Falcons
There’s a new regime in place and optimism is running high around Atlanta that this could be a team primed for a turnaround. They have a veteran signal-caller well suited to new HC Arthur Smith’s system and plenty of weapons all around — highlighted by new rookie TE Kyle Pitts. The defense remains iffy but there’s enough to think flirting with a wild-card berth isn’t out of the question.
20. Pittsburgh Steelers
Welcome to Big Ben’s last stand. The venerable quarterback quite literally looks to be on his last legs but seems rejuvenated by the task at hand. Najee Harris should help this group run the ball better but the big boys along the offensive line may still need additional time to gel in 2021 after so many changes. The defense may have to pick up the slack once again if another division title is to get held up at the end of the year.
21. Minnesota Vikings
Kirk Cousins is generating headlines for all the wrong reasons in the run-up to the opener but there’s still enough around him to contend again in the NFC North. Much will be on the shoulders of Dalvin Cook and whether or not the offensive line can make some progress. The defense has the pieces to rebound from a rough outing but Mike Zimmer knows the pressure is on in 2021 to improve far more than in just that area.
22. New Orleans Saints
Is the Big Easy really prepared for the full Jameis Winston experience? We’re about to find out as a new era in Saints football is upon us. A new QB that can push the ball down the field should alter Sean Payton’s offense for the better but may mean a step back in the overall record.
23. Carolina Panthers
Sam Darnold has always had the natural talent but those in Carolina hoping for a magical transformation from his Jets days will need to remain patient. The team continues to make overall progress during this rebuild under Matt Rhule but it’s not a stretch to say success will be dictated largely on what they get in the acquisition under center. Ownership has been pushing for a superstar QB and the Panthers will know quickly whether they have one already or will be getting one next year.
24. Chicago Bears
Justin Fields pandemonium is reaching crazy levels in the Windy City and the coaching staff is doing their best to dampen it by insisting on Andy Dalton starting. The only question is when the rookie will trot out onto the field for the first time though and given the state of the offensive line, waiting might indeed be a wise move.
25. Las Vegas Raiders
We’re only into year four of that mega-deal for Jon Gruden and it already looks like an albatross weighing on the franchise. GM Mike Mayock’s draft picks have been hit-or-miss and there’s real pressure to get over .500 and to the postseason now that fans are back in that spaceship off the strip. No pressure in the rough and tough AFC West…
26. New York Giants
The media capital of the world is determined to break down just about every throw Daniel Jones makes this year and as much as the supposed franchise quarterback is facing pressure, so too is his OC Jason Garrett. There were signs of turning the corner in Joe Judge’s first season but now those tricky expectations creeping in to make the spotlight even brighter on a team that could be much better if healthy.
27. Cincinnati Bengals
Joe Burrow appears to be ready to go for 2021 but it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know that protecting the franchise QB is priority No. 1 for a re-tooled offense. It doesn’t help that the AFC North will be its typically brutal self and that there are still plenty of holes on the roster and plenty of skepticism about Zac Taylor. That said, Burrow is worth the price of admission and the great hope in Cincinnati.
28. New York Jets
The Carl Lawson news was a crippling blow to a defense that needs marquee players like that. New head coach Robert Saleh being in charge should still lead to some improvement but the secondary remains a big blind spot on the roster. Zach Wilson appears to be given free rein to live and learn on the job as a rookie but it’s pretty clear this is very much Year 1 of yet another reset of Gang Green.
29. Philadelphia Eagles
The Eagles have a number of key veteran pieces but otherwise have a gigantic hole at linebacker, lingering issues along the offensive line, a largely unproven quarterback who isn’t set in the job and… oh yeah, a complete unknown at head coach. We’re sure Philly fans will take the year in stride if things don’t pan out in an NFC East race that could come down to the wire.
30. Jacksonville Jaguars
To zero surprise, the chosen one is being handed the keys to the franchise. If there’s one reason to maybe think Trevor Lawrence struggles as a rookie though, much of the blame will likely fall on the offensive line that did not seem to block anybody in the preseason. Urban Meyer still seems like he’s not fully on board with how things are done in the NFL which could be a combination of a lot of losing in Duval before lessons start to take hold.
31. Detroit Lions
Trading away Matthew Stafford pretty much signaled a franchise going through a reboot and even with a veteran like Jared Goff to help smooth things over under center, this could be a(nother) rough season in Detroit. Dan Campbell’s antics will be worth the price of admission even if the football might not given the dearth of playmakers on the roster.
32. Houston Texans
The Deshaun Watson saga will hang over the franchise until it’s resolved but while that is generating the headlines, it has overshadowed the tremendous roster turnover that’s happened under the new front office this offseason. Perhaps they’ll hit on some diamonds in the rough but glancing at that roster is cringe-worthy in some places. Throw in uncertainty at QB, an unknown at head coach and long season might not be the half of it for a team favored to win the No. 1 pick next spring.