I began publishing weekly NFL power rankings and office pool picks on our home blog, Xark!, in 2006. Today marks the beginning of the 2007 power rankings season, and I'll be checking back to this post as a baseline for how things change as the action unfolds.
The headline? While the top two spots go to AFC teams, I think the NFC may be improving. And the surprise? The Chicago Bears are closer to the top than most experts think.
Plus, as a one-time special bonus, I'm including my initial prediction for each team's 2007 record.
1. San Diego Chargers (13-3). It's all about the No.1s: The No. 1 running back, tight end, pass rusher and offensive line in the league all play for this team. The supporting cast ain't bad either. I'm always a bit concerned about coaching changes and I'm not sold on Norv Turner in the long-term, but he's a veteran coach who inherits a great team. I'm also counting on improvement from Philip Rivers, who was just fine last year.
2. New England Patriots (13-3). My head puts them here, even though my gut offers a little protest. If they can get the Asante Samuel conflict resolved I'll feel better about the defense (Samuel is a playmaker), but they've had more additions than subtractions, and the improvements to the offense should result in a better team. So why the hesitation? I'm not sure, but it might have something to do with the way Tom Brady has been acting, the things we know about Randy Moss, and the chaotic nature of the NFL.
3. Chicago Bears (13-3). Most Super Bowl losers retreat. The Bears reloaded. Reports from training camp say this is the fastest Bears team ever, and the additions of DT Darwin Walker and TE Greg Olsen have improved both units. There are questions (No. 1: Can Cedric Benson carry the freight?), but the most important thing to know is this: QB Rex Grossman has improved and has a more secure hold on the starting job. Look for significant increases in offensive production.
4. Dallas Cowboys (12-4). The 3-4 defense has its disadvantages, but it matches up extremely well with the Cowboys outside linebackers, and Wade Phillips is a stable professional who should remove some of the drama and discomfort that marked the final year of the Bill Parcells era. This is a talented team that has resolved its most important positional issues, so progress is likely.
5. Carolina Panthers (11-5). Their 2006 season begain with Super Bowl expectations but disintegrated when injuries took 40 percent of their offensive line (left tackle and center -- the two most important positions) in the preseason. Losing MLB Dan Morgan -- again -- didn't help either. I'm ranking them here because they've got a strong defense, four decent skill-position players, and a solid offensive line. Many of the teams below this point have better talent at particular spots, but most also have bigger holes. One more thing: the Panthers have a history of up-and-down seasons. This would be an "up" year.
6. New Orleans Saints (10-6). Some things to remember about the Saints: They still don't have any corne backs to speak of; the linebacking corps is functional but not inspiring; the offense won't be catching anybody by surprise in 2007, and despite all the hype from their outstanding 2006 season, this is a 10-6 team that didn't exactly take big strides in the offseason.
7. Indianapolis Colts (10-6). With their Super Bowl win fresh in our minds, it's easy to forget the way this defense suffered in the regular season. Since February they've lost lots defensive talent that didn't get replaced, and Peyton Manning is preparing to play his first NFL game without Tarik Glenn protecting his blindside. Were it not for Manning, by the way, this ranking would be several spots lower.
8. New York Jets (10-6). The 2006 version were a bunch of overachievers led by Chad Pennington. The 2007 version won't be much more talented, but they're another team (like Carolina) that's solid at multiple position groups and comes into camp with an immediate talent boost. For the Jets, the upgrade is RB Thomas Jones. He'll solidify the offense with workman-like performances, and both the offense and the defense will improve because of that added balance. The key? Continued improvement from a young but gifted offensive line.
9. Baltimore Ravens (10-6). This is something of a drop for the Ravens, who won 13 games last season and expect to improve now that they've changed RBs and QB Steve McNair has had more time in the offense. I'm not convinced. Defense carries this team, and not only did the unit suffer a net loss of talent this spring, it's also aging. Linebacker used to be the best position group: now the best player is safety Ed Reed. The offensive line is declining, the best wide receiver is the tight end, the new halfback is a head case and their quarterback -- God bless his heart -- isn't as young as he used to be. They'll still win games, but they won't dominate the way they did last season.
10. Philadelphia Eagles (10-6). For years we assumed they couldn't win without McNabb. So much for that idea. What we've got here is a solid team, but without much in the way of upside. I don't see them contending for the championship, but I don't see how they don't win at least nine games.
11. Jacksonville Jaguars (10-6). Earth to Jacksonville: Quit worrying about your quarterback starter (it's Byron Leftwich, so just deal with it) and trade for another wide receiver. Former first-rounders Reggie Williams and Matt Jones aren't even running with the first team, and the whole group needs a talent upgrade. The line improved in the off-season, and the running back committee might be the best in the league, but the strength of the team is its rugged defense. The only thing keeping me from ranking them above the Colts is Manning, who is essentially magic.
12. Pittsburgh Steelers (9-7). This might be a bit high, and the ranking relies on some rookie defenders who are really unproven, but I can't overlook the following: 1. good quarterback; 2. good running game; 3. improvement from WR Santonio Holmes; 4. a better offensive coordinator; 5. good lines on both sides; 6. A good defensive backfield. Yes, there are questions, but I think they're close enough as a group to challenge Baltimore. In fact, if a few Ravens veterans get nicked up, watch the younger Steelers walk off with the North title.
13. Denver Broncos (10-6). The offense should improve, but I'm not sold on the defense, which had a cornerback die and a linebacker hospitalized recently. Plus you just don't replace an Al Wilson this easily. I like Travis Henry in this spot, but expect some struggles from Jay Cutler as he evolves into a top-notch NFL quarterback.
14. Cincinnati Bengals (9-7). Three things bother me: 1. They lost Eric Steinbach, which will hurt Rudi Johnson's production; 2. The defense wasn't good last year and doesn't look much better this year; 3. They're still dealing with the fallout from that character cloud in 2006. Overall this is a good team, particularly on offense, but they're covering up too many holes.
15. Seattle Seahawks (9-7). I'm actually more excited about the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC West, but the more I look at the situation the more I've decided that -- absent the inevitable injuries -- Seattle is more likely to win the division based on veteran leadership. I don't think they improved, but if they stay healthy, they're dangerous.
16. St. Louis Rams (8-8). Another team I don't want to rank this high, but I'm putting them here because they're just hard to ignore at this spot. I've never been a Marc Bulger fan, but when you study what he's done, working in a dome, you've got to give them the benefit of the doubt. Year 2 of the Linehan Era should see some progression, and the offense has veteran leadership. As for the defense, well... it's journeyman. So long as Bulger, Holt, Jackson and Pace stay healthy, they'll be OK.
17. San Francisco 49ers (8-8). I like these guys a lot and think coach Mike Nolan has them moving in the right direction. Moreover, I like what they did in the offseason. I wanted to put them much higher, but here's why I didn't: For all their talent, this is a young team that might still be a year away from taking control. It's one thing to be the challenger, another to be the frontrunner, and I fully expect the distance between No. 1 in the West and No. 4 in the West to be three games or less. That's where leadership makes a difference, and that's what Seattle and St. Louis have over the 49ers right now. But O MY GAWD have you thought about what the combination of Julian Peterson and Patrick Willis could do at linebacker?
18. Buffalo Bills (6-10). The defense isn't much to speak of and probably regressed. Beyond that, they play the toughest schedule in the league. But I give them two big ups: 1. Dick Jauron will get respectable play out of whatever defenders you give him; 2. The offense should be much, much better thanks to an infusion of linemen, rookie RB Marshawn Lynch, and another year of experience for JP Losman. They could be one of those teams that plays tougher than their won-loss record indicates.
19. Arizona Cardinals (7-9). Yeah, I know this is high. Yes, I'm probably drinking the Kool-Aid. But where would this team have finished in 2006 if they Bears hadn't pulled off that freakish Monday Night comeback and provoked Denny Green's epic ESPN/YouTube meltdown? I expect some struggles, but progress.
20. Minnesota Vikings (7-9). The good news: Run game, run defense. The bad news: Passing game, passing defense. It's freaky. I'm ranking them so high because anybody who can run the ball and stop the run deserves respect, but they've got a young, problem quarterback with no wideouts, and everybody throws against this secondary.
21. Detroit Lions (7-9). Yes, they've got an impressive passing offense, but I just don't believe in Mike Martz and this organization. I just don't. And I don't care how many yards Jon Kitna threw for. And I don't care how good the wide receivers are. This team is run by Matt Millen. I can't get past that. It's a bias, pure and simple. Oh, and one other thing. You also have to play DEFENSE.
22. Washington Redskins (6-10). I'm actually intrigued by Jason Campbell this season, and there's no shortage of talent, but I HATE -- let me emphasize that word "HATE" -- what this coaching staff represents. This team is operated like a dysfunctional corporation, and you simply can't escape problems like that by ignoring them. Joe Gibbs isn't up to the modern game, so he's hired a bunch of former head coaches, given them huge contracts and big titles, and he's running things like he's a CEO. You get the sense that everything about the Redskins is political, and that whatever player talent they have is squandered by their organizational flaws. Suggestion: Drop the racist team name and logo, put Dogbert on their helmets and call this team the Washington Dilberts.
23. Tennessee Titans (6-10). OK, shut up. I know they finished within striking distance of the playoffs. I know Vince Young is a special talent. But I just can't buy the notion that a team with this many deficiencies can have two miracle runs in a row. Young will come back to Earth in 2007 as he progresses toward being a great quarterback, but for crying out loud, did anybody consider that the kid needs some wide receivers?
24. Tampa Bay Bucs (6-10). A few months ago I thought they'd be the worst team in football. Now I put them near the top of the really bad teams... but without much faith. I'm ranking them this high because there's a chance -- just a chance, mind you -- that their offensive line could stabilize, and that Jeff Garcia will help keep things balanced. Plus there's a chance -- a chance -- that this once-proud defense will be able to produce one more time before everyone tests positive for Geritol. But that's all.
25. Houston Texans (6-10). Will someone please, please tell these guys to get an offensive line? Defense should improve and I'm willing to see what Schaub can be, but put me in the "show me" category.
26. Green Bay Packers (5-11). A couple of rookie offensive linemen saved their 2006 season. This year's issue is simply this: Is Brett Favre helping this team or destroying it? When things get rough, will he lead or act like a self-centered jerk? Retire already.
27. Cleveland Browns (6-10). They're laying a foundation the way I like, but they're just... hexed. Everybody gets hurt.
28. Miami Dolphins (5-11). How can I rank a defense this good this low? Another question: How can I rank an offensive line this bad this high? Plus I'm downgrading my expectations because it's a new head coach.
29. New York Giants (5-11). Tom Coughlin simply isn't a guy who can coach in New York. You don't replace Tiki Barber with Brandon Jacobs. Michael Strahan is either a problem or a retiree. And Eli Manning doesn't have the mental toughness to hold up to life in the Gotham media crucible. I'm out on a limb, but this feels like a meltdown waiting to happen.
30. Oakland Raiders (4-12). There's something sick about the owner-coach thing here, but at least the starting QB situation should be better than it was in 2006, and I'm pretty sure you'll see improvement from the offensive line. Match that with a very respectable defense and there's room for them to win more games.
31. Kansas City Chiefs (3-13). Poor Herm Edwards. I love the guy. But no matter what he does with his defense, his offense is a disaster waiting to happen. The Chiefs missed their window. Now they're an unhappy unit that's on the verge of a major implosion.
32. Atlanta Falcons (2-14). Vick, Vick, Vick. But what doesn't get discussed is how hollowed-out this defense had become. A weak defense, a hopeless quarterbacking situation and a variety of holes. That's bad enough. But Vick has cursed them. Prepare to witness the NFL version of Very Bad Karma.