Every week during the regular season I'll be ranking all 32 teams based on performance and potential. This is the first regular season ranking, and it shows that I've learned a few things in the preseason: The Panthers aren't as good as I thought and the Chiefs aren't quite as bad. Go ahead, take a look: My power rankings are completely independent, which is why they don't look like the group-think rankings the mainstream media outlets give you.
For comparison purposes, I've included the position each team held in my first power ranking of 2007 (it's the number in parentheses), and you can always go back a week to see the adjustments I made in the last couple of days. You'll see two predicted records: the one in bold is my official preseason prediction; the one in plain type was the record I predicted for each team on Aug. 10, before the preseason really got underway.
1. (1) San Diego Chargers (13-3/13-3). The No. 1 question about the Chargers is actually on their sideline: How will the coaching change affect their play? Norv Turner's record as a head coach (.414 winning percentage in 141 NFL games) makes that question significant, and no matter how highly regarded he is among the coaching fraternity as a top-notch offensive coordinator, being the top dog requires a slightly different skill set. I don't have any special insight into Turner, but I'm making the Chargers my No. 1 this season because the talent here is just so impressive. I'm betting that a professional like Turner, whose history with the Chargers makes him a known commodity within the franchise, will be able to take this collection of players and win a Super Bowl with it.
2. (2) New England Patriots (13-3/13-3). Tom Brady is a Hall of Fame quarterback, but the engine of the Patriots is coach Bill Belichick, the football genius of our age. Belichick, who comes out of the Parcells coaching line, coached the Cleveland Browns from 1991-95, compiling a 36-44 record while pissing off just about everybody in town. Then came his bizarre "tenure" as head coach of the New York Jets, which lasted only long enough for him to resign at his introductory press conference. And for a guy who has been described as having a "business-like" coaching style, Belichick dresses like a blue-collar working stiff. He also uses his drop-deadpan humor to mess with the media, blatantly plays games with his weekly injury report, succeeds as both a coach and a GM (never an easy feat) and hangs out with Jon Bon Jovi. In other words, Belichick defies sports cliches. I think he's the greatest football mind of our generation, and he's the reason this team is ranked No. 2: Not Brady, not Seymour, not Samuel, and certainly not Randy Moss. Just Belichick.
3. (3) Chicago Bears (13-3/13-3). In a break with years of chaotic tradition, GM Jerry Angelo has rebuilt the Bears into a stable, sane franchise. It took an outsider to accomplish that feat, but the Bears under Angelo and Lovie Smith are on their way to becoming the NFC's flagship franchise. This year's edition returned 20 of 22 starters from the Super Bowl team, and should be much improved on offense and deeper on defense. Watch for the Bears to repeat not only as the NFC's top seed but also as conference champion, even though their regular-season record could dip a bit, thanks to a tougher schedule. Oh, and all that hype about what a disaster Rex Grossman is? I think he's still progressing and is well on his way to becoming an above-average NFL starter.
4. (7) Indianapolis Colts (12-4/10-6). Tom Brady gets as much press, but when the history books get written, Peyton Manning will be remembered as the greatest quarterback his this era. He'll be good again this year, but I have to confess: That's about the only strong prediction I feel capable of making about the 2007 Colts. Here's a team that gave up rushing yards in laughable chunks in 2006, yet still managed to win 12 regular season games and shut down opposing running backs in the playoffs. This offseason they've lost four defensive starters and Manning's blindside protector, not to mention RBBC member Domanic Rhodes and injured slot man Brandon Stokley. And yet if you watched the defensive starters in the preseason, they were really quite competent and cohesive. I'm citing this as a testament to Tony Dungy and the Colts' front office, and though I'm not convinced that they can play at that kind of level consistently over the next 17 weeks, I'm giving this team the benefit of the doubt.
5. (4) Dallas Cowboys (12-4/12-4). I think Bill Parcells is finally finished as a coach, and based on last year's Cowboys team, I think he's made the right call. Nothing seemed to be any fun for Parcells in 2006, and that's a sign of something. Wade Phillips is an experienced, if overly itinerant, head coach, and the most obvious change to the Cowboys this offseason is that there's a brighter tone. I think that tone matches the personality of QB Tony Romo much better than Parcells' barely concealed disgust down the stretch did, and I think we'll see some good football from this team. Great football? Well, maybe in spurts. I think they'll challenge the Bears in the NFC, but come up short in the playoffs.
6. (9) Baltimore Ravens (11-5/10-6). It's easy to see the Ravens as an aging franchise with a rapidly closing window of opportunity. Its stars at middle linebacker, cornerback and left tackle are fading. Its quarterback is more field general than playmaker at a high-mileage 34, and in the offseason they let their most versatile defensive player get away via free agency. Are they vulnerable within their division? Sure thing. But they're not dead yet, and teams with winning habits tend to win ballgames. Let's not forget that last year's dominance was something of a surprise, or that the overall trend points down, but I don't foresee a collapse. Beyond that, the big surprise is that offensive guru Brian Billick and excellent GM Ozzie Newsome still haven't found the skill-position players to give the Ravens a respectable attack.
7. (6) New Orleans Saints (11-5/10-6). I'm giving the Saints a one-slot, one-game boost, but it's more like damning with faint praise. All my questions about the Saints are still in play (like, for instance, wouldn't if be nice if they had reliable pass defenders?), but it's just hard for me to rank the Eagles above a team that plays with this kind of ambition and attitude. The other factor: Carolina. I keep lowering my assessment of the Panthers, and that trend has the net effect of raising my win-loss expectations for the Saints. New Orleans isn't talented enough across the board to be a great team, but it's great enough at the spots where it's good to be a threat every week.
8. (10) Philadelphia Eagles (10-6/10-6). Why aren't the Eagles better? Andy Reid is a respected coach, and they're good most years. So why is there such a ceiling for this franchise? I really don't have any answers, just those questions, but until something changes, that observation remains the key to handicapping this team. There's enough talent here to win, but apparently the combination isn't right, or the overall level of ability isn't quite high enough, or somebody isn't holding their mouth right. You look back at their 2006 season and you just wonder: How could they be so much better than the Giants and still lose to them the way they did? And I don't see that anything has changed.
9. (12) Pittsburgh Steelers (10-6/9-7). It's generally a mistake to base your assessment of a team on the uniform rather than the men who wear it, and the Pittsburgh Steelers have bunch of different people wearing their jerseys and headsets in 2007. Last year was a lost season for the Steelers, beset by so many difficulties that it might be best just to set it aside, which is exactly what the franchise did by hiring Mike Tomlin instead of its in-house candidates. The Rooneys decided to make a fresh start of it, and that was a wise call. Normally this means the team is due for a down year, but I'm not so convinced of that. There's a decent core of veteran players, plus young talent that's going to get a chance to play. And then there's Ben Roethlisberger, the third-year QB who apparently clashed with former HC Bill Cohwer. There's a new offense for 2007 that's based around Big Ben's skills, and I suspect we're going to see an aggressive, attacking style that's willing to take more risks. I like the sound of that, and I believe Roethlisberger is ready to take another step in his development.
10. (15) Seattle Seahawks (9-7/9-7). Mike Holmgrun is a feisty bastard, but his schtick is running out of material in Seattle. Two years removed from their Super Bowl season, the Seahawks are an aging team in need of an injection of new talent, but with no prospect of such an upgrade. Holmgrun is counting on improved health and execution to make a difference in 2007, and full seasons from Shaun Alexander and Matt Hasselbeck would certainly help. I've still got them as the top team in the NFC West, but only just barely, with the edge coming as a nod toward the value of veteran leadership. This is the Seahawk's final year of contending, as they'll be passed for good by the rapidly improving 49ers in 2008.
11. (17) San Francisco 49ers (9-7/8-8). Go down the roster and you'll see why so many observers are high on these guys for 2007 and beyond: Five new defensive starters, at least two or three new starters/contributors on offense, and a killer draft. They've got fantastic young talent at QB, TE and RB, plus tough-minded veterans who are still playing top-notch football (former Seahawk Julian Peterson and free-agent acquisition Nate Clements). I'm a big fan of what's going on by the Bay, but I've still got to rain on this parade a bit. The Niners struggled quite a bit last year, getting outscored by almost 115 points despite finishing just a game under .500. I think they'll progress quite a bit in 2007, maybe even making the playoffs. But this is a team that's still a year away from contending for an NFL title.12. (11) Jacksonville Jaguars (9-7/10-6). When Janet and I watched the Jags on their first day of training camp, the surprising observation was the way the fans reacted to QBs Brian Leftwich and David Garrard. Leftwich, the former first-round savior of the franchise, was treated coolly and seemed distant as he traversed the line between the stadium and the practice field. Garrard, the athlete who was given every chance to claim the starting spot in 2006, was greeted as a jubilant conquering hero. I thought Leftwich looked like the better quarterback, even though he's a highly unorthodox modern player, but the choice to go with Garrard should go a long way toward establishing the identity of this team. Will the Jags be more cohesive? Yes. Will they be less inconsistent than last season's squad, which was the poster child for up-and-down play? Sure. But will they be as good? I doubt it. The defense is good and the running backs are fine, but combine a weak receiving corps with a QB who is better with his feet than his arm and you've just described a mediocre won-lost record.
13. (5) Carolina Panthers (8-8/11-5). Why is this defense so very bad? Sure, it's only preseason, but the Panthers defense never looked like the dominant force it once appeared destined to become. There is still talent on this squad, but the Panthers simply haven't played like a cohesive unit since their narrow loss to the Patriots in the Super Bowl three years ago. I'm taking a harder look at them now, and I believe there are only two great player on this roster (Julius Peppers and Steve Smith), without enough above-average talent around them to truly showcase their talents. QB Jake Delhomme becomes the key in that kind of situation: If he can bring out the best of the offense, then the team has the ability to challenge the Saints, and Delhomme can be a fiery leader. He can also be a gunslinging idiot, a la Brett Favre and Rex Grossman. Stay tuned.
14. (16) St. Louis Rams (8-8/8-8). I haven't been giving the Rams much respect, but I've decided they're better than my gut keeps telling me. There's a youth-movement on the offensive line that could pay off as early as this season, and the issue is a defense that doesn't scare anybody. That said, the skill positions on offense are above average, and when they get moving they can dictate the flow of the game. I think you need a better defense than the Rams can field to rank higher than this, but let's be blunt: Everybody in the NFC West has about the same chance of finishing on top. If Bulger and Jackson both have great years, the Rams could take the division title outright with a 10-win season.
15. (13) Denver Broncos (8-8/10-6). Mike Shanahan is respected as an offensive genius, but that reputation overshadows just how good the Broncos usually are on defense. This year's defense has problems, which is going to put more pressure on second-year QB Jay Cutler. I'm expecting a bit of a sophomore slump from the talented QB, and if you combine that with the defensive woes, you're looking at a very un-Bronoco-like record. Mark my words: This isn't a bad team, not with Champ Bailey and Javon Walker, but the injuries and off-season tragedies will take their toll.
16. (8) New York Jets (8-8/10-6). A year ago I was pegging the Jets as a basket case. That was before their hot start under rookie HC Eric Mangini put them in the middle of the playoff hunt. One of last year's surprises was the resumed good play of QB Chad Pennington, but this year begins with Chad coming off a piss-poor series of exhibition performances. Why is there a quarterback controversy in New York? Because Pennington created it. Expectations of the Jets' two major off-season acquisitions have been tempered by an injury and a camp holdout. Bottom line: No significant progress, and a looming decision at quarterback if Pennington doesn't get his shit together fast.17. (20) Minnesota Vikings (7-9). If there's a back-to-the-future team in the NFL, it's the Vikings under Brad Childress. Bud Grant built the Vikings to win on the frozen, sloppy fields of the 1960s and 1970s and the team took four NFC Championships. Since then the Vikings have morphed into one of those hip-hop dome teams, but Childress has set about undoing all of that, recasting the Vikings with a traditional Midwestern football identity in the wake of the Mike Tice/Denny Green/party boat years. The new-look Vikings look... well... old. They run the ball, they stop the run, and they seem flustered by all this new-fangled passing the other teams do. I think this approach is a mistake that will have to be corrected by the next coaching staff, but it's probably a necessary step for the franchise and their new style is going to keep them competitive most weeks.
18. (14) Cincinnati Bengals (7-9/9-7). This is the year the starch starts to go out of the Marvin Lewis era in Cincinnati. They've been a trendy pick to advance for the past three seasons, but it became pretty obvious last season that they've plateaued. Without an upgrade to the defense, I have to suspect that the Bengals are going to decline this season -- a sad development for those of us who really though Lewis had the stuff to complete the turn-around. The Bengals have a fantastic quarterback and stellar skill position players, but you have to do the other things well, and these Bengals simply haven't. The arrests and embarrassments of 2006 put them in a tight spot for 2007, and fans may be losing patience.
19. (21) Arizona Cardinals (7-9/7-9). I keep wanting to put them lower, but this voice in my head keeps hissing at me: "Idiot! Look at those wide receivers!" I know, I know. Stupid. But look at it this way: They don't play in the planet's toughest division, and the new coaching staff has got to be better than Denny Green's. Plus that Matt Leinart kid can play some football. When I add it up I see some mediocre patches, plus some kids with great potential. Give them some decent coaching and they'll be OK. Playoffs? Not likely. Winning season? Very possible.
20. (18) Buffalo Bills (6-10/6-10). The Bills won seven games in 2006. I think they'll be significantly better in 2007... and win fewer games. Mathematically, anyway, the Bills face the league's toughest schedule this time out, and I don't think they've progressed enough to overcome that fact. I like what they did in addressing their offensive line (even though they probably spent too much) and I like what I see of J.P. Losman. But this is a growth year, not a success year, for the Bills. If it goes well and their young stars develop, perhaps they'll get one more infusion of talent on defense and make a push for the division title in 2008. But this year? They can hope for some memorable upsets to build on, but the playoffs seem out of the question.
21. (25) Houston Texans (7-9/6-10). Houston is sort of ground-zero for the Bush Dynasty, and the Texans have been rather Bushian since their inception. A team with a building program founded on Tony Boselli and David Carr essentially decided to ask for a do-over this winter, cutting ties to their original QB and moving in a new direction in coach Gary Kubiak's second season. The new foundation? A good defensive line, an over-achieving young linebacker, a gifted No. 1 WR and a young veteran QB who seems to grasp the intangibles of his position extremely well. No, I can't see them making the playoffs, but they're moving in that direction. .
22. (21) Detroit Lions (6-10/7-9). Jon Kitna and Mike Furrey set the tone this offseason when they came out and predicted 10 wins for the Lions, then started talking trash about how nobody could stop them. Uh, right. Yes, I'm excited about the prospect of Calvin Johnson and Roy Williams carving up single coverage, sure. But there are still too damn many problems with the Lions for me to start believing, and problem No. 1 is the most obvious: They're the Lions! I'm not saying that the team is cursed -- just that Henry Clay Ford and Matt Millen can't find their collective ass with all four of their hands. Oh, and here's an issue: Name the coach. The only coach here that anybody ever talks about is Mike Martz, who is probably clinically insane, but in case you were wondering, the head coach is some guy named Rod Marinelli.
23. (29) New York Giants (6-10/5-11). There's just bad karma swirling around this team, and those intangibles influence this prediction quite a bit. To review: The front office balked on firing Tom Coughlin after the season, but didn't give him a vote of confidence either. That set the tone for the offseason, which didn't produce much help for a team that slumped to 8-8 after a relatively strong start. The key for the Giants is Eli Manning, a nice enough young quarterback who suffers the misfortune of being nowhere near the player everyone expects him to be. Making matters worse is the presence of Kevin Gilbride, who specializes in short stints sowing discord on coaching staffs. His reputation is horrible. Buddy Ryan, a salty old shit-kicker who doesn't suffer fools gladly, once punched Gilbride on the sidelines, and they were on the same team. So you've got a control-freak coach, a train-wreck offensive coordinator, a quarterback who looks like he needs a hug and an offense that just lost its most valuable player (Tiki Barber) to the broadcast booth, where he didn't even wait until the regular season to start dishing dirt about Manning's shortcomings as a leader. And finally... wait for it... this entire soap opera gets covered by the New York media. I know everybody else ranks them higher than I do, but I just think everyone else is wrong. .
24. (22) Washington Redskins (6-10/6-10). What's up with the NFC East? You've got the slow-motion train wreck in New York, and down the commuter line in Washington you've got Joe Gibbs, who is listed as "head coach/team president." A more accurate description would be "team CEO," because that's the way he's running the Redskins -- like some detached Dilbert nightmare. Look at the rest of his staff: Al Saunders, Associate Head Coach -- offense; Gregg Williams, Assistant Head Coach -- defense; Joe Bugel, Assistant Head Coach -- offense;Greg Blanche, defensive coordinator -- defensive line; Don Breau, offensive coordinator... and so on. Look, that's not an organizational chart: That's the outline of a shark tank. The egos on that list -- particularly Saunders and Williams -- are enormous, and that's without even talking about Gibbs and owner Dan Synder. Think the Redskins have a clue? In February 2006 they made Adam Archuleta the highest-paid safety in football, then handed him over to Gregg "It's Not My Fault That I Sucked in Buffalo" Williams, who tried to make him play a cover-style defense that didn't suit Archuleta's skills. So the highest paid safety spent the season on the bench (before being traded to Chicago for a sixth or seventh rounder this offseason). Clueless move No. 2: The team's confused attempt to trade for Bears LB Lance Briggs last spring. Everything about the gambit reeked of smug amateurism. Into this mess comes a team of overpaid flops and underappreciated talent. A good coach with a cohesive message might get a playoff berth out of this squad. The Redskins will get only excuses. Fans should revolt.
25. (26) Green Bay Packers (5-11/5-11). Brett Favre gave Green Bay fans their only Super Bowl title since the Lombardi Era, and now his inability to grow up and move on is screwing this proud franchise. The mainstream media doesn't want to say this out loud, so I will: The Packers can't make the playoffs with this set of players, and even if they did they don't have a chance of winning it all. Favre says he just wants another ring, but what's really happening is he simply can't quit, and the front office simply can't cut the greatest QB in Packers history. So Green Bay is a team -- and a town -- in limbo. Not awful -- they've got some good defenders, and Favre still has his moments -- but not good, either. They need a rebuilding year, something they can't have with Favre under center. Secretly, I think everybody in the front office has the same fantasy: Game 1, Favre breaks his leg, decides to retire. That's not likely.
26. (25) Tennessee Titans (5-11/6-10). When Steve McNair was the athletic young quarterback in Tennessee the Titans/Oilers were still a team with a strong running game and a tough-guy, roughneck identity. But after their oh-so-close Super Bowl loss in January 2000, the Titans have been in a salary-cap-related decline. Their cap-hell bottomed out a couple of years ago, and there is room now for free agents and young talent, but look around this team and tell me where you see it. So there's Vince Young, who was a miracle-worker last fall, and ... Bueller? Bueller? The Titans need a talent upgrade, and if they get it, they can be good quick. Jeff Fisher is a for-real coach and Young is a for-real talent. But it won't happen this year.
27. (24) Tampa Bay Bucs (6-10/6-10). People wonder what's going on in Tampa. Well, here's the answer: Jon Gruden is getting desperate. He's desperate to find a quarterback who can win now, desperate to find a WR who can make plays in the short game, desperate for a tight end, an offensive line, a defense. He knows he won a Super Bowl five years ago with Tony Dungy and Rich McKay's players, and he knows he really hasn't done much since. If he's smart, he also knows he's only about two years away from a career in broadcasting, or as an offensive coordinator. That said, there could be some good things in Tampa this season: Jeff Garcia isn't awful -- he just looks awful. Joey Galloway still has some life in his legs. The O-line could improve. And maybe Derrick Brooks and Ronde Barber won't test positive for Geritol. But there are just too many ifs, too many aging joints and too much Chucky for me to believe that this team is going to suddenly get good again. They might win some games early in a weak NFC South, but they won't be as strong as their record.28. (30) Oakland Raiders (5-11/4-12). I'm giving the Raiders a bump and that's alarming. Lane Kiffin isn't a head coach -- he's a callow school boy. How can I predict that he'll do better than an Old-School pro like my homeboy Art Shell? Well, because Kiffin is just adapting, and that's what you have to do to survive in Oakland: adapt to the insanity that streams forth from Al Davis. But let's break this down: The offense was a disaster in 2006, and that was really an off-the-field issue: scouts who thought Aaron Brooks still had talent; an OC recruited from a bed-and-breakfast; an offensive line coach who couldn't organize a PTA cakewalk. The incompetence was stunning and irreparable. This go-round there are at least two QBs who belong in the NFL, the offensive line should stabilize, and the defense is among the league's elite. Will they be good? No. But they won't suck as epically.One final thought: How does ANYBODY mishandle the Jamarcus Russell situation this badly?
29. (27) Cleveland Browns (5-11/6-10). I'm really not sure why I've dropped the Browns over the course of the preseason. It's not that they were horrible. It's not that they don't have weapons, or that the O-line hasn't shown promise, or that Charlie Frye is a mistake at quarterback. Maybe it's just the way Romeo Crennell has failed to progress as a coach that bothers me. Sure the fans want Brady Quinn, but not this year, not if you're Crennell and you're trying to save your job. I think he needs to get behind Frye and back him up, but that's just not Romeo's style, is it?
30. (31) Kansas City Chiefs (4-12/3-13). After careful consideration, I've bumped the Chiefs up from the bottom spot in this ranking, but it's not much of a boost. I'm hating on the poor Chiefs for several reasons: ancient cornerbacks, unproven defensive linemen, sagging O-line, sad wide receivers, and a front office that's looking for a way to bench the starting QB, Damon Huard, in favor of second-year man Brodie Croyle. Croyle gave the job to Huard in the preseason, but as the losses mount, so will the pressure to start the "quarterback of the future." But there are good players here -- Donnie Edwards returns at LB, and DE Jared Allen will come back after a two-game suspension; Napoleon Harris is the man in the middle, and over on offense you've still got RB Larry Johnson and TE Tony Gonzalez. Arrowhead is a tough field. But the reason for the boost is pretty simple: Huard.
31. (32) Atlanta Falcons (3-13/2-14). You get the sense that Arthur Blank really isn't a bad guy for an owner, that he really cares about his players and the fans. Maybe Blank deserved the Vick thing, maybe he didn't, but I suspect the Falcons will rally a bit this year now that their former star is history. The problem now is just talent: Vick's ability and Warrick Dunn's quickness made up for a multitude of weaknesses, and with Vick gone and Dunn slowing down, the rest of the offense isn't exactly inspiring. There is talent on defense, with 2006 free agent DE John Abraham and athletic CB DeAngelo Hall, but Abraham is never healthy and Hall is an underachiever. Maybe rookie DE Jamaal Anderson will be the difference-maker in 2007, but don't bet on it.
32. (28) Miami Dolphins (3-13/5-11). The black hole of integrity that was Nick Saban still scents this team with the sulfuric smell of arrogant failure, but at least you can't blame Saban for the 2007 draft. Was Brady Quinn the right fit for the Dolphins? Maybe, maybe not. But ignoring their screaming QB problem in the first round, with Quinn right there late, was theater of the absurd. And really: Ted Ginn Jr. at No. 9? As if one speedy kick-returner was going to solve what's wrong with this team? Well, let's go over what's wrong with this team: No offensive line, no quarterback, journeymen receivers and a defense that should start showing its age this season. They've got their work cut out for them, but what did GM Randy Mueller (a respected front-office man) spend the offseason doing? Haggling with Kansas City over the price of Trent Green, who is the wrong quarterback for this team in 2007. Unfortunately, Cleo Lemon and John Beck aren't that quarterback, either.
LINKS TO OTHER PRESEASON POWER RANKINGS:
Now that I've got mine in the books, it's time to look around at what everyone else has written. I don't like to read too many of these before my first one of the regular season because I don't like to be influenced. Sadly, there aren't that many from true bloggers out there, and that's something we should try to address.
- A good one from Scrapper Nation. Our top teams look similar, but the bottom looks different.
- Pro Football Critics: They've put the Saints at No. 4.
- Here's ESPN, and here;s where you can rank 'em at their Sports Nation.
- Peter King's ranking from July 16.
- Pete Prisco of Sportsline always has a controversial power ranking. This year that's his lead: How much everybody hates his rankings. Ya gotta love it.
- MSNBC gets in on the act.
- Covers.com treats its power rankings like it's a science or something. Right. Pull the other one.
- Fantasy Football Bookmarks has an index of power rankings.
- The Arizona Republic's Cardinals beat writer has one.
- This is interesting: A Newsvine comparison of three professional power rankings.
- Pete Schrager of Fox Sports is really high on the Broncos and Bengals.