Tuesday, September 4, 2012

NFL Preseason Power Rankings

By Brad Oremland

Preseason predictions are intimidating. Since the NFL's expansion and realignment in 2002, a little less than half the playoff field from the previous year reaches the postseason again.

Chart

That averages out to 5.8 teams, so if you're using the previous season to make predictions, a lot of those predictions will be wrong. Part of that is normal regression to the mean by teams that overachieved the year before. Part of it is tougher strength of schedule. Part of it is injury problems for teams that played extra games and had a shorter off-season. Part of it is that bad teams raid good teams in free agency. Part of it is good players getting old and young players getting good. There's a lot to consider. This season, I'm picking eight playoff teams to repeat, which is high but not unprecedented.

The numbered rankings below are for right now, beginning-of-season strength, and not necessarily a forecast of each team's success over the course of the whole year. However, the brackets show predicted regular-season record, and you'll find postseason predictions at the bottom.

1. Green Bay Packers [11-5] — No team has a tougher early schedule. They open with the 49ers and Bears, at Seattle, Saints at home, then three straight road games. A defense-oriented draft and the acquisition of former Colts center Jeff Saturday help fortify a team that last year was already the league's best, but there are some questions at linebacker, where injuries, suspensions, and youth make for some uncertainty and could limit the explosive potential of Clay Matthews III. Defensive captain Charles Woodson, entering his 15th season, will turn 36 this year. The Packers face a lot of challenges in 2012. As long as Aaron Rodgers stays healthy, though, the team should be among the league's best.

2. Atlanta Falcons [11-5] — Their offense has the fantasy football community freaking out. Matt Ryan is finally seen as a high-level quarterback, Michael Turner led the NFC in rushing last season, Tony Gonzalez refuses to grow old, and the wide receiver tandem of Julio Jones and Roddy White is probably the league's best. The defense is just okay, but if the offense produces the way people expect, okay is enough for the Falcons to win their division, and probably a first-round bye in the playoffs.

3. New England Patriots [12-4] — Cut a lot of veterans this offseason, including some free agents like those who have been re-born here in the past. The questions are still the running game, defensive line and pass rush, and health of key starters. It also will be interesting to see how opposing defenses adapt to New England's dynamic, unconventional two-tight end attack. Is there a way to cover it that no one figured out last year? Even amidst the uncertainty, the Patriots remain a strong favorite to repeat as division champs.

4. Houston Texans [11-5] — How good would they have been last year if everyone was healthy? Even with T.J. Yates at quarterback and Andre Johnson injured, Houston won its first-ever playoff game last season. With Matt Schaub, Arian Foster, Owen Daniels, and a mostly-healthy Johnson back, can this offense be stopped? Perhaps not, but the defense lost Mario Williams and DeMeco Ryans and figures to take a step backward, even with first-round draft choice Whitney Mercilus stepping in for the oft-injured Williams. I'm also concerned about the losses of offensive linemen Mike Brisiel and Eric Winston. This team is still stacked with talent, though, and if most of the play-makers stay healthy, it should repeat as AFC South champion.

5. San Francisco 49ers [9-7] — Last season, they went 7-2 in games decided by seven points or less. Did Alex Smith finally turn the corner, or was last season just one of those years when everything goes right? Can Frank Gore stay healthy? Can the rest of the team? Is Randy Moss (listed as a starter!) a leader or a distraction? For that matter, is Jim Harbaugh a leader or a distraction? The Niners' defense looks terrific on paper, but I'm concerned about depth, and I have a feeling that with so many things breaking their way in 2011, they're due for some bad luck in 2012. Maybe it's Alex Smith turning back into a pumpkin, maybe it's a couple of key injuries, maybe it's just bad breaks in close games. But San Francisco had a charmed season a year ago, and that seldom happens twice in a row.

6. Baltimore Ravens [10-6] — They begin the season with 2011 Defensive Player of the Year Terrell Suggs on the Physically Unable to Perform (PUP) list, meaning he will miss at least the first six games, and probably more. The team lost its other starting outside linebacker (Jarret Johnson) in free agency, along with its best defensive end, Cory Redding. Meanwhile, Ray Lewis turned 37 and is coming off a season in which the team was better off without him. With Lewis in the lineup, Baltimore went 8-4 and allowed 18.0 pts/gm. When he was sidelined by injury, the Ravens went 4-0 with 12.5 pts/gm. The Ravens were still good with Lewis on the field, but they were better when he was on the sidelines. Everyone slows down eventually. Put it all together, and this defense could be looking at a significant drop in performance.

7. Pittsburgh Steelers [9-7] — Moving on without longtime standouts James Farrior and Aaron Smith. They also begin the season without starting RB Rashard Mendenhall and first-round draft pick David DeCastro, both of whom are expected to be out until after the Week 4 bye. That said, most analysts expect improved offensive line performance and, with Antonio Brown stepping up for the retired Hines Ward, a more dangerous passing attack. Stars like Ben Roethlisberger and Troy Polamalu have been in and out of the lineup in recent years, but if the team can stay healthy (and un-suspended, in James Harrison's case), Pittsburgh can compete with anyone. It's a big if.

8. Detroit Lions [9-7] — Enter the season facing high expectations, for the first time since the Barry Sanders era. Unlike most teams following a breakout season, the Lions won't confront a significantly upgraded strength of schedule, with contests against the NFC West and AFC South. No one expects Calvin Johnson to repeat his brilliant 2011 performance, but he's the top wide receiver in the NFL, and the offense should be explosive as long as he's on the field. Detroit hopes to see the disruptive Ndamukong Suh of 2010, not the foot-stompin' Suh of last season.

9. Chicago Bears [10-6] — They were 7-3 when Jay Cutler broke his thumb. With Cutler and Matt Forte healthy, plus Cutler's reunion with former Bronco Brandon Marshall, the Bears could complement their strong defense with a potent offense. Even if Cutler and Forte get hurt again, Jason Campbell and Michael Bush inspire far more confidence than last year's backups, Caleb Hanie and Marion Barber. Brian Urlacher is battling a knee injury, so it remains to be seen how close he is to 100%. Chicago's biggest challenge may simply be a tough schedule and sharing a division with the Lions and Packers.

10. New York Giants [8-8] — The defending champs went 9-7 last year, making the playoffs only because the Cowboys collapsed, the Eagles crumbled under pressure, and Jerome Boger's Week 4 officiating crew had money on their game against the Cardinals. The good news is that the team suffered no major losses in free agency, Eli Manning is coming off by far his best season, perennial headache Brandon Jacobs is gone, and there are exciting young players on both sides of the ball in Victor Cruz and Jason Pierre-Paul. The Giants drafted to fortify their offense, so the pressure rests with the defense to generate pressure up front and hold leads when the opponent starts passing. I'm not crazy about the linebacking corps, and even one injury on the shallow offense line could really hamper that explosive offense.

11. Philadelphia Eagles [9-7] — Despite all the "Dream Team" criticism, when they were good last year, they were very good. Philadelphia finished in the top 10 in total offense, total defense, points scored, and points allowed, winning seven of the last 11 games, including each of the last four. The Eagles went 5-1 in division games and outscored their opponents by 68 points. Former Texans LB DeMeco Ryans, a free agency addition, gives the team an outstanding leader in the middle, so this team should be Super Bowl-bound, right?

Maybe not. All-pro tackle Jason Peters, the best offensive lineman in the NFL, ruptured his Achilles tendon this Spring, and the offensive line is now a serious question mark. That's a big deal when you have an injury-prone QB and the backup is a rookie drafted in the third round. And first-round pick Fletcher Cox just fills the hole created by Mike Patterson's brain condition, which could keep him out all season. I expect the Eagles to start strong, but I believe Michael Vick will get injured eventually, and when he does, this offense is just going to go in the tank. Losing Peters is a very big deal.

12. Cincinnati Bengals [9-7] — You don't normally like to see a lot of offseason turnover from a playoff team, but I don't think the Bengals lost a lot of talent, and they had an awfully nice draft. Everyone expects Andy Dalton and A.J. Green to take the next step this year, and if they do, Cincinnati could push for a division title. I really like their interior defensive line, and I'm very high on the Bengals as a backup defense in fantasy leagues. They pair especially well with the Steelers, Packers, Patriots, Jets, or Lions, based on schedule and projected matchups.

13. Seattle Seahawks [10-6] — The strength of this team is its great young secondary. Marshawn Lynch was a beast last year, and rookie QB Russell Wilson beat free agent Matt Flynn to become the starting quarterback, but I'm skeptical that Wilson can succeed with a mediocre offensive line and sub-par receiving corps. Seattle should have a good defense, if the offense can string enough drives together to keep it off the field. I like Wilson, but I don't know that the team has put him in position to succeed. If Sidney Rice can stay healthy and Braylon Edwards can resurrect his career, Seattle could be a team to reckon with.

14. San Diego Chargers [8-8] — The last time I picked someone other than San Diego to win the AFC West was 2006, when I predicted the Broncos and should have gone with San Diego, who turned out to be the best team in the NFL. The Chargers' draft focused on defense, and if the key players can stay on the field, you might see dramatic improvement on that side of the ball. Unfortunately, the offense appears to be moving in the other direction. The wild card is Ryan Mathews. When healthy, he's produced almost like LaDainian Tomlinson, and he could turn San Diego into a serious contender. If Mathews falters, this is Norv Turner's last year in powder blue.

15. New Orleans Saints [8-8] — How much of their success is just Drew Brees? We'll find out this season. Head coach Sean Payton and defensive captain Jonathan Vilma are suspended for the year, along with shorter suspensions for some lesser names. All-pro guard Carl Nicks signed with a division rival, and wide receiver Robert Meachem went to San Diego. Barrett Ruud steps in for Vilma, but the Saints face a lot of challenges. The offense will still put up big yardage numbers, but it's hard to see the Saints making a serious run in 2012.

16. Buffalo Bills [8-8] — Upgraded their pass rush with Mario Williams and Mark Anderson, plus the offensive line and defensive backfield are starting to come together. Are we underrating this team because it's weakest at the offensive glamor positions? Or are we overrating it, because blocking and defense are nice but you can't win without some play-makers on offense? In 2011, the Bills started 5-2 and finished 6-10. Part of that was the injury to Fred Jackson, but C.J. Spiller played okay as his replacement, so it wasn't the only problem. Jackson is also 31 and coming off a major injury. If you think the Bills will be better this season because he'll be healthy and effective all year, you're kidding yourself. I wouldn't be surprised if the Bills start strong, but I don't expect them to keep it up for 16 weeks.

17. Dallas Cowboys [7-9] — It is stunning that Jason Garrett is a head coach in the NFL. The Cowboys lost four of their last five in 2011, missing the playoffs by a single game. The potential is there for this to be an explosive team. But the running backs and receivers need to stay healthy, Jason Witten needs to get healthy, the offensive line needs to start blocking again, and the draft choices and free agents signed to the defense this offseason need to make an impact early. I'm interested to see how the team uses DeMarco Murray, but I don't have faith in the team to turn potential into results. It's another roller-coaster season, up one week and down the next, leading to a finish in the neighborhood of .500.

18. Arizona Cardinals [7-9] — Played well late last season, winning seven of their last nine. They're solid at most positions, but wretched at quarterback (John Skelton) and probably not much better at RB (Beanie Wells). I've been saying this for two years now, but they need to get LaRod Stephens-Howling involved on offense. He's a Darren Sproles-type player. The Cardinals have an underrated defense and good receivers, so if Skelton can put it together, they'll make a run at the NFC West title.

19. New York Jets [8-8] — The forecast for their offense is more dismal than ever, with personnel that might generously be described as "solid". Some players react to a challenge in training camp and preseason by elevating their games and showing the world what they can do. Others react by losing their confidence and making mistakes. We won't know until the season starts, but it seems like most people are putting Mark Sanchez in the second category. It became apparent last year that this team has real chemistry issues, and this season, Rex Ryan probably needs to devote less attention to the media and more to fostering cohesion in the locker room. The defense, a revelation in 2009, now just looks like Darrelle Revis and 10 other guys.

20. Kansas City Chiefs [8-8] — Two years ago, they won the AFC West. Last season, Matt Cassel, Jamaal Charles, Tony Moeaki, and Eric Berry all ended up on IR. Between return from injury and lower strength of schedule, the Chiefs should be a serious threat to recapture the division crown. The team was aggressive in free agency, bringing in Peyton Hillis and OT Eric Winston, and a highly regarded draft should solidify the offensive and defensive lines. Unfortunately, they begin the season with their best player suspended for a game (OLB Tamba Hali) and several defensive starters battling injury. Nonetheless, they're my pick to win the AFC West.

21. Carolina Panthers [7-9] — I wish they'd done more to address their pass defense in the offseason, and I suspect that will be the team's weak link in 2012. All-pro LB Jon Beason, who only played one game last season, returns from the injured list and should provide a significant boost. Cam Newton had a tremendous rookie season, but he's not going to score 14 rushing touchdowns this year, and I hope Carolina will invest more in the running game without leaning on Newton. I expect this year's Panthers to look a lot like last year's Panthers.

22. Tennessee Titans [7-9] — Jake Locker takes the reins as QB, Chris Johnson didn't hold out, Kenny Britt's one-game suspension overlaps with his injury rehab, rookie Kendall Wright should add some pop to the offense, and they added Steve Hutchinson in free agency. They also lost two of their best defensive players, Cortland Finnegan and Barrett Ruud, and did little to address a pass rush that plummeted last season without Jason Babin. If someone steps up and the offense gels, Tennessee could be one of the best teams in the AFC, but I think there are too many things that have to break right, and I see them close to .500. The Titans have a nasty September schedule, so don't lose hope if they open 1-3.

23. Denver Broncos [7-9] — Are they getting the Peyton Manning who led Indianapolis to nine straight postseasons, or just an old guy who can't make all the throws any more and might be afraid to get hit? At worst, Manning is one of the smartest quarterbacks in the game, experienced and able to read defenses. On the other hand, he spent years developing rapport with Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne, he played most of his games indoors, and he's coming off an injury some people thought might end his career. You hate to reduce a team's season to the quarterback, but when the QB is Peyton Manning, it makes a big difference. Just look at last year's Colts.

24. Miami Dolphins [6-10] — Got their new quarterback, first-round pick Ryan Tannehill, but does he have anyone to throw to? Brandon Marshall is gone, and the top wide receivers are Davone Bess and Brian Hartline. I imagine Reggie Bush and Anthony Fasano will see a lot of passes, but those guys aren't going to stretch the field. With a limited offense and a defense transitioning back to the 4-3, it's tough to see this as anything other than a rebuilding year for Miami.

25. Oakland Raiders [7-9] — Didn't really have a draft, because of the Carson Palmer trade, and hired their third different opening-day head coach in the last three seasons. Dennis Allen is the Raiders' sixth HC in the last eight years, and I believe the lack of stability has really held back the team. There hasn't been a tenured coach or quarterback since Jon Gruden and Rich Gannon, and it's often unclear who really leads the team. Maybe that will change in the post-Al Davis era, but right now, I'm not clear how this team fits together or what direction it's going.

26. Washington Redskins [6-10] — Is any team more consistently overrated in preseason than Washington? Look, I'm impressed with Robert Griffin III. He's got a lot of potential, and he's handled himself like a pro. But he's playing behind a shallow offensive line, and his top receiving target might be tight end Fred Davis, a suspension risk. Chris Nield's injury leaves the nose tackle rotation empty behind Barry Cofield, and you can't play a 3-4 defense without a nose tackle. Free agent safety Tanard Jackson got suspended for the year, and the defensive backfield remains a major concern. Even if RGIII is everything the team hopes, he's not surrounded by enough talent to be successful right now.

27. Tampa Bay Buccaneers [7-9] — Lost their last 10 games in a row, "led" the league in turnovers, and allowed the most rushing TDs in the NFL (26) by more than a third (19). What happened to Josh Freeman last year? After a breakout performance in 2010 and a pretty bad season in 2011, the Bucs are determind to find out. They added Pro Bowl WR Vincent Jackson, Pro Bowl offensive lineman Carl Nicks, Pro Bowl TE Dallas Clark, and rookie RB Doug Martin, and if Freeman can't succeed with those tools at his disposal, we have to write off 2010 as a fluke. Tampa plays a tough schedule, so even though the team should be better, I'm thinking 7-9 better, not 12-4 better.

28. Cleveland Browns [6-10] — Moving in the right direction, but they play in a tough division, and the lack of aerial game figures to hold them back. Even if Brandon Weeden is ready to be an NFL starter, how's he going to prove it throwing to Greg Little and Mohamed Massaquoi? The Browns should be better than last season, but there are still a number of holes to patch.

29. St. Louis Rams [6-10] — Had a nice draft, courtesy of Daniel Snyder, and upgraded their defense with CB Cortland Finnegan. They have some good players scattered throughout the roster, and looking at their depth chart, I was surprised by the potential I saw, a contrast with their dismal results last season. My biggest concern remains the passing game, with a punchless WR corps and a QB who has shown nothing in the NFL. The Rams might be competitive in a weak division, but they shouldn't be a factor in January. They only have seven home games this season, with one at Wembley Stadium in London.

30. Jacksonville Jaguars [5-11] — In my friend's fantasy league, someone accidentally drafted Brandon Marshall, their rookie linebacker, rather than Brandon Marshall, the Bears WR. I bet it's the first time someone has taken a linebacker with a third-round pick. The good news is that the rest of the league was cool, and gave him the "real" Brandon Marshall. The bad news is that last season, a linebacker probably would have been better than most of Jacksonville's real-life offense. With Justin Blackmon and Laurent Robinson on the field, Blaine Gabbert has no more excuses. Even with Maurice Jones-Drew potentially rusty from his long holdout, this needs to look like a real offense this year.

31. Indianapolis Colts [5-11] — They were 2-14 last season, so let's be clear: they won't be good this year. The uncertainty at quarterback is gone, and I like rookie tight end Coby Fleener, but he and Andrew Luck have some awfully big shoes to fill. Free agent DE Cory Redding is underrated, a nice pickup, but the transition to a 3-4 defense and the aging of star pass rushers Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis might create some turmoil. Realistically, the Colts' season will probably be more interesting than competitive.

32. Minnesota Vikings [5-11] — I liked their draft, but this team still has a long way to go. Christian Ponder is an unproven quarterback. Adrian Peterson is returning from a major knee injury, and it's unrealistic to expect the All Day performance we're used to. The receiving corps is uninspiring. The team's best defensive players are all in their 30s. On top of everything else, they play in a stacked division. Expect a rough season.

AFC Playoffs

Wild Card: BALTIMORE def. Pittsburgh, Cincinnati def. KANSAS CITY
Divisional: NEW ENGLAND def. Cincinnati, HOUSTON def. Baltimore
Championship: NEW ENGLAND def. Houston

NFC Playoffs

Wild Card: Detroit def. PHILADELPHIA, SEATTLE def. Chicago
Divisional: GREEN BAY def. Detroit, ATLANTA def. Seattle
Championship: GREEN BAY def. Atlanta

Super Bowl XLVII

Green Bay over New England

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