Welcome, football fans, to the first installment of NESN.com’s NFL power rankings.
We’ll be rolling these out weekly during the regular season, but with training camps around the league kicking off this week, we’re giving you an early look at which teams we believe are primed for success this season and which ones will have an uphill climb.
1. New England Patriots: No Tom Brady? No problem. The Patriots are good enough to start 3-1 with Jimmy Garoppolo under center while Brady serves his Deflategate suspension, especially after adding tight end Martellus Bennett to an offense that already featured Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola, Dion Lewis and Rob Gronkowski.
2. Arizona Cardinals: The “1” in the aforementioned 3-1 very well could come in New England’s season opener against a very dangerous Arizona team. If Carson Palmer plays the way he did during the 2015 regular season and not how he did in the NFC Championship Game (four interceptions in a 49-15 loss), the Cardinals again should be one of the NFL’s top dogs.
3. Carolina Panthers: The reigning NFC champs lost several key defenders, including cornerback Josh Norman, during the offseason, but they return MVP quarterback Cam Newton and should have a healthy Kelvin Benjamin for him to throw to. Don’t expect another 15-1 finish, but Carolina should be darn good.
4. Green Bay Packers: The Packers played all of last season without injured No. 1 receiver Jordy Nelson — and with Aaron Rodgers putting up some of the worst numbers of his career — and still came within one heartbreaking overtime loss of a second consecutive NFC title game.
5. Pittsburgh Steelers: Losing Martavis Bryant to a season-long suspension certainly hurt, and it will hurt even more if Le’Veon Bell indeed is banned for the first four games for missing a drug test. Pittsburgh’s offense is highly explosive even without those two, though.
6. Denver Broncos: Denver’s defense is as beastly as ever, and as the reigning Super Bowl champions, the Broncos must be respected. So why aren’t they higher on this list? Here’s why:
7. Seattle Seahawks: Seattle’s offensive line still is a bit of a mess, and running back Marshawn Lynch called it a career. The Seahawks’ defense remains formidable, however, and record-setting late bloomer Doug Baldwin headlines a deep and dangerous receiving corps.
8. Cincinnati Bengals: Book it: Cincinnati will win at least 11 games this season, then lose in the first round of the playoffs. Again.
9. Kansas City Chiefs: With Denver’s quarterback situation so unsettled, could this be the year Kansas City claims the AFC West crown? The Chiefs have the pieces to do so, especially with running back Jamaal Charles back in the fold after he tore his ACL early last season.
10. Minnesota Vikings: Minnesota’s fancy new stadium should play host to some entertaining football this season after Teddy Bridgewater, Adrian Peterson and Co. nabbed an unexpected playoff berth in 2015. And, thankfully for everyone involved, none of it will be played in sub-zero temperatures.
11. Oakland Raiders: While they finished just 7-9, the Raiders proved last season they no longer are a complete disaster. With Derek Carr at the helm and Khalil Mack leading the D, this Oakland team has a real shot at ending the franchise’s 13-year playoff drought.
12. Washington Redskins: Thanks to the overall ineptitude of the NFC East, a 9-7 finish was enough to get the Redskins into the playoffs last season. The quarterback of that team, Kirk Cousins, enters 2016 with plenty to prove as just the second QB ever to play a season under the franchise tag.
13. Houston Texans: The Texans reached the playoffs last season with Brian Hoyer as their primary quarterback. Even if Brock Osweiler isn’t worth the $37 million in guaranteed money Houston is paying him, he should be an upgrade over the former Patriots backup.
14. New York Jets: The Jets are in a weird spot. If they work things out with Ryan Fitzpatrick before the season begins, they could even climb a few spots higher on this list. If they’re forced to start Geno Smith at quarterback, it wouldn’t be surprising if they went 6-10.
15. Dallas Cowboys: The NFC East remains wide open, and the Cowboys weren’t nearly as bad last season as their 4-12 record indicated. Having a healthy Dez Bryant back will help, too.
16. Indianapolis Colts: The Colts took a major step back last season after losing to the Patriots in the 2014 AFC title game. The AFC North is just as weak as the NFC East, though, and Indy has as good a chance as anyone of emerging as division champs.
17. Jacksonville Jaguars: Bill Belichick spent an entire news conference early last season raving about the Jaguars — who promptly lost to the Patriots 51-17 and eventually finished the season 5-11. The Jags are improved, but they’re still a long way from relevancy.
18. New York Giants: The New York Post published a column Tuesday titled “A plea to the Giants and Jets: Stop failing New York.” So, yeah, things aren’t too great right now in East Rutherford.
19. Buffalo Bills: Rex Ryan is coaching for his job, and the Bills have a lot of work to do after a miserable 5-11 finish last season.
20. Baltimore Ravens: Injury concerns abound for the Ravens, who are coming off their worst season since 2007.
21. Atlanta Falcons: Note the disparity between the Panthers and their three fellow NFC South clubs, all of whom dot the bottom third of this list.
22. Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Jameis Winston looked ready for the NFL stage in his first pro season, but the Bucs have a question mark at head coach in first-year bench boss Dirk Koetter.
23. Los Angeles Rams: Wins will be hard to come by in the Rams’ first season back in L.A., but 2015 Offensive Rookie of the Year Todd Gurley and 2016 top draft pick Jared Goff headline a promising young core.
24. Chicago Bears: The kings of mediocrity, the Bears appear destined for another season of being half-decent but not particularly good.
25. Detroit Lions: The Lions have a few studs on defense, but quarterback Matt Stafford will need some weapons to step up around him following Calvin Johnson’s surprising retirement.
26. Miami Dolphins: Can quarterback Ryan Tannehill take the long-awaited next step under new head coach Adam Gase? He’ll have to, because Miami won’t have much of a running game.
27. San Diego Chargers: The Broncos, Chiefs and Raiders all have somewhat legitimate chances of winning the AFC West this season. The Chargers? Not so much.
28. New Orleans Saints: Drew Brees is another year older, and the Saints’ defense ain’t pretty.
29. Philadelphia Eagles: The Sam Bradford-Carson Wentz dynamic should be fascinating to watch, at the very least.
30. Tennessee Titans: If Marcus Mariota continues to improve and Heisman Trophy winner Derrick Henry turns into a solid NFL back, the Titans could be a good team in a few years. Don’t expect much from them in the short term, though.
31. San Francisco 49ers: This team played in three consecutive NFC title games from 2011 to 2013. That feels like a million years ago.
32. Cleveland Browns: Can LeBron James play quarterback?
Thumbnail photo via Winslow Townson/USA TODAY Sports Images
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