After blowing a historically big halftime lead in the AFC Championship Game the Pats loaded up on free agents to close the deal in 2007. It may or may not work, that remains to be seen, but on paper they look like the team to beat as we approach the season opener and thatís what the preseason power rankings are all about, which teams look the strongest (or weakest) on paper.
2. CHARGERS: At 14-2 they had the leagues best record in 2006 and that was not by accident. Tomlinson is an all-time great; Phil Rivers is a good young Quarterback who only figures to get better; their offensive line is terrific; Gates is an all-time tight-end and their front-seven on defense is ferocious. Their wide receivers donít scare you and it is hard to imagine Norv Turner winning a Super Bowl with the 85 Bears much less his first season in San Diego, otherwise I would have to rank these guys #1 based solely on talent from top to bottom. Even the running-back who backs up LT (Michael Turner) will probably be one of the most coveted free agents in 2008.
3. SAINTS: Yeah I know their defense is suspect, but they should be improved this year with the departure of Fred ďtoastĒ Thomas (classic case of addition by subtraction) and their offense is, in a word, scary. If they can play any defense at all, this is my preseason pick to represent the NFC in Super Bowl XLII.
4. COLTS: Last years Super Bowl Champs fall to #4 in the preseason rankings because long-time left-tackle Tarick Glenn is no longer around to protect Peytonís blind-side, outside linebacker Cato June departed for Tampa Bay, and their defensive tackle situation looks awfully bleak. Donít under-estimate the loss of Glenn, he was a terrific left-tackle in this league for a long time, essential for what the Colts like to do on offense (i.e. fling the ball all over the yard) and he may not be so easily replaced.
5. BRONCOS: Denver is looking for big things from running-back Travis Henry behind their vaunted zone-blocking schemes, their defense is stingy with Champ Bailey being arguably the leagues best cover-corner, and If Jay Cutler is what I think he is, a future all-pro waiting to happen, the sky the limit for his Broncos should that becomes more apparent in year two with a fine core of receivers (Javon Walker, Brandon Marshall and Brandon Stokley), not to mention two pretty good tight-ends in Tony Sheffler and Daniel Graham.
6. BEARS: Ferocious defense with enough offense and an explosive return man (Devin Hester) to make it matter.
7. RAVENS: Their defense took a hit with the departure of Adalius Thomas to New England, and Ray Lewis isnít getting any younger either, but overall it should remain one of the leagues stronger units and Willis McGahee should give them a solid complimentary running game as well. Their passing game doesnít scare anyone with an aging Steve McNair at Quarterback and a so-so group of wide receivers, but defense and rushing should make them a tough team to beat.
8. BENGALS: They canít play a dimes worth of defense, but they will score points by the bushel-basket. They have a shot to lead the league in points scored, and so long as they donít lead the league in points allowed as well they should win double-digit games.
9. COWBOYS: If Tony Romo is not a fluke the Cowboys should win the NFC East, they have the most talent overall in my view, but the Quarterback has to play well because the Eagles wonít gift-wrap it for them.
10. EAGLES: Typical Andy Reid team, not spectacular in any one area but solid from top to bottom and rarely beat themselves. That can win you ten games in the NFL, and definitely in the NFC.
11. NY JETS: You thought I forgot about our guys, huh? Not hardly. The Jets are a better and deeper team overall in 2007, I truly believe that, but theyíll have to be a lot better because the schedule is brutal, the Pats are loaded for bear and the conference should be much tougher as well. I canít imagine any AFC team qualifying for the playoffs this year minus double-digit wins and that will be tough to come by with the Jets schedule, which starts with the Patriots and Ravens back-to-back. So weíll know if this team can hang with the big dogs right away. Thomas Jones was an outstanding addition and it seems like the Jets had another strong draft, but theyíll have to do a much better job at stopping the run and rushing the passer on defense. On offense that O-line, particularly left-guard, needs to be a pleasant surprise while Chad has to offer something in the form of a downfield passing attack, at least enough to keep defenses honest. Anyway, Tom Brady, Laurence Maroney and our old nemesis, Willis McGahee (i.e. Jim Brown at the sight of Jets Green) will let us know just how good we are right out of the box, and hereís hoping we start with a bang. For those who are disappointed with this initial ranking, Iíll be more generous next week if we upset the Pats.
12. SEAHAWKS: Good team that under-achieved in 2006, which reached epidemic proportions amongst their NFC brethren, which in turn allowed these particular under-achievers to make the playoffs regardless. I suspect the Seahawks will bounce back with a much better effort in 2007, or Mike Holmgren might go postal on these clowns. In fairness they lost Shaun Alexander for a significant amount of time last year and that had something to do with it as well.
13. JAGUARS: Byron Leftwich is out and David Garrard is in, which is not necessarily a bad thing, and these guys still have as physical a defense as there is in the NFL, especially at defensive tackle. Running-back Maurice Jones-Drew had a breakout rookie campaign and that will be the Jags M.O. once again, much like the Baltimore Ravens, smash-mouth football on offense and maul the opposition on defense.
14. RAMS: They should be a prolific team on offense with Marc Bulger, Steven Jackson, Torry Holt, Isaac Bruce who is still a decent #2 wide receiver, Drew Bennett who brings some size to the red-zone, Randy McMichael who does likewise and donít sleep on fullback Brian Leonard. Much like the Bengals they canít play any defense at all, but they will win their fair share of shootouts and theyíll be hard to beat if you have an anemic offense.
15. STEELERS: I know they had a down year in 2006 and this is not the same team or coaching staff that won the Super Bowl in 2005, but there are a number of holdovers from that team who can still play football at a high level so donít completely fall asleep on Pittsburgh. One year ago everything that could go wrong with their Quarterback did go wrong, starting with that motorcycle accident, but this preseason has been far less eventful and the Steelers wouldnít have it any other way. I donít expect them to be a playoff team, but I wouldnít brand them bottom-feeders either.
16. 49ERS: Could be a nice sleeper if Frank Gore stays healthy, Vernon Davis takes that next step and Alex Smith continues to emerge as a franchise Quarterback.
17. TEXANS: Ditto the Texans and Matt Schaub. For years the Falcons were reluctant to trade this kid despite Michael Vick being firmly entrenched as the starter. Ironically just when they finally decided to pull the trigger Vick gets popped by the feds for killings dogs and now heís going away on a little vacation. What do you think the Falcons would give for a mulligan on that one? Anyway, the Falcons loss is the Texans gain and if this young man is as good as the Falcons always believed he was (with Andre Johnson as a bona-fide #1 wide receiver) the Texans could be a decent sleeper in 2007, especially if Amobi Okoye emerges as a player at defensive-tackle to compliment Mario Williams and DeMeco Ryans on the front-seven.
18. VIKINGS: I love their rookie running-back Adrian Peterson and I really like their defense too, especially their run defense. If this team just had a decent veteran Quarterback they could rely on, a Jeff Garcia type, I would like their chances to make the playoffs in a mediocre conference. Perhaps they should make a move for Byron Leftwich?
19. LIONS: Jon Kitna guaranteed his Lions would make the playoffs this year, and while that seems a little overly ambitious too me, with the additions of Calvin Johnson and Tatum Bell to compliment Roy Williams they do have a chance to be a pretty explosive on offense. With Mike Martz cooking up the offensive game-plans and these kinds of weapons at his disposal, Lions fans may at least have a fun team to watch in 2007 and lord knows itís been a long time coming.
20. GIANTS: There is no way Brandon Jacobs will even approach Tiki Barberís production, but heís a nice power-back who can wear defenses down and keep them honest so they canít just pin their ears back and get after Eli Manning Ö but make no mistake about it, the onus is on Eli now, this team will sink or swim on the strength of his right arm. They have enough on defense to compete in the NFC, but theyíll need this young man to finally justify that ridiculous draft-day trade, the one that went a long way towards turning the Chargers into an AFC powerhouse. Personally I donít think heís up to the task, but weíll see soon enough.
21. PANTHERS: This team horribly under-achieved in 2006. The expectations were through the roof and they pretty much mailed it in from day one. I know some folks will say this ranking is too low for the Panthers, but I say itís well earned after the stunt they pulled last year because these guys spent most of the 2006 season stealing money from team owner Jerry Richardson. So theyíll have to win their way back to respectability in 2007, otherwise Iíll give them the proper amount of respect they deserve, which in none whatsoever. After that 2006 stink-bomb theyíre lucky Iím ranking them this high at the outset.
22. CARDINALS: If that offensive line can keep Matt Leinart upright he should have some fun playing pitch & catch with Fitzgerald and Boldin, but thatís a big if and you canít throw the ball from your backside. If that offensive line can open some holes for Edgerrin James he may just recapture some of his former magic, but thatís a big if and you canít run through a brick wall. But these guys have some outstanding skill position players and the potential is there for some fireworks, provided their offensive line can prevent a weekly jail-break.
23. CHIEFS: This team needs rookie Dwayne Bowe to step up in a big way because so long as old man Eddie Kennison remains their #1 wide-receiver, Larry Johnson will have to earn every penny of that new mega-contract he signed, and I donít envy his having to run behind that sieve of an offensive-line either. By the way, has Herman Edwards finally decided which Quarterback he wants to get massacred behind that offensive line first, Brodie Croyle or Damon Huard? This might be the first time in the history of Quarterback controversies where both guys are thinking ďplease pick the other guy.Ē
24. TITANS: Iím not as infatuated with Vince Young as some others may be. Iíll take a pocket-passer like Jay Cutler over a running Quarterback any day of the week. I just believe you win from the pocket in the pros, so I have to see this young man develop into an impressive thrower before I take the plunge. Having said that, I just donít see how he can do that with this rag-tag bunch of wide-receivers and I donít love their running-backs either. Iím only ranking them this high because my respect for head coach Jeff Fisher is immeasurable, this man can probably win six games coaching the little sisters of the poor, but they have to get this kid better weapons or heíll have no choice but to run himself ragged.
25. RAIDERS: I know this seems crazy and maybe it is, but I can see the Raiders escaping from the cellar if Duante Culpepper and LaMont Jordan stay healthy. They have a decent wide-receiver duo in Jerry Porter and Ronald Curry, so heíll have some weapons to throw too, and they had a very stingy defense in 2006 despite their abysmal record. Iím not saying theyíre a .500 team, but in my view they have a chance to depart the ranks of the bottom feeders.
26. DOLPHINS: I still canít believe this team passed on Brady Quinn and then had the audacity to tell their fan-base they spent the #9 overall pick on a return man. Hey I like Ted Ginn and maybe John Beck or Cleo Lemon is the answer, but I doubt it, and right now Trent Green is one big hit away from ushering in the Beck/Lemon era for keeps. Meanwhile the Browns are said to be very encouraged by what they have seen from Quinn thus far and word has it he may be starting sooner rather than later, by choice. Once upon a time this organization had a clue when Don Shula and Jimmy Johnson were calling the shots, but it seems too me that ships done sailed and I canít say that makes me unhappy. Provided Jason Taylor and Zach Thomas donít start showing their age (which is way past due) their defense should keep them competitive, but their O-line is a mess and that spells bad news for Trent Green and his multiple concussions.
27. BILLS: A lot of people like the Bills as a sleeper in 2007, but perhaps no teams in the NFL were hit any harder by quality defections such as Nate Clements, Willis McGahee, London Fletcher, Takeo Spikes, etc. I know the Bills like Paul Posluzsny and Marshawn Lynch, but I have a hard time believing you can lose that many good players in one off-season and come back a better team the following year. Iíll believe that when I see it.
28. BROWNS: Their defense is getting better and Winslow looks primed to finally start paying dividends, perhaps Braylon Edwards as well, but theyíll probably start breaking in Brady Quinn fairly soon and suffer the growing pains. Itís the right way to go because theyíre not yet a playoff contender, so better to get that out of the way now, but that may result in another TOP 5 Pick in the 2008 NFL draft.
29. PACKERS: I keep hearing the Pack has an emerging defense, but are they talking about the same defense that made Chad Pennington look like Dan Fouts? Hey I like Chad, heís a nice cerebral QB, but letís be honest, heís not exactly a gunslinger and he tore this defense to shreds in what was easily his best performance in 2006. Oh by the way, whoís carrying the load for Green Bay at running-back this year, Vernand Morency or Brandon Jackson? Yikes!
30. REDSKINS: Iím probably under-rating the Redskins here, but not by much. I donít know, perhaps itís because Iím wishing such misery on Pete Kendall?
31. BUCCANEERS: Iím probably over-rating the Buccaneers here, but not by much because thereís only one spot left behind them.
32. FALCONS: Who let the dogs out!! Who let the dogs out!! Who let the dogs out!! Who let the dogs out!!