It’s that time of year. Football’s back. Let’s rank ‘em from top to bottom.
1) Green Bay Packers (2011: 15-1) - Despite the early playoff exit, the Packers were 2011′s best team. They finished with a +201 point differential and scored more points than any other team in the league. Aaron Rodgers is the league’s reigning MVP and has thrown just 24 interceptions over the last three seasons.
2) New England Patriots (2011: 13-3) - Including the playoffs, the Patriots won 10 straight at one point last season. Adding Brandon Lloyd as a deep threat should only make an already dangerous offense even more difficult to defend. With the easiest schedule in the league, it’s difficult to picture the Patriots getting anything worse than second seed in the AFC.
3) Baltimore Ravens (2011: 12-4) - A Lee Evans dropped pass away from being in the Super Bowl last season, the Ravens return one of the league’s most balanced teams. Yes, the defense is a little bit older and has its share of injuries (losing Terrell Suggs really hurts), but I don’t expect that much of a dropoff from the defense that ranked in the top five in both passing and rushing yards allowed last season.
4) Houston Texans (2011: 10-6) - Easily the best team in a cupcake division. Just how easy is the division? The Texans won it last year despite injuries to Matt Schaub, Mario Williams, and Andre Johnson. Williams may be gone, but the Texans have a chance to sneak into the Super Bowl.
5) Chicago Bears (2011: 8-8) - This stems from me putting more faith in Jay Cutler than most. It’s easy to forget that before Cutler went down the Bears were riding a five game winning steak and had a 7-3 record with all three of those losses coming to playoff teams (Packers, Saints, and Lions). Now that Cutler has an actual number one wide receiver to throw to in Brandon Marshall, the Bears finally have a more dangerous offense to pair with their always steady, albeit aging, defense.
6) San Francisco 49ers (2011: 13-3) – We know the defense is elite, but can Vernon Davis play like he did in the playoffs? Does Randy Moss have anything left in the tank? Most importantly, can Alex Smith get them the ball?
7) Pittsburgh Steelers (2011: 12-4) – Which team let up the least amount of total points last season? That would be the Pittsburgh Steelers. As long as the Steelers can get more production from their running game, they will once again be one of the AFC’s elite teams.
8) Atlanta Falcons (2011: 10-6) – Is this the year that the Falcons get over the hump and win a playoff game? The NFC is loaded with playoff-caliber teams, but the Falcons dynamic offense should keep them in the running for the division title, or at the very least, a wild card spot.
9) New York Giants (2011: 9-7) – I know they are the defending Super Bowl champs, but the Giants actually finished with a negative point differential last season (-6). The passing attack should be one of the best in the league and the same goes for the pass rush. But the defense has concerns outside of the front line and the offense needs to be able to run the ball more consistently.
10) New Orleans Saints (2011: 13-3)- The Saints ended the season with the best point differential in the league (+208) and return the same potent offense. Obviously, the concerns here are the suspensions that have been handed down as a result of the defensive bounties. Can the Saints overcome them?
11) Philadelphia Eagles (2011: 8-8) – If the Eagles play up to their potential, they win the NFC East. If they don’t and get riddled with injuries again, well, you saw what happened last year.
12) Detroit Lions (2011: 10-6) – The Lions finished with the fourth most points in the league last year, and as long as quarterback Matthew Stafford stays healthy, should have no problem piling points again this season. Hopefully Ndamukong Suh can bounce back after a down year (just four sacks) to help the defense improve.
13) Dallas Cowboys (2011: 8-8) – Even with the spleen injury to Jason Witten, Tony Romo has plenty of talent surrounding him. Outside of the offensive line that is, which could be one of the worst in the league.
14) Denver Broncos (2011: 8-8) – I have no idea how Peyton Manning is going to perform, and seeing as how the success of the Broncos is dependent on his play, putting Denver in the middle of the pack seems fair to me.
15) San Diego Chargers (2011: 8-8) – It feels weird that people have written off Philip Rivers as a good quarterback so quickly. Let’s not forget that before last season he was considered one of the best in the league. The offensive line struggled last season, and the injury to Ryan Mathews doesn’t help, but for the first time in a few years the expectations aren’t through the roof, so maybe they will surprise some people.
16) Kansas City Chiefs (2011: 7-9) - Nobody got bit more by the injury bug than the Kansas City Chiefs in 2011 (except for maybe Houston), yet they still finished just a game out of first in the division. But now with Jamaal Charles and Eric Berry returning, and the addition of Peyton Hillis, the Chiefs could come out on top of a very balanced division.
17) New York Jets (2011: 8-8) – It’s difficult to imagine the Jets’ offense being as bad as it was in the preseason, but who knows? The defense underperformed last year and will need to return to the form we saw a few years ago for the Jets to have a chance at the playoffs.
18) Cincinnati Bengals (2011: 9-7) - It’s funny, there was some talk last year that the Bengals could go winless. But then Andy Dalton exceeded expectations and the Bengals made the playoffs. If the Bengals take advantage of their easy early schedule(five of first six games against Cleveland twice, Washington, Jacksonville, and Miami), then they could contend for a playoff spot. But expect a little bit of a dropoff as not one of their wins last year came against a playoff team.
19) Buffalo Bills (2011: 6-10) – It turns out Ryan Fitzpatrick was hurt most of last season and losing Fred Jackson toward the end of the year didn’t help either. Both back at full health, the Bills offense could return to what we saw in the beginning of 2011. Pair that with an improving defense and Buffalo could be a dark horse for a wild card spot in a top-heavy AFC.
20) Tennessee Titans (2011: 9-7) – The Titans almost made the playoffs last season, and with two easy divisional teams in the Colts and the Jags, they might be able to rack up enough wins to contend for a spot this year too.
21) Carolina Panthers (2011: 6-10) – Doesn’t it feel like they had a better record last season? The Panthers defense, which finished in the bottom 10 in points allowed, and passing and rushing yards allowed per game, will have to do a better job in order to give the offense more of a chance to stay in games. If Cam Newton cuts back on the interceptions a little in his second year, the Panthers could make some noise in the NFC South.
22) Seattle Seahawks (2011: 7-9) – With a sneaky good defense and one of the best home crowds in all of sports, the Seahawks would be the next to come out of the NFC West if San Francisco struggles. Let the Russell Wilson era begin.
23) Oakland Raiders (2011: 8-8) – As long as the key pieces stay healthy, the offense could be good. But the defense, which let up 433 points last season, has its question marks.
24) Washington Redskins (2011: 5-11) – The defense wasn’t that bad last year, and if Robert Griffin III can ignite what was a very stale offense, we could see a quick improvement from Washington.
25) Arizona Cardinals (2011: 8-8) – Last season, Arizona went 4-2 in the division. We’ll see if the Cards can be as good in the division this year right away, as they open up against Seattle.
26) Tampa Bay Buccaneers (2011: 4-12) – The Bucs are riding a 10-game losing streak, the worst in the league. Hopefully Vincent Jackson and Doug Martin can put some excitement back into an offense that lacked it last season.
27) St. Louis Rams (2011: 2-14) – By trading away the number two overall pick, the Rams were putting their stock in quarterback Sam Bradford. He needs to prove his worth this year.
28) Minnesota Vikings (2011: 3-13) - The Vikings would like for Adrian Peterson to be at full strength sooner rather than later, but even if he is, this is a rebuilding team.
29) Indianapolis Colts (2011: 2-14) - At least the future has arrived in Andrew Luck.
30) Miami Dolphins (2011: 6-10) - You have to wonder what direction the organization has the team going in when it trades a 24-year-old corner back with potential. Ugh, it’s going to be a long season.
31) Jacksonville Jaguars (2011: 5-11) - The good news is MJD has returned. The bad news is the fans won’t.
32) Cleveland Browns (2011: 4-12) - Could the Browns go winless?