By Nick Ferraro
1. New England Patriots
Spygate and a drug bust have complicated the offseason, but this is still the league’s most talented team. Another AFC East crown is a given, but that will do little to cure the hangover the Pats have from last season. It will be about finishing in the post-season. A weaker secondary will make it a bit tougher, but they are the favorites entering the season. Somehow they get to play the league’s easiest schedule. How does that happen?
2. San Diego Chargers
We knew Tomlinson was good. Last year we found out he is also indispensable. His health will be even more important with Michael Turner carrying the ball in Atlanta. Philip Rivers made believers out many people by playing with a bad leg in last year’s AFC Championship. Some of those believers are in his locker room. Playing through the pain has solidified this team behind Rivers. With a healthy Tomlinson, Rivers, and Antonio Gates, they are a serious challenger and ready to finally break through and get to the Super Bowl.
3. Dallas Cowboys
With Brett Favre on the sidelines as of these rankings, the Cowboys enter the season as the clear NFC favorite. If Adam Jones’ head is on straight, he helps to seal one of the few cracks this team had last season. For all the talent this group has, it hasn’t found a way to win a playoff game. That drought should end this season. The question is how far Tony Romo can carry Dallas. Is Romo ready to hold up under true big game pressure, or is he just a fantasy football super star?
4. New York Giants
The champs usually get the honor of my pre-season number one, but this team has lost some considerable talent on defense. Strahan was the unquestioned leader and his retirement leaves a void on the line and more importantly in the locker room. There was depth at DE, but are last year’s part-time players ready to take more of burden this season? Eli should play with more confidence this year after the Super Bowl run. That is big considering his body language at times last year indicated he had serious doubts about himself.
5. Indianapolis Colts
Colt nation is holding its breath awaiting the recovery of Peyton Manning. I’m less concerned about Manning than I am about Marvin Harrison. Harrison’s age and the fact that he needs his legs more than Manning means he’s the bigger question mark. Dwight Freeney’s health is also a concern. If he can’t play at his former level, this defense takes a big step backward. This team is no longer guaranteed a division championship, and that puts them at a disadvantage behind the Patriots and Chargers. On the bright side Joseph Addai has elevated himself into the top tier of backs in the league. The dual threat of run and pass makes this offense a matchup nightmare and will keep the team in the race again in the AFC.
6. Jacksonville Jaguars
The Jags overall image is that of a smash-mouth grind it out team. Most would be surprised to hear that this team was sixth in the league in points per game. Jack del Rio should have won coach of the year honors after sending Byron Leftwich packing and making David Garrard his starter. This team is ready to take the Colts to the mat for the division. They need more consistent play outside on offense to make a bigger leap in the post-season. They’ve added speed at the position, but the question is if that speed can catch and run with the ball.
7. Cleveland Browns
Life is rough in the AFC. Move the Browns to the NFC, and they are in the top three. This team will get more respect this year, and will need to play under the burden of high expectations for the first season in quite a long time. If their free-agent acquisitions on defense pay off, they will meet or exceed all of those expectations in 2008.
8. Pittsburgh Steelers
The Steelers are evolving into a passing team. The evolution is one of necessity rather than choice as the offensive line has eroded. Roethlisberger has met the challenge of carrying more of the offense, but the formula doesn’t add up to success in the long term.
9. Minnesota Vikings
The Vikings are on the rise behind super talent Adrian Peterson. They landed a major upgrade at DE in Jarred Allen raising hopes even higher for 2008. The question is Tavaris Jackson. How good can he be and does he need to be? The OL and Peterson will hide his faults to a certain degree, but he needs to make some plays for this team to break through.
10. Green Bay Packers
Can anyone remember a team with this much chaos in the offseason doing anything positive? Even if Favre is allowed to return and the love returns with his coach and general manger, can this end well? The team has talent, which is a big reason for Favre’s resurgence in 2007. They will be good with or without Favre, but it’s hard to expect a return to the NFC Championship with a first-time starter or the divisive presence of a future hall of famer under center.
11. New Orleans Saints
The Saints have had as good an offseason as any team. They’ve been able to make solid upgrades to a porous defense through free agency and the draft. They need someone to find the tough yards between the tackles on offense, but points shouldn’t be a problem. The Saints are ready to take two steps up after a slide backwards in 2007.
12. Seattle Seahawks
The Seahawks will be considered little more than an also-ran unless they can recharge the running game. There are fresh legs in camp, but the issue is up front where not enough has been done to make this team a contender in 2008.
13. Philadelphia Eagles
The Eagles are the team with the most up or down potential in the league. It’s not out of the question for this team to perform as title contender or fall apart into the bottom ten of the league. Donovan McNabb’s health and head coach Andy Reid’s focus are the two biggest question marks.
14. New York Jets
The Jets are rising after an offseason of big name, free-agent additions. Alan Faneca was the biggest at the position of greatest need. He should allow the Jets to take the pressure off a weak quarterback position. The Jets will grind out wins with an improved defense. The front office has finally reshaped the personnel to fit the 3-4 scheme they want to run. Kris Jenkins level of motivation will be a big factor. His talent is not a question. The Jets should be able to generate a vastly improved pass rush that results in some short field opportunities for the offense. They are a still a couple of steps behind the pace in the AFC, but it should add up to a wildcard run for New York.
15. Tennessee Titans
The Titans have a solid defense and running game. That’s been a good formula in the NFL for a long time. They should get some more plays out of the passing game and be a tough spot on the schedule for everyone this season.
16. Denver Broncos
The heat has been turned up on head coach Mike Shanahan at least in the media. He has coach for life status as far as the owner is concerned. Denver is counting on their young guns on the defensive line to key their return to the playoffs. Jay Cutler will take a big step up in his third year, and improvements have been made on the offensive line. Denver will find running yards as they always do and vie for a wild card in the AFC.
17. Washington Redskins
The Redskins are coming together and figure to get better quarterback play out of Jason Campbell. The addition of Jason Taylor will improve the defense. The Skins have a chance to make some noise in the NFC.
18. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
How dangerous this team would be with a quarterback. The Bucs are a passing game away from a Super Bowl team. They will grind out some wins but fall short of the playoffs.
19. Buffalo Bills
The Bills don’t have anything on the roster that would make you envious. There isn’t enough offensive or defensive line talent yet.
20. Cincinnati Bengals
The Bengals might play better after setting themselves up as underdogs with low expectations. That us-against-the-world attitude seems to work. They haven’t done enough on defense to make me a believer though.
21. Houston Texans
The Texans start out in the hole with four games against the Colts and Jaguars. This team is improving though and is probably just a year away from being a factor.
22. Baltimore Ravens
The Ravens have injected just enough youth to stave off Father Time on defense. The front office has now had how many years to find a quarterback? If Joe Flacco isn’t the answer somebody should pay with their job.
23. Carolina Panthers
Jonathan Stewart is my preseason pick for rookie of the year. His chances are better if Jake Delhomme can play like he did before his arm problems. If both of those things work out John Fox might keep Bill Cowher from taking his job, and the Panthers will contend in the NFC playoff race.
24. Arizona Cardinals
I’m trying a new approach with the Cardinals: I am expecting them to stink. Now maybe they will play well. They seem to always do whatever I think they aren’t going to do. I need to see something from this defense to feel like they can win their weak division.
25. St Louis Rams
The Rams have to be low to start out the season, but I think this team is on the rise. Stephen Jackson is a stud and should be back at full strength. The defensive line will be better after plugging in two first-round picks. If the offensive line can play a little bit, the Rams could win a weak NFC West.
26. Chicago Bears
Wow, the Bears have slipped quickly. The defense has spent too much time on the field covering for an offense without a quarterback or a running game. Nothing changes in 2008.
27. San Francisco 49ers
I thought Alex Smith would be a good one. I was wrong. Mike Martz is his last hope. I don’t see it happening for the Niners.
28. Oakland Raiders
The Jamarcus Russell era is here. There will be excitement in Oakland with he and McFadden in the backfield. What there will not be much of in Oakland is wins.
29. Detroit Lions
This is finally going to be Matt Millen’s final year as GM.
30. Miami Dolphins
There will be much more pain in Miami before there is any kind of pleasure.
31. Atlanta Falcons
The quarterback of the future is in place. Now they need the offensive line, TE, and wide receivers of the future.
32. Kansas City Chiefs
The single hardest thing to find in the NFL is a dominant pass rusher. The Chiefs had one and let him go. They don’t have a quarterback and their offensive line has fallen apart. The Kansas City Chiefs are on the clock.