By Nick Ferraro
1. Pittsburgh Steelers
The champs head into the season in the top spot. The defense will be ferocious again, and the running game will improve. The only question facing Steel Town is this: do the sexual assault allegations against Big Ben derail the Steelers the way his motorcycle accident did a couple years back?
2. New England Patriots
Brady is back, and prayer sessions for his health have begun throughout New England. There doesn’t appear to be a “plan B” should he go down again. There didn’t appear to be one last year either though, and they still won 11 games.
3. Indianapolis Colts
This is the toughest spot in the rankings to pin down. There are four or five different teams that could land at number three. None are as sure to post 12 or more wins and make a title run as are the Colts.
4. Atlanta Falcons
Surprised? Don’t be. The move to land Tony Gonzalez will be the single biggest free agent addition this season. He will be rejuvenated by joining a contender. Matt Ryan will not only avoid the sophomore slump, he will improve on a big rookie season with a huge running game, underrated receivers, and a security blanket over the middle in the form of the best tight end ever to play the game.
5. Philadelphia Eagles
The Eagles continue to make the right moves despite the wishes of the league’s dumbest fans. McNabb is still a top-tier quarterback, and he gives the Eagles another few years to get back to the big game. An improved offensive line will make him look even better. They need a healthy Westbrook or a huge rookie season from McCoy to play late in January.
6. New York Giants
The Plaxico Burress thing will hang on this team all season. It doesn’t figure to end any time soon, nor have the Giants done anything to address his loss. The defense is still solid and will get to the quarterback more often than any other. How well can they stand up when they spend most of the game on the field? Hakeem Nicks better be good quick.
7. Tennessee Titans
A huge running game will carry the Titans again. They still have a top-ten defense despite the loss of Haynesworth up front. This is a solid team on both sides of the ball.
8. Carolina Panthers
Carolina will again grind teams up on the ground. They have to get better play at quarterback though to be an elite team. The defense also needs to patch some holes each of which were exposed at the end of the year.
9. Baltimore Ravens
Rumors have the Ravens looking to acquire unhappy Bronco receiver Brandon Marshall. That would be a huge upgrade at the position holding this team out of the conversation for the Super Bowl.
10. Dallas Cowboys
The Cowboys need a coach that can manage all of their talent. They will chase the more complete teams in their division all season. The Cowboys will start the 2010 – 2011 preseason power rankings much higher, when Mike Shanahan is their coach.
11. Arizona Cardinals
The Cardinals aren’t getting much respect after nearly stealing the Super Bowl. They have all the pieces in place on offense now with a big-time running back. Coach Whisenhunt will continue to remake the defense into a unit that is good enough to complement their high-octane offense.
12. San Diego Chargers
The Chargers fell hard last season. If Merriman is healthy, it will raise the performance on defense dramatically. The division should make things easier for the Bolts, and I expect a much better season from LT.
13. Chicago Bears
The Bears addressed a huge deficiency with a major talent at QB. Cutler will improve things on both sides of the ball as the defense will play under less pressure and spend less time on the field. The Bears defense allowed only 17 more points last season than the Vikings.
14. Miami Dolphins
I hear the argument that the Dolphins benefitted from their schedule last season. I just think they have been put together well, and will post another double-digit win total this year.
15. Minnesota Vikings
The Vikings got a huge break when their starting defensive tackles were made eligible to play to begin the year. Favre isn’t coming, so at least they can focus on the players who are actually in camp. Doesn’t Jackson have to improve a little just through experience?
16. New York Jets
The Jets have a top-ten defense, but they’ll only be as good as their passing game this season. They didn’t do Sanchez any favors letting Coles go without any reasonable replacement. The Jets will need to grind out some low-scoring wins and get some big plays on special teams to do anything more than what most people expect.
17. New Orleans Saints
It’s still about stopping people in New Orleans. I will start believing when the defense catches up a little to their explosive offense. Injuries didn’t help, but they enter the season healthy, so there are no excuses.
18. Green Bay Packers
The Pack felt like better than a six-win team, but that’s what they were. They should find some ways to win more of the close ones as Aaron Rodgers matures.
19. Houston Texans
The Texans have a preseason bandwagon going. People like them to be the surprise team this year. They have made some upgrades and they have talent at quarterback, wide receiver, and running back. It’s tough to step forward with the Titans and Colts holding you down though.
20. Denver Broncos
It will be hard for Denver to show any improvement on the eight wins they posted last year after giving up on a franchise quarterback. It’s much easier to imagine them falling into the top ten in the draft.
21. Seattle Seahawks
Hasslebeck’s return gives people some hope in the great Northwest. I don’t think it will make much of a difference.
22. San Francisco 49ers
Can an immortal linebacker and a personal hero of mine coach some decent play out of Alex Smith or Shaun Hill? If so, we have our surprise team for 2009 -2010.
23. Buffalo Bills
Life isn’t easy in the AFC East. It isn’t made any easier when you add Terrell Owens to the mix. Exactly who thought matching Owens with a struggling young quarterback was a good idea? This guy wasn’t able to deal with Garcia, McNabb, or Romo. How can this possibly work? Owens will never win anything, and neither will the Bills until he’s gone.
24. Washington Redskins
Life isn’t easy in the NFC East. The Skins will be an okay team, and nobody will notice because they are still behind their three division rivals.
25. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The Bucs still have a respectable defense. I’m not and never have been a Byron Leftwich fan though, so the new kid has to be the real deal for Tampa to matter this season.
26. St. Louis Rams
The Rams have done enough this offseason to move back toward respectability. They have a chance, if things go right, to make a bold move upward.
27. Jacksonville Jaguars
This will be Del Rio’s last campaign if the Jags struggle again. There have been some interesting new additions, but it’s likely not enough.
28. Oakland Raiders
I get the feeling that if JaMarcus Russell struggles again, and the Raiders pull the plug, he would go elsewhere and find success. This team has some talent, but they’ll never win with Al Davis in the way.
29. Cincinnati Bengals
Being bad in the AFC North is particularly difficult given the physical nature of the teams at the top of the division. Getting beat usually means getting beat up as well. The Bengals still figure to play the part of punching bag for another year.
30. Kansas City Chiefs
Paying big money to a quarterback who stepped in and played well for a great team without ever taking a snap for you or anybody else for that matter, is a questionable move at best. Cassel better be great or the Chiefs will have ensured several more losing years.
31. Cleveland Browns
What is going on with Braylon Edwards? Now the team’s best player has failed his physical. It’s hard to see anything good happening for the Browns in the near future.
32. Detroit Lions
It’s easier to say the Lions will be better. Of course, they will be better. They are still very bad, and they will probably finish the season in the bottom five again.