My format for power rankings has the 32 teams broken up into four categories: the elite; or the teams with the best chance to win the Super Bowl, the very good; otherwise known as the teams with an average chance to win the Super Bowl, hanging in there; or the teams who are alive but barely, and the dead; or the teams with no chance of winning the Super Bowl.
For the sake of a fresh start to a new season no team is currently classified as “dead.”
So here they are, Funk Football’s first power rankings of the new NFL season. What lockout?
01. Green Bay Packers – The defending Super Bowl champions only got healthier, which makes them better and more dangerous. Aaron Rodgers is one of the league’s top difference makers, and their schedule is easy enough where even if they don’t win the division they should be in the playoffs. This team is built well and built to win anywhere, and if Rodgers is healthy enough they can beat any team.
02. New Orleans Saints – Several of you out there may be calling me crazy for putting the Saints at number two, but this is a team one year removed from one of the most dominant seasons in NFL history, and this year’s version of the team includes an upgraded running game with the addition of Heisman trophy winning running back Mark Ingram and former San Diego Charger standout Darren Sproles. Last year in a “down year” the Saints went 11-5 before an embarrassing loss on the road to the Seahawks. The 2011 Saints should be healthier, stronger on defense, better on offense, and believe it or not under the radar. They should run away with the division.
03. San Diego Chargers – A lot of people seem to think the Chargers were a losing team last year, but they were a 9-7 team, and probably the best team that didn’t make the playoffs. By the end of the season there was little doubt that they were better than the Chiefs, and New England, Indianapolis, New York, Pittsburgh, and Baltimore were shaking in their cleats over the prospect of facing Philip Rivers and company in the playoffs. The Chargers seem to have fixed their major weakness: special teams, which was really the teams only weakness. The running game is underrated, the defense is great, and if Bob Sanders is healthy, the Chargers will have gotten the most game changing free agent of the off season, because after all, how many Super Bowls have Asomugha and Haynesworth carried their teams to? Sanders is the 2007 defensive player of the year and he’s joining a defense where he won’t be asked to be the only guy who can make a tackle. Watch out.
04. Philadelphia Eagles – The Eagles made 90% of the headlines in free agency and they certainly got deeper at a ton of positions. The only thing that can stop this team is health, and running into teams like the Packers and Saints who can score on anybody. Michael Vick was a great story in 2010, but it’s important to note that in Vick’s entire career he’s never had solid back to back seasons. In order for the 2011 Eagles to obtain immortality as Super Bowl champions, Vick is not only going to have to have a solid season, he’ll probably have to have the best season of his life considering at some point he’ll like have to face opposing offenses lead by Rodgers, Brees, Ryan, Peyton, Rivers, and Brady, any of which can score efficiently and mistake free.
05. New England Patriots – If the Patriots created 90% of the free agency headlines, the Patriots scooped up 9%, but their moves were far riskier. The acquisitions of Chad Ochocinco, Albert Haynesworth, and Shaun Ellis would all fall under the category of low risk, high reward. The problem is, the Pats aren’t handling it as low risk, instead moving their defense to a 4-3 to better accommodate for Haynesworth, while slotting Ochocinco as their #1 receiver in Brady’s offense. If you look at these power rankings, no other team in the top six would slot Ochocinco as the number one receiver. The move to 4-3 is far riskier than the Ochocinco move, not just because all five of Belichick’s Super Bowl victories have been with a 3-4, but because Philip Rivers, Aaron Rodgers, Peyton Manning, and Drew Brees have obscene career numbers against the 4-3, and relatively poor numbers against the 3-4. Still, I have to give Bill Belichick the benefit of the doubt until he proves otherwise. A tough division and a tough inter-conference schedule is this team’s biggest concern. A first round bye is paramount to a Super Bowl run for this team.
06. Indianapolis Colts – If the Colts plan to go back to the Super Bowl, this might be their last best chance, at least with this system. I’m not worried about Peyton’s neck, the Colts offense will be better than they were last year with an upgraded offensive line, and a healthy Dallas Clark and Austin Collie. What makes the Colts more dangerous than before are the defensive acquisitions they’ve made: the addition of injury plagued Tommie Harris, who by all accounts is now healthy, rivals that of the Bob Sanders acquisition as the best unsung signing of the offseason. You have to believe that if the Jets, Patriots, or Eagles made those signings it would be the second coming of Warren Sapp for all of those franchises. That’s east coast media bias, which has never stopped the Colts from having a great shot at a ring come January. This year should be no different. Like the Chargers and the Saints they’re flying under the radar right now, and that’s dangerous.
07. Pittsburgh Steelers – The Steelers have followed their other two Super Bowl berths in the Roethlisberger era with seasons in which they don’t make the playoffs. A part of me believes that will be the case again for the Steelers, but I don’t believe enough in the Ravens or Browns to see that as plausible just yet. I think a Super Bowl loss will motivate this team, and a healthy Troy Polamalu is as valuable as any other team’s best player. The rings speak for themselves in Pittsburgh, and as long as Roethlisberger and Polamalu are there (and healthy), this is the team to beat in the AFC North.
08. Baltimore Ravens – The Ravens have been good enough to get out of the first round the past three years, but not good enough to get to a Super Bowl. The Ravens best shot at getting to one is going to be by getting a first round bye, and if ever that was possible this is the year. The Ravens need to stay healthy on defense, but if Joe Flacco can take that next step to borderline Pro Bowl quarterback, this Ravens team can win the division, and potentially get that first round bye. If they do, then watch out.
09. New York Jets – The New York Jets Super Bowl hopes begin and end with Mark Sanchez. In order for the Jets to get to that next level, Sanchez needs to get to that next level. The Jets have gotten to the conference title game two years in a row the hard way; on the road as a wild card team with a below average playoff quarterback. If they had an average to above average playoff quarterback the Jets would have likely gone to the Super Bowl one of those years. The Jets roster is strong enough where Sanchez isn’t going to be asked to be Drew Brees or Aaron Rodgers, instead he’s going to be asked to be Brad Johnson circa 2002. Before you laugh at that here are Brad Johnson’s 2002 numbers: 62.3 completion percentage, 234.5 passing yards/game, 11:3 TD:INT ratio, 92.9 QBR. The only thing to laugh at may be expecting Sanchez to obtain those sort of numbers, nevertheless it’s what he’s going to need to do if the Jets want to get past Brady, Manning, Rivers, Rodgers, Brees, and Roethlisberger, most importantly in the regular season where the Jets have struggled the past two seasons.
10. Atlanta Falcons – Call me crazy for putting them down at number ten, but I just see this as a step back year for Atlanta. A lot went right for the Falcons in 2010, including being in the same division as a hung-over Saints, but in the playoffs the Falcons proved they didn’t belong on the field with the eventual Super Bowl champions. This year it may be the Falcons who have the hangover. I think this team is good enough to get to the playoffs, but their schedule isn’t exactly a cakewalk, either. Julio Jones is a great add, but rarely do rookie wide receivers make the impact that puts a team over the top.
11. Dallas Cowboys – If the Saints, Chargers, and Colts are under the radar, then the Cowboys are beneath under the radar. This is a team that has flirted with an NFC title for awhile now, but fell short due to a poor coaching staff and a mismanaged roster. A healthy Tony Romo, a new regime, and low expectations may be the gift that the Cowboys needed this whole team, at least for the first few weeks of the season and training camp. Expect Dallas to be back in the playoffs, and if the roster lives up to its potential, there’s a great chance they could be representing the NFC in Indianapolis.
The Very Good
12. Minnesota Vikings – Brett Favre’s miserable play and a bad offensive line in 2010 made us forget how good the 2009 Vikings really were. The roster isn’t that far gone and 2011 Donovan McNabb should be an upgrade over 2010 Brett Favre. This is a team that can compete for a playoff spot, and if things unfold the right way compete for a division title. Adrian Peterson should have a good year behind a revamped offensive line, and playing in a dome (ten times) should help revitalize Donovan McNabb’s career the way it helped Favre once upon a time. They may not win the Super Bowl, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they’re better than the Eagles.
13. New York Giants – In 2007 Michael Strahan held out, Tiki Barber said sayonara, Eli Manning and Tom Coughlin were severely questioned, and the Giants did nothing but go on to win the Super Bowl. This year, Eli and Coughlin are again on the hot seat, Osi Umenyiora is holding out, and Tiki Barber is trying to find a team to attempt a comeback with. With all of the NFC talk focused outside of the Meadowlands, don’t be surprised if this is the year the Giants make another great run. Eli Manning is, believe it or not an underrated quarterback, and Coughlin coached teams are often winners. If they can sneak into the playoffs they’ll be dangerous, I’m not sure if they can win a division title, though. Injuries to start the season will hurt them.
14. Houston Texans – The Texans have felt like an on-the-verge team since 2004, but they have made some above average moves this offseason, and the Colts aren’t as dominant in that division as they once were. The key to the Texans season will be winning week one versus Indianapolis and using that momentum to help win a division title, the way the Titans did in 2008. If the Texans can get to the playoffs, then they’ll have that 2008 Cardinals danger to them that could help them defeat the Chargers, Patriots, Ravens, or Jets.
15. Chicago Bears – I’m going to go out and say it; I think this will be a down year for Chicago. The defense will be solid if healthy, Roy Williams could be a good addition at WR, and Jay Cutler may finally take that next step, but in reality they’re going to need all of those things to occur in order to get back to where they were. The window is closing in Chicago though, they have a veteran defense, so if they don’t get back to the playoffs this year, that may be it for this incarnation of the Bears.
16. Jacksonville Jaguars – The Jaguars made a lot of moves this offseason, most of which I thought were bad. If David Garrard is injured to start the season then this team is dead on arrival, but if not they have a shot to win the AFC South, which is perhaps the most wide open division in the AFC. But in reality, number sixteen of thirty two is about where Jaguars are, and always seem to be. Until Jack Del Rio moves on I can’t see this team being consistent enough to get through Peyton or the Texans.
17. Tampa Bay Buccaneers – I have the Bucs at seventeen not because I think they’re untalented, but because I hate the division that they’re stuck in. The Bucs are a good young team with a lot of talent, but when they play four of their games against the Falcons and Saints it will always be hard to win their division. On top of that games vs Indianapolis, Dallas, and Houston, and at Green Bay, Minnesota, and Jacksonville could make this a long year for the Bucs.
18. St. Louis Rams – The Rams should win their division. The defense is strong and will likely improve a good amount this year. This teams entire Super Bowl hopes hinge on the arm of Sam Bradford, who will be asked to make progress like fellow former number one overall pick Peyton Manning made in 1999, his second pro season. The problem is, since Peyton Manning no second year quarterback who started their first year has made that sort of progress so it’s unrealistic, on top of that, 1999 Peyton Manning didn’t get to the Super Bowl. Nevertheless, a division title in 2011 will go a long way towards eventually helping Bradford get what Manning eventually got as well, a Super Bowl ring. I like Bradford, I could see him being a Pro Bowler this year, and I can see the Rams having a strong season, I just don’t think I can see them having a Super season.
19. Detroit Lions – I’m going to say it: the Lions can win the Super Bowl. What’s the catch? They play in the NFC North. I think the Lions will be improved this year, and if Matthew Stafford can stay healthy, this could be a winning team and even a playoff team. I just don’t know if they can go deep into the playoffs just yet. The defense is going to be great one day, and the offense has potential to be even better. 2011 should be the year where the Lions finally re-enter the NFL as a legitimate team. If they’re healthy, that will definitely happen.
Hanging In There
20. San Francisco 49ers – In a way it’s a good thing that the 49ers plan to find out what they have in Alex Smith once and for all. Unfortunately for the 49ers I think that they’re going to find out Alex Smith isn’t a winning quarterback at this level. If the Rams don’t move forward, the 49ers could pass them and potentially win this division on the strength of the players around Smith. I could see the 49ers getting back to the playoffs this year, but I can’t see them going any further than a first round beat down by Philadelphia, New York, or Dallas.
21. Kansas City Chiefs – They were a playoff team last year and the most embarrassed playoff team at that. The best thing that could happen for this relatively young team would be to have a down year and find a real future quarterback. Cassell is good to start another year after this season, but I can’t see the Chiefs ever competing for a ring with Cassell. With Denver and Oakland ready to go on the rise, now would be the right time for the Chiefs to fail, before mediocrity turns them into this decades Buffalo Bills.
22. Arizona Cardinals – The Cardinals cashed in their future for Kevin Kolb, a quarterback who has shown some signs of excellence these past few years, as well as some signs of futility. We’ll see what they have in Kolb, but the bigger problems in Arizona lie elsewhere. The offensive line has gotten worse, the defense has gotten worse, and I’m not sure if Kevin Kolb can do what Kurt Warner was able to do. I don’t see Arizona getting back to the playoffs this year, I honestly thing St. Louis are better overall, but if the Kolb move was a good one, then the Cardinals can become a force in the NFC again very soon.
23. Cleveland Browns – I’ll come out and say it: I like Colt McCoy as a pro quarterback. I think he has the intangibles, and enough of the skill set to succeed along the lines of a Flacco or Roethliberger, in that the numbers won’t be gaudy but the wins will be in abundance. The problem is, it will be hard for McCoy to pan out on an offense with so few weapons. The Jets got Sanchez every weapon he could ever ask for. The Broncos and Rams surrounded Tebow and Bradford with solid offensive weapons as yet. The Browns continue to rebuild, and McCoy may become the victim of this rebuilding process. Nevertheless, this is a team with a shot at the wild card in a slim AFC wild card picture. In order for that to happen, McCoy may need to play out of his mind, something I don’t think he’s ready to do.
24. Seattle Seahawks – Pete Carroll is becoming a mad scientist as a head coach. I can’t see this year going as well as last year. Their quarterback situation should be renamed “backup city” and their defense is average at best. I can see them battling around .500, but I honestly believe 6-10 is their peak.
25. Washington Redskins – Tough division for a team to try to rebuild in, especially with a coach like Mike Shanahan. If this season goes well for Shanahan then we’ll have to concede to his genius. If this season goes poorly for Shanahan then we’ll have to say that Al Davis was actually right and the only reason Shanahan has two Super Bowl rings is because of Terrell Davis and John Elway. The somewhere in between would be that Shanahan got too far inside his own head to the point where he started to believe in his ego, which told him that he could win a tough division with Rex Grossman or John Beck at quarterback, with no offensive game-breaker, and an improving but not great defense.
26. Miami Dolphins – They have the roster to become the most exciting team in the AFC East, the issue is they don’t have the quarterback. Instead of going after Orton they should go after Tebow. They won’t win much in the AFC East this year, but it’ll be fun to watch. Tebow in Florida would turn the NFL on its head, and with Reggie Bush and Brandon Marshall, he could actually meet his potential as a major offensive weapon. It won’t happen because of the fan backlash that will occur in Denver, who are absolutely smitten with Tebow, but this what-if get’s the point across. The Dolphins biggest issue is quarterback, and they have done very little to address this issue. If Chad Henne develops this year, then I can see them making a push for the playoffs and hurting the Patriots and Jets first round bye hopes.
27. Oakland Raiders – It was going so well! Last year the Raiders had a shot at the playoffs. The Chargers were bewildered and the Broncos were in flux. This year the Chargers will be back and the Raiders will go back to third in the division. They had the right idea going for a veteran quarterback with Jason Campbell, but I think it’s time they find that franchise quarterback. If you’re going to beat Rivers consistently, you’ll need that heavyweight to throw up against him. It’ll be a step back year in Oakland.
28. Tennessee Titans – The Titans know that they’re rebuilding. Matt Hasselbeck is the right type of guy to tutor Jake Locker, and he’s openly willing to do it. This team’s best chance at the playoffs is Peyton Manning injury. This team’s best chance at a Super Bowl is a Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Philip Rivers, Ben Roethlisberger, Tony Romo, Eli Manning, Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers collective injury. In all seriousness, I’d rest Locker all year and let him watch.
29. Denver Broncos – Kyle Orton will start week one, but we know that right now this franchise is relevant for one reason only, they currently own the rights to the NFL’s greatest enigma: Timothy Tebow. The Broncos have little to no hope this year, and all you Tebow-maniacs can circle Sunday, October 23 on your calendars as the day the Tebow era truly begins, in Florida when the 1-4 Broncos take on the 1-4 Dolphins. If the Broncos win that one expect to hear about whether or not Tebow is the greatest quarterback in NFL history. Expect them to maybe win four to five games after that.
30. Carolina Panthers – I could see this defense being really good. I hope they give Jimmy Clausen a chance to sort of impress the league so that the Panthers can trade him for a mid to late round pick, probably to Washington or Seattle where they collect those sort of players. Cam Newton will probably do alright as a rookie, I can’t see him doing great like Roethlisberger or Young, and the Panthers won’t be as patient with him as the Broncos were with Tebow, in part because the Panthers don’t need a QB controversy between Clausen and Newton, two young guys. A brutal division will force this team to pick in the top five again next year, and I expect them to use it to find Cam some protection.
31. Buffalo Bills – This is the team that Andrew Luck should go to. It would be great, and he could singlehandedly help keep the Bills in Buffalo long term. C’mon Bills, do us a favor, don’t go on another stupid November-December run that moves you from number one pick to number eight pick. Not this year. In Andrew Luck you would have the best quarterback in the AFC East by 2013, and if you prefer Fitzpatrick and his Harvard degree please note one thing: Andrew Luck will have a Stanford degree. Me personally, I trust a Stanford man more than a Harvard man at anything.
32. Cincinnati Bengals – This team will probably end up at 32 at the end of the year. The problem is this is the one franchise at the bottom that doesn’t want to be in that position because they just wasted an early second round pick on an average quarterback named Andy Dalton. If Dalton shows hope this year, they’ll probably try to trade that number one pick to someone who needs it. If not, then Andrew Luck, like Carson Palmer, will be a Pac 10 quarterback headed to Cincinnati where he’ll likely never meet his potential.