With preseason beginning and the National Football League regular season right around the corner, sports editor Matt Johnson gives his power rankings and predictions.
1. San Francisco 49ers. The 49ers came so close last year. They’ve been close for the last three years. This is the year they finally win it. Yes, they had some distractions with Aldon Smith’s legal trouble and Colin Kaepernick’s contract situation. But those troubles seem to be in the rearview mirror. A healthy Michael Crabtree and the addition of Stevie Johnson should aid the passing game, which struggled with producing yards after the catch last season. Injuries could be a concern, as they’ve already lost a few key players to training camp injuries. The most important factor, however, is revenge. The 49ers will be out for some Seahawk blood.
2. Seattle Seahawks. The Seahawks have maintained most of the same group of players as they had last season. They still have a swagger about them, which is big in a game that requires it. The only reason they aren’t number one is the revenge factor, which I discussed above. It’s difficult to repeat as champion in the NFL. We’ll see if Seattle can do it.
3. Green Bay Packers. A lot of people would put Denver in the No. 3 spot, but I’m going with the Pack. Aaron Rodgers is back and the team is ready. The question is, can they beat the 49ers? They’ve lost the past two years to the 49ers in the playoffs. If they can somehow avoid them in the playoffs, they could make some noise.
4. New Orleans Saints. The Saints improved defensively last season. Can they continue that improvement? If they can, they’ll be dangerous.
5. Denver Broncos. Any team with Peyton Manning is usually a top team, but I think last year showed there were some serious holes. Peyton Manning is another year older. They cut a few of the old-timers in favor of fresh faces. Will it pay off?
6. New England Patriots. Tom Brady is still good. But is he great in his old age? Maybe not, but he’s still more than capable of leading a team to the Super Bowl.
7. Indianapolis Colts. Andrew Luck showed he can win in the playoffs last season with a miracle victory. But does he still need to develop more before a deep run?
8. Carolina Panthers. Cam Newton is a beast. He’ll have to adjust to some new receivers after losing longtime Panther, Steve Smith.
9. Kansas City Chiefs. I like what they did last year. Alex Smith is a decent quarterback, better than many give him credit for. But can they rebound after blowing it in last year’s playoffs? We’ll see where they are mentally.
10. Philadelphia Eagles. The Eagles proved last season that they can play, especially late in the season. They’ve made a few changes, getting rid of Desean Jackson and others. With Jackson gone, there should be less distraction. I see them as a likely playoff team.
11. Cincinnati Bengals. The Bengals probably should have gone further last season. They underperformed in the playoffs. I think they’ll do better this season.
12. San Diego Chargers. San Diego is hard to predict. They were competitive last season, but they’re still behind teams like Denver and New England. They’ll be lucky to make the playoffs again.
13. Baltimore Ravens. They stumbled last year, but they can still be deadly. With Ray Rice suspended a few games, they may drop on this list.
14. Pittsburgh Steelers. The Steelers have been right on the edge of the playoffs the past two years. If they can avoid any major losing streaks, they should be there this year. They just can’t be so streaky.
15. Dallas Cowboys. Yes, they have a history of choking. There are certainly holes on their roster, as well. But I just have this strange feeling they might surprise people this year.
16. Chicago Bears. It’s all about Jay Cutler. If he can’t stay on the field, the team doesn’t have a chance.
17. Arizona Cardinals. They have talent, and they may deserve to be ranked higher. But their division is insanely tough. They’ll be penciled in to lose a few against the Seahawks and 49ers, which makes things tougher for them.
18. Detroit Lions. Matt Stafford threw 29 touchdowns last season, but also gave up 19 interceptions. Certainly a solid quarterback, but will have to cut down a bit on mistakes.
19. New York Giants. Not sure what to make of the G-Men. Rumor has it that some Giants execs don’t trust that Eli Manning can get the job done. Being the competitor he is, he will likely try to prove them wrong.
20. New York Jets. Picking up Michael Vick gives them insurance in case Geno Smith turns out to be a dud this season. But the wildcard will be their only hope.
21. Atlanta Falcons. Rough season last year. They have too much talent to languish like they did. Expect to see them better, but still not a playoff team.
22. Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Josh McCown is getting up there in age. He’s 35, but he threw 13 touchdowns and just one interception last season. If he can turn in a decent season, the Bucs could be better.
23. St. Louis Rams. They were feisty last season, finishing just under .500 at 7-9. They’re not a terrible team. They’re just not good enough right now.
24. Washington Redskins. RGIII is going to be better than last season. But he’ll have to carry a huge part of the load.
25. Miami Dolphins. Without the Richie Incognito distraction, they should be better this season, or at least be more focused.
26. Tennessee Titans. Jake Locker is coming off Lisfranc surgery on his foot, which creates worry. But in listening to his interviews, he sounds more mature and ready to go. He’d better be ready, because he hasn’t shown much yet in his few seasons of play.
27. Buffalo Bills. Some seasons they tease, like they might be good. But they play in a rough division. They’re my underdog pick. I see them winning about 5-7 games.
28. Jacksonville Jaguars. Receiver Justin Blackmon was arrested for marijuana possession. Not the way to start off the season well for the Jags. However, they won three straight games late in the season last year, and finished last season with a win after losing eight straight to start the season. Not much to give hope, but could it be a sign of slight improvement?
29. Minnesota Vikings. A lot of Vikings fans believed they should have drafted Johnny Manziel, but Teddy Bridgewater is good, too. They’ve just had so much uncertainty the past few seasons. It’s hard to progress.
30. Oakland Raiders. Matt Schaub was the big offseason pickup. Schaub is better than he showed last season, but if he’s your big offseason acquisition, that could spell trouble.
31. Houston Texans. I like Ryan Fitzpatrick. He fits the mold of “game manager.” But Fitzy isn’t a guy who will take you to the promised land. With that said, there are some big names on the roster. If they can stay healthy, who knows?
32. Cleveland Browns. Unless Johnny Football takes the league by storm, they won’t be very good. Don’t expect Manziel to be a star right away. He has a lot of maturing to do.