Our long national nightmare is over. No, not that one—the election isn’t until November.
The other one. Football’s back.
Starting with the Hall of Fame Game between the Colts and Packers on Aug. 7, there will not be a football-free Sunday again until after the next Super Bowl champion is crowned in early February. To be fair, the NFL preseason can be interminable in its own right, like when fourth-string QBs and second-string kickers are battling it out at the end of August. But the hard and fast rule remains that any football is better than no football.
Best of all, as the 2016 regular season approaches, the league’s beloved parity appears to be alive and well. There are a handful of teams clearly closer to title contention than others, but a good 25 or so teams (if not more) can make a case that they’re good enough to be in the thick of the playoff race this season.
We’ll see if the preseason changes anything—which teams manage to stay healthy, who emerges as a surprise star, how the position battles play out.
Before the official preseason opener this Sunday, though, here’s how the pecking order sits:
1. Arizona Cardinals
This is the time of year when every team will claim that falling shy of a Super Bowl win would be a disappointment. Few really mean it—qualifying for the playoffs or reaching a conference title game are clear successes for many franchises. For the Cardinals, though, any finish other than one that has them lifting the Vince Lombardi Trophy would be a significant letdown. They have been building toward title contention for the past three seasons and were on the cusp of a Super Bowl trip a year ago. Provided their 49–15 NFC championship beatdown at the hands of the Panthers serves as motivation, not a confidence-diminishing distraction, this team should be right there at the end.
2. Carolina Panthers
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3. Pittsburgh Steelers
The Le’Veon Bell suspension (if it sticks) is an obvious setback, but let’s not soon forget what DeAngelo Williams did in his 10 fill-in starts last season. With Bell out of the lineup, Williams averaged about 112 yards from scrimmage per game. The Steelers were 7–3 those weeks, with Antonio Brown elevating his play to ridiculous levels. This is an obvious Super Bowl contender with Bell in the lineup, but it's also a legitimate threat without him.
4. New England Patriots
I bumped New England down a spot from our Power Rankings earlier this off-season since it is now official that Tom Brady will miss Weeks 1–4. That’s a different animal than Pittsburgh being down Bell. But the Patriots will still have ample time to reestablish themselves as the AFC East frontrunners once Brady returns in Week 5—that is, if they're not already sitting in that seat by that point anyway.
5. Denver Broncos
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6. Cincinnati Bengals
Picking the Bengals to make the playoffs is like picking Wisconsin basketball to contend in the Big Ten—it’s not always 100% obvious how it will happen, but odds are it will happen. Granted, this is a loaded Cincinnati roster, save for question marks at WR (aside from A.J. Green) and QB (how will Andy Dalton fare without Hue Jackson calling the shots?)
7. Minnesota Vikings
The Vikings just handed coach Mike Zimmer a contract extension, and why not? In two seasons at the helm, Zimmer has molded the roster in his image and produced a team capable of rivaling the New Englands and Cincinnatis of the world when it comes to making the playoffs on a consistent basis.
8. Kansas City Chiefs
Last year, Alex Smith’s career-high passing total (3,486 yards) ranked just 20th in the league. He never before has thrown more than 23 TDs in a single season. If he is capable of taking his game to another level, now would be the time to do so. Kansas City has Jamaal Charles back, an elite tight end in Travis Kelce, talent in its receiving corps and an O-line bolstered by Mitchell Schwartz’s arrival. The pieces are in place for this to be a dominant attack.
9. Green Bay Packers
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10. Seattle Seahawks
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11. Oakland Raiders
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12. New York Jets
If you ever watched “House,” you know that most episodes spent about 50 minutes building up to the title character's eureka moment, in which he suddenly would come up with an answer to his patient’s mysterious ailment. There was limited drama in the moment. And that’s about how the Ryan Fitzpatrick contract standoff went down, ending as just about everyone anticipated, with Fitzpatrick re-signing. While yours truly is on Team Geno Smith Might Be O.K. After All, bringing back Fitzmagic cements the Jets as New England’s most prominent challenger within the division.
13. Dallas Cowboys
defensive line and potentially at linebacker. The upside of this offense with a healthy Romo tips the scales in a positive direction.
14. Indianapolis Colts
As forgettable as the Colts were last season, they also controlled their own destiny as of Week 15 (a loss to Houston). To imagine them being worse than they were in 2015 ignores how much of a factor Andrew Luck is as the starting quarterback. If the Colts finish 8–8 again, or worse, next off-season will be one of considerable change.
15. Houston Texans
16. Chicago Bears
The NFC North of late has not allowed much room for Chicago to get up off the mat—the Bears are riding back-to-back last-place finishes; Green Bay, Minnesota and Detroit all have made the playoffs at least once since 2014. The outlook is a bit sunnier this season, although it only will stay that way if Chicago’s defense is as steady as advertised.
17. Washington Redskins
The possibility very much exists that Robert Griffin III turns in a bounce-back season for Cleveland, opening the door for second guessing on Washington’s own direction at QB. The trick for the Redskins to avoid the pratfall is to pin as little of their hopes on Kirk Cousins as possible. Last season’s playoff run was as much about growth elsewhere as it was Cousins’s strong play.
18. New York Giants
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19. Buffalo Bills
Tracking the health statuses of Sammy Watkins and LeSean McCoy this preseason will be a primary focus in Buffalo. It’s a decent bet Rex Ryan coaxes more out of his defense than a year ago, so if he can pair it with a fully stocked offense then the Bills will have a chance to snap their playoff drought.
20. Baltimore Ravens
Speaking of injuries, the Ravens are one of the league’s biggest 2016 mysteries because of them. Joe Flacco, Terrell Suggs, Steve Smith and Dennis Pitta all are returning from serious setbacks, while we’re still hunting for confirmation that 2015 Breshad Perriman actually exists and is not some sort of imaginary friend GM Ozzie Newsome concocted. Put all the pieces in place and the Ravens will be an AFC North threat again.
21. Jacksonville Jaguars
This is lower than the Jaguars should be based on their rising expectations, but higher than they have shown they deserve to be. A key factor to keep an eye on is if they have struck the right balance in the backfield with Chris Ivory joining T.J. Yeldon and Denard Robinson. While Yeldon showed signs of being a No. 1 last season, Jacksonville does not seem to trust him in that role yet.
22. Detroit Lions
Like landing a backup center or a lefty bullpen specialist, the Anquan Boldin signing by Detroit is not one that necessarily pushes a team over the top on its own but it can go a long way toward rounding out a roster. Oddly enough, in spite of losing Calvin Johnson, the Lions’ receiving corps is deeper than it’s been in years.
23. Miami Dolphins
Does the Arian Foster signing move the needle at all? A bit, sure, depending on which version of Foster the Dolphins just landed. Keep in mind he is about to turn 30 and has played 25 total games the past three seasons. His outlook is the same as this entire offense: In a dream scenario he’ll be brilliant, but reality and recent history sets the bar a great deal lower.
24. Los Angeles Rams
The Rams open with a Monday night trip to San Francisco, then re-christen the Coliseum by hosting Seattle in Week 2. If the L.A. Rams stay true to recent St. Louis Rams form, they’ll stumble against the 49ers and then beat the Seahawks in impressive fashion. Jeff Fisher, man. #MaketheRams8and8Again
25. New Orleans Saints
The last thing the Saints needed this off-season, as they attempted to rebuild its defense, was an injury setback. They’ve already had two. Promising young pass rusher Hau’oli Kikaha tore his ACL last month (his third ACL tear) and landed on I.R., then slot corner Kyle Wilson (torn labrum) joined him. New Orleans cannot afford any more hits.
26. Philadelphia Eagles
The Eagles are semi-settled at quarterback for the time being, with Sam Bradford ahead of Chase Daniel and Carson Wentz in the pecking order. Now, the coaching staff has to figure out exactly who is helping Bradford et al., from the skill positions. Darren Sproles and Zach Ertz are about the only sure things, although Jordan Matthews comes close to that designation. Can Ryan Mathews stay healthy? Will Nelson Agholor be reliable? A lot of unknowns.
27. Atlanta Falcons
The Falcons’ Alex Mack addition—and the resulting impact it has on the offensive line and Matt Ryan—could be the latest reminder that the center position is of premium importance. Atlanta finished 21st in points scored last year. With its list of weapons on offense, it should not settle for anything lower than a top-10 mark in 2016.
28. San Diego Chargers
San Diego arguably was the most disappointing team in football a year ago. Despite the excitement that came with their Melvin Gordon draft choice, the Chargers fell from back-to-back 9–7 finishes all the way down to 4–12 in '15. The Chargers should be more competitive this season, even if the record doesn’t show it.
29. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
This might sound odd to say about the team that's ranked 29th here and is coming off its fifth consecutive losing season but ...it doesn’t require a huge stretch of imagination to see Tampa Bay pushing into the playoff race. Of course, within the same realm of realistic possibilities is a 1–6 or 2–5 start.
30. Cleveland Browns
I wrote an extended post last week on why the Browns, (eventually) featuring Josh Gordon, have a chance to be explosive offensively. That notion has to come with the same excitement-to-dread ratio that comes with eating food that’s a week past its expiration date, but still ...
31. San Francisco 49ers
“Don’t rule out the possibility that Chip Kelly pulls a stunner and gets his team to the playoffs this season,” he said, stumbling across the room to pour himself another drink. He sat back down and began talking again, to no one in particular. “Did I ever tell you about the time that I went kayaking with Bigfoot?”
32. Tennessee Titans
The Titans signed Andre Johnson last week, making a late push for the “Sure, why not” roster move of the month. The staff should be doing whatever it can to develop and play its young guys, so we’ll see how many snaps Johnson actually ends up on the field for this season.