The 2016 NFL season arrives Thursday to dominate the sports landscape and TV ratings for the next five months or so, culminating in Super Bowl 51 on Feb. 5, 2017. Which teams will be left standing for that final game in Houston? Who will be this year’s surprise?
The first regular-season Power Rankings of the year begins sorting it all out:
1. Carolina Panthers
Carolina is loaded on both sides of the ball (although the cornerbacks are young and mostly untested). Of course, the Panthers got pummeled in the Super Bowl and could be the first team to lose in the 2016 season, so putting them up top here violates the first rule of Power Rankings: Never do Power Rankings.
2. Arizona Cardinals
David Johnson finished last season with 1,038 yards from scrimmage, and he didn’t even step into a full-time role until Week 12. Few players have matched his level of hype this off-season—his position coach says he could be “one of the best backs to ever play the game”—but if he just maintains his 2015 trajectory, the Cardinals’ offense will be close to unstoppable.
3. Denver Broncos
4. Seattle Seahawks
Elevating Seattle a few spots not because of preseason results (the Seahawks went 3–1) but because the offensive line looked less debacle-ish than it has in the past, at least on the interior. Even with a blocking-optional approach last season, Seattle boasted a top-five offense. Improvement up front could push Pete Carroll’s squad over the top.
5. New England Patriots
During his four-game suspension, Tom Brady cannot attend practices, have any contact with his coaching staff or even discuss football with his teammates. Between those stipulations and Roger Goodell previously demanding that he turn over his cell phone, this is about close to an NFL player being grounded as it gets.
6. Pittsburgh Steelers
The Steelers’ offense will be explosive, with or without Le’Veon Bell. The defense ... well, they just traded for Justin Gilbert with the genuine hope that he improves their secondary, so they could cough up quite a few points this season. If you like 38–31 games, this could be the team for you.
7. Cincinnati Bengals
Much in the way that you know Law & Order: SVU will be on every time you turn on the television, bank on the Bengals playing meaningful games come December and January. That is, if the schedule doesn’t get in the way: Cincinnati plays four of its first six on the road, all against teams that should be in the postseason hunt.
8. Kansas City Chiefs
On a lesser team, entering the season without a player of Jamaal Charles’s caliber would be cause for panic. The Chiefs have security in Spencer Ware and Charcandrick West. They may not be able to replace Justin Houston as easily—the premier outside linebacker won’t be back until Week 7, at the earliest.
9. Green Bay Packers
10. New York Jets
It’s like an episode of “American Ninja Warrior” watching running backs traversing the Jets’ Muhammed Wilkerson-led defensive front. The Patriots plus a brutal first six weeks will conspire against the Jets, but they’re the best AFC team that no one is really talking about.
11. Houston Texans
From the “Preseason Doesn’t Matter, We Hope” department comes this stat: Lamar Miller rushed for 20 yards on 10 carries over his final two August outings. He’ll be expected to produce far more when the Bears come calling on Sunday.
12. Minnesota Vikings
A brutal turn of events last week for the Vikings, who lost Bridgewater for who knows how long to a gruesome non-contact knee injury. Spinning a first-round pick for Sam Bradford in the aftermath came across as a panic move, even though Bradford finished 2015 strong.
13. Oakland Raiders
First thing’s first in the Raiders’ expected 2016 resurgence: winning in Week 1. Oakland has lost its last four and 13 of its past 14 on opening weekend, the lone reprieve coming with a 2012 Week 1 win in Denver. Falling in New Orleans this week would not spell doom, but it’d be nice to avoid an early hole for a change.
14. New York Giants
The starting quarterback for the Giants the last time they played a game without Tom Coughlin as their coach? “The Bachelor” star and current TV analyst Jesse Palmer. So, it’s been awhile. New head man Ben McAdoo has more talent than Coughlin did in his final year.
15. Baltimore Ravens
16. Dallas Cowboys
Time to find out what rookie QB Dak Prescott is capable of when the games count. We’ll also soon know just how powerful a wizard defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli is—his defense is woefully shorthanded up front, but he’s also gotten the job done before against stacked odds.
17. Chicago Bears
Packers GM Ted Thompson, in general, has been quite astute at knowing when to bail on veteran players, which means Josh Sitton’s arrival deserves to be met with a little caution. That said, a Sitton–Kyle Long guard pairing is about as sturdy as it gets in the league. The Bears improved at a time of year when it is extremely rare to pull off an impact addition.
18. Washington Redskins
Does anyone even remember that Washington won the NFC East last season? It’s been brushed under the rug rather quickly amid all the Prescott/Ezekiel Elliott buzz, the Eagles’ whirlwind off-season and the Giants’ free-agent spending. Should the Redskins so choose, there’s a disrespect card to be played (says the guy who ranked them below two division rivals).
19. Buffalo Bills
Rex Ryan has become something of the NFL’s ShamWow Guy. He’s constantly pitching the value of his team’s product, no matter how shoddy his previous sale turned out to be. “Hey, remember the 2015 Bills? Forget them. Try the new and improved 2016 Bills. Faster, stronger, made from 100% organic materials!”
20. Detroit Lions
In releasing recent draft picks like Alex Carter, Gabe Wright and Caraun Reid, new GM Bob Quinn again made it clear that he’s not going to be bogged down by his predecessors’s decisions. Shaking off the franchise’s 50 years of disappointment won’t come without burning a few bridges.
21. Jacksonville Jaguars
22. New Orleans Saints
When the Saints are firing on all cylinders, there is not a more imposing home venue than the raucous Superdome. They’ve gone 7–9 in the Dome combined the past two seasons. The Saints’ first three home games this season are against Oakland (this Sunday), Atlanta (Week 3) and Carolina (Week 5). If they can reestablish that edge, the playoffs are possible.
23. Indianapolis Colts
Dear Indianapolis: When people said, “The Colts can’t win without Andrew Luck,” that was not meant as a challenge to find out how many other injured players that statement might apply to. Because the Colts also cannot win with just Andrew Luck on the field.
24. Miami Dolphins
Whenever discussion of a team’s playoff potential has to be prefaced by “If everything goes right,” said team usually does not fare well. Something always goes wrong, even for the best teams. So, sure, the Dolphins can make a run if everything goes right—Adam Gase turns Ryan Tannehill into a star, Arian Foster stays healthy, the secondary isn’t a wasteland, etc. However, this is not a roster that can withstand many hits.
25. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Is this the team that can challenge Carolina’s NFC South supremacy? Don’t scoff. Based on SI’s preseason staff predictions, the Buccaneers are a semi-popular playoff pick, and they appear to have upgraded a roster that started 6–6 last season before a four-game slide.
26. Atlanta Falcons
Fair or not (and it’s becoming increasingly fair), Matt Ryan has slipped into the conversation of the NFL’s most overrated quarterbacks. While the Falcons are not going to bail on him anytime soon, he has a lot of weight on his shoulders headed into 2016. The defense and O-line should be better; the QB is a question mark.
27. Philadelphia Eagles
28. San Diego Chargers
Joey Bosa finally signed his rookie contract, bringing an unnecessary standoff to its inevitable conclusion. It was like a TV sitcom that pretends the two leads won’t end up together. “Oh, Ross and Rachel got back together? No way.” But anyone who saw the Chargers’ D-line play this preseason knows how desperately it needs Bosa’s presence.
29. Los Angeles Rams
The Rams may not be the fourth-worst team in football—another Jeff Fisher 7–9 special feels about right—but I’m docking them for making “Hard Knocks” borderline unwatchable this year. Replacing Fisher with, like, Craig T. Nelson or Matthew McConaughey just for the summer would have been worth it.
30. Tennessee Titans
31. Cleveland Browns
Admit it: You’re looking forward to seeing what Robert Griffin III does in the regular season. For all that went wrong for RG3 in Washington, football fans still remember quite well what an exciting talent he was mere years ago. Let’s see how much of it he got back.
32. San Francisco 49ers
The 49ers recently traded for WRs Rod Streater and Jeremy Kerley, in part because they lost Bruce Ellington to injury and in part because they arrived early at the Why-the-Hell-Not portion of their season. Chip Kelly better have settled in for the long haul, because this fix is going to take multiple seasons.