With the preseason officially out of the way, the 2014 NFL regular season is set to kick off tonight. The Green Bay Packers travel to Seattle to take on the defending Super Bowl champion Seahawks. Seattle is the favorite here, but the way that the Packers can score, there’s no telling how this game will go.
The same could be said of who’ll be accepting the Lombardi Trophy this year. Again, many people like the Seahawks, however, the 49ers, Broncos, Packers Patriots, Saints and others will all have something to say about this. So who’s our pick for the NFL’s best team as of now? You can see for yourself in our first NFL power rankings of 2014.
1. Seattle Seahawks – Yeah, this isn’t exactly original. But what reason do we have to doubt the champs since they return all of their key starters? QB Russell Wilson and RB Marshawn Lynch will once again be heading up the offense while shutdown-corner Richard Sherman is said to be more focused than ever. He’s going to need this focus since Seattle will have the unenviable target on their backs all season.
2. Denver Broncos – The Broncos may have been humiliated in last year’s Super Bowl, but they figure to be better on both sides of the ball. First off, the pass rush will be nastier with both LB Von Miller and DE DeMarcus Ware coming after the quarterback. And Montee Ball’s ascension provides an upgrade over last year’s starting running back, Knowshon Moreno.
3. San Francisco 49ers – LB Aldon Smith’s 9-game suspension is a big blow to the 49ers’ regular season. However, the rest of the San Francisco team is more than solid. And if Colin Kaepernick keeps up his strong play from last year – where he threw for 10 TD’s and one interception over the final six regular season games – the Niners will be completely fine without Smith.
4. New England Patriots – The offense will be even less reliant on Tom Brady this season with a talented group of ball carriers. Shane Vereen headlines the group with his dual abilities, while rookie James White, Brandon Bolden and Stevan Ridley add lots of depth.
5. New Orleans Saints – It will be strange not seeing Darren Sproles catching passes out of the backfield this year. But that could leave Pierre Thomas with an even bigger role. Rookie receiver Brandin Cooks got a lot of press this offseason. If he’s as good as the hype, then Drew Brees will have no trouble finding him.
6. Green Bay Packers – Aaron Rodgers missed seven games last year and Green Bay still made the postseason. Plus, Eddie Lacy got a chance to shine in his rookie season. Together, this pair forms one of the toughest QB-RB tandems in the league. Even in the opener against Seattle’s tough defense tonight, these two should work well off of each other.
7. Philadelphia Eagles – It’s almost impossible to see Nick Foles duplicating 27 touchdowns compared to just two interceptions for a second straight year. But even though we expect this ratio to change, it’s hard to see him not being great once again in the weak NFC East. If receiver Jeremy Maclin can stay healthy, this has the potential to be the league’s best offense.
8. Cincinnati Bengals – You have to like Cincinnati’s chances of improving this year with Geno Atkins back. The All-Pro defensive tackle missed seven games last season and the defense was still stout. QB Andy Dalton got a big offseason deal. Will he prove that he’s worth it this year?
9. Indianapolis Colts – Much is made about the unsettled backfield in Indy, but having Andrew Luck under center guarantees the offense of remaining dangerous. Signing LB D’Qwell Jackson and DE Arthur Jones will bring much-needed help to a defense that gave up 125.1 rushing yards per game in 2013.
10. Chicago Bears – The Bears offense should have no trouble scoring points in their second year under coach Marc Trestman. But the defense will determine how far this team goes. Signing defensive ends Lamarr Houston, Jared Allen and Willie Young definitely helps, as does getting linebackers D.J. Williams and Lance Briggs back from injury. But the results certainly didn’t show up in the third preseason game, when starters play the majority of snaps.
11. Pittsburgh Steelers – Pittsburgh might finally have their traditional power running game back with Le’Veon Bell and LeGarrette Blount heading up the backfield. Rookie linebacker Ryan Shazier will bring some nice explosiveness to a defensive unit that had aged far too much last season.
12. Carolina Panthers – Last year was a breakthrough season for the Panthers. But can they repeat that performance, or possibly do better? Every receiver from last season’s roster is gone, meaning Cam Newton will be meshing with a completely new unit. So far, rookie Kelvin Benjamin is looking like a pretty reliable target for Newton.
13. San Diego Chargers – San Diego was one of three AFC West teams that made the playoffs in 2013. The offense again looks capable of leading the Chargers back to the postseason – especially with rookie sensation Keenan Allen coming off a surprise 1,046-yard year. The defense is the only thing that could hold this team back from more success.
14. Baltimore Ravens – Gary Kubiak has been brought in as offensive coordinator to shore up the mess here. The key will be figuring out how to use Bernard Pierce and an aging Ray Rice in tandem. A lot is riding on how linebacker C.J. Mosley and end Timmy Jernigan carry this historically good defense, which has never allowed 4.0 yards per rush in franchise history.
15. Arizona Cardinals – The running game should be a lot more explosive with Andre Ellington stepping into a featured role. But the line needs to do a much better job of protecting Carson Palmer, who was sacked a career-high 41 times. Also, the defense will definitely miss Darnell Dockett, Karlos Dansby and Daryl Washington from last season’s 10-6 team.
16. Miami Dolphins – Ryan Tannehill is developing into a star quarterback. However, the new offensive line needs to ensure that this continues. The combination of Lamar Miller and Knowshon Moreno should guarantee that the running game is better this time around.
17. Kansas City Chiefs – It’s hard to see the Chiefs duplicating last year’s performance, where they benefited from one of the league’s weakest schedules. The defense should once again be good, and Jamaal Charles showed that he’s a bonafide star when healthy. But a lack of explosion in the receiving corp coupled with Alex Smith’s weak arm will limit the offense.
18. Detroit Lions – There are plenty of weapons on this team with QB Matthew Stafford, wideouts Calvin Johnson and Golden Tate, TE Eric Ebron, and running backs Reggie Bush and Joique Bell. Switching to defense, Ziggy Ansah and Ndamukong Suh need to put lots of pressure on opposing quarterbacks to keep a weak secondary from being exposed.
19. Atlanta Falcons – Many are picking the Falcons to far exceed the dismal 4-12 record from their last campaign. But we think that a few more regular season games are in order before predicting a return to NFC South dominance. Regardless, Atlanta should be much better with offensive line additions and a healthy Roddy White and Julio Jones.
20. St. Louis Rams – The Sam Bradford loss hurts, there’s no way around that. But tailback Zac Stacy still gives this offense one weapon that opposing defenses will have trouble dealing with. Unfortunately, playing in the league’s toughest division, the NFC West, will ensure that St. Louis doesn’t make the playoffs.
21. New York Jets – The situation under center isn’t as dire this season, with Geno Smith looking more polished in the preseason. And even if he fails, at least they have Michael Vick to fall back on. The secondary is much more of a concern because Dee Milliner and Kyle Wilson are the only truly experienced cornerbacks on the roster.
22. Tampa Bay Buccaneers – Everything from the Doug Martin injury to the Josh Freeman situation was a disaster for this team. But now they start fresh with Martin back and Josh McCown under center. Acquiring guard Logan Mankins in a trade with the Patriots was definitely a smart move for this team because their offensive line is unstable.
23. New York Giants – You wouldn’t think that the offense would be as bad as it was in 2013, when Eli Manning threw nine more interceptions than touchdowns. But under new offensive coordinator Bob McAdoo, the team looks atrocious. Let’s hope in this case that the preseason really doesn’t mean anything.
24. Tennessee Titans – The passing game could really click this year with Jake Locker throwing to playmakers like Kendall Wright and Justin Hunter. But it’s a little unsettling that heralded rookie Bishop Sankey hasn’t been able to take the starting job away from plodding veteran Shonn Greene. Once Sankey breaks out, this team will start experiencing success.
25. Dallas Cowboys – Dallas is saved from being the worst team by an offense that features Tony Romo, Dez Bryant, Jason Witten and DeMarco Murray. But their defense is even worse from a year ago, when they allowed the third-most yards in NFL history. The losses of DeMarcus Ware, Jason Hatcher and Sean Lee spell doom for the Boys.
26. Minnesota Vikings – Matt Cassel better hope that he can continue playing as strongly as he did in the preseason. Otherwise the Teddy Bridgewater era will be ushered in sooner, rather than later. Regardless of what happens at QB, though, Adrian Peterson looks to have yet another strong year running the ball.
27. Houston Texans – Jadeveon Clowney looked pretty explosive in preseason games and should have a long career of terrorizing opposing passers. As for the Texans’ own quarterback situation, Ryan Fitzpatrick starts with the reigns. But with Ryan Mallet coming over in a trade, should we expect a future QB battle?
28. Buffalo Bills – The Bills had one of the NFL’s most-underrated defenses last season after holding quarterbacks to the second-lowest rating (behind Seattle). But much like Houston, Buffalo needs to worry about their own passer since E.J. Manuel has shown little progression in his second year. It’s no coincidence that the Bills recently signed Kyle Orton to a two-year, $11 million contract, making him the league’s highest-paid backup.
29. Washington Redskins – This preseason was highlighted by Joe Theismann’s comments that Kirk Cousins (4 TD’s, 1 INT) was badly outplaying Robert Griffin III (0 TD’s, 2 INT’s). It doesn’t matter, though, because coach Jay Gruden has handed Griffin the ball. He’ll now hope to get back to his rookie success, rather than last season’s debacle.
30. Cleveland Browns – Brian Hoyer didn’t look overly sharp while winning the starting job over Johnny Manziel. But he does boast a 3-0 career record as a starter. It’s almost impossible to see this mark remaining intact with Cleveland traveling to Pittsburgh, especially since the suspended WR Josh Gordon won’t be available this game – or any game in 2014 for that matter.
31. Jacksonville Jaguars – Jacksonville didn’t win a game until Week 10; then they went 4-4 after that point. We certainly don’t think that this indicates a .500 or better Jaguars club this season. But rookie Blake Bortles should take over at QB soon and start a new and better era in Jacksonville football.
32. Oakland Raiders – Oakland has been in rebuilding mode for over a decade. This season doesn’t look to be any different, with a quarterback controversy already due to Matt Schaub’s poor performance. The Raiders wanted Derek Carr to hold the clipboard for his first season, however, this doesn’t seem so likely now.