by Tim Culver
Before you sharpen your pitchforks, a short note on how we’ve come to rank the teams as we have: all NFLTR writers have compiled their own NFL power rankings, which we’ve compiled and averaged in the list below. We hope you enjoy the fruits of our labor, and feel free to agree, disagree, or roast us in the comments below.
#1) Denver Broncos
Easily the most balanced team around, Peyton is likely playing with the best defense he’s ever enjoyed. Everyone’s pointing at a possible Broncos-Pats showdown and many suggest that the Pats have the Broncos number, but the defense will adjust to the offense the Pats were able to run at home. Peyton will also be very comfortable running his offense a mile-high regardless of the opponent. This simply has to be your money favorite.
#2) New England Patriots
They’d be your clear Super Bowl favorite if it weren’t for an 11 game run by the Broncos. It’s hard to imagine Tom Brady not getting to the Super Bowl, but the defense is still susceptible, and that, if anything, might be the undoing. Either way, they got a big boost when they passed the staggering Texans and earned themselves a bye.
#3) San Francisco 49ers
They finally secured both the division and the second seed late on Sunday, which might be most important in that it means that they won’t have to travel to Seattle at any given point. Kaep has played well thus far, but it’s going to be interesting to see how he performs later in the playoffs should they get there. They are a very strong group all around, maybe even strong enough to win if Kaep has a few hiccups.
#4) Seattle Seahawks ( 1)
The ‘Hawks are all about balance, which makes them a hard out in the playoffs. Wilson has shown that he can shoulder the load if they need to come from behind, and Lynch is a constant threat to break a long run. Defensively they are a stingy group that rushes the passer and swarms the run. They’re healthy and red-hot, which when added to RGIII’s clearly hurting knee might make them a hot pick to upset in the opening week.
#5) Atlanta Falcons ( 1)
Smith opted to go with his starters for the week 17 game and I agree with the decision, as this team hasn’t looked as dominant as their record would suggest. It’s weird to say that the conference leader is a dark horse for the Super Bowl but they’ve got the weapons to beat anyone though you can’t imagine they’ll be favorites against the Packers, Niners, Broncos, or Patriots, regardless of the venue. And that’s not even considering the ‘Hawks, Vikings, or Texans. The playoffs are stacked and it’s a tough year to be in pole position.
#6) Green Bay Packers
This is looking more and more like a carbon copy of last year. The defense struggles mightily while Aaron Rodgers and the offense are next to unstoppable. The first assignment will be to do what they couldn’t this past week: stop Peterson. If they get through that first assignment, there aren’t too many teams who can slow Rodgers, but they’re really going to have to improve the defense quickly.
#7) Indianapolis Colts ( 3)
Down the stretch, nearly everyone expected these guys to fall, possibly out of the wildcard spot. Instead, they’re clearly improving, and the defense was the most impressive part of the Texan defeat this past week. Now they enter the playoffs on the road against the least impressive of the division leaders where they’ll be sure to put up a serious challenge for the Ravens.
#8) Washington Redskins
They’re coming in hot, but RGIII looked pretty uncomfortable on his injured knee. They’re going up against a tougher defense than the Cowboys, and a QB in Wilson who’s less likely to turn over the ball. Either way, this season has been above and beyond everyone’s expectations, and they’ll continue to improve, but I don’t feel very confident that this team has the fuel left for a trip deep into the playoffs.
#9) Houston Texans ( 2)
The offense really struggled on Sunday against the Colts and the defense hasn’t been its early season self recently. Now, in the blink of an eye, they find themselves playing the dangerous Bengals in the wildcard round. They’d hardly be a surprise pick to make the Super Bowl, because at their best this can be the best defense in the league, but they haven’t shown the consistency of the Pats or Broncos.
#10) Cincinnati Bengals ( 1)
They’ll face a wobbly Texans team in the opening round of the playoffs, and they certainly have the balance to go on a short run, but this team seems to be one that’s still a year or two away from really arriving. The offense continues to gel and the defense is young and still could stand a few upgrades. They’ve got to feel great about their prospects going forward in the division, as the Ravens and Steelers have both shown signs of regress, especially down the stretch in 2012.
#11) Baltimore Ravens ( 2)
I’m tempted to copy and paste what I wrote about the Texans except the defense is far more susceptible and the offense is slightly less explosive. I don’t trust the Texans in the playoffs, so I certainly don’t trust the Ravens. If their defense can outperform and they benefit from a few teams playing poor games, they can make a run, but I think they need to retool that defense before they’re a top four team.
#12) Minnesota Vikings
What Peterson has done this year is amazing, and he’s got a strong supporting cast. Nevertheless, if the Vikings are going to have success in the playoffs, they’re probably going to find themselves in a position where they have to be pass heavy and I don’t trust Christian Ponder yet to take a team on his shoulders and pass them to a win. Either way, this was a very impressive season for the Vikings, they were up against a tough schedule in a brutal division and they came through better than anyone could have expected.
#13) Chicago Bears
Talk about hard luck. Chicago had a stretch where the offense hiccuped, they missed Cutler at a key moment, still went 10-6, and lost their head coach. Smith will now join Reid as a highly respected player-friendly coach now available. For the Bears, this was probably the only way to replace their offensive coordinator, as they really haven’t experienced the offensive success they’ve expected. If Cutler can put it together in 2013, they can make another push, but defensively it’s hard not to see this as the next top group that’s going to be forced to get young fast.
#14) New York Giants ( 1)
This is a group that over-performed last year and underperformed in this one. It didn’t surprise anyone that they knocked around the Eagles in week 17, but they left themselves requiring way too much help. They’re going to push for the division next year, but in a division where the line between first and last is always razor thin, they’re certainly not a clear favorite.
#15) Dallas Cowboys ( 1)
Romo just loves making things difficult. He’s been one of the top quarterback’s all year, was having one of the best second-halfs of the season, and then helped the Cowboys in gifting the elimination game to the Redskins. Norv Turner would make a lot of sense here, but Garrett’s not going to sign his marching orders, so it’s not likely to happen. There’s plenty of teams that would love to have the problem of having someone who’s only not good in elimination games, and with a weak quarterback class, Romo’s not in any danger of losing his job, but he’ll be under all types of scrutiny again next year.
#16) Pittsburgh Steelers ( 1)
Considering all the cap issues last year and the serious retooling, you can’t be too hard on the Steelers. The lost Big Ben at a critical point and they still were in contention late. They’ve got to continue to get young and build defensively but they’ll do well to keep a close eye on the developing Bengals and Browns, because this division could be a beast in years to come.
#17) Carolina Panthers ( 3)
If the Panthers season had unfolded in reverse, with the success in the early season and the misery down the stretch, Rivera probably would have been gone. Instead, it appears that they’ve earned him another shot and it’s hard not to see them contending in the future. Newton needs to mature and gain consistency, as they’d have been challenging for a playoff spot without his early season fluctuations. You get the feeling that this group could just as easily be your division leader as it could your last-place unit.
#18) New Orleans Saints ( 2)
Before the season we talked extensively about whether or not the Saints could win without Brees. Now the question is whether they can winwith him. He’s clearly a top QB, and his receiving options are sufficient as well, but if the loss to the Panthers proved anything, the defense is miles away. People will talk about missing Sean Payton, but I think the issue on defense is personnel. They’ll hurry to build back, but Brees is aging, and ask me where this team is when he decides to finally hang ’em up.
#19) St Louis Rams ( 1)
The expectations weren’t for Jeff Fisher to win in his first year, but the Seahawks quick turnaround has made them look somewhat more unimpressive. They’ve made strides, especially on the defensive side of the ball, but as the Seahawks and Niners look built to win for a few years, it’s going to take a few more big changes to challenge for the division.
#20) Miami Dolphins ( 1)
They ended the season poorly, but there was a lot to be excited about in 2012. Tannehill was expected to be on one of the steepest learning curves of the new quarterbacks, and he showed more than a few promising glimpses throughout the year. The defense still needs a few upgrades, and Tannehill deserves a few real weapons, but this team has reasons to be optimistic about next year.
#21) San Diego Chargers
Well, Norv and AJ are finished. The GM will be replaced first, but this is, for all intents and purposes, John Spanos’ football team. Bruce Arians is a nice fit, as he’s not very likely to replace John Pagano, who the staff is high on. What’s still perfectly clear is that this team is desperate for an offensive line. Rivers isn’t going to improve without a clean pocket, and Rivers remains the key to Chargers success.
#22) Tampa Bay Buccaneers
I was crazy about this team around mid-season, as the offense was rolling and the defense was starting to look like they were drinking Schiano’s Kool-aid. They didn’t have the stamina to stay in the crowded playoff hunt down the stretch, but they’ve got the ingredients to make a serious push in years to come. I think they’ll do well to focus on building defensively, but Freeman should continue to mature and will benefit from opposing defenses struggling to address the dual threat of Jackson and Martin.
#23) Buffalo Bills ( 3)
This team was a huge disappointment. Fitzpatrick struggled, the coaches misused C.J. Spiller and the defense, which many expected to rival the best, was lackluster. This does look like the type of situation where the right coach could make a big difference, and Gailey was among those fired on Monday, so this still might be the heir apparent many were expecting for the division whenever Brady rides off into the sunset.
#24) Cleveland Browns ( 1)
I don’t love the move to fire Shurmur and Heckert. This team is a few improvements in the passing game away from consistently challenging for the division and they both improved this organization. If I’m Alex Smith, I want to quarterback the Browns, and here’s why: I want nothing to do organizationally with the Raiders and Jets, don’t want to play from my back, which eliminates the Cardinals, and Peyton looks like he’ll be winning the west until he hits the early bird dinner. This is a group that can get good fast.
#25) Tennessee Titans ( 2)
I’ve been promised that the Titans played 16 full games this year, but I still feel like I don’t know much about them. They racked up a few wins, but none against an impressive opponent and they need an answer at quarterback and a serious overhaul on the defensive side. I’m not convinced that Locker can’t be a decent starter in the league, but the success of young passers lately has really forced a demanding learning curve.
#26) Detroit Lions ( 1)
In another division you’d expect this group to bounce back from this disappointing season next year, but this is the NFC North, where A.D. looks like E.D., Rodgers is going to be going wild for a while, and the Bears certainly look like a team that can still get better. If they want to be a threat, they’ve got to find a way to beat divisional teams, and that means the defense.
#27) New York Jets ( 3)
Their record was much better than they deserved, this is one of the worst teams around. Rex apparently is safe in his job, which is more than a bit perplexing, but the real issue is the ridiculousness of the front office. The Cardinals and Browns at least have a defense to speak of, and they won’t face half the cap trouble that the Jets will in the coming off season.
#28) Arizona Cardinals ( 1)
There wasn’t any reasonable QB option, the offensive line was laughable, and they lacked depth throughout. That’s the type of formula that leads to a house cleaning. Urlacher’s not likely to return to Chicago, especially now that Lovie’s gone, and the top linebacker is an Arizona resident… Anyhow, as fun as it would be to imagine Lovie and Urlacher playing for the Cardinals, it’s an offensive line that’s most important, followed by a QB.
#29) Philadelphia Eagles ( 1)
After a fitting end to a miserable season, the Eagles have fired Coach Reid. I understand the move, especially given that this is a Philly team, but I really don’t see them finding a better coach. I still feel that it’s his personnel divisions that lost him this job, and while they can improve in their team building, I don’t see a much better coach out there. Either way, they need to keep the gap between division contenders close for the next few years, as with the Redskins emergence, the division is in dire need of a consistent cellar-dweller. Most importantly, they need a quarterback who can stay healthy.
#30) Oakland Raiders
Dennis Allen made himself look a bit silly when he started Terrell Pryor, who looked far better than Leinart did, who Allen opted for earlier in the season after claiming Pryor wasn’t ready. Perhaps they’re keeping Allen around for another year with plans to part ways next year, as this team likely isn’t going to be much better next year. Palmer actually played pretty well this year, but isn’t worth the money or the bounty they traded for him. McFadden is another interesting case, as he can’t seem to play more than half a season but is gobbling up cap room. I’ve said it before: long term project.
#31) Jacksonville Jaguars
An ugly loss to close out the season, but Mularkey has retained his job for now. He could be fired in the next few weeks, but if Tebow does end up in Jacksonville, maybe Mularkey is just what’s needed for the next year or two while they sell tickets and lose games. They’d then be able to replace Mularkey once they draft their quarterback in 2014 or 2015 (I don’t see the answer in this year’s draft). I really expected better from the defense, but this group has more vacancies than not.
#32) Kansas City Chiefs
The final Broncos loss was a perfect way to underscore this brutal season. On the plus side, Hunt did some significant restructuring and GM Pioli could be next on the chopping block. Unfortunately, need #1 is a quarterback, and while the Chiefs are on the clock, the dreamy passing options just aren’t there this year. While Chiefs fans might not like it, this may be the year they need to shuffle back in the draft and load up elsewhere for a year while waiting out the quarterback solution for another year.