Last time we ranked the NFL’s 32 teams in typically arbitrary and meaningless fashion, the Philadelphia Eagles were the story of the NFL and had captured GLS’s football heart. But we’ve had a chance to watch an unhealthy amount of preseason football (some might suggest that one quarter gets you to that point) and to analyze what has gone down in the five weeks since that famously fervent and abbreviated free agent signing spree came to an end.
And although we can still smell the dissipating powder from Howie Roseman’s gun, we’re ready to reorder our list with the defending champions returning to the throne. That doesn’t mean we believe things will conclude in such a fashion 22 weeks from now when the Lombardi Trophy is fought for in Indiana, but it means that we can’t find a reason to punish the Pack just yet. And as we mentioned in our season prediction column, the best man doesn’t always win.
1. Green Bay Packers: Cue Weezy again. Jermichael Finley and Ryan Grant are healthy, Clay Matthews is healthier and Cullen Jenkins goes in the books as the only tangible offseason loss.
2. Philadelphia Eagles: You can win with a bad offensive line, but it’s noticeably more difficult to do so. And I don’t wanna go all “gut feeling” on y’all, but can you really envision Michael Vick raising the Lombardi Trophy in February?
3. Atlanta Falcons: Birds constantly flying under most radars, but not ours.
4. New England Patriots: No hyperbole — it wouldn’t totally shock me if Albert Haynesworth made a run at defensive player of the year honors. Could be a game-changer for a team that already was a favorite.
5. Pittsburgh Steelers: Did you see what Ben Roethlisberger did in 12 games last year? Mike Wallace should be better and Aaron Smith is back on defense. Same old, same old in Allegheny County. And that’s a good thing. It’s a great thing.
6. San Diego Chargers: If Antonio Gates stays healthy they might have the best offense in football. If Ryan Mathews emerges they might break records.
7. New Orleans Saints: You know the way you feel the day after a hangover? You’re a whole new man. A fresh sleep clears the cobwebs and your stomach settles and you’re ready to rejoin society. That’s how New Orleans feels.
8. Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Everyone’s favorite “team on the verge” is about to do big things. The only problem is that the league’s eighth-best team is the second-worst team in their division.
9. Houston Texans: Wade Phillips has the personnel to get it done with Houston’s transformed 3-4 and the talent is there on offense. With the rest of the division in ruins, this is their year. It has to be. And if it’s not, Gary Kubiak can find a new home.
11. Kansas City Chiefs: Eric Berry has the potential to completely transform the defense and Jamaal Charles has the ability to completely transform the offense. They’re relying on guys like Matt Cassel and Brandon Flowers to not screw things up.
12. Baltimore Ravens: The secondary has taken a hit and the offensive line might be in trouble. They took a step backwards in the offseason.
13. St. Louis Rams: They’ve built where it matters first. The lines are solid, the pass rush should be good and they’ll be formidable in coverage. If Sam Bradford can make a leap, they’re a playoff team. Then again, in the NFC West, they’re probably a playoff team regardless.
14. Detroit Lions: The perennial team of the future has the talent to be a team of now. But can the secondary survive?
15. Chicago Bears: A poorly-run organization starts the season with several negative stories. That can’t help a team that already has some serious flaws. Jay Cutler is going to take hits — lots of ‘em.
16. Dallas Cowboys: The league’s most entitled and self-important team is actually quite average, which is why it’s fitting that they land in the No. 16 spot. They could surprise me, but I don’t think Dallas is a playoff team.
17. Miami Dolphins: But here’s a team that doesn’t get enough credit. I dare you to find a weakness in that defense. They don’t get love or attention because they don’t have a good quarterback, but that might be their only downfall. Unfortunately, it’s a big downfall.
18. Indianapolis Colts: Ranking without Peyton Manning: 18th. Ranking with Manning: 12th. Still not a Super Bowl team in my mind, but what do I know?
19. Jacksonville Jaguars: Not overreacting to the David Garrard move. This team is about the running game anyway, and I can’t imagine starting Luke McCown or Blaine Gabbert under center will ruin them. What will? A terrible pass rush and a mediocre defense.
20. Oakland Raiders: Not having Nnamdi Asomugha changes everything. Only the loss of Manning will affect a team more in 2011. Although they are steadily improving everywhere else.
21. Tennessee Titans: There’s honestly little reason to believe the offense won’t be solid in 2011. With Jason Babin, Stephen Tulloch and Jim Washburn gone, the defense is a different story.
22. New York Giants: Far too many 2010 starters (or expected 2011 contributors) to replace on both sides of the ball. The Giants might finish last in the NFC East.
23. Buffalo Bills: They look pretty similar to last year’s squad, which sounds like a bad thing. But when you consider that they finished 2010 4-4, it’s not as troubling. Buddy Nix and Chan Gailey have a vision, but it’s still quite blurry. Friggin’ cataracts.
24. Washington Redskins: If Rex Grossman and/or John Beck can get it going at all, they’ll be a well-balanced team with budding stars in enough positions to give them hope. And they’ll likely break out of the NFC East basement, which is like a mini-Super Bowl in D.C.
25. Minnesota Vikings: An aging defense and a mediocre-looking offense won’t be saved by the league’s best running back.
26. Denver Broncos: That Von Miller/Elvis Dumervil pass-rushing duo is going to be fun to watch. The fun probably stops there.
27. Seattle Seahawks: John Moffitt, Kam Chancellor, Walter Thurmond. If you’re calling those guys starters, you’re thinking about next year.
28. Arizona Cardinals: The Kevin Kolb-Larry Fitzgerald connection won’t be enough to make up for a bad offensive line, a bad running game and a fairly bad defense.
29. San Francisco 49ers: I figured I’d just list all of the bad NFC West teams in order. They’re all really quite interchangeable, and horrible in almost every respect.
30. Cleveland Browns: I actually like what Mike Holmgren is doing and I think that Pat Shurmur has the right pieces in place in most spots. The problem is that it’s going to take some time.
31. Carolina Panthers: I moved them ahead of Cincinnati moments before publishing this, simply because nobody is worse than the Bengals. And honestly, the Panthers have talent all over the place. They just have to bring it all together, which won’t happen immediately.
32. Cincinnati Bengals: The rebuilding process might only take a year or two if they’re willing to spend some cash. My money’s on them not spending cash.