Opening kickoff on Thursday night is right around the corner. Unbelievable.
With the preseason over, I'm fired up. The lockout is sooooo in the rearview mirror. We got to see a healthy Matthew Stafford sling it around. Undrafted cancer survivor Mark Herzlich made the Giants. Larry Fitzgerald finally got to catch a ball from someone who could throw a spiral. And Roy Williams continues to suck.
Feel-good stories all around.
Now, the hard part. And this is no excuse but rather a diligent disclaimer: Week 1 power rankings are always the most difficult. We know how many teams played vanilla in August, while several big-name guys barely hit the field. While we got a long look at Atlanta's Julio Jones, we saw none of Peyton Manning or the real Colts.
Indy sits at the 12 spot, mostly based on track record. I'm sure they're not the only ranking you'll argue.
PREVIOUS RANKINGS: PRESEASON
GREEN BAY PACKERS
There's no evidence to suggest these guys are due for a fall. The Pack avoided serious injury this preseason and haven't begun to stockpile players on IR like last season. The champs are still the champs, although an unclear running back situation makes this a tenuous hold on No. 1. How close was starter Ryan Grant to getting released?
NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS
Chad Ochocinco struggled to make Sporting KC's roster. His bullriding career lasted 1.5 seconds. Now he's not having much luck in the Patriots offense. If this is the worst of New England's troubles, then the rest of the league is in trouble. The underrated signing of Shaun Ellis could really make a difference. As a Jet, Ellis nearly eliminated the Pats by himself in last year's divisional playoff.
NEW ORLEANS SAINTS
Dude ... how good does Thursday night's kickoff game look right now? The Saints have had all offseason to stew over being Marshawn-ed eight months ago. The pass-happy offense has a stout ground component with Mark Ingram in the mix, Pierre Thomas back, and the explosive Darren Sproles starring as Reggie Bush 2.0. Let's hope Sean Payton doesn't suffer any karmic payback for cutting Chris Reis, though.
Steelers fans were none too pleased at the beginning of the preseason when I ranked them sixth (oh, the injustice!), but Week 2 of the preseason -- the disrobing of Michael Vick -- showed me all I needed to see from that defense. Yes, Matt Ryan threw for 202 yards against the aging group one week later. It also took him 42 freaking passes to do it.
NEW YORK JETS
New York ranked over the best team money can buy? For now, yes. This club has made back-to-back AFC Championship Game appearances. The Braylon Edwards departure was about as disappointing as finding out the maid mistakenly threw away a stack of bills.
Tough to figure this team. On paper, Philly looks great, but during the course of the preseason, it wasn't all hot dogs and apple pie. The injury to Vince Young is no small marble, at least in the sense that he needs to be ready. Vick's style of play, especially at 31, isn't exactly conducive to staying on the field for 16 games.
SAN DIEGO CHARGERS
Philip Rivers and the offense look as good as anybody. It's a different animal with Vincent Jackson back in full effect. Rivers might break 5,000 passing yards this season. So might opposing running attacks, if the defensive line doesn't play better. This is a leap-of-faith rank for what should be a good team.
If Lee Evans gives John Harbaugh 60 catches, 900 yards and eight touchdowns, then Baltimore will be in pretty good shape, and perhaps can get to 12 wins again. Defensively, if young Sergio Kindle develops into a standout player, then consider this team a serious contender. Rookie wideout Torrey Smith has a ways to go, however.
Forget last week -- Houston looks better than Mila Kunis. I exaggerate. But hamstring or no hamstring, Arian Foster and the Texans definitely look to be one of those new playoff entrants. Tight end Owen Daniels has been solid throughout camp and the preseason. Wade Phillips' 3-4 defense seems to be a whole lot more effective than predecessor Frank Bush's 4-3. Just don't get hurt, A.J.
NEW YORK GIANTS
There's one story emanating from Indy ... the health of Peyton Manning's neck, and when he'll play. This ranking is because everyone else is convinced the Colts are going to have a losing season. I'll believe it when I see it. By the way, in case you're wondering why you haven't seen Bob Sanders, it's not because he's hurt again. He plays in San Diego.
TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS
I got killed for not taking LeGarrette Blount in our NFL "experts" league fantasy draft. I chose Peyton Manning instead. And that's really a microcosm of the Bucs as a whole ... is Blount a proven commodity at this point? How about second-year wideout Mike Williams? Or third-year quarterback Josh Freeman? So much talent on a team with so few skins on the wall...
... ditto Dallas, a team that didn't excite anyone in the preseason, at least not on defense. Most Dallas sports fans will tell you the best parts of the Cowboys' preseason were Drew Pearson finally getting inducted into the Ring of Honor, and the Rangers beating the Red Sox 10-0 behind Derek Holland. But the 'Boys beat Detroit three of the past four seasons and Chicago signs their castoffs, so here they sit.
These Lions sure seem different from the group that fell to Dallas (and everybody else) the last few years. If you're a fan of the Honolulu blue-and-silver, then you're probably attached to a couple of things: Ndamukong Suh's attitude, and Matt Stafford's arm.
Who knows what to do with Chicago. I sure don't. Glad the Bears didn't cut Roy Williams, though. Perhaps he can dazzle Chicago fans with 34-yard games the way he did Dallasites over the last couple of years.
ST. LOUIS RAMS
Although it didn't garner much national attention, poor Donnie Avery got cut. The one-time promising receiver suffered a pretty bad knee injury in the 2010 preseason, but didn't fit in offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels' plans. Mike Sims-Walker and Danny Amendola do. The latter might catch 145 three-yard slants this year -- or slightly more than last year.
KANSAS CITY CHIEFS
I'm not sure I can explain the Chiefs' drop in our rankings as being indicative of a weaker team, but several of our analysts see Kansas City as being part of the inevitable playoff turnover that occurs every season. Matt Cassel seems hell-bent on proving their theory right.
I've seen many fans comment on this site that the Raiders are gonna stink. Careful. Oakland might have the best backfield in the league, and swept the AFC West last season. Jason Campbell is running the same offense for the second season in a row, one of the benefits of promoting the offensive coordinator. Yes, Nnamdi Asomugha is gone, but Stanford Routt and Chris Johnson (when healthy) can play.
Arizona is going to be much improved over last season, starting at quarterback where Kevin Kolb has already proven to be an upgrade over the three-headed-monstrosity of Derek Anderson, Max Hall, and John Skelton. Whether the Cardinals can leapfrog St. Louis in the NFC West depends on Beanie Wells' effectiveness and the defense getting off the field on third down.
Donovan McNabb hasn't been getting a whole lot of respect lately, but his preseason numbers weren't too bad (24-37, TD, Int). The problems run deeper than No. 5, however, as the offensive line is mediocre, the defense is long in the tooth, and the passing game remains dependent on Percy Harvin's production. How good of a player is Harvin? We're about to find out.
This just in: Chris Johnson doesn't consider himself a regular worker drone like you and me. That's all good, but if Kenny Britt gets himself thrown in the clink and Matt Hasselbeck continues his consistent inconsistency come the regular season, then CJ2K might want to get a job at Taco Hut. He'll be facing eight in the box nearly all of the time. Offensive coordinator Chris Palmer must establish a balanced offense -- perhaps employing tight end Jared Cook frequently -- for this team to talk playoffs.
Raise your hand if you were surprised the Dolphins cut Larry Johnson. No former Chiefs legendary running back has been cut this unceremoniously since ... Larry Johnson, by the Redskins. Did anyone notice that Chad Henne posted a 93.4 passer rating in the preseason? Get excited. He'll keep Miami ranked where it is until he and offensive coordinator Brian Daboll elicit any vertical presence in the passing game.
This is one club that no one I've talked to around NFL.com's L.A. offices knows what to do with ... are they going to be awful, or hover around 8-8 again? The quarterback issue is now front and the center, with the release of David Garrard. We'll see how long Luke McCown holds off rookie Blaine Gabbert. Either way, last I checked neither can rush the passer. The Jags need someone who can.
Colt McCoy is the answer, but the question is how many of his sophomore mistakes can the Browns overcome? The defense is not yet to a point where it can counteract a three-turnover performance by the offense. Still, expect a power running game behind the Peyton Hills train and a heavy dose of Ben Watson to keep games tight. If Greg Little hastens the rookie receiver timeline, Cleveland might be a tougher out than expected.
SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS
Buffalo beats the bottom five because the quarterback situation up there is not muddled. Did you know Ryan Fitzpatrick outscored Joe Flacco in fantasy points per game last year? I found out that little nugget by watching Fantasy Live on this here website, Monday through Friday, and Sunday at 1 p.m. ET. Oh man, that was a shameless plug.
I'm jumping on the Tim Hightower bandwagon. So are lots of 'Skins fans. Let's just hope they don't jump off the Washington Monument when they see the back seven in coverage this year.
Denver seemed to be a popular choice in our analyst debate last week regarding what team would have the first pick in the 2012 NFL Draft. John Fox could very well turn this thing around, but with uncertainty up and down the roster, this organization can't afford any more controversial high picks. Von Miller was one of those in April, although he looks pretty darn quick. Meanwhile, it seems that neither of 2010's first-round picks will see the field much.
Cedric Benson got out of jail early for good behavior, and many a fantasy owner sighed in relief. So did Andy Dalton, although he picked Bernard Scott in his keeper league. While Dalton, Benson, and the rest of the offense will struggle early, this club might move up the rankings because of the defense, which can play well in spots. Time of possession and Parcells football will be central to Cincy's success.
Look, someone had to be last and I couldn't do it to the "resurgent" Redskins. Carolina was the worst team in the league last season, is starting a rookie quarterback, and plays in a wickedly hard division. That's just gonna have to be enough for now.