At this time of the year, properly ordering teams in a Power Rankings is about as easy as completing a third-and-15 in the playoffs. It's just so hard to predict how each team will perform in this league from one year to the next.
Going back to 2000, 74 teams have made the playoffs after failing to crack the postseason the year before. This includes the 2003 campaign, when eight such teams made the playoffs (and the prior season's Super Bowl participants, Tampa Bay and Oakland, went a combined 11-21). The least amount of new teams we've had during this span is five (2002 and 2010). So, your chance of making the playoffs in consecutive seasons is less than 50 percent.
And obviously, it's also extremely difficult to repeat as Super Bowl champions. Hence, my placement of the New York Giants at No. 6 in these rankings. During my tenure with the Cowboys, we played in five Super Bowls and won a pair, and I know how difficult it is to sustain that kind of excellence into the following season. There are just so many distractions after winning a Super Bowl -- public appearances, enhanced media attention, etc. -- as well as roster turnover. It's impossible to bottle the magic that's present in every championship run.
After giving up the most yards in the NFL in 2011, the Packers drafted for defense in April, spending their first six picks on that side of the ball. Green Bay's moving its top pass rusher, outside linebacker Clay Matthews, to the right side, with rookie Nick Perry manning his old spot on the left. Perry possesses speed, quickness and competitiveness -- three characteristics that equal success for pass rushers. On offense, left tackle is still a question mark. Marshall Newhouse, who allowed a team-high 11 1/2 sacks last season, begins the season protecting Aaron Rodgers' blind side.
The Patriots most likely will be favored in all 16 of their regular season games. Like the Packers, though, left tackle is an area of concern. With Matt Light's retirement, Nate Solder will take over on the left side in his second NFL season. And also like the Pack, New England also spent its first six draft picks on defense. After all, the Pats are coming off a season in which they ranked 31st in total defense. But as long as you have Brady and Belichick, you can't be too worried.
The Eagles need to keep quarterback Michael Vick healthy, and that's why the loss of All-Pro LT Jason Peters really hurts. Peters ruptured his Achilles tendon twice this offseason, essentially ending his 2012 campaign before it began. The team did well picking up Demetress Bell to fill in, though. Bell's certainly not Peters, but he's a capable replacement. Philadelphia boasts a very talented offense, but the defense only played well in spots last season.
An outstanding defense returns almost entirely intact for the 49ers, who will be challenged early, with three of their first four games on the road. Can Randy Moss provide a boost to last year's 29th-ranked pass offense? Moss has more explosion plays -- 167 plays of 25 yards or more -- than any other wide receiver in NFL history. But will he still be able to stretch the field at age 35, after spending last year on the couch?
After being sidelined in November with a Lisfranc injury, can Matt Schaub play 16 games? The Texans have a very good running game, with two running backs (Arian Foster and Ben Tate) capable of 1,000-plus yards. But Houston must replace two starters from last year's offensive line ( Mike Brisiel and Eric Winston). Once again, the defense should be very good, despite Mario Williams' departure in free agency. The Texans have a bunch of talented young defenders, and everyone will get better in Year 2 of Wade Phillips' 3-4 system.
As mentioned above, the Giants face a daunting task in repeating as Super Bowl champions. Having a gifted quarterback in Eli Manning eases some of the pressure, not to mention an outstanding head coach in Tom Coughlin and that game-changing defensive line. Running back Brandon Jacobs and receiver Mario Manningham are the two biggest losses, but all the other key stars are back.
Obviously, this is entirely predicated on Drew Brees being behind center. Without him, this team is almost unrecognizable. That being said, I was extremely impressed with the Saints' focus during the practices I attended last week. This group's doing a remarkable job of handling a traumatic offseason. (For my entire behind-the-scenes look, click here.) The Saints boast one of the NFL's young stars of the future in tight end Jimmy Graham and a huge matchup problem in running back Darren Sproles. The defense must be better than it was in 2011, though, and I think it will. It's a more sound approach under Steve Spagnuolo -- no more reckless blitzing like under Gregg Williams. One player who could break out: second-year hybrid defender Martez Wilson.
The Ravens came just one play away from Super Bowl XLVI, but the loss of outside linebacker Terrell Suggs to an Achilles' tendon tear really hurts. Is this the season Ray Lewis and/or Ed Reed finally hit the wall? With all these questions on defense, the Ravens' offensive backfield of Joe Flacco and Ray Rice will be the key to this team's success in 2012.
The Steelers had a good draft, highlighted by two projected starters in offensive guard David DeCastro and offensive tackle Mike Adams. Antonio Brown and Mike Wallace are excellent receivers, but new offensive coordinator Todd Haley will try to establish the run more than Bruce Arians did last year. Running back Isaac Redman looks like one of those hidden gems -- nobody knows where he came from or how he got there, but he's ready for this challenge of starting in place of the injured Rashard Mendenhall.
Jim Schwartz is one of the top young coaches in the NFL today. His Lions boast a top young QB in Matthew Stafford and the premium receiver in the game, Calvin Johnson. But Detroit needs a better running game to maximize its aerial attack. Can the defense hold up over the course over the season? The secondary's a big concern, but the Lions' talent up front can cover up a lot of issues, especially if Nick Fairley starts to play up to his potential in Year 2.
Change is afoot in Atlanta with two new coordinators: Dirk Koetter on offense, Mike Nolan on defense -- both upgrades for the Falcons. Matt Ryan needs to take that next step for this team to follow suit. This is a make-or-break season for left tackle Sam Baker. Defensively, the Falcons still need to find a pass rusher. John Abraham turned 34 last month and Ray Edwards just isn't the impact player the Falcons thought they'd signed last offseason.
With his unique skills as both a running and receiving threat, Matt Forte is the key to this offense. Michael Bush is a fine acquisition that greatly increases backfield depth, but he's just not as dynamic as Forte. There should be plenty of carries to go around -- if Forte doesn't continue his holdout into the season -- as new offensive coordinator Mike Tice likes to run the ball. Jay Cutler should have a big year now that he's reunited with wide receiver Brandon Marshall.
The Bills had a fine offseason, shoring things up on both sides of the ball. Defensively, they landed one of the crown jewels of this free-agent class in Mario Williams, and also brought in defensive end Mark Anderson. On the other side of the ball, they secured new deals with two integral pieces: wide receiver Stevie Johnson and running back Fred Jackson. Chan Gailey deserves more credit than he receives. He improves every team he coaches.
If Peyton Manning is healthy, this is a top-10 team. Denver has a pair of talented young receivers in Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker who should flourish with an accomplished quarterback delivering the football. The Broncos also boast one of the AFC's best offensive lines. Denver made the playoffs last season with a (mostly) stout defense and timely offense. Things will look much different in 2012.
With a young quarterback who played well in 2011 and an excellent 2012 draft -- particularly the first two picks, CB Dre Kirkpatrick and OG Kevin Zeitler -- the Bengals have a chance to move up and win the AFC North. Speaking of the divisional race, Cincy faces a test right off the bat, kicking off the season with a visit to Baltimore on Monday night. Defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer is one of the best in the business and should get a head-coaching job at some point.
The Cowboys helped themselves on defense by signing cornerback Brandon Carr and drafting fellow corner Morris Claiborne. Dallas was decent in 2011, but their time is now. Four key starters -- quarterback Tony Romo, tight end Jason Witten, nose tackle Jay Ratliff and linebacker DeMarcus Ware -- will be in their 30s when the 2012 season begins. Though they do have some young talent, too, including Tyron Smith, who's moving from right tackle to the blind side in his second NFL season.
This team is an enigma. On offense, quarterback Philip Rivers needs to play better and tight end Antonio Gates needs to stay healthy. Defensively, the Chargers are handing the keys over to new coordinator John Pagano, so we'll have to see how that transition works out. Two new linebackers who must contribute are rookie Melvin Ingram and veteran free-agent acquisition Jarret Johnson.
Can Cam Newton improve from his Rookie of the Year campaign in 2011? The answer is yes. He'll be better with a year under his belt and a full offseason. Newton's dedication to the game is reminiscent of Peyton Manning -- he's always looking for ways to improve. The Panthers need to improve their defense, though, which ranked 27th in points allowed last year. Luke Kuechly will help, though -- he looks like one of the best linebackers to enter the league in the past five years.
It's hard to figure out this team. First of all, is either of the two quarterbacks -- Mark Sanchez or Tim Tebow -- good enough to lead you to the playoffs? Also, if Rex Ryan's team wants to win games with defense, the Jets need to field a more consistent running attack to help control the game and give the D some rest.
Does this team have a quarterback? It does have some good players on both sides of the ball. Russell Okung is a fine young left tackle, and center Max Unger is one of the most underrated offensive linemen in the game. Defensively, the Seahawks have put together one of the best young secondaries in football, led by safety Earl Thomas, who looks like he'll be a Pro Bowler for the next 10 years. Seattle remains a very hard place for visiting teams to play. CenturyLink Field is a noisy joint and it's routinely drizzling.
This could be a real surprise team, but it all depends on quarterback Matt Cassel. Can he play like he did in 2010? If Cassel performs, this team could definitely win the AFC West. Kansas City is loaded with young talent, especially at the skill positions. The Chiefs are relying on three studs who were injured last season to return to form: safety Eric Berry, running back Jamaal Charles and tight end Tony Moeaki.
It's a new day in Oakland, with a brand new GM (Reggie McKenzie), coach ( Dennis Allen) and supporting staff. But the biggest key on offense remains the same: keeping Darren McFadden healthy. Quarterback Carson Palmer is no spring chicken, but I think he can still get it done, especially with a good group of young receivers. Defensively, the back seven must improve.
The big question in Arizona is at the quarterback position, where Kevin Kolb and John Skelton are duking it out for the starting job. Personally, I like Skelton's upside. He has the size that you want at the position and throws a very good ball. Outside of quarterback, the Cardinals have a bunch of top-tier players. Larry Fitzgerald and Patrick Peterson are stars on opposite sides of the ball. Not to mention defensive tackles Calais Campbell and Darnell Dockett, as well as linebacker Daryl Washington, who are all Pro Bowl-caliber players.
They weren't bad last season at 9-7, but for the well-coached Titans to take the next step, they'll need big seasons from running back Chris Johnson and second-year quarterback Jake Locker. Matt Hasselbeck's a great competitor, but he's 36 years old and prone to injury. It's time to hand the keys over to Locker. Wide receiver Kendall Wright was a surprising draft choice for a team that usually thinks defense first, but he's already exceeded coaches' expectations in offseason workouts.
This is the first head-coaching gig of Joe Philbin's career, but I think he's going to be pretty successful. Offensively, the Dolphins lack receivers. (Yes, even after the signing of Chad Ochocinco.) That means they'll need another productive season from running back Reggie Bush. I think they've finally found a quarterback of the future in Ryan Tannehill. Is he good enough to start this year? He just might be, but Miami shouldn't force the issue if he's not ready, as the Dolphins have a capable place holder in Matt Moore.
Mike Shanahan has always done a fantastic job of developing quarterbacks. (Donovan McNabb should not count, as Shanahan didn't get him in his formative stages.) Robert Griffin III is the real deal. The only question is whether he'll be able to hold up in the long run. I don't think he'll have a Cam Newton-like impact in Year 1 -- because who does? -- but he'll certainly be a productive player. The defense, however, is only middle of the pack.
This is an interesting team with a new coach in Greg Schiano. College coaches have not had a lot of success in the NFL in the past, but I think this one will. The free-agent signings of wide receiver Vincent Jackson and guard Carl Nicks were huge upgrades. But quarterback Josh Freeman must return to 2010 form for this team to compete in a loaded NFC South.
Can Christian Ponder get the job done? He's very smart, but I'm not sure he has the physical skills required to be a successful NFL quarterback. He just doesn't jump out at you at all. Jared Allen is as good as any pass rusher in the league, but the Vikings are an older team for the most part. And unfortunately, they play in the very tough NFC North, which boasts three potentially great teams in 2012.
Jeff Fisher takes over a team that managed just two wins in a disastrous 2011 campaign. Fortunately, he has a fine signal caller in Sam Bradford. Bradford's injury history is a concern, but he has everything that it takes to succeed at quarterback: accuracy, smarts and athleticism. I have no doubt that he's the type of QB who can lead a team to the playoffs. The Rams had a good draft, highlighted by defensive tackle Michael Brockers and cornerback Janoris Jenkins, but they still have a lot of holes to fill, particularly at receiver. Danario Alexander would be great if he could ever stay healthy.
After Indianapolis and Washington, Cleveland is the next most likely team to start 2012 with a rookie quarterback behind center. The key to Brandon Weeden's success in the passing game is receiver Greg Little, who showed flashes as a rookie last season. Rookie running back Trent Richardson will also make an instant impact on the offense. They have some nice young talent on defense, but Phil Taylor's torn pectoral muscle really hurts.
A new era begins in Indy with Chuck Pagano at coach and Andrew Luck at quarterback. Luck clearly has fantastic potential in the long run, but his rookie season could be difficult. With the exception of 33-year-old Reggie Wayne, the Colts don't really have any receivers. It'll be interesting to see if Luck can win more games than the three Peyton Manning won as a rookie starter. I think he will, but not by much.
New coach Mike Mularkey needs to quickly find out what kind of quarterback he has in Blaine Gabbert. As a rookie last season, Gabbert left much to be desired (to put it nicely). Can he make big strides with the benefit of a full offseason? Justin Blackmon definitely isn't starting his NFL career as planned, with a DUI arrest earlier this month, but there are huge expectations for the rookie wideout on the field. The contract stalemate with Maurice Jones-Drew doesn't bode well. Even if he eventually rejoins the team, will he suffer a Chris Johnson-like letdown after a prolonged holdout? Mel Tucker is just a fantastic defensive coordinator; he should receive a head-coaching opportunity in the near future.