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Preseason Power Rankings: Packers pace contenders

An annual reminder: The actual NFL season will be 500 times crazier than any preseason predictions. That's why we keep coming back.

Keep that in mind while checking out Around the League's first power rankings. This isn't a ranking of how teams finished last season; it's how they look for 2012.

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Around the League will do our own set of power rankings this year, but they will look a little different. Instead of straight rankings, we'll group teams by tier. Because tiers clearly are less arbitrary.

Top Shelf: Green Bay Packers, New England Patriots, Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens

Half of the NFL's playoff population every season doesn't make it back. And yet we'll be stunned if any team out of this quartet doesn't make it to the tournament. Pittsburgh and Baltimore are stuck together with a dangerous Cincinnati Bengals team in the AFC North, so we shouldn't be that stunned. Green Bay and New England have the best quarterbacks in football along with young defenses that should improve.

Next level: Houston Texans, Philadelphia Eagles, New York Giants, New Orleans Saints and Kansas City Chiefs

It wouldn't be a surprise to see any of these teams in New Orleans this February. The Texans' young defense is scary; their roster doesn't have many holes. Philadelphia enjoyed a great offseason simply by retaining its best players. The Giants are deeper than ever; they just need Eli Manning's big jump in 2011 to stick. New Orleans has questions all over its defense, but Drew Brees covers up a lot of problems. We expect a big step up for a youthful, talented Chiefs squad.

Anything less than the playoffs for these teams should be viewed as a disappointment.

Contenders: San Francisco 49ers, Atlanta Falcons, New York Jets, Detroit Lions, Chicago Bears, Dallas Cowboys, Cincinnati Bengals, Carolina Panthers and Seattle Seahawks

We tried to whittle this tier down, but it didn't make sense in August. Teams are more alike than different in the NFL, especially before the season starts.

49ers fans will not be happy but we expect some regression to the mean after a dream season. We're not convinced their passing game will maintain.

The rest of this tier could be elite if everything falls right, but the teams have enough holes possibly to struggle with reaching .500. There are few things about the Jets' offense that to like. The same goes for Detroit's back seven on defense. The quarterbacks get the blame in Chicago and Dallas, but Tony Romo and Jay Cutler are good enough to win titles if the rest of the team steps up. The Bengals must show they can beat quality competition. Atlanta has to be better than steady in a brutal division. If you could combine the Panthers' offense with the Seahawks' defense, you'd have a top-five team.

Not sold: Buffalo Bills, Denver Broncos, San Diego Chargers and Tennessee Titans

Buffalo's offseason hype is worrisome. We love Chan Gailey, but it's hard to expect him to out-scheme the opposition all season. In Denver, there is a lot of assuming Peyton Manning will be Peyton Manning and that their weaknesses suddenly will disappear. The Titans could make noise in a weak division. After years of overrating the Chargers, we're hoping to underrate them.

Searching for mediocrity: Arizona Cardinals, Oakland Raiders, Washington Redskins and Miami Dolphins

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Eight to nine wins from teams in this group are within reach, but they have an uphill climb. Arizona's improving defense might only be the third best in the NFC West. Oakland's defense will be in a year of transition. Washington and Miami have enough talent to hope for modest improvement. Playoff contention from anyone in this group should be considered a positive.

Bottom feeders: Jacksonville Jaguars, Minnesota Vikings, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Cleveland Browns, St. Louis Rams and Indianapolis Colts

These teams are hoping for a miracle. Jacksonville at least has the pieces for a solid defense. Leslie Frazier's Vikings seem to be taking a step back before they can move forward. We worry about the coaching support around new Bucs head coach Greg Schiano. The Browns are stuck in the wrong division for rookie quarterback Brandon Weeden. The Colts have more depth chart holes than any team in the NFL.

If any of these teams make the playoffs, we'd have a strong Coach of the Year candidate.

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