Was it Tom Brady's third-down scramble? Dont'a Hightower's strip-sack? Or Julian Edelman pulling some real Star Trek @#$% to tractor beam that football away from the ground and into his gloves?
It was all of it.
In a word, Super Bowl LI was mesmerizing. Perhaps another Super Sunday was better from stem to stern, but no other edition left the How in the world did that happen? aftertaste of a game that notched 30 -- thirty! -- NFL records in the process. Put another way: This sucker was more than merely a rung better than Super Bowl 50. It was the perfect way to put another season -- the NFL's 97th -- in the books.
With that, we are taking a final glance at all 32 teams. Each is ranked with an eye toward the future -- 'cause in a few weeks, the NFL calendar cranks up again. Come early March, when players are franchise-hopping, we'll readdress the whole lot. But here's where they stand at this moment in time, with the 2016 campaign fresh in the rearview and all the offseason wheeling and dealing on the horizon. Your take is welcome now: @HarrisonNFL is the place.
Let the dissension commence!
You want to know what the Patriots' mindset is right now? Your answer, courtesy of the incomparable Bill Belichick: "In all honesty, we're five weeks behind in the 2017 season to most teams in the league." Before we get to the pending free-agent decisions -- and there are many to be made, on important guys like Logan Ryan, Martellus Bennett and Dont'a Hightower -- can we simply celebrate an amazing second-half comeback? Loved that James White played a huge role. What a smart, scrappy player he's become. Love that the best team in the NFL won the Super Bowl, as opposed to the way things have played out in some recent years. Lastly, love the fact that New England was aggressive in overtime, playing for the win and not a field goal.
Much discussion about the blown lead in the Super Bowl. Is it not crazy to think that the taste Kyle Shanahan leaves in fans' mouths -- at least as it pertains to his time in Atlanta -- is the poor play-calling in the late stages Sunday? Not the 540 points Atlanta scored during the regular season ... or Matt Ryan's MVP campaign ... or the prolific RB-by-committee he maestro'd with Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman. The criticism is real and, frankly, warranted. The Falcons' last 16 plays included a grand total of four runs. Did "Total Access" Monday, and heard my colleague Reggie Wayne say it best: "Up 25 points in the second half, you're not only playing your opponent, you're playing the clock." Oh, well -- it's Sark's problem now.
So who's the next best team in the league after the two Super Bowl combatants? How about the Steelers? And not simply because they lost in the AFC Championship Game. The Cowboys, who beat them in Pittsburgh back in November, could lay claim to this spot. But they have a ton of free agents -- and not as much dinero as the Steelers to do something about it. Had Le'Veon Bell not gotten hurt, perhaps that championship match plays out differently. The star back will make big bucks this offseason, perhaps under the franchise tag. Another notable free agent? James Harrison, who, despite being approximately 55, is still the Steelers' best pass rusher. What a player.
Difficult choice to place the Packers this high, especially considering the key free-agent situations they must address this spring. T.J. Lang (who is hurt), Julius Peppers (who might retire), Nick Perry, Jared Cook and Eddie Lacy are all set to hit the open market. Perhaps Ted Thompson will let Lacy walk. But with Christine Michael also a free agent, what is Green Bay going to do -- give Ty Montgomery 20 carries a game all season? So why are the Packers batting cleanup here? Don't forget all the injuries this team had on defense, particularly in the secondary ( Micah Hyde is also a free agent). Aaron Rodgers played like the best quarterback in the league over the last two months of the season, and he always gives this team a chance. Green Bay has made the postseason eight years in a row for a reason.
This ranking is not a direct response to the Divisional Round loss to the Packers, although it does play a partial role in the pecking order. Dallas doesn't have much cap room to work with at the moment, but the Cowboys can create space through the departure of youknowwho. The real issue is the sheer number of free agents the Cowboys have to address. No stars with the star on the helmet are set to hit the open market, but Dallas faces the potential loss of many key contributors like Barry Church, Morris Claiborne, Jack Crawford, Terrell McClain and, most especially, Ronald Leary. Say what you want about the Cowboys' dominant offensive line, but it's better with Leary at LG. Last thought: I think Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott will be as good next year, but can I say that for sure? Elliott stayed remarkably healthy, while much went right for Prescott. A tiny step back from 13-3 should probably be expected.
This is a damn good football team with some equally tough decisions to make rather soon. The Chiefs' fiscal situation is a precarious one, at least as it pertains to keeping a 12-4 product on the field. Kansas City can't afford free agents Eric Berry and Dontari Poe without doing some maneuvering. Will that include letting go of longtime standout Jamaal Charles? That's the question (and a crappier element of the salary-cap era). Let us not forget, though, what an outstanding season K.C. had, even with an Eric Fisher hold stuck in our brains.
Derek Carr is already back working out and will be working toward getting the Raiders back to jockeying with the Chiefs for the AFC West crown. Of course, before the Oakland (... er, Las Vegas ... uh, San Diego? ... please, God, no ...) Raiders can think about Kansas City, team brass must figure what to do in free agency. Most important to retain, in theory: Latavius Murray. Think the staff there really likes DeAndre Washington, though. Who to go after: Eric Berry! Why not weaken your biggest divisional opponent? The Raiders own enough cap space to fill the Excalibur Hotel in Vegas, yet much of that money is being earmarked for future deals with Carr and Khalil Mack, both of whom are still on rookie deals. By the way, I watched "Excalibur" the other night. Eerie but phenomenal flick. The movie score is wicked.
Bolster the offensive line. That should be an offseason goal for the Seahawks. I fully expect Seattle to spend a Day 1 or Day 2 pick on the O-line. Yes, I realize general manager John Schneider hit this group in last year's draft. Go back to the well. The apparent organizational philosophy -- to not spend money on the front five -- would stay intact by default. Rookie deals translate to getting quality players on the cheap -- at least, when teams draft well. This idea of "the window closing" is pretty dumb. The oldest principal player on this team is Michael Bennett, who is only 31. Unless Earl Thomas really does retire, the Seahawks will probably win 11 games. Especially if C.J. Prosise looks like he did versus the Patriots in November.
To re-sign JPP or not to re-sign JPP -- that is the question. Tell you what: That dude played well last year, somewhat under the radar, before suffering a groin injury in December. The signing of Olivier Vernon, the ascendancy of Landon Collins and all things Odell Beckham Jr. overshadowed the fact that Jason Pierre-Paul was key to the Giants' owning the league's No. 2 scoring defense. At Lambeau last month, Big Blue missed him (and a running game, too).
Why are the Lions here? Because they have a certified front-line quarterback, that's why. Look at the teams next up on these Power Rankings: They are all weaker at QB until you make it down to the Colts. While half the country was saying "Same ol' Lions" as Jim Caldwell's squad flat-lined down the stretch, not enough attention was paid to Matthew Stafford's injured digit. Yep, an injured finger can wreck a season -- at least, when it's on a throwing hand. So can injuries to Ameer Abdullah (missed 14 games), DeAndre Levy (missed 11 games), Darius Slay and Ezekiel Ansah (both missed three games) and so on. Don't see Detroit nosediving in 2017.
Yeah, um, can't think of anything cool to type about the Dolphins. Call it writer's block ... Tannehill block ... something like that. You try spinning yarn about 32 teams. Keep up the complaining and I'll churn out 100 words on Jay Fiedler. Actually, I can think of something interesting: What will be Jay Ajayi's follow-up act to a productive, but injury-marred 2016? Not only was the powerful running back banged up late in the year but so was the offensive line paving the way for him. On the defensive line, Miami should re-sign Andre Branch. In other news, Fiedler's former teammate Jason Taylor gave the organization and that woeful post-Marino era quite a lift with his surprise induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. That guy was awesome, although I'm not sure most anticipated him walking into Canton on the first ballot. To leapfrog Terrell Owens, Brian Dawkins and Ty Law in the Canton pecking order -- and not wait, where so many others have (including Michael Irvin, Thurman Thomas and Art Monk, to name a few) -- was quite impressive.
The great challenge of discussing the Texans is to see how many minutes -- or sentences -- you can go without mentioning Brock Osweiler. Let's avoid. Houston won its division sans J.J. Watt, the franchise's best player and the premier defensive lineman in pro football, while developing a star-to-be in Jadeveon Clowney. Then there's the best player in the NFL that 99 percent of fans have never heard of: A.J. Bouye. The once-undrafted corner out of Central Florida morphed into a top-flight player at his position, and he should have no problem taking Bumble requests from NFL GMs in March. Alright, on to Osweiler. The Texans are on the hook for $16 million guaranteed this season, so he's not going anywhere. They can draft somebody else or look to Tom Savage, but No. 17 will be on the roster.
The Broncos have plenty of cap space, with a relatively low number of free agents. After that come a myriad of talking points. Vance Joseph takes command, coming off a disappointing playoff loss for his defense in Miami. He won't even be coordinating the defense in Denver, as former DBs coach Joe Woods takes over the DC gig, with the unenviable task of replacing a living legend (in football and Twitter): Wade Phillips. Still, the Broncos went 9-7 with a couple of key players down, most notably C.J. Anderson. That hurt them down the stretch. Trevor Siemian and Paxton Lynch should both improve this offseason. And of course, the core of the Super Bowl nucleus remains in town. Will a certain No. 9 join the fun?
With the Redskins facing a free agency crisis on the Kirk Cousins front and the Titans' Marcus Mariota recovering from serious injury, 14th feels about right for the Bucs. Tampa can't move up further, however, because the defense still isn't close to elite status. That side of the ball looked fantastic from midseason on -- until it was needed in late December, allowing 57 points to the Cowboys and Saints. A productive ground game would help, but Doug Martin is a question mark and Jacquizz Rodgers is set to be a free agent.
Not sure if you've heard, but DeSean Jackson was a little flummoxed over the Redskins not including his greatness, er, likeness in an Instagram post looking ahead to 2017. Heard they left him off their Myspace post, too. Ranking the Redskins is really tough. Could they be better than the Broncos, Bucs and Titans, all of whom I have jumbled right outside the playoff bubble? Sure. The offseason is one thorny bush, though, because @OneofOne and Pierre Garçon (who was more reliable than Jackson) are both free agents. Hard to say whether they go fastball or offspeed with those two until the long-term deal vs. franchise conundrum is worked out with Kirk Cousins. That's your QB, X and Y right there.
As it stands right now, the Titans carry more cap space than almost every team in the league. So how does Tennessee capitalize on both its capital and its 9-7 finish? First order of business: Get Marcus Mariota back healthy. Next, get the young franchise quarterback help outside (and outside of Delanie Walker). The Titans' weaknesses -- which include wide receiver, as well as defensive back and linebacker -- are strengths of this year's draft crop. My colleague @MarkDulgerianOS predicts they go wideout at 18th overall. He is usually wrong, too.
If pro football has evolved -- or devolved? -- into an air raid, then you can qualify this offseason as "big league" for GM Steve Keim and Bruce Arians. We think Carson Palmer is coming back. Larry Fitzgerald is -- but this will be Year 14. OK, so how about affecting the other guys' passing game? Calais Campbell, Chandler Jones and Tony Jefferson are all free agents.
Looks like Chuck Pagano won the Indy power struggle. If he is to stay as the Colts' front man beyond 2017, the inspirational coach will have to do it with a depleted defense. Robert Mathis is retiring, while Mike Adams, Darius Butler and Erik Walden are set to hit the open market. Oh, and now Pat McAfee -- who helped Pagano's defense time and again with booming kicks -- is going into comedy. Sadly, we aren't likely to hear any swimming tales from the new punter. Sadly, no one in Indy seemed to be sad about the GM's departure.
After falling below .500 in 2015, at least the Ravens were relevant in 2016. Will they maintain such relevancy in 2017? That's the query of the day. The cap situation is no bueno. Wide receiver is worse. Steve Smith Sr. works with me. Mike Wallace is paid handsomely for his work, but consistency is a question. Kamar Aiken is a free agent. And the great unknown heading into the offseason is what to expect when you're expecting. When will Breshad Perriman produce like a 26th overall pick? Trust Ozzie. (No, not Ozzy.)
Huge offseason for the Vikings. What do they do with Adrian Peterson? They can cut him, save themselves a bundle of cash to address looming free-agent issues -- but that'd upset a few folks with Jake Reed jerseys in their closet. Or they can keep him and potentially not have the cap dollars to re-sign Matt Kalil (if they choose to do so) and/or Andre Smith. Addressing the offensive line without having to bring in outside talent would be nice. Jake Long was not the answer. We haven't even gotten to Captain Munnerlyn or Cordarrelle Patterson. What would Tommy Kramer say?
Last year couldn't have been any less enjoyable for anyone in the Bengals organization. Last offseason began with all of the talk about the postseason meltdown, which then merged into defections from a once-imaginative offense (Hue Jackson, Marvin Jones, Mohamed Sanu). Tyler Eifert couldn't get healthy soon enough, while A.J. Green didn't stay healthy long enough. All of which precipitated a 12-4 outfit sliding to 6-9-1. Flipping that record around will require addressing the free agents along the offensive line. Growing Tyler Boyd's game this summer would make a huge impact, as well. What did work: The defense, which finished eighth in points allowed. Bet a lot of people didn't know that little fun fact.
Perhaps the biggest question coming off another 7-9 special: How much better is this Saints defense? You know, the unit that allowed an incredible 45 touchdown passes two seasons ago (a record that should stand a looooong time). New Orleans cut that number way down last year. Over the second half of the year, the defense's points-per-game and yards-per-game marks both went down. Perhaps a secret weapon will be the hiring of Mike Nolan, who told me he is excited to work with young players with upside. Hold on a couple more years, Drew.
The Eagles are in a cap situation that you could deem, well, not good. (Hence the decision to cut Leodis McKelvin.) That said, they don't really have any impact guys set to hit open waters. Re-signing Bennie Logan and/or Nolan Carroll would make sense, but a quick lick of the thumb -- and positioning of said thumb into the wind -- should point the Eagles to the draft. They must address the wide receiver group. Dorial Green-Beckham and Nelson Agholor have proven not to be difference-makers. (Philly fans might say that with language that's a tad stronger.) How much longer Jason Peters can go is another issue looming this offseason. The big man has been around so long, I think he protected Bobby Hoying's blind side.
Is this organization, in general, closer to the 15-1 outfit from 2015 or the 6-10 group we saw this past season? Welp, if the Panthers are going to at least split the difference, the front seven must be shored up. Kawann Short is a free agent -- though Ron Rivera says Carolina is likely to tag the emerging star. Charles Johnson is getting long in the tooth -- as is Thomas Davis. Luke Kuechly's health is a major concern, after what went down during that Thursday nighter versus the Saints. GM Dave Gettleman has the dinero. Will he pay high for Short? Wait, that's not the same. Failed wordplay. Anyhow, remember what happened to the last player Carolina tagged (Josh Norman)? No matter what, Ron Rivera's defense will miss Sean McDermott.
Speaking of Sean McDermott, he takes over the reins of a team thought to boast major talent on defense. His predecessor, a supposed "defensive guru," couldn't do much with that group last year. And the nucleus is questionable, if you ask me. Kyle Williams, who turns 34 before next season, can't possibly want to take a beating inside much longer. Stephon Gilmore is set to hit the marketplace. Ditto Zach Brown -- and Lorenzo Alexander, fresh off the best season on his résumé. And those aren't even the biggest storylines for this team. Is Tyrod Taylor the quarterback? What will the Bills get out of the oft-absent Sammy Watkins? Thoughts, #BillsMafia? ( @HarrisonNFL)
Won't the Chargers playing in a glovebox stadium in 2017 feel like when Metallica plays the Troubadour or some other sweaty, 459-seat pickup joint? (Is it bad to say that I am looking forward to watching Philip Rivers throw balls to CFL rejects on a soccer pitch after his first 10 receivers go on IR?) I just wish it was the San Diego Chargers trying that social/sports experiment. Just don't experiment with lowballing Melvin Ingram in the way that one would, hypothetically speaking, a stadium project.
Do you remember in "Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan" when Captain Kirk got kicked upstairs to admiral -- or executive vice president (something or other) -- and he tried like heck not to deliver speak-pause-speak Shatner lines to the newly minted Captain Spock? When Doug Marrone loses two of three in September, how much teeth grinding will Tom Coughlin be doing in the owner's suite? This, as they say, could get very, very interesting. Cap room is in excess; let's hope Blake Bortles red-zone turnovers are not.
Explain me this, Lucy: How is it that the Jets spent a second-round pick on Christian Hackenberg and people are already bailing on him? What's the plan here? They can see what they have in Bryce Petty. Or get involved in the Tony Romo sweepstakes. Todd Bowles still leads a group of veterans that would instantly benefit from a quarterback of Romo's caliber. Don't sleep on the impact of Eric Decker missing 13 games this past season, either. Gang Green is low on the green right now -- however, they also have the fewest key free agents in the NFL. ICYMI: The Jets pick sixth in April.
The three big questions in Chicago that loom over the sports landscape like Harry Caray's green apples: A) Jay Cutler; B) Alshon Jeffery; and C) How many JUGS machines will the wideouts have at Bourbonnais? Think Cutler has played his last down in navy and orange. Jeffery better be playing in navy and orange (See: C, above). Not-so-random thought that solves both: Make a play for Tony Romo. The offensive line is better than that of the Broncos, who have been linked to the veteran QB. Fans at Soldier Field are still wearing Gale Sayers, Dick Butkus and Gary Fencik jerseys, partially because quarterback play has been mediocre for 30 years. Go make a splash by snagging a four-time Pro Bowler -- and grab a QB on Day 2 of the draft.
Quite a coup to get Wade Phillips. The dude is so respected, he can talk about the head coach playing with blocks and enjoying a tasty bowl of vanilla pudding. No need to worry about Aaron Donald in Phillips' one-gap defense, even if his position is now "DE" instead of "DT." Can Sean McVay pull Kirk Cousins out of Jared Goff? We'll see. Who will catch passes from the former No. 1 overall pick? We'll see. Will they build the offensive line with what little draft picks they own? (Good luck with that.) By the way, Kenny Britt had 1,000 yards last season. Bet you missed that. He's a free agent.
Going to say it here and now -- and loudly: The 49ers should go after Kirk Cousins. Why hire a perceived offensive guru (again) if you aren't going to give him the tools to work with? Yes, it could potentially require two first-round picks. So what? That's right. So what. Want to go over some of the 49ers' top picks in recent years? Arik Armstead, Anthony Davis, Jimmie Ward and A.J. Jenkins. Throw in Aldon Smith, too, who came with an expiration date. Kyle Shanahan was part of the group that brought Cousins to Washington. If the Shanahan 49ers are up by 25 points in the second half, in theory, they won't run Carlos Hyde. So better to have a great quarterback, right?
So you've probably read by now that the Browns have a gazillion dollars to work with under the cap, including unused rollover bucks from this past year. Team brass essentially scrapped the place, letting guys they couldn't pay walk -- while others, like Alex Mack, wanted out. (Not a bad decision for Mack, who just played in a Super Bowl.) The key now is employing a method that the Packers and Steelers worked to perfection for years: draft and retain. Well, that, and deciding what to do with Terrelle Pryor, a free agent QB-turned-1,000-yard-WR who wants to get paid.
Follow Elliot Harrison on Twitter @HarrisonNFL.