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NFL Power Rankings: Atlanta Falcons rise, Chicago Bears fall

If ever there was a worse preseason game than Dallas Cowboys-Oakland Raiders, these eyes didn't see it. It was the same old (recent) story for two of the league's most storied franchises: a pair of clubs that just can't seem to get out of their own way.

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The Cowboys suffered through dumb penalties on Monday night, while the Raiders' offense continually undermined big plays by stalling ... then going backward. Terrelle Pryor took a late-game sack on a screen pass, of all things, ultimately leaving the Cowboys' fate to be decided from fourth-and-26 (Freddie Mitchell, anyone?). Dallas' offensive line looked as tough as Dallas' offensive line normally does, which is to say like Kenny Chesney in one of his sleeveless man-salmon tank tops and a seashell choker.

Two of the most-penalized teams in the NFL eventually brought the sordid 3-0 affair to an end (Dallas "won"), but in the process inspired no confidence in our latest rankings -- our first since taking the league's temperature after April's draft.

(Note: Arrows reflect change in standings from the most recent power rankings.)

OFFSEASON POWER RANKINGS: Post-Draft | Post-Free Agency

How the Giants keep David Wilson off the field is anyone's guess, as "starter" Ahmad Bradshaw has been afflicted with a healthy share of foot/ankle problems over the years. Hakeem Nicks and Victor Cruz were a dynamic duo at wide receiver last season, but Nicks has a checkered injury history of his own, while Cruz has set the bar awfully high for himself. There's not enough uncertainty to knock the Giants from the top post they've rightfully held since winning Super Bowl XLVI, but there's enough to wonder about the look of Kevin Gilbride's 2012 offense.

Plax the Patriot? Recently read a copy of Tom Callahan's The GM, which chronicles the Giants' 2006 season -- former general manager Ernie Accorsi's last in the NFL. One of the interesting tidbits I pulled from this solid read was the fact that Plaxico Burress has a high football IQ. From a distant view, he sure looked to be more reliable than Santonio Holmes with the New York Jets last season. But the thought here coincides with that of others around the league: He's a last resort. Getting Logan Mankins back (off the PUP) is a boost.

The questions surrounding this team always begin and end with Alex Smith. But Randy Moss and Frank Gore are also worth investigating early in 2012. The early bird says Moss will start and could surprise a few folks at 35 (the same age as Burress.) Meanwhile, Gore has logged nearly 2,000 career touches and is 29. Expect a committee look in The City by the Bay -- a headache for fantasy owners, but a sensible approach for a team with plenty of depth at running back.

Losing Desmond Bishop for the season hurts. Green Bay's defensive struggles were well-documented last season, and opposing tight ends might find easy pickings in D.J. Smith (or whoever starts in Bishop's stead). Last year, Erik Walden represented a big hole in The Big Cheese at outside linebacker. Now inside 'backer becomes an issue.

Texans defense ain't no jive, to quote colleague Dave Dameshek. Carolina accumulated all of 137 yards of total offense against Houston on Saturday. The Panthers averaged three yards per offensive play. Keep chatting up Arian Foster and Andre Johnson, and we'll stay with Wade.

Losing Terrell Suggs for a prolonged period of time obviously affects a defense with a new coordinator and some aging players. While Paul Kruger will likely replace T-Sizzle, the important SOLB job could fall to a rook. Courtney Upshaw, it's your baby now. No pressure.

Everyone is so sure Brandon Marshall is going to a) play lights-out, b) not be a knucklehead and c) catch 120 balls. Based on what? Because he's teamed up with Jay Cutler and Jeremy Bates again? Cutler is not a third-year quarterback; he's a seventh-year veteran who won't be forcing throws just to Marshall. Moreover, there's little guarantee Chicago's pass-protection problems have been solved. Throw in the fact that we didn't get to see Cutler, Matt Forte, Julius Peppers or Brian Urlacher ( who just went under the knife) in the preseason opener, and it becomes increasingly difficult to keep the Bears ranked this highly.

Nice to see (and hear) Eagles fans show outward support for Andy Reid. Rarely in the 92-year history of the NFL has such a successful head coach been so frequently maligned, even by his own fans. The bottom line: Reid is 126-81-1 (Donovan McNabb didn't know ties existed before that one). The second bottom line: Philly is in contention once again. Five NFC Championship Games, a Super Bowl and continuity mean something ... even in today's NFL.

What to make of the Saints as a whole? Going deeper, what should we make of the running back situation? Drew Brees has been the most productive quarterback in the NFL over the last six years, but it sure would be a boon to this club if Mark Ingram could stay healthy and add a thump to the running game. Yes, we're aware of Darren Sproles. But the Saints could really help a Jonathan Vilma-less defense by rushing more and keeping the clock burning.

Big news from Broncos-Bears on Thursday night: Caleb Hanie went 7-for-14 for 79 yards in his "revenge" game. He played Hanie-esque: just good enough to get you beat. (OK, the score was actually 31-3 in the Broncos' favor, but you get my drift.) If I'm a Broncos fan, I'm strongly encouraged by one particular thing I saw at Soldier Field. No, it was not Peyton Manning's play. Pass protection. Can the offensive front keep this up?

One of the more underreported guys coming off a major 2011 injury has to be cornerback Leon Hall. Don't forget, he was one of the best corners in the AFC before hurting his Achilles. So far, he's held his own in camp. If Hall comes back 100 percent, Cincy could be a tough out. This is a well-balanced team that just needs a confidence-building win over Baltimore or Pittsburgh.

Julio Jones or Roddy White? Which one do you take in fantasy? Good luck. In this space, we want to know what Asante Samuel provides the Falcons, and whether William Moore and Thomas DeCoud can give the club a little more from their safety spots. Atlanta allowed 12 touchdown passes of 20 yards or more last year, third-most in the league. Moore and DeCoud combined for six interceptions, which is OK but won't make up for the long-ball hemorrhaging.

Boy, Dick LeBeau is going to have to do one of his best coaching jobs ever this season. Rule changes have already caused the middle of the field to be gravy for tight ends across the league. Troy Polamalu can be a liability in coverage, while the jury is out on safety Ryan Clark at this stage of his career. Meanwhile, 10-year veteran Larry Foote isn't exactly posting the kind of Darrell Green-esque times necessary to keep up with athletic tight ends from his inside linebacker spot. Todd Haley had better give this team three touchdowns and a Shaun Suisham chip shot each Sunday if Pittsburgh hopes to play in the postseason.

How will the secondary fare? Can Matt Stafford stay upright for a second straight season? Who else will emerge at wide receiver besides Megatron? Despite the question marks, I took a stand for the Lions last month. Lions faithful, let's hope I'm right.

Dez Bryant can screw up off the field all he wants. ... Miles Austin and DeMarco Murray can play 16 games, unlike last season. ... And Tony Romo can play out of his mind once again. ... But none of it will mean diddly-poo if the interior of the Cowboys' offensive line continues to suck. Right tackle Doug Free isn't much better.

Whether the Chiefs can escape the forthcoming 8-8 melee to win the AFC West rests on more than just Matt Cassel's right arm. The quarterback has been the focus of much talk regarding Kansas City's fortunes, but the Chiefs must get better play at the point, i.e., nose tackle. Rookie Dontari Poe needs to win the job over Anthony Toribio (who?). There's also room for improvement at outside linebacker; second-year man Justin Houston could do a lot for this team by taking a load off Tamba Hali on the other side.

The secondary looked good against Tennessee in Week 1 of the preseason. Former Titan Jason Jones helps shape a solid front four for Seattle. Ah, but the linebackers are the question mark, especially in a division with the run-focused 49ers and Rams. Second-round pick Bobby Wagner could start alongside Leroy Hill and K.J. Wright. Those guys are going to have to play ball for the Seahawks to have any hope in the NFC West.

Note to Cleveland: This is how you do a quarterback competition.

Santonio Holmes will miss a second preseason game with bruised ribs. Jeremy Kerley has a tear in his hamstring. Stephen Hill is a rookie and dropped a ball in Cincinnati. Chaz Schilens is Chaz Schilens. Patrick Turner played at USC, but at least he was on the practice squad last season. The Jets' passing attack is more "gangrene" than "Gang Green."

Perhaps the most relevant storyline at Raiders camp is the progress of the receiver corps. Can Denarius Moore take a step forward from last season? At this stage of his career, has Darrius Heyward-Bey already reached his ceiling? Is there anyone on the roster that is a surefire target on third-and-7? Not right now.

If Ryan Mathews misses six weeks, he'll miss his first two starts of 2012. That means he'll have missed 12 of his first 34 possible career starts. If he's the fantasy stud everyone thinks he is, it's definitely of the soft-core variety.

Can't wait to see what Fred Jackson does this season. People forget what a great year he was having before a broken leg landed him on IR (1,376 yards from scrimmage in 10 games). Many folks seemed ready to anoint C.J. Spiller as the starter over the spring. No freaking way. In fact, as Around the Leaguer and colleague Gregg Rosenthal astutely pointed out, Spiller had a drop and costly penalty against the Redskins last Thursday night. That's not good. (Well, good for Gregg, not C.J.)

Like the Lions, the Panthers (no pun intended) are a tough team to project. Carolina was in a lot of games last year, and could be a surprise playoff club. Then again, the defense is somewhat devoid of difference makers. Having Jon Beason healthy is nice. Offensively, what if Cam Newton has a sophomore slump? What if Steve Smith hits the career wall? Carolina has to play the loaded NFC East this season, as well.

Of all the teams in the NFL, none seem to be as stunted by a quarterback quandary as Arizona. It really is all anyone talks about when it comes to the Cardinals. Kevin Kolb certainly isn't doing himself any favors. And regardless of how the team played when he started last year, is John Skelton really the answer? Neither QB has separated himself from the other this summer, although Kolb has looked more terrible.

Shanahanigans seem to be on again, as Evan Royster runs with the 1's and Roy Helu with the 2's. The coaching staff prefers Royster's inside running ability, but you can't blame Redskins faithful if they aren't exactly salivating. Meanwhile, there should be no shenanigans on defense, with the same starting front seven returning from 2011. The Bills gained just 219 yards in the preseason opener.

How's this for roster evaluation: Greg Schiano squeezed 82 Bucs into Friday night's preseason opener. Tampa came out and scored touchdowns on its first two drives, while backup Dan Orlovsky went 8-for-8 for 91 yards. Speaking of backups, a staggering 15 guys caught passes for the Bucs. Schiano is evaluating everybody. As well he should, seeing as this franchise carries a 10-game losing skid into 2012. It would be nice to see Arrelious Benn and Mike Williams take steps forward.

Chad Johnson is gone, though head coach Joe Philbin said the decision had to do with more than just his recent run-in with the law. Definitely not what this Dolphins team needed. One look at the receiver position on the depth chart is an ugly one. Legedu Naanee, Davone Bess and Marlon Moore are the first three names listed -- that just might be the worst 1-2-3 batting order in the league. Brian Hartline might be on the final roster. Perhaps Roberto Wallace can make some noise without Johnson stealing valuable reps. No matter how you slice it, wideout is a mess in Miami.

If Jeff Fisher's Rams are going to run the football as much we anticipate, then Isaiah Pead needs to grow up fast. Steven Jackson can't be a 300-touch guy forever, and the second-round draft pick has certainly shown flashes. Pead needs to give Jackson what Jackson gave Marshall Faulk late in his career: an effective breather. Not to mention a shot in the arm for Sam Bradford and the offense.

Blaine Gabbert's pocket awareness continues to be an issue, as evidenced in his final drive against the Giants last week, when he held the ball too long and fumbled on an Adrian Tracy sack. That said, the bigger concern was Mel Tucker's defensive unit, which allowed the Giants to score points on four straight possessions in the first half. Trust Tucker to turn that around, but a healthy pass rush sure would help.

Cleveland's first touchdown of 2012 was scored by Brad Smelley. If a team's season outlook was ever reflected by a name ...

The 49ers ran for 198 yards in the first half on the Minnesota defense. The Christian Ponder-led Viking attack fared well, but this club won't be in any ballgames if it lets teams run on it like the Niners did. You never want to make too much of the first week of the preseason. Still, allowing 69 yards rushing on the opening drive was an ominous start.

Andrew Luck looks good. Now that we've gotten that out of the way, how about Donald Brown's explosiveness? We've seen this before -- like last year against the Titans. But then Brown gets hurt, or does something to disappoint. Luck needs more than Reggie Wayne, Coby Fleener and Austin Collie this season, and can't save the franchise by himself.

Follow Elliot Harrison on Twitter @Harrison_NFL

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