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NFL Power Rankings: Saints, Falcons up; Patriots, Eagles down

The NFL's 93rd season gets going Wednesday night when the Dallas Cowboys visit the defending Super Bowl champion New York Giants. Ironic, as perhaps the most memorable Cowboys-at-Giants game ever came during the 1993 season. In a fight for both the NFC East and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, Emmitt Smith carried Dallas to a win with over 200 yards from scrimmage -- most of them gained with a now-famous separated shoulder.

To start this season, there is a definite separation between those two clubs, as the Cowboys' injury and offensive-line woes keep them squarely in the middle of the pack. The Giants, meanwhile, continue to hold down the top spot.

Near the bottom, the Andrew Luck-led Indianapolis Colts made a small jump, which was not without some Twitter inspiration:

Hey, it's good to see Austin Collie's brother sticking his neck out there. In fact, feel free to voice your thoughts on our NFL rankings @HarrisonNFL. I'll try to answer all comers. Your brother doesn't have to be Miles Austin, either.

In the meantime, keep in mind that while the middle weeks of the preseason helped shape these rankings, those games still took place in the preseason. To quote Allen Iverson, we're talkin' 'bout preseason, man. Or something like that.

As always, let the dissension commence ...

(Note: Arrows reflect change in standings from the most recent Power Rankings.)

PREVIOUS RANKINGS: Preseason | Post-Draft | Post-Free Agency

The middle two weeks of the NFL preseason generally say the most about a club's starters, and on those merits, there was no reason to drop the G-Men from the league's top perch. The defense gave the New York Jets nothing in the second preseason game, while the Chicago Bears' first-team offense also had its fair share of struggles versus Big Blue. We're not going to knock New York out of the top spot just for giggles.

The Cedric Benson signing made sense. Remember when I suggested the Packers at least look at a veteran running back in free agency last offseason? Everyone tossed a big bag of turds at me while screaming "Ted Thompson would never do that!" The Desmond Bishop injury is still worrisome, as he often locked up opposing tight ends. On the outside, let's hope cornerback Tramon Williams brings it this season.

Seeing Peyton Manning pick apart this defense was alarming, but we'll hang our hats on the unit's 18-game body of work from last season. Most people in the NFL bidness feel like the quarterback holds this club back. Alex Smith posted typically conservative numbers in the preseason (13-for-19, two TD, no INT), but we need to see more big-play capability from a team that went 1-for-13 on third downs in the NFC Championship Game.

After a very strong showing on defense last year ( ranking second overall) and a good preseason opener versus the Carolina Panthers, Wade Phillips' unit experienced some struggles -- relatively speaking, of course. But the quality play of Matt Schaub more than made up for it. Schaub looks to be in midseason form after suffering a season-ending injury in Week 10 last season. The Texans aren't perfect, but they can beat any team in the AFC, including No. 5 ...

If you desire a non-Brady reason to explain how the Pats made it to Super Bowl XLVI, look no further than an opportunistic defense/special teams that led the AFC in takeaways with 34. In the preseason, though, New England caused just three turnovers and was the only team in the NFL without a fumble recovery. Bill Belichick's club also managed to score just three points in the first quarter with the starters out on the field. Then again, everyone freaked out when this team went 1-3 in the 2004 preseason, losing 31-3 to the Cincinnati Bengals and 31-0 to the Jacksonville Jaguars. And ...

... Belichick won his third ring in four years that season. Just sayin'.

Mark Ingram has failed to impress, but that's OK if Pierre Thomas plays like he did in the preseason and Darren Sproles picks up where he left off last year. Meanwhile, there's just no stopping Drew Brees, who looks fantastic. How about that Chase Daniel?

Chicago is this writer's pick to win the Super Bowl. Not only is he referring to himself in the third person, but he's sticking to his pick. For now, though, the Bears lag behind the Packers in the NFC North due to a poor showing against the Giants in Week 3 of the preseason (the "dress rehearsal"), and an inability to run the ball despite having Matt Forte and Michael Bush. Brian Urlacher's health isn't helping matters.

The lack of a pass rush is disconcerting. That they collected just six sacks over the preseason is either just another misleading signpost among many in August football or an ominous sign for a team that sorely needs Terrell Suggs. Fourteen sacks is difficult to replace. Difficult to stomach: The fact the Ravens were outscored, 58-29, in the first half of preseason games. Can't say those were all backups in there ...

Hard to believe the Falcons are this high on the list. But the defensive line looks better, and both the Broncos and Steelers (10th and 11th on our rankings) would have trouble stopping this passing game. Ditto the Lions at 13. A typical Matt Ryan stat line in 2012 should look like this: 30-for-46 passing for 369 yards, three touchdowns and an interception.

For the Denver Broncos, it's all about defense. How will the interior fare, from defensive tackle all the way back to the safeties? The Broncos have some depth, but not necessarily playmakers. Peyton Manning, for all his greatness, can't hide every deficiency. No change in the rankings here.

Getting Mike Wallace back was large. The defense forced turnovers during the preseason, something Dick LeBeau's crew couldn't do to save its life in 2011. The offensive line and linebacker depth remain question marks, but here's a prediction: The running game will be no less effective without Rashard Mendenhall. A committee should work just fine on this team.

The Eagles drop because a) Michael Vick has to prove he can stay healthy, which, the way he looked this preseason, doesn't seem likely; and b) Philadelphia has yet to be tested. The Patriots rested several starters, including Tom Brady; Cleveland started a rookie quarterback and looked hapless on offense; and the Jets have the only offense that might look worse than Cleveland's.

Don't get caught up in the poor defensive stats that came from the Lions' preseason. Detroit's starting defensive unit played very well in spots, making most of the starting offensive units it faced look pedestrian. Much of the statistical damage came against guys who are now riding benches, inhabiting practice squads and working at Medieval Times.

While questions remain regarding Andy Dalton's arm, the defense didn't exactly dominate the first-team offenses of Atlanta and Green Bay in Weeks 2 and 3 of the preseason. Matt Ryan went 18-for-21 for 174 yards and a touchdown, while Aaron Rodgers ran effortlessly for two scores. Thus the drop.

Here's all you need to know about rookie QB Russell Wilson: Of the 19 offensive possessions he led in the preseason, Seattle scored on 13. Solid.

Have you been injured an accident? If you've had to play behind the firm of Livings, Costa and Bernadeau, you probably have.

Those three have to play ball against the Giants' front four Wednesday night, or it'll be 0-1 for Dallas.

The Chiefs were the pick here to win the AFC West. But for right now, they live behind the Broncos with Tamba Hali suspended, Brandon Flowers nursing a sore heel and three other starters on defense missing practice Monday. Not to mention the fact that they struggled against Sam Bradford in St. Louis and were hammered by Seattle.

Philip Rivers' four preseason interceptions (to go with 20 last year) and Ryan Mathews' current place on the shelf leave this team in the 18-hole for now. The club added a lot of depth in the offseason, and is at least better defensively than Denver. That Melvin Ingram can play. Adding to the good-news portion of this blurb is the fact that the Chargers open up in Oakland, where Rivers has flourished over the last two seasons.

Rob Moore, if you're out there, call the Jets. They need you. As long as you can run a sub-5.0 40-yard dash, they still need you. New York is the first team in 35 years to fail to score a touchdown in its first three preseason games.

Direct text message quote from a colleague at another network: "PREDICTION: Buffalo comes into Week 11 PRIMETIME ON NFL NETWORK versus Miami with five wins, beats the Dolphins 43-9, goes 5-1 to finish and get the wild card with 11 wins."*

Yes, he used all-caps. You heard it here first.

 **He's also from Rochester ...* 

The two most important players on the Titans were inconsistent, to say the least, in the preseason. Jake Locker has accuracy concerns and stalled out a few times in the red zone. Mike Munchak has expressed faith in Chris Johnson, despite his 2.9 yards per carry in August. One wonders if the offensive line has inspired that same confidence.

Raiders fans have to be a little worried about the passing game. The jury is still out on Denarius Moore and Darrius Heyward-Bey, although DHB collected nearly 1,000 yards last season. Moreover, Carson Palmer threw four picks in the preseason to add to the 16 he tossed in just over half a season in 2011. He led the Raiders to one score in 17 preseason possessions. Ouch.

Our NFL analysts are pretty optimistic about the Panthers this season. Only one of my colleagues had Carolina finishing under .500, but the defensive line is really going to have to step it up. Notably, 2011 third-round pick Terrell McClain was released the other day. Having a top-70 pick cut after one season does not exactly merit a gold star for the scouting department.

Still not sure what to make of Robert Griffin III, other than to say I'm tired of talking about his "fantasy upside." And I'm still not sure what to make of the defense, which struggled versus the Bears but improved against the Colts in Week 3. Nor am I sure what to make of the running-back situation, with Evan Royster, Roy Helu and Alfred Morris all in the mix. My acai berry smoothie is on Royster, an effective inside runner, to start.

If Tampa Bay is going to do anything this year, it's not going to be dependent on Josh Freeman, Vincent Jackson or even Doug Martin. The defensive front seven has to play better, starting with stopping the run. That group gave up the most runs of 10-plus yards in the NFL last season with 79. Just for comparison's sake: The Raiders finished next-to-last in this category with 69. The 49ers? 27.

So Maurice Jones-Drew said in a press conference that he picked himself first overall in his fantasy draft. Cool. I hope he also grabbed Rashad Jennings in one of the later rounds to start.

Whether Adrian Peterson plays effectively or not, there are too many question marks on offense to trust the Vikings to finish any better than 5-11. Still, with Jacksonville and Indianapolis on the schedule to open the season, Minnesota could start 2-0. The Vikings move up in the rankings due to the struggles of some other teams (we won't mention Arizona here).

These rankings were given much grief by readers on Facebook and Twitter the last time out, due to the placement of the Colts below the Rams. I've come around. Andrew Luck looked fantastic in the preseason. The key might not be the Colts' quarterback, but rather how much pressure Chuck Pagano's group can put on the other team's passer. The secondary in Indy is a sore spot, although acquiring Vontae Davis should help.

Brandon Weeden makes some nice throws. Then he looks overwhelmed. Then he's underwhelming. Then he drops the football on the carpet. Then you realize he's a rookie. Then you realize he's been playing with Montario Hardesty and Brandon Jackson in the backfield. Then you think he might be a really good rookie. Trent Richardson, be special. Please.

Simply put, the Rams' defense looks like it's going to struggle again, even with all the young talent in Michael Brockers, Janoris Jenkins and rookie free-agent CB Quinton Pointer. Brockers is hurt, Jenkins still needs time to develop and the club is just not there yet. Lackluster tackling and poor overall play in the most important game of the Rams' preseason ( at Dallas) put them at 30.

Will the Cardinals finish this low? Probably not. Do they stink right now? Yes. The quarterback debacle has been well documented, but no one could have predicted how poorly offensive line coach Russ Grimm's unit played over the past month. Here are more not-fun facts: the Cardinals were outscored 36-10 in the first quarter and gave up 21 sacks this preseason.

The Dolphins' finest skill-position player on offense is Reggie Bush, a guy who, just a year ago, was considered a part-time producer at best. If Bush doesn't come through, this team is in real trouble. The Dolphins' other skill-position starters are likely to be Charles Clay (FB), Anthony Fasano (TE), Legedu Naanee (WR), Davone Bess (WR) and rookie quarterback Ryan Tannehill. Oof.

P.S. If Chris Hogan is 7-Eleven because he's "always open," is Les Brown the "Death Star" because he's always getting blown up?

Follow Elliot Harrison on Twitter _@HarrisonNFL_.

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