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NFL Power Rankings, Week 1: Panthers top Cardinals, 'Hawks

Jimmy Garoppolo: starting.
Dak Prescott: starting.
Carson Wentz: ... you get the point.

Week 1 of the 2016 NFL season is here, full of even more unknowns than usual. (And that's saying something, considering that this is a pretty darn erratic league on an annual basis.) The odd deal here is that the first overall pick, Jared Goff, is not expected to play -- now or any time soon. Moreover, former No. 2 overall pick Robert Griffin III will be lining up under center in a real game for the first time in 21 months. Former No. 1 overall pick Sam Bradford is on his third team in three years. And we haven't even gotten to Case Keenum or Trevor Siemian yet.

How does this quarterback musical chairs affect the Week 1 Power Rankings? Well, make no mistake: The top teams in the NFL are steady at that all-important position. Meanwhile, recent lineup changes have caused others to drop -- in some cases, precipitously.

Before you peruse the rankings, bear in mind that I had to take into account the past, present and future. What happened last season? This offseason? And how strong will a team be, based on roster additions/subtractions? It's all accounted for here. As we get deeper into this deal, 2015 will be put out to pasture, as it should. Ditto the offseason maneuvering. Until then, let me know your thoughts: @HarrisonNFL is the place.

Let the dissension commence!

NOTE: The lineup below reflects changes from our Aug. 9 Power Rankings, posted at the outset of the preseason.

Who is the best team in the league? Most responses usually involve the Cardinals. What did we see the last time they were on the field for a real football game? Arizona getting shellacked by Carolina. Now, it's fair to say the Panthers aren't the most talented team in the league. Yet, every team in the top five lugs some problems. Ron Rivera's biggest issue is that he will be playing kids in the secondary. Just remember two things: 1) CB Bene' Benwikere was hurt when this team made the Super Bowl, and 2) much of what Cam Newton accomplished last season was with the core of an 0-13 fantasy team. Kelvin Benjamin regresa.

Top to bottom, this might be the premier roster in the NFL. With this being Week 1, though, we must take note of how last season ended -- which is why Arizona is No. 2. Of course, last season also represents a significant reason why the Cardinals are ranked so high now. The present issue is the thinness of the secondary. (Though the Marcus Cooper trade could help that.) The future concern is the play of Carson Palmer. He must perform better down the stretch for the Kangol hats to be playing in Houston come February.

Planting Seattle at No. 3 brings back memories of the halcyon days of the Seahawks- 49ers rivalry. The Week 1 Power Rankings from 2013 featured both of those teams -- from the same division, mind you -- ranking in the top three. Now the Seahawks and Cardinals will be duking it out for not only the NFC West, but the right to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl. Russell Wilson might offer the most homogenized-can't-possibly-offend-anyone-appeal-to-all-markets-foreign-and-abroad-demographics-savvy-tapioca-puddin'-pie-we-are-the-world answers, but he suuuure looks ready to roll. By the way, while we're all here: Thomas Rawls or Christine Michael? ( @HarrisonNFL)

Why the slight drop? Simple: The Seahawks look imposing, and we haven't seen any Jordy Nelson in the preseason. The biggest reason Green Bay bolted up to No. 3 around Hall of Fame weekend was because Eddie Lacy was slimmed down -- and, yes, Nelson was returning. Then he didn't play. Aaron Rodgers looked like Aaron Rodgers the other night in Santa Clara. There is even buzz around Jared Cook's participation in the offense. The defense looked more like American cheese than Swiss cheese in the preseason. All that being wonderful and lovely, Nelson has to be full bore in Week 1. This ain't 1995. That is going to be a tough deal down in Jacksonville.

Rob Ninkovich's suspension complicates matters for New England -- a team some might have lower in the rankings, with both Ninkovich and Tom Brady out for a month. That said, who else in the AFC is strong right now? The Broncos, with last year's third-stringer (Trevor Siemian) starting? The Steelers, with even worse suspensions than New England's? Or the Bengals, who haven't won a playoff game since a mummified Steve Grogan was the starting quarterback for the Patriots? Grogan was padded up during that 1990 season, donning a neck roll that would put even Bryan Cox to shame. (No, not Brian Cox) -- talkin' Bryan with a "Y.")

Many fans and analysts are decidedly gloomy on the Broncos' prospects with Trevor Siemian under center. Actually thought they might be too low on these rankings, given that they are the defending Super Bowl champs. That is, until Terrell Davis told me he would have them lower. You might know him. He darn near personally delivered two Super Bowl rings for this very franchise. Denver could easily climb quickly, based on the defense. Hope the departures of Malik Jackson and Danny Trevathan won't hurt, but also wonder if the latter's impact wasn't significantly underrated.

Unless you have been watching Pittsburgh Maulers games on video cassette to get your football fix the last seven months, you likely are sick of hearing about suspensions. So I won't tell you that's why Pittsburgh is seventh. Let's talk defense. Bud Dupree going on IR doesn't help, but look for this Steelers unit to be improved in Keith Butler's second year as DC. Pittsburgh ranked 11th in points allowed during a transitional year in 2015. The secondary remains a factory defect, but this group overall might be sturdy enough to win it all.

Consider 2016 a line of demarcation in Andy Reid's legacy. Or, at least, it could be. Reid has always been considered a top-10 coach. In fact, we produced a file that reconfirmed this notion over the summer. But getting that ultimate ring has proven elusive. In 18 years as an NFL head coach, Reid's only been to one Super Bowl (which he lost). In order to reach the upper stratosphere of NFL head men, Reid needs to win a Lombardi Trophy -- or at least take a second franchise to Super Sunday. With his current roster, the Patriots and Steelers weakened by suspensions and the Broncos starting a third-string QB, now is the time.

Welp, for all those out there listening to the drive-time spin doctors on the radio who have doubted Andy Dalton -- seeing last year as an aberration and predicting that this year's return from injury will represent a return to his 2013 self -- think again. Dalton gave the haters some game tape this preseason. (Game tape wrapped in some dead fish, stuffed in a David Klingler-era Bengals beanie and tucked under the car seat.) Sure, it was the preseason, but Dalton looked steady and ready. Also think Jeremy Hill is going to shut more than a few people up with a 1,000-yard campaign. Hill is quite motivated to put that crushing fumble in the rearview.

The Vikings were in the 8-hole last time out. Late last week -- in the early drafts of this file -- Minnesota was 15th. Then the team acquired Sam Bradford. So why not move back up to 8? Because this is Bradford's fourth system in three years. The adjustment might take time. I do applaud general manager Rick Spielman for being aggressive, especially with Adrian Peterson entering Year 10. But if Spielman said the team wasn't going to mortgage the future, wasn't giving up a first and a fourth (that can become a third or second, if certain conditions are met) kind of doing that? I know the Vikes have plenty of picks, but still -- high price. What if there is a QB controversy in 2017? Thoughts, Vikings faithful? (@HarrisonNFL)

Heading into last season, the Raiders were parked at 26th in the Power Rankings. The year before? 32nd. Now look where GM Reggie McKenzie has guided this group. The Raiders are primed to compete in the AFC West, and the thought here is that 10-6 and an AP Coach of the Year award for Jack Del Rio is coming down the pike.

Boy, people sure are jazzed about Lamar Miller's potential. In real life and the fantasy world! In the NFL Fantasy Live draft, Miller went in the first round. He possesses the ability to make everyone around him better. Veering off the national look (and fantasy perspective), I'd be willing to bet true blue Texans fans are more interested in what Jadeveon Clowney will bring to the table. Clowney's upside is higher than Miller's. Imagine his potential coupled with a healthy J.J. Watt. I'm sure you can. That's why Houston took him No. 1 overall in 2014. In case you were wondering: The first RB off the board in that '14 draft was Bishop Sankey, to the Titans at No. 54. Tennessee just released him.

Sure seems like everyone is assuming Kirk Cousins will easily replicate his boffo output from last year. That's much to ask of a second-year starter, although Cousins has bet on himself to do precisely that. The real key to the Redskins' 2016 campaign could lie in two other areas: a) the much-discussed running game, and b) the pass rush (with the improved play of the secondary). To the first point, wondering what Washington fans think about RB Rob Kelley? ( @HarrisonNFL)

Much ado regarding Ryan Fitzpatrick's return and getting Mo Wilkerson under contract. The underlying area of concern, consideration or plain wonderin' is how the secondary will shake out. Darrelle Revis was better than people realized last year. He simply didn't play up to his ridiculous standard. What about Buster Skrine and Marcus Williams? Can they keep the slot receivers and WR2s in check any more than Antonio Cromartie and Dee Milliner? Tom Brady, a more experienced Tyrod Taylor and an Adam Gase-coached Ryan Tannehill are all in the AFC East. Can't wait to see what 2016 holds for the division -- and Gang Green, in particular.

Sneaky Team I. The Bucs have acquired the right pieces to be more than a middling team in a weak NFC South, a la last season. Rookie CB Vernon Hargreaves looks ready to start right now. (As in, he looks like the kind of guy who could start right now for any team in the league.) In other news, not sure I've ever seen a running back who finished second in the league in rushing, and averaged nearly 5 yards per rush (behind a mediocre offensive line), get as little respect as Doug Martin. I keep hearing about Chuck Sims, though. Fans and fantasy owners really don't trust that Martin's stellar 2015 campaign was for real. I hope he proves them wrong. Makes 'em eat their words. Eat crow. And all that stuff.

Is anyone else tired of the Bills missing the postseason? If you happen to be 20 and gorging yourself on Cheez-Its in your dorm room, you were 3 the last time Buffalo found itself in the playoffs. And even *that* memory is painful. When second-round pick Reggie Ragland went down, Bills Mafia Twitter assured me that Ragland was no savior in the first place and not to worry about it. OK. Then first-rounder Shaq Lawson was officially placed on Reserve/PUP. Not to mention, Marcell Dareus is suspended for the first four games. This could've been the year for the Bills, with Tom Brady's early absence. Instead, we might be staring down another .500 campaign. If I owned political aspirations, my campaign would be "Let's make the Bills great again." I wouldn't be plagiarizing anybody.

Jaguars fans often feel the national media is not on their side. Can't say that about this ranking. Sure, 17th feels like one below the middle of the pack. Maybe because it is one below the middle of the pack. Yet, if you saw how Jacksonville's starters fared versus the Bengals in Week 3 of the preseason, you would think this ranking is for the Sun Belt Conference. (If you need word association, go with "cruddy.") That said, the faith starts now. Particularly in an improved offense that was already productive last year. The defense needs to merely be above average.

Dakmania. It lives. Dak Prescott challenged Chuck Norris to a fight once. Norris responded with a career change, giving up martial arts to push the Total Gym. OK, everyone has a right to be excited about both the Cowboys' fourth-rounder and their first-rounder (SEE: Ezekiel Elliott vs. Kam Chancellor). Still, this team is better with Tony Romo, which is why the Cowboys sit at No. 18. Prescott is still an unknown quantity, even if he had almost as many touchdowns (seven total) as incompletions (11) during the preseason. At least with Mark Sanchez onboard, the Cowboys have a quarterback capable of throwing more interceptions than incompletions. Balance.

Don't like the Giants this low? I don't blame you. I do blame the first-team offense. It was awful in the preseason: 47 plays, 128 total yards (fewer than 3 yards per play), zero points, punts galore. Don't call your friendly writer a Big Blue hater, either, as he boldly proclaimed that Eli Manning could take home first-team All-Pro honors. What the Giants do have going for them is a pair of rookies starting at quarterback for two of their NFC East rivals. In theory, that should be Advantage: New York. We'll find out Sunday in Dallas, huh?

Of all the teams in the league, the pendulum swings most wildly in Baltimore. Speaking with Around the NFL writer Marc Sessler, we concurred that the Ravens are the one team that we could see going 11-5 or 5-11. Losing Ben Watson hurt. 2015 second-round pick Maxx Williams was supposed to be the answer at the position. That hasn't happened. Not only will Baltimore feature a TE committee, but an RB committee, as well. Regardless of how well Terrance West fared in August, bringing back Justin Forsett at reduced cost makes much dollars and sense.

What to make of the Dolphins? Miami is seemingly always mediocre, but most analysts are anticipating this team being under that threshold this season. The prognosticators see the Fins occupying the cellar in the AFC East. Yet, there were signs in the preseason that this team could surprise a few folks. With Tom Brady out four games in New England and the Bills losing players on defense to injury, suspension and, well, the Dolphins (offseason signee Mario Williams), this group could make hay in the division. Meanwhile, it's nice that the current regime isn't freaking out about Ryan Tannehill changing the play at the line. Nothing encourages players to look up to their quarterback like telling him his opinion on the field doesn't matter.

Sneaky Team II. Not to be confused with "Iron Eagle II" or "Universal Soldier II." For what it's worth in September, the Titans seem to be for real. At least, in the sense that they could go .500. Tennessee has very winnable games versus the Browns, Bears, Lions and Chargers. The Titans might also catch the Sam Bradford-or-Shaun Hill-led Vikings during an adjustment period in the opener. The power run game, with a quarterback who must be accounted for on the ground himself, should only help Tennessee's defense, namely in the rest category. GM Jon Robinson has done a heckuva job so far. We think. Again, it is early September.

The Lions are starting to shape up like "Mars Attacks." All the pieces are there -- Jack Nicholson, Glenn Close and Jim Brown (or, in the Lions' case, Matthew Stafford, Golden Tate, Marvin Jones, Eric Ebron and Ameer Abdullah). But the movie still sucked. Detroit's offense -- the 1s, anyway -- did not look threatening, much less prolific, for much of the preseason. After everyone got over offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter's name (and the wonderful comparisons to a mechanic in Hazzard County said name invited), they saw a definable improvement in the Lions' attack following Cooter's in-season promotion. The pressure is on Cooter, sans the biggest piece on the 2015 roster -- retired receiver Calvin Johnson -- to replicate the production of the back half of last season. Until then, early-to-mid-20s is where this teams ends up.

Various things have not changed in 97 years of NFL football. At the front of the line in that regard is controlling the line of scrimmage, and how doing so translates to winning games. The Colts aren't playoff-viable on either side, particularly on offense. Andrew Luck is tough, but he'll soon have the structural fortitude of Vienna sausages if the protection breaks down like it has. Losing Jack Mewhort hurt. And first-round pick Ryan Kelly can't do it by himself at center.

To Falcons fans disappointed with this ranking, I understand. How do we shine up Matt Ryan's preseason performance? By any measure, he stunk (18 of 37 passing, no touchdowns and an interception). At least the pick didn't come in the red zone ... oh, wait. It was hard not to get excited about what rookie safety Keanu Neal could bring to this defense, and now he's hurt. We'll discover where this team is soon enough.

This ranking is indicative of where the Eagles are right now, not a commentary on the Sam Bradford trade. Heck, they made out like bandits in that deal with the Vikings. Philadelphia never would have received a first-round pick, much less a first-round pick and a conditional fourth-round pick (which can become a second- or third-round choice), for Bradford six months ago. The 49ers got a second-round pick for Alex Smith in 2013, and I'd much rather have Smith than Bradford. As for the Eagles' offense ... well, we won't go there. Second overall pick Carson Wentz barely played in the preseason, and veteran quarterback Chase Daniel averaged 5.5 yards per attempt, about 2 yards lower than where he should be.

All eyes are on the Saints' defense, at least nationally. Any New Orleans fan who watched their favorite team's preseason will tell you the eyes should be on the offensive line. Because if it continues to play as it did in the preseason, Drew Brees' 37-year-old body could jump to 77 right quick. That's why running back Mark Ingram is so important to the Saints' success this season. Ball-control, give the line a chance to impose its will, take pressure off Brees. C.J. Spiller?

First overall pick Jared Goff isn't playing. In fact, he's not even the No. 2 in Los Angeles. If starter Case Keenum gets Romo'd, we'll get to take in more Sean Mannion football. Not that that's necessarily terrible, as it makes sense for the Rams to exercise restraint when it comes to playing a raw quarterback. However, whatever honeymoon period exists between Los Angeles and the franchise is at least partially contingent on either a) the Rams winning or b) being patient while Goff learns the ropes on the field. The organization went after its guy, a talent deemed worthy of trading up for ... no argument there. But if Goff doesn't see the field in 2016, how long until Rams fans are back at their local Coffee Bean waiting for Jared Leto to walk in? It's not fair, but that must be a concern for the organization.

Ever notice how the @$@^!@-bags who always walk around saying, "Life isn't fair!" are usually the ones responsible for making it that way? In this business, we have no one to point the finger at but those mysterious football gods people always refer to, thus making all the injuries the Chargers have dealt with maddening. Losing running back Branden Oliver -- i.e., Melvin Gordon insurance -- to an Achilles injury doesn't torpedo the Bolts' season, but it's an ominous sign, given the way a raft of injuries to contributors took a team that went 9-7 in 2014 to 4-12 in 2015. Let's hope No. 3 overall pick Joey Bosa catches on awful quick, and that Philip Rivers gets time in the pocket from the fellas up front. Otherwise ...

What a nasty preseason for Chicago fans. Just ugly. Mostly thinking about the Chiefs fiasco here, but the offensive line might hold the key to this football team. Giving up seven sacks in Week 1 of the preseason didn't help. Week 2 versus the Patriots wasn't as ugly. For example, no Bears pass rusher tore his knee celebrating a sack ... so that's good news. Then came the first-string offense versus Kansas City. You've seen 'em! You can't win! So let's get to something not so negative: Running back Jeremy Langford is going to produce this year. He showed flashes in the preseason. The one caveat to that would be that he was not very elusive as a rookie last season. In fact, Mike Clay wrote a solid article on said topic for PFF a few months back. What a boon for the offense if that guy puts up 1,500 yards from scrimmage.

Blaine Gabbert is the starter. We've established that. What else? That the 49ers are on the fast track to 5-11 again? Running back Carlos Hyde could be a bright spot. San Francisco certainly needs him (the team, not the city -- the city needs less techies moving in and driving up housing costs, though that's a column for another day). At least fans will be able to get red wine and cheese at the Field of Jeans on Monday night. They might get a victory, too. The Rams-Niners contest will come down to an improving run defense versus Los Angeles back Todd Gurley.

Call it a gut feeling, but I'm predicting the Browns won't be here for long. If the defense had put up even slight resistance against Jameis Winston and the Bucs in the third preseason game, Cleveland might have moved up these rankings. On another note, what it must be like to be Josh Gordon. Remember when you first got a Nerf basketball hoop, and you were doing-double-pump-tomahawk-jams that would put Dominique Wilkins to shame? That's what I thought of while watching Gordon versus Brent Grimes the other night in Tampa. If only the offensive line could hold its blocks for three seconds, Robert Griffin III might be able to connect with Gordon a time or 10 in the end zone this season.

Follow Elliot Harrison on Twitter @HarrisonNFL.

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