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Pittsburgh Steelers, Dallas Cowboys boast top triplets in NFL

With the 2014 NFL regular season now a wrap, here's hoping Santa visited your favorite pro football team, because Triplets are the must-have gift for this year's playoff participants. Almost every squad playing in January will feature a strong quarterback-running back-receiver trio, just like the legendary set -- Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith and Michael Irvin -- that helped the Dallas Cowboys capture three Lombardi Trophies in the early '90s.

Way back in the first week of October, we cobbled together our 1-through-32 rankings of every team's triplets. Now that a full season has elapsed, we can adjust those rankings to more accurately reflect reality, some for the better (I knew you'd turn it around, Patriots!), some for the worse (sorry, Saints ... at least you still get to live in NOLA!).

Bottom line: Pro football might still be the ultimate team game, but high-end offensive stars are more important than ever.

Before we get to the good stuff, some housekeeping notes: As a reference point, I've listed each team's October rank below the current rank. Also, while I've done my best to name a player at each position for each team, many of these squads are facing serious questions moving forward, meaning I've had to guess at some spots.

Here's the list:

Previous rank: No. 2

Numbers sometimes lie ... but not in this case. Brown (who collected a league-best 1,698 receiving yards) was pro football's best receiver, while Bell (1,361 rushing yards, second-best in the NFL) and Roethlisberger (4,952 passing yards, 32 touchdowns, nine picks) were, at worst, the second-best running back and third-best quarterback, respectively (and Big Ben had what was probably his best individual season). It's fitting that pro football's best triplets reside on the banks of the Three Rivers. Of course, if Bell is unable to playon Saturday, we'll find out if two-thirds of this threesome will equal victory for Pittsburgh on Wild Card Weekend.

Previous rank: No. 4

Much like the Steelers' trio, these three Cowboys will cancel each other out in the MVP race. No doubt they'd be happy to share a different trophy come early February, followed by handsome contracts to keep 'em all in Jerrah's World for 2015.

Previous rank: No. 1

Whether he wins the award or not, Rodgers is the MVP (emphasis on the "V"). Unlike some of their predecessors, Lacy and Nelson would thrive even without the game's best player at the trigger.

Previous rank: No. 16

Plain and simple, a healthy Gronk makes the Patriots as formidable an offense as there is. Brady answering his early-season doubters became one of the biggest stories of the season. Vereen gets the nod as the third leg here, but Jonas Gray, LeGarrette Blount or even Stephen Gostkowski would all be fine.

Previous rank: No. 5

No Percy, no Golden ... no drop-off in Seattle. Matter of fact, the Seahawks' offense looks better than ever, thanks to Wilson and Lynch running football's version of the pick-and-roll.

Previous rank: No. 3

Sorry, Broncos fans, but there's plainly something wrong with No. 18. The future Hall of Famer simply cannot push the ball downfield right now. Thomas is among the most talented at his position, but this team's Super Bowl hopes now ride on its ability to replicate the strategy that carried John Elway's two Lombardi-winning squads in 1997 and '98: leaning on a previously unheralded running back.

Previous rank: No. 15

In spite of Benjamin's bout with the dropsies, the rookie and Newton have had a nice first go-around. And with Stewart finally getting a chance to prove why he deserves the majority of the touches in Carolina, the Panthers could surprise those who tuned 'em out before Halloween.

Previous rank: No. 14

The Colts would be better off with an Andrew Luck clone at running back, but Herron has been serviceable since taking over for the inexplicably ineffective Trent Richardson. It's a moot point, anyway, as the Colts' offense is all about the pass ... thanks in large part to the emergence of Hilton.

Previous rank: No. 6

Stafford and Megatron might not have connected as often as the world anticipated this season, but ask the Cowboys if they're taking the potentially dominant duo lightly ahead of Sunday's wild-card matchup. Bell is a banger whose style should lend itself to the postseason.

Previous rank: No. 20

It might sound simplistic, but ODB's emergence probably saved Giants coach Tom Coughlin's job (and prevented Eli from having to learn yet another new offense). As it is, the future suddenly looks bright.

Previous rank: No. 9

For all of Ryan's virtues, the Atlanta signal-caller is not a guy who thrives behind a subpar offensive line. If the Falcons can figure out how to better protect Ryan (and keep Jones on the field for a full season), there's no reason to think they can't get back to where they were just two seasons ago, when they finished 13-3 and went to the NFC title game.

Previous rank: No. 10

After the Sanchize's latest all-too-brief flirtation with success ended without a trip to the playoffs, Chip Kelly is sure to go back to Foles next year (unless there's an upgrade from outside the current roster). Shady started slowly but returned to form once the majority of Philly's O-line returned to good health. Maclin and rookie Jordan Matthews provided a nice duo of pass-catchers, but the Eagles' offense stepped back collectively, thanks to DeSean Jackson's contributions being undervalued.

Previous rank: No. 11

Green and rookie running back Hill (plus the dynamic Giovani Bernard) are high-end playmakers. The Red Rifle is ... not. That doesn't mean Cincy is doomed in January, but the Bengals won't go anywhere if Dalton can't at least take care of the ball better than he did this regular season (19 total turnovers).

Previous rank: No. 8

It's funny to think, but Ingram probably had the best season of the three, as Graham struggled with a bum shoulder and Brees just didn't look like himself, especially in crucial situations. It would be in New Orleans' best interests to find a way to retain Ingram, who is set to become a free agent this offseason.

Previous rank: No. 12

Kaepernick regressed in 2014. Whose fault was it? Who cares now? With Jim Harbaugh having moved on to Ann Arbor, it'll be on the new coaching regime to get the talented QB and the rest of the potentially terrific Niners weapons back on track. San Francisco wants Gore -- whose contract just ran out -- to return, though Carlos Hyde is waiting in the wings if he doesn't.

Previous rank: No. 7

Defending Cutler's play is a near-impossible task, but there's no debating the fact that Forte and Marshall (who seemed banged up almost all season) rank near the very top at their two positions. That there's another top-end receiver on the roster -- Alshon Jeffery -- who could easily fill Marshall's spot here makes Cutler's inability to generate points even more baffling.

Previous rank: No. 13

Another finish outside the winner's circle doesn't invalidate Rivers' place among the game's best quarterbacks. Gates, who caught 69 balls for 821 yards and 12 scores at the age of 34, showed he's still got something left, but at some point -- and it should be sooner than later -- Mathews and second-year pro Keenan Allen need to take on more of the load.

Previous rank: No. 17

Hard to believe a team that didn't record a single touchdown catch by a wide receiver all season would finish anywhere but at the bottom of this list, but Charles is just that good at running back. For that matter, Smith remains an efficient and productive quarterback, and Kelce is a rising star at tight end (not to mention a dead ringer for Gronk in uniform).

Previous rank: No. 18

Flacco vacillates between No Ordinary Joe and Ordinary Joe week to week. Forsett -- who notched the first 1,000-yard campaign of his seven-year career -- provided a feel-good story the Ravens desperately needed at running back. Smith didn't lose the chip on his shoulder during the move from Charlotte to Charm City.

Previous rank: No. 24

Not sure how many people noticed, but Tannehill showed this season why Miami used the eighth overall pick on him in 2012. Wallace got in the end zone with regularity (10 touchdowns), but his overall play was spotty. And then there was Sunday's stint on the bench, followed by comments Monday that he isn't sure he'll be back with the team. Or was he sayingBrandon Gibson won't return? Difficult to tell, really. Miller is one of the more anonymous talents around, but he'll likely get a chance to raise his profile as the team's top RB next year.

Previous rank: No. 31

The head coach is still TBD, but things are looking up in the East Bay. Carr got through his rookie season in better shape than his older brother David did a generation ago in Houston. Murray showed just enough to get Raiders fans excited for the future. Now imagine if the Oakland braintrust can catch one of the top receivers who'll be available in the 2015 NFL Draft.

Previous rank: No. 19

Palmer has been on the shelf since tearing his ACL in Week 10, and the Cards made it to the playoffs without him, but I didn't think it'd be fair to list anyone else here, since the job should be Palmer's next year, presuming he makes a full recovery. The veteran might not be much better than average, but the world saw how far the fall was from first- to second-string when he was replaced by Drew Stanton. (Not as far as the fall from second- to third-string, as we've seen with Ryan Lindley filling in for Stanton the past three weeks, but it's still pretty far.) Ellington was a bit of a disappointment before landing on injured reserve in early December, while Floyd hasn't been consistent enough in his third NFL season to show he'll be the team's definitive long-term No. 1 receiver.

Previous rank: No. 21

If your glass is half full, you believe RGIII can still return to the neighborhood of his 2012 form, when he was the Offensive Rookie of the Year. Jackson made the Eagles pay for letting him go, while Morris had his third straight solid season.

Previous rank: No. 22

Watkins is a clear star-in-the-making, but so are some of the other rookie receivers, and they didn't cost nearly as much -- the Bills traded three picks, including a first-rounder last year and one next year, to Cleveland for the right to draft Watkins fourth overall -- for their teams to acquire. The QB spot is up in the air, though veteran stopgap Kyle Orton's retirement leaves Manuel -- who was benched after four starts -- as the man by default for now. The 33-year-old Jackson, meanwhile, is too "mature" to depend upon for much longer.

25) Houston Texans: To Be Determined, Arian Foster & DeAndre Hopkins

Previous rank: No. 23

Hard to gauge a trio of players when we don't know who one of those guys will be. Ryan Mallett wasn't on the field long enough for us to know whether he can make it as a starter, but his sublime arm strength alone makes him intriguing. Foster bounced back with a quietly terrific 2014, and Hopkins overtook future Hall of Famer Andre Johnson as the team's best pass-catcher.

Previous rank: No. 30

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What does the pecking order look like with the regular season behind us and the postseason on tap? Elliot Harrison weighs in. **READ**

Bortles is a gifted athlete who is surrounded by a gaggle of playmakers, led by Robinson and Lee. While drafting a running back in the first round is no longer en vogue, the addition of Georgia's Todd Gurley would make this offense scary. (A good offensive lineman or two wouldn't hurt, either.)

Previous rank: No. 26

McCown is slotted in here for now, but look for a high-profile prospect to be under center next September. Martin has done precious little outside of an impressive two-week stretch in 2012. Evans gave a resounding answer to one of 2013's biggest college football questions: "Does Johnny Football make Evans, or vice-versa?"

Previous rank: No. 28

Barring a trade, a free-agent pickup or the use of an early draft choice on a quarterback, the top job will be Mettenberger's to lose next training camp. Ho-hum. Things seemed to be lining up for Sankey to have a nice rookie campaign, but it never materialized. Wright, however, is legit.

Previous rank: No. 29

Especially after the Christian Ponder experiment, Vikings fans should feel comfortable with Bridgewater as their signal-caller. But that doesn't mean he's destined to be a top-10 performer at the position. Asiata did a fine job filling in for Adrian Peterson. Jennings is listed here only because of projected star Cordarrelle Patterson's flameout (501 yards from scrimmage with just two scores in his second pro season).

Previous rank: No. 32

Not a lot to be excited about here, and there'll be even less if Rams fans are force-fed the promise that 2015 will finally be Bradford's year after watching Austin Davis and Shaun Hill fill in for the former first overall pick this season. Jeff Fisher's recent vow that Bradford will have to compete "with somebody that's not in the building right now" is an encouraging sign. Highly drafted pass-catcher Tavon Austin's growth has been slow; consider that Britt had the most receiving yards on the team ... with 748.

Previous rank: No. 25

The pox on the city of Cleveland proved far too great for a would-be prodigy to overcome, at least in 2014. (Of course, he couldn't even overcome a journeyman quarterback in training camp.) Crowell (and Terrance West) give the Browns hope to establish a power running game going forward. Gordon, meanwhile, is "at a crossroads" with the Browns, according to coach Mike Pettine. Let's hope he doesn't take any paths leading to one of Johnny Football's social gatherings.

Previous rank: No. 27

For the sake of long-suffering Jets fans, here's hoping owner Woody Johnson wasn't so impressed by Smith's Week 17 performance that the franchise won't pursue a better QB option for its next coach.

Follow Dave Dameshek on Twitter @Dameshek.

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