Power Rankings: 49ers, Broncos, Seahawks rule to start season

Seven months.

Almost to the freaking day ... that's how long it's been since we saw the lights go out in the Superdome and -- a quarter and a half later -- on the 2012 season.

Well, real football is just about back. Wonder child Robert Griffin III is starting Monday night. Somebody's child Terrelle Pryor does the same Sunday. And Denver Broncos fans will be going insane on Thursday, as their team hosts Kickoff Night -- with or without Joe Flacco wallpaper decorating their stadium.

Week 1 is always good stuff, and it should be mentioned that the third season of our official NFL.com Power Rankings will try to reflect the best of what makes the opening slate so fun: 32 teams with a chance, each with their own storyline. Read about your club's, read about 'em all. Just remember: The movement of each franchise affects the placement of several others. It's the perfect combination of imperfect symmetry and drama, much like Predator: the Musical.

OK, without further ado, here's 1-32 as it stands today. As always, feel free to provide your thoughts ... @Harrison_NFL is the dropbox.

Let the dissension commence ...

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

PREVIOUS RANKINGS: Preseason | Mid-summer | Post-draft

The 49ers stay locked in, not because of a fantastic preseason but rather because of the state of the Denver Broncos and Seattle Seahawks. Denver can't decide on a running back and will be without Von Miller early -- otherwise, the Broncos would be first.

Seattle will give San Francisco a run for its money; the Seahawks should dominate the 49ers' passing "attack." But after looking at the rest of this Niners team and its track record, we remain unprepared to sign off on San Francisco's demise.

What is Montee Ball going to be for this football team? For now, it appears that the club will have to lean on Ronnie Hillman and Knowshon Moreno, at least situationally, until the mental part of the Wisconsin product's game picks up. Once Ball figures out what he's doing -- and once Von Miller is crashing pockets again -- this team could go to No. 1.

Everyone is high on the Seahawks; many even slot them in as the best team in the NFL. This space has high regard for Pete Carroll's club, but not awe. With Chris Clemons being brought back slowly and Bruce Irvin out four games, Seattle remains at No. 3. Of course, change those two items, and Seattle leaps ahead of both San Francisco and Denver. A few other notes:

a) Russell Wilson had an up-and-down (but mostly up) preseason. It will be interesting to see how much of a step forward he can take after overachieving as a rookie.

b) Peyton Manning tore the Seahawks' defense up in Week 2 of the preseason. I predicted a Super Bowl between the Seahawks and Manning's Broncos, thinking Seattle's back four could stop the future Hall of Famer. Was I wrong?

c) Rookie running back Christine Michael sure looked pretty -- before stumbling against the Oakland Raiders in the preseason finale (13 carries for 15 yards). And here we were, thinking the Raiders serve as NFL beer goggles for every opposing running back. Not this time.

Atlanta had a crappy 0-4 preseason. What else is new? The Falcons stunk in the preseason in 2011 (0-4) and still finished 10-6. Last year, Mike Smith's group sleepwalked its way to a one-win preseason and proceeded to make it to the NFC Championship Game. This group wanted to get healthy and evaluate borderline players. Mission accomplished.

After all of the exposure Cincinnati got on HBO last month, a lot of us wanted to see what the Bengals could do with their starting units on the field for a half -- that is to say, does this team belong with Atlanta, Seattle, Denver and San Francisco?

Well, the starters got a lot of action during Week 3's preseason loss at Dallas, and it wasn't rosy. Andy Dalton didn't play poorly, but he did throw a poor interception deep -- and late -- over the middle. The secondary -- starting with Leon Hall's efforts to stop Dez Bryant -- couldn't cover anyone. Then Miles Austin made himself look like Stone Cold Steve Austin while decimating the Bengals' defense on the Cowboys' second touchdown drive.

Basically, Cincinnati can match up with anyone, even Seattle or San Francisco, on paper -- paper.

Getting Marshal Yanda and Lardarius Webb healthy again is huge. Huge. Yet, so much of Baltimore's success in 2013 hinges on the Ravens' young receiver corps and the quality of the front seven. The guess here is that the latter group will be damn good. But as for the receivers?

Look, everyone is high on Marlon Brown. But can he pick this team up on third downs? Torrey Smith is more Randy Moss than Cris Carter; i.e., he's not the third-and-6 possession guy. Did you know Smith caught nine balls on third down last season -- all season? Tight end Dennis Pitta, the Jay Novacek of this offense last year, is out for 2013. When it comes to the short passing game, offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell must find an answer that is different from Ray Rice, or Rice will catch 90 balls and the Ravens' "Diet"-style attack will contribute to a 9-7 record.

Health concerns spur a small drop for the Texans, but there's nothing to be overly concerned about. Rookie receiver DeAndre Hopkins has been recovering slower than expected from his concussion, while "Kubes" has already said Arian Foster won't be playing as much in Week 1. Meanwhile, Texans fans have to love the pressure the front seven put on New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees in Week 3 of the preseason -- sans J.J. Watt.

Kenbrell Thompkins and Zach Sudfeld. Those names just sound like greatness.

Alright, let's not panic about the Pats. They looked terrible versus the Detroit Lions, but they didn't in their first two preseason games. And Thompkins can play. Let us also not forget this: Tim Tebow being released doesn't matter (despite our own flood of coverage), but the fact that New England finished seventh in the NFL last season in rushing at 136.5 yards per game does. The offense will be fine.

Truth is, Nos. 5 through 9 in these rankings are all on par. Still, let's remember that Randall Cobb and Jordy Nelson have been out, while Aaron Rodgers barely played -- the dude's jersey is cleaner than a Handi Wipe left in the package. Of course, in five possessions with the franchise QB, the Packers didn't get in the end zone. The offense has looked pretty feeble ... except when Vince Young was galloping away versus the Seattle Seahawks. And he got cut. So there you go.

I like the Redskins at No. 10 for these reasons: a) Robert Griffin III is going to be ready to go Monday night in Washington, but b) the Redskins still feel like a weak divisional winner at best, and c) then I don't have to move them and screw these rankings up further.

Andrew Luck looks solid. The second-year quarterback threw for four touchdowns against one interception while completing 66 percent of his passes in the preseason. The defense is better than it was last year; Indy could very well be playoff-bound again.

Sketchy details are just now coming in about some Bears fans picketing outside Soldier Field. Evidently unhappy about losing the 33 sacks allowed that recently released offensive tackle J'Marcus Webb collected in his three years with the team, protesters were further emboldened when some bystander loudly mentioned the 24 penalties he'd accumulated. We'll try to have more details for you on NFL.com as soon as possible.

Do Vikings fans trust Christian Ponder right now? If there is any team whose fate truly hinges on its quarterback, it's the Vikings. He didn't look bad in San Francisco in Week 3 of the preseason -- but he did in Week 2.

The other key? How will these Vikings fare against the top opposing quarterbacks? Much rests on Harrison Smith. Here are some thoughts on that ...

The Dolphins sit here in part because of an easy AFC East -- is it the easiest division in football? The team could take a step forward as Ryan Tannehill develops, but then, consider the state of the Dolphins' backups.

Dave Hyde of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel wrote a terrific quick-hitter on those and more Dolphins-related topics -- and I nodded my head in agreement at every line. This team can compete, but it had better stay healthy. Meanwhile, if Lamar Miller starts, it has to be because he's solid -- and not merely because Daniel Thomas stinks.

(Thoughts? Hit me up at @Harrison_NFL.)

If Dallas' offense plays like it did versus the Bengals in Week 3 of the preseason -- easily the most important section of the August schedule -- the Cowboys could challenge Washington in the NFC East. The Bengals' front should have been able to take advantage of Dallas' porous line, but when it failed to, quarterback Tony Romo drove the team right down the field.

Now No. 29 just has to hold on to the football and stay out of the trainer's room.

Injuries are already taking their toll with the Giants on offense and defense. However, on a positive note, you have to be excited about David Wilson. He's the NFC version of Lamar Miller, a second-year back expected by fans and fantasy owners to break out in 2013 -- except Wilson is, like, 50 times better.

The Rams drop one spot here, not because of personnel, injuries or a terrible preseason ...

... but because they made too many mistakes. You know, the stupid football kind. Penalties, fumbles, drops and more penalties found their way into Rams preseason football. The club seemed so undisciplined that you wonder if Jeff Fisher shouldn't have locked half the team in a hotel room next to Lamar Odom.

(For the record, we still believe in this team ... mostly because of the defense.)

The climbing Saints simply look better than the Pittsburgh Steelers, San Diego Chargers and Tampa Bay Buccaneers, mostly because they've figured out how to pick up a first down by throwing the football. Drew Brees looks like he's going to pass for 5,300 yards and 37 touchdowns this season. Still, losing Will Smith hurts this club tremendously.

Josh Norman might not start for the Panthers -- but four interceptions in the preseason? Don't say it's because he's been going against Derek Anderson and Ted Ginn, Jr. in practice.

On another note, I might have goofed in picking Sean Lee over Patrick Willis at middle linebacker on my 2013 All-Pro Team. Just because Willis has been an All-Pro before, that doesn't mean he has season tickets to the squad; consider what Luke Kuechly did to the Ravens. Dominant.

Hope you enjoyed that exhilarating preseason by the Steelers. Even ardent Pittsburgh fans have to admit that the team could look a lot better. One saving grace is the offensive line. With some help ... er, health ... it's improved. On another note: Though it's been reported that Jonathan Dwyer's release stemmed from the availability of cheaper alternatives, I have to think Dwyer's penchant for looking "healthy" was a factor. Can't report at 260-plus pounds and play tailback, unless your name rhymes with Watrone Beans.

According to some healthy tallying by Kyle Meinke of MLive.com, Matthew Stafford went an unhealthy 1-18 in the preseason ... as in, he engineered one touchdown drive in 18 possessions.

That's worrisome -- unlike the defense, which has looked great and has been the key to this team all along. That's why Detroit gets a boost, as I still think Stafford will deliver this year, now that he's got a healthy No. 2 receiver and Reggie Bush.

Is there anyone on the planet who knows what to make of the Chargers right now? I checked Angie's List, NFL Media colleagues ... this is a tough team to decipher. Still thinking San Diego will be on par with the Kansas City Chiefs, but King Dunlap's presence at left tackle and a very questionable receiver group make one wish Antonio Gates were five years younger and a half-a-second faster. The easy AFC West keeps San Diego ahead of Tampa and Cleveland.

What a sputtering preseason for these guys. The offense didn't look good, but at least the defense made up for it by proving that the pass rush does, indeed, suck. In fact, it weren't for Trevor Scott, there would be no pass rush. That's OK, though; we didn't see Darrelle Revis, either. Revis and Dashon Goldson represent a huge boost to a back four that could help the front get closer to, say, four sacks per game ... as opposed to one.

Took a chance and predicted Rob Chudzinski will be Coach of the Year. That's the good news. The bad? The Browns' starters got their butts handed to them in Indy in Week 3. That's the important week of the preseason, and Cleveland failed the test. Can the Browns take care of a decent schedule (opponent winning percentage: .492) and manage an eight- or nine-win season? Would like Browns fans' takes ... @Harrison_NFL is the place.

The defense is the key here. Can the revamped secondary make plays right away? Tyrann Mathieu could be the guy there, depending on how quickly he grows up. If the group can give short fields to what is sure to be (at best) a middle-of-the-road offense, the Cards might be last year's Rams.

Again, though, Carson Palmer barely averaged 6 yards per attempt in the preseason -- and now his offensive line is without first-round draft pick Jonathan Cooper. Defensive coordinator Todd Bowles' group has to give the offense a lift.

"Our defense is pretty terrible," said one of our top researchers at NFL Media -- and an ardent Eagles fan. "We're gonna lose games 31-27." Typical negative Philly follower, still upset about the '93 World Series. There is a lot to be excited about regarding this Eagles offense, however, starting with LeSean McCoy. The guess here is that Chip Kelly really scaled it back in the preseason. The new head coach has to hope his secondary can hold 'em.

Still waiting on the Chiefs and Alex Smith. As long as the new quarterback keeps tossing a bunch of none-yard outs, this team will be stuck in .500-to-sub-.500 neutral gear. If Smith starts taking vertical shots and Andy Reid can get Jamaal Charles going, this will be an 8-8 or 9-7 team. Not yet, though.

Saw where LaVar Arrington talked up Justin Houston on "NFL AM". What an underrated player Houston is. That's why he made this list.

Tennessee ran the football 132 times in the preseason -- that's well over 30 attempts per game. We should expect more of the same over the course of the regular season. Jake Locker had a decent preseason, using his legs while averaging a respectable 6.9 yards per passing attempt. Chris Johnson played well, as did the rest of the team versus Atlanta in Week 3 of the preseason.

Still, questions prevail at corner and center. And until Tennessee proves its defense is markedly better than the one that gave up 471 points last year, this club will stay parked around No. 27 or 28 in our rankings. This group allowed opposing passers a 90 plus rating in the preseason.

Still awaiting word as to whether EJ Manuel will be a go versus the New England Patriots. Caught up with free agent (and former Bill) Shawne Merriman, who said "the Bills can go 8-8 or 9-7" when things slow down for Manuel. Thinking even the most positive Bills fan would be pleased as punch with 9-7.

Chris Ivory dropped a deuce in the preseason, averaging 2 yards per carry. For all the New York Jets' question marks, here's a big one: What is Ivory going to produce for Rex Ryan? Is he a situational player who will gain 600 yards and score a few touchdowns, or is he the 1,100-yard back who has caused fantasy owners to move early (too early) on him? New York sorely needs the latter.

Jaguars fans might find themselves thumbing through their programs often this season, particularly when going over the secondary. Yes, Alan Ball is the top corner. Two rookies -- Dwayne Gratz and John Cyprien -- will likely start along with him, while two more -- Demetrius McCray and Josh Evans -- will likely be coming in situationally. We can talk about Blaine Gabbert all day, but absent a dominant pass rush, it could be tough to stop the other guys' quarterbacks.

This is going to be fun. As raw as Terrelle Pryor is, he could do some damage against the Indianapolis Colts. The problem is that the defense won't be able to get to Andrew Luck or cover the receivers long enough to steal this game on the road.

Follow Elliot Harrison on Twitter @Harrison_NFL.

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