The NFC is the stronger conference this year, at least if the Around The NFL Preseason Power Poll is to be believed. It should not be believed.
This was the same poll that marked the Eagles as title contenders before last season and ranked the Panthers as the No. 22 team in football before last season. But this is silly rankings and predictions season, and not every prediction was wrong. (Five of our seven "title contenders" last year made the Divisional Round.)
This time around, five teams stood apart in our voting. Four come from the NFC. The rankings below are an aggregate of the voting from Marc Sessler, Kevin Patra, Conor Orr, Chris Wesseling, Colleen Wolfe, Dan Hanzus and myself. We also discussed them on the latest Around the NFL Podcast. Let's get to the rankings.
The Seahawks and Patriots have inarguably been the best two teams of the decade and our group didn't see that changing this year. The Patriots have earned a playoff bye for a record six straight years. Seattle has somehow ranked in Football Outsiders' team DVOA rankings four straight regular seasons.
It was surprising to see so much agreement about Seattle as the No. 1 overall team. Five writers agreed about the Seahawks, with Colleen Wolfe having the Panthers first and Dan Hanzus picking the Packers. Six of the seven writers had the same five teams atop their lists, just in different orders. (Hanzus put the Steelers fourth.)
The NFL prides itself on parity but we have grown used to the same teams near the top of the league year after year. The Panthers and Cardinals are trying to make that leap into annual powers. The Packers have made the playoffs seven straight times. The Broncos, who have won 12 games four straight years, are in the tier below.
Knocking on the door
You'll notice that these rankings look awfully similar to last year's playoff teams. AFC North and AFC West are the deepest divisions in football according to this poll. Three AFC West teams are in our top 10, and the third AFC North team is Baltimore at No. 13.
Playoffs or Bust
If the actual season worked out this way, the Raiders would be out of luck as a top-10 team that missed the playoffs. This tier of squads had more variance in predictions compared to the teams above. The Texans were ranked anywhere from the No. 9 team in the land to No. 24. The Cowboys were ranked between No. 9 and No. 25. The Jets were ranked as high as No. 8 and as low as No. 22.
Despite the different opinions, it's fair for fans of any of these teams to be disappointed by anything less than a playoff berth. The Texans have invested a great deal in rebuilding their entire offense. The Jaguars might change coaching staffs if they don't finally get over the hump, and they have the talent to pull it off. I was surprised to see the Cowboys still get so much love despite the injury to Tony Romo. It's a rough-looking defense.
No team took a bigger hit during the preseason than Minnesota. The Vikings would have surely been in the second tier if not for Teddy Bridgewater's injury. The Ravens, perhaps more than any team in football, seem to have a huge range of outcomes. If the team's injury problems go away, they could be back in the AFC North crown mix.
If everything breaks right ...
While we mentioned the lack of parity at the very top of the league, evidence that hope springs eternal every Week 1 can be located in this tier. While none of the teams here should expect to make the playoffs, it wouldn't be particularly surprising to see any one of them in the mix in the final weeks of the regular season. My favorite "sleeper" teams here include the Saints, Bucs and Eagles. The NFC South generally is getting deeply disrespected. It has the best collection of quarterbacks in the league and reasons to believe the defenses of the Falcons, Saints and Bucs will improve.
Perhaps the two thinnest rosters in the league also have new head coaches. They were listed separately here because they were the final two teams on six of our seven polls. (Conor Orr, ever the original thinker, had Bears-Rams as his final two teams.) The 49ers shouldn't feel too bad, though. The Redskins were listed No. 32 before last season before they won the NFC East.