Week 1 is the best week of the NFL season and any argument to the contrary will not stand. Every team is fascinating before it loses.
There are no 3-9 squads on their third quarterback and fourth center. There are no interim head coaches. There is only possibility. In this era of the infinite football news cycle, we fool ourselves into thinking we know anything.
As Bill Belichick said this week, even he doesn't know his own team well until mid-October. How could we? The next 72 hours will nuke all those hot takes from the last six months into smithereens. (Just look at all the surprises we saw in Thursday night's thriller.)
That's a long way of saying every team is eminently watchable in Week 1. Throughout the season in this space, I'm going to rank each team based on entertainment value. Since these rankings will be inherently subjective and even more meaninglessthan usual, this article will be a way to look at what's most compelling about the upcoming weekend.
1) Carolina Panthers
2) Arizona Cardinals
3) Green Bay Packers
4) New England Patriots
5) Pittsburgh Steelers
6) Denver Broncos
7) Seattle Seahawks
This opinion probably would get me banned from Friendly's, but part of me is looking forward to watching the Patriots without Tom Brady. How can you not be a little intellectually curious to see how Bill Belichick adapts to life without one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time for the first time in eight years?
It's not just Brady that the team is missing. Chandler Jones will be lining up across the field Sunday night as a member of the Cardinals. The team's annual bedrock, outside edge player Rob Ninkovich, is suspended. Rob Gronkowskimight not suit up. Normally, this would be a recipe for disaster, but Belichick has a way of spackling over weaknesses and accentuating strengths as well as any coach in football. Some new(er) faces like Chris Long, Trey Flowers and Malcom Brown could be keys in the defensive front seven. Free-agent pickups like Martellus Bennett and Chris Hogan will be factors on offense. Belichick's Patriots are historically at their best when expectations are the lowest, and this game in Arizona is a rare time they will be heavy underdogs.
The rookie running backs
8) Dallas Cowboys
9) Tennessee Titans
I could not have been more excited for the possibility of a Tony Romo redemption season. It could still happen, yet Romo will need rookie Dak Prescott to keep the Cowboys afloat in the meantime. Somehow this team could be more interesting without Romo. A unanimous preseason MVP choice with one vote (mine), Prescott is the ultimate test of whether August results are predictive. His skill set, accuracy and headiness were undeniable. If he were a first-round pick, he'd enter the season with more hype than any rookie quarterback since Andrew Luck.
The Cowboys are the most quarterback-friendly team to join in football. The offensive line might be the NFL's best since the early-2000s unit in Kansas City. Unlike the Cowboys' backup QBs last year, Prescott has a healthy, edgyDez Bryant. Rookie running back Ezekiel Elliott showed more in seven preseason carries than some running backs show in seven years. Putting Elliott behind this offensive line is stacking strength on strength the same way that Jerry Jones built this line of first-round picks in the first place. Elliott is so smooth that he could make Prescott an afterthought.
Unlike Elliott, Titans rookie Derrick Henry won't have a chance to win the rushing title. But Henry falling to the middle of the second round might go down as a classic example of the NFL scouting community overthinking a player. The history of Alabama running backs and Henry's supposed lack of lateral agility knocked the Heisman Trophy winner down boards. In August, Henry repeatedly made professionals look like Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders. His ability to make defenders miss was eye-opening for a 247-pound back. Henry is too good to remain a backup all season.
Between Henry, Marcus Mariota and a completely rebuilt wide receiver corps led by a fifth-round rookie from UMass (Tajae Sharpe), this Titans team led by coach Mike Mularkey is one of the most fascinating groups in football. Stranger sentences have rarely been written.
10) San Diego Chargers
11) Buffalo Bills
12) Philadelphia Eagles
There is a fine line between 6-10 and 10-6 in the NFL and these three teams could fall into either category. The Eagles boast one of the best front sevens in football, yet will be led by a rookie quarterback with a few quarters of preseason experience to his name. Despite all the injuries, Buffalo still has talent and a unique offense, but the pressure could become suffocating for the team's coaching staff if the Bills get off to a slow start.
The Chargers are so far from a 4-12 roster. They rank high on this list in large part because a Philip Rivers push to the Super Bowl is one of the best potential NFL stories on the table this season. Travis Benjamin adds a deep threat to the offense to pair with Keenan Allen, while unknown second-year player Tyrell Williams looked like a factor in the preseason. Melvin Gordon is in position to make all that bust talk from last season look premature. San Diego has potential breakout players on defense like Denzel Perryman and an underrated cornerback trio in Jason Verrett, Casey Hayward and Brandon Flowers. This team is going to be a lot of fun for anyone who chooses to pay attention.
Sneaky-fun Southern teams
13) Tampa Bay Buccaneers
14) Jacksonville Jaguars
15) New Orleans Saints
16) Houston Texans
17) Atlanta Falcons
18) Indianapolis Colts
This should be the most entertaining Texans team in franchise history because Houston imported an entirely new group of skill-position starters outside of one of the most dynamic receivers in football, DeAndre Hopkins. Jadeveon Clowney and J.J. Watt could make Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware look boring by comparison if Clowney makes the leap like we expect.
The Buccaneers are more than just Jameis Winston. Rookie pass rusher Noah Spence, along with the linebacker duo of Lavonte David and Kwon Alexander, give this defense a dynamic edge.
When Brock Osweiler is the least promising quarterback in the NFC South and AFC South combined, you know it's a strong year below the Mason-Dixon line.
19) Oakland Raiders
20) Cleveland Browns
21) Miami Dolphins
22) New York Giants
23) Minnesota Vikings
24) Baltimore Ravens
It feels so wrong to rank any teams this low in Week 1 when I can't wait to see all of them play. Hue Jackson's attempt to revive RGIII and Adam Gase's desire to play fast with Ryan Tannehill immediately make both hires worthy. At least the Browns and Dolphins will be a lot more interesting than they were under Mike Pettine and Joe Philbin.
The Ravens require the most wishful thinking of the group. They are counting on Steve Smith Sr. and Terrell Suggs to look like their former selves after recovering from torn Achilles tendons. They are counting on two rookies on the left side of the line. They are counting on Mike Wallace.
The running back depth chart is already driving fantasy leaguers crazy and the tight end position seems cursed after two years of injuries, including Ben Watson's season-ender in the preseason. We haven't even mentioned the part where the franchise quarterback, Joe Flacco, is coming off a torn ACL. Defensive coordinator Dean Pees has two great linemen in Brandon Williams and Timmy Jernigan, but less overall defensive talent than the team has fielded for a long time.
Yet we never put anything past coach John Harbaugh and general manager Ozzie Newsome. Harbaugh didn't suffer a single losing campaign in his first seven years on the job, making the playoffs six times. The Ravens rightly took pride in being a top-tier organization before last year's 5-11 flop. Will we still think of Baltimore that way after this season? The Ravens face a Bills team this week that is simply more talented.
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25) San Francisco 49ers
26) Detroit Lions
27) New York Jets
28) Kansas City Chiefs
29) Cincinnati Bengals
30) Washington Redskins
31) Chicago Bears
32) Los Angeles Rams
The 49ers under Chip Kelly with this barren offensive roster is a bizarre experiment that I can't quite believe is actually going to happen. Colin Kaepernick coming in to the save the day is the counterintuitive story we deserve. The Lions could challenge the 49ers for the fastest pace in football, which is always fun to watch. The Rams and Chiefs could be among the slowest, which is partly why they rank so low despite great defensive linemen.
Enjoy Week 1, no matter where your team ranks above. And then bathe in the knowledge that there are 16 more weeks like it to come.