Here comes the 97th season for King Sport and the 51st for the Miami Dolphins, which means we no longer can put off the annual exercise in futility we call our yearly NFL Team Rankings. That we would volunteer this doomed guesswork for public consumption may or may not be a symptom of masochistic tendencies or Self-Defeating Personality Disorder.
I suggested to my editor that I save face by ranking the 32 teams alphabetically this year (congrats, Arizona!), but unfortunately the boss insisted the rankings be based once again on how good each team will be in 2016, top to bottom.
A quick review of our 2015 rankings:
Highlights: We correctly had seven of the season's dozen playoff teams in our preseason top 12, including eventual Super Bowl champion Denver ranked No. 4. Not so bad, right?
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Lowlights: Most everything else. I failed to foresee Carolina's 15-1 season and had ’em ranked 18th. Worse, I had the Dolphins ranked No. 6. In the entire league! No, seriously. I cannot deny it. Considering Miami would finish 6-10 and fire the coach, my preseason estimation of the Fins was akin to ranking Adam Sandler No. 6 on a Greatest Thespians list. Which is why I'm trying something different this year and doing the rankings sober.
Our division-by-division capsules, playoff forecast and Super Bowl pick will appear Sept. 9 as the Upset Bird, and I roll out the first of our Friday NFL prediction pages.
For now, here are my 2016 full-league rankings, with last year's regular-season and playoff records in parentheses. Spoiler alert: No crazy-high rank for Miami this time. Lesson learned. Once bitten, twice shy and all that:
1. CAROLINA PANTHERS (15-1, 2-1): Cats were the best team in football last year right up until they weren't, in the Super Bowl. Cam Newton is still a monster and team is good enough to withstand departure of CB Josh Norman. Considered Arizona for No. 1, then remembered who beat Cardinals in NFC Championship Game and by five TDs, 49-15.
2. ARIZONA CARDINALS (13-3, 1-1): Bruce Arians is a real-deal coach, offense scored club-record 489 points last year (second in league) and defense is air-tight and full of playmakers. As long as perpetually underrated Carson Palmer stays healthy, Birds can be elite.
3. NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS (12-4, 1-1): A team plenty good enough to weather four games of Jimmy Garoppolo while Tom Brady does his time for Deflategate sins. Gronk's still Gronk, though health of Julian Edelman will be a key. Maybe I tend to overestimate Team Belichick, but the Ming Dynasty didn't last as long as the Pats' dominance has in the AFC East.
4. SEATTLE SEAHAWKS (10-6, 1-1): A mighty home-field edge and a defense that has led league in fewest points allowed four years in a row. And they will plug in Thomas Rawls for departed Marshawn Lynch without a hiccup. One concern: Russell Wilson's offensive line isn’t great.
5. DENVER BRONCOS (12-4, 3-0): Is fifth too low for a reigning Super Bowl champ? Perhaps yes if you consider Denver's defense should be excellent again. But Broncos might not be low enough here considering their starting QB will be Mark Sanchez, Trevor Siemian or Paxton Lynch. Then again, they won it all last season with creaky Peyton Manning either out injured or playing badly.
6. PITTSBURGH STEELERS (10-6, 1-1): LeVeon Bell will miss first four games suspended and offense lost Martavius Bryant, but I still really like an attack led by Ben Roethlisberger, who averaged 328 passing yards per start last year (knock wood on his health) and fantasy hoss Antonio Brown.
7. GREEN BAY PACKERS (10-6, 1-1): Cheesers’ offense was not great last year, and by his lofty standards neither was Aaron Rodgers. But with a healthy Jordy Nelson back, Rodgers (and Eddie Lacy) should see their numbers bloom. And O-line is solid.
8. MINNESOTA VIKINGS (11-5, 0-1): NFC is so strong up top, but second-tier Vikes could challenge. Defense ranked ffth in league last year, Adrian Peterson is still A.P., and offense can strike long and quick when Teddy Bridgewater is on.
9. KANSAS CITY CHIEFS (11-5, 1-1): Big-sacking Chiefs defense was really good last season. A big comeback year from RB Jamaal Charles could have K.C. in the mix to dream of reaching AFC title game.
10. CINCINNATI BENGALS (12-4, 0-1): Five straight playoff appearances for the 'Gals, but injuries and departures have hurt. Moreover, that 0-5 playoff record under Marvin Lewis and Andy Dalton makes it tough to see Cincy as a real threat.
11. OAKLAND RAIDERS (7-9): Here's one of our “it” teams for 2016, a perennial doormat ready to turn a corner and, yes, make the playoffs for first time since Rich Gannon’s 2002. Derek Carr, Amari Cooper, an improving defense and rising young core give Raiders fans much to pin hopes on.
12. NEW YORK JETS (10-6): Miami's bitter division rival looks like a playoff team if that defense is as good as I think it could be and if RB Matt Forte (whom I thought the Fins should have gone after) proves a smart signing. Ryan Fitzpatrick re-upping was big.
13. HOUSTON TEXANS (9-7, 0-1): J.J Watt is the franchise face, but adding former Dolphins and Canes RB Lamar Miller could be catalyst for playoff hopes. Miller could be a fantasy stud who makes Dolfans wish he'd had a bigger role. The hesitation with Texans is QB Brock Osweiler. When I call him the Wizard of Os I don't mean he’s magic. I mean he could be the guy who turns out to be a fake when you peel back the curtain.
14. WASHINGTON REDSKINS (9-7, 0-1): Not much ranking respect here for a defending division champion (or for Kirk Cousins), but Washington has a lousy track record on sustained success. Skins’ last consecutive playoff seasons were 1991-92.
15. JACKSONVILLE JAGUARS (5-11): Another of our “it” teams, a riser. Would not shock to see Jags with a shot to eke into playoffs for first time since ’07. Blake Bortles and Allen Robinson top ascending young core. But will an improving defense be good enough?
16. NEW YORK GIANTS (6-10): Too many blown leads finally sent Tom Coughlin packing. Eli Manning and Odell Beckham will score plenty. But I still don't trust this defense … or any team that would overspend like that for Olivier Vernon.
17. BALTIMORE RAVENS (5-11): Crows under John Harbaugh have pretty good track record of bouncing back after bad years, but Joe Flacco doesn't have a lot of scary-good weapons, and this D is a far cry from its Ray Lewis-era heyday.
18. INDIANAPOLIS COLTS (8-8): Andrew Luck had league's 32nd-best passer rating last year and was rewarded with a record six-year, $140 million contract. His O-line and his defense are iffy. Not sure any player has more pressure on him to carry a team.
19. MIAMI DOLPHINS (6-10): I really like Adam Gase as a coaching hire, as a QB guru who can get the most from Ryan Tannehill. Last year’s Fins underachieved under somnambulent Joe Philbin and should be improved enough under Gase to make a run at one of the last AFC playoff spots. And yet the national estimation of Miami by the NFL literati is modest, indeed. My No. 19 here is higher than most rate the Dolphins, and it’s understandable. This franchise hasn't won a playoff game since 2000, Tannehill has yet to prove he can put a team on his back and Miami's defense is ranked 28th (of 32) on fantasy boards. Here is an added problem as Fins scramble for one of six AFC playoff tickets: In addition to the AFC teams clearly superior, doormats-on-the-rise such as Oakland and Jacksonville also are now worthy challengers to Miami in the playoff race. Could make for Hard Luck season at Hard Rock Stadium.
20. DALLAS COWBOYS (4-12): A healthy-again Dez Bryant and a blossoming Ezekiel Elliott will make for a big, fun offense and a playoff shot. But oh how this Dallas is full of fissures and holes! Starting with the uncertain health status of Tony Romo.
21. BUFFALO BILLS (8-8): A healthy Sammy Watkins and LeSean McCoy give Buffs some pop, but I'm not sold on Tyrod Taylor, and don't think this defense is as good as Rex Ryan thinks it is. So the streak continues: Noo playoffs since 1999.
22. ATLANTA FALCONS (8-8): Matt Ryan has weapons in Julio Jones and Devonta Freeman, but this also is a team that faded badly after 6-1 start last year, and has little pass rush from a mediocre defense.
23. CHICAGO BEARS (6-10): I like John Fox as a coach, but Chitown will need a consistent Jay Cutler and better defense to turn things around. Also, a reclaimed home field edge. Bears were 1-7 at The Solider last year.
24. DETROIT LIONS (7-9): Lions were 6-2 in second half of season last year, but lose Calvin Johnson to retirement, have a bad O-line and an average defense. Matthew Stafford will continue to put up big numbers, for naught.
25. TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS (6-10): Bucs hung around on periphery of playoff hunt before ending last season with four consecutive losses. Could give mediocrity another run if defense jells and Jameis Winston makes progress instead of sophomore-slumping.
26. NEW ORLEANS SAINTS (7-9): The only thing likelier than Drew Brees making a run at 5,000 passing yards, as usual, is the Saints’ defense allowing opponents to throw for even more. Whatever the over/under is on a Saints score, take the over.
27. LOS ANGELES RAMS (7-9, in St. Louis): Welcome back to King Sport, L.A. Rams have an elite RB in Todd Gurley and a pretty decent defense. Team could be good if rookie QB and overall No. 1 pick Jared Goff is great. But that won't be this year.
28. PHILADELPHIA EAGLES (7-9): Transition mode. No longer scary on offense. Subpar D. Caretaker Sam Bradford taking snaps. Waiting for Carson Wentz to be healthy and special.
29. SAN DIEGO CHARGERS (4-12): Bottom-tier defense and the contract mess with top pick Joey Bosa foretell more Bolts misery, although a better year from RB Melvin Gordon would be a start. Poor Philip Rivers. Poor man’s Dan Marino. Always impressive numbers. Never enough help.
30. TENNESSEE TITANS (3-13): A bounceback year from RB DeMarco Murray would take much heat off Marcus Mariota. Lack of quality wideouts, though. Don't like Titans' defense, either. Or coach Mike Mularkey.
31. SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS (5-11): RB Carlos Hyde is a plus, but the QB choice of Blaine Gabbert or Colin Kaepernick is pretty dire. Also, SF's defense has cascaded from top three in the NFL in 2011-13 to horrid today.
32. CLEVELAND BROWNS (3-13): Poor Duke Johnson, to have landed here. Cruel fate! Maybe Robert Griffin III will channel 2012 and lead a resurgence. Nah. This is Cleveland, the junction of dysfunction, haunted by ghost of Johnny Manziel.