The dawn of the 98th season for King Sport and the 52nd for the Dolphins also means it is time for our annual blindfolded walk into a dark room — my yearly NFL Team Rankings.
I proposed to my editor that I save face this time by ranking teams in order of longest names (congrats, Jacksonville Jaguars with your 19 letters!), but unfortunately the boss insisted that once again I rank the teams in order of how good they will be in 2017, top to bottom.
The process is not pretty. Like making sausage, we start by putting last season into the grinder, then we add to that each team’s offseason additions and losses in free agency or trades, and then we add the draft and injuries. Grind, grind. We finish with a little fennel for flavor, of course, and there you have it — out pop 32 sausages of varying sizes, biggest to smallest.
A year ago, we correctly called seven of last season’s dozen playoff teams based on our rankings. That included rightly forecasting the end of Oakland’s 14-year-playoff drought, but, alas, did not include predicting the Dolphins would make it. (Lowlight? Possibly ranking Carolina No. 1 overall, only to then watch the Panthers finish 6-10.)
Our division-by-division capsules, playoff forecast and Super Bowl pick will appear Sept. 8 as the Upset Bird and I roll out the first of our Friday NFL predictions.
For now, here are my 2017 full-league rankings, with last year’s regular season and playoff records in parentheses. Spoiler alert: I have the Dolphins ranked a midpack 14th overall and narrowly missing the playoffs, but well in the hunt despite the quarterback upheaval.
1. New England Patriots (14-2, 3-0): I know. Pats No. 1. Imagine that? BOR-RING! Sorry, but New England is the best team like Earth is the best planet. It’s inarguable. No way around it. Great got better. It isn’t fair. It’s like Bill Gates hitting the Powerball. Tom Brady will become only the second 40-year-old QB to start a playoff game (Brett Favre, 2009), and with good health the G.O.A.T. will be a strong bet to win a sixth Super Bowl ring.
2. Green Bay Packers (10-6, 2-1): Aaron Rodgers bounced back to lead league with 40 TD passes last year, and Cheesers wisely spent their first four draft picks all on defense. If any city can take the Lombardi Trophy from Brady, it’s the one that made Vince famous.
3. Atlanta Falcons (11-5, 2-1): The Birds’ Matt Ryan-led offense still looks potent, and the defense got better by adding needed speed. But, oh, that Super Bowl meltdown is not something a team, players or city get past easily. Could see a bit of regression in the 404.
4. Pittsburgh Steelers (11-5, 2-1): The “Killer B’s” — Ben Roethlisberger, Le’Veon Bell, Antonio Brown and Martavis Bryant — give Pitt a shot to dethrone Pats in AFC, especially if T.J. Watt delivers fast impact on D. (By the way, Dolphins sort of claimed Killer B’s in the ’80s. Quit stealin’, Steelers!)
5. Oakland Raiders (12-4, 0-1): Las Vegas-bound Raiders will continue on the ascent as long as Derek Carr stays healthy. But the key to next level could be whether unretired running back Marshawn Lynch looks like his old self or just old.
6. Seattle Seahawks (10-5-1, 1-1): Two ifs. If the draft-aided offensive line keeps Russell Wilson cleaner. And if the Legion of Boom defense reasserts itself after lately slipping from dominance to merely being really good.
7. Dallas Cowboys (13-3, 0-1): I felt the ’Boys were due a bit of regression, anyway — and then running back Ezekiel Elliott got suspended six games. Impact? Dak Prescott completes 73 percent of passes with Zeke on field, 60 percent without him.
8. New York Giants (11-5, 0-1): Tough NFC and rugged division make return to playoffs no given for Biggies, and Eli Manning’s window is closing by degrees. But giving him added weapon in Brandon Marshall can’t hurt.
9. Kansas City Chiefs (12-4, 0-1): Always underestimated, seldom exciting but usually really good. That’s the Chiefs once again. And Alex Smith is solid enough that KC has luxury to groom draftee Patrick Mahomes at his pace, not rush him.
10. Tennessee Titans (9-7): A huge rise from 3-13 the year before saved Mike Mularkey’s job. Marcus Mariota’s continued rise and an improved secondary will be key. Playing in a very winnable (read: weak) division doesn’t hurt.
11. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (9-7): This summer’s “Hard Knocks” stars are Dolphins’ first opponent and a difficult one. Bucs should be a playoff contender, with Jameis Winston getting better and better, and now adding DeSean Jackson.
12. Arizona Cardinals (7-8-1): Cardbirds took a big fall from 13-3 the year before. Running back David Johnson is a fantasy stud, but how much does Carson Palmer, who’ll turn 38 during the season, have left in the career tank?
13. Denver Broncos (9-7): The 2015 Super Bowl champs regressed to mediocrity last year. Vance Joseph inherits a lot of talent on defense, but not anything close to a great quarterback, with Trevor Siemian and Paxton Lynch dueling.
14. Miami Dolphins (10-6, 0-1): Losing QB Ryan Tannehill to a season-ending knee injury plummeted the general estimation of the Dolphins — which was low anyway, at 7 1/2 wins on the Vegas over/under. And losing two valuable defensive pieces (Raekwon McMillian and Tony Lippett) for the year further hurt. But even full strength, and with Tannehill, I thought Miami would be hard-pressed to better last year’s 10 wins. But now, depleted, and with Jay Cutler taking snaps, I still give the Fins a big chance to hang in the playoff race and chase a wild-card spot. Look, losing Tannehill isn’t losing Tom Brady or Aaron Rodgers. If Cutler proves even OK (or if Matt Moore takes over) the drop-off is not chance-killing extreme. Miami still has enough offensive weapons in Jay Ajayi, Jarvis Landry, Kenny Stills, DeVante Parker and Julius Thomas to make Cutler (or Moore) seem better than they are. If the defense improves by a good measure, and there are internal expectations of that, this should still be a playoff contender despite that August battering on the injury front.
15. Houston Texans (9-7, 1-1): The healthy return of J.J. Watt will mean a ton and give Texans a shot in an easy division, but I don’t trust this team’s quarterback room. Tom Savage isn’t good, and Deshaun Watson isn’t ready.
16. Carolina Panthers (6-10): Cats tumbled hard last season from 15-1 the year before, the defense seems in decline, and Cam Newton is coming off shoulder issues. Major impact from rookie running back Christian McCaffrey is a must.
17. Baltimore Ravens (8-8): Spending their first four draft picks on defense would’ve been OK, except Crows are really weak at wide receiver, too. And overshadowing everything: Joe Flacco’s back issues that carried into preseason.
18. Minnesota Vikings (8-8): A chance to be division’s second-best after Pack, and adding rookie running back Dalvin Cook out of Florida State will help. But Dalvin will be looking for holes behind a subpar offensive line that won’t provide many.
19. Detroit Lions (9-7, 0-1): See a regression from Motown as Matthew Stafford continues on a Philip Rivers-esque career path of big, impressive stats but not much to show for it. Lions still are suspect on defense, starting with a weak pass rush.
20. New Orleans Saints (7-9): N’Awlins has been 7-9 three conseccutive years and four of past five but could be better — especially if Adrian Peterson can muster whatever greatness he might have left. Drew Brees is still good. But that Saints defense seldom is.
21. Washington Redskins (8-7-1): Last year continued Skins’ streak of no back-to-back playoff seasons since 1991-92. Kirk Cousins is back for another year, but his favorites targets, DeSean Jackson and Pierre Garcon, have left the building.
22. Indianapolis Colts (8-8): The star shine has faded from Andrew Luck and his shaky shoulder as he continues to fall short of overcoming his own bad defense. Only a weak division keeps Nags in playoff hunt.
23. Cincinnati Bengals (6-9-1): ’Gals saw their five-year playoff streak end but will have a shot to restart it with pretty solid defense as a foundation. Key will be if A.J. Green and Tyler Eifert can stay healthy for Andy Dalton.
24. Philadelphia Eagles (7-9): Birds weren’t terrible last year but couldn’t score enough to stay afloat in a brutal division. Giving Carson Wentz help by adding Alshon Jeffery should help. But will it be enough?
25. Los Angeles Chargers (5-11, as San Diego): A still very good Philip Rivers and an improved offensive line give Bolts a chance to be better in their maiden season in L.A. But losing top-pick WR Mike Williams to injury (until at least October) hurts.
26. Buffalo Bills (7-9): New coach Sean McDermott will be hard-pressed to equal last year’s record, let alone end the NFL’s longest playoff drought dating to 1999. But with both lines solid, if Tyrod Taylor is somehow really good, Buffs could surprise.
27. Jacksonville Jaguars (3-13): Jags defense added veteran Calais Campbell to what could be pretty stout unit, and top-pick running back Leonard Fournette should goose the offense. If only quarterback Blake Bortles was a guy you could trust, instead of a turnover machine.
28. Los Angeles Rams (4-12): OK, this begins the league’s Dregs Division. From this point downward, everybody stinks. Rams new kid-coach Sean McVay is 31. I have record albums older. Only if kid-quarterback Jared Goff is all that might Rams have half a chance.
29. Chicago Bears (3-13): Oh, woe, has become a once-proud franchise! Chitown gave quarterback Mike Glennon a crazy-big contract then traded up to draft Mitchell Trubisky. Hmm. That’s classic bad-team indecision right there.
30. San Francisco 49ers (2-14): Should improve a bit, if Brian Hoyer proves a capable-enough bridge quarterback. Defense is young and improving, but new GM John Lynch will need to time to right a capsized franchise and get it floating again.
31. Cleveland Browns (1-15): We arrive at the league’s Dysfunction Junction Division, where the Browns and Jets jockey for the gutter. If Brock Osweiler surprises us with competence, maybe Earthtones win four and Cleveland throws a parade.
32. New York Jets (5-11): Things will get worse before they get better, with the bleak abyss of Josh McCown, Bryce Petty or Christian Hackenberg at quarterback. Vinnie Testaverde got any eligibilty left? How’s the arm feelin’, Joe Namath?