We begin the 99th season of NFL football and the 53rd for the Miami Dolphins with our annual Team Rankings, and with this disclaimer: Nobody knows anything -- which is great!
The unpredictability is why we keep watching, and why this is still the biggest sports draw on TV despite despite the threat of players suffering brain trauma, the controversy of some guys protest-kneeling during the national anthem and the apparent confusion over what constitutes a catch.
Last season the Philadelphia Eagles won a Super Bowl one year after finishing 7-9. You know where I had ‘em ranked in my top 32? No. 24. Oy.
This year’s ranking is full of surprises. I have three teams making the playoffs after having losing records last year. I have Rams over Steelers in the Super Bowl. I see the mighty Patriots slipping. See the woebegone Browns rising.. Oh, and I predict the Dolphins will be significantly better than most critics think.
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The biggest surprise of all in these rankings will be if I’m right about all of the above. Let’s kick it off:
1. Los Angeles Rams (11-5, 0-1) -- Smart drafting, big spending and a bright young coach in Sean McVay turned the Rams from 4-12 in their first season back in L.A. to 11-5 last year. Now the Rams are ready to stake their claim to being as good as anybody. A very good defense will be even better when Aaron Donald ends his holdout. And Jared Goff and Todd Gurley front what was the league’s highest-scoring offense in 2017.
2. Minnesota Vikings (13-3, 1-1) -- Vikes’ defense is high-end premier, maybe the best in the NFL. And the return from injury of running back Dalvin Cook of out Miami Central High is a huge boost to the attack. If Kirk Cousins plays at a Pro Bowl level, Minnesota has a shot at reaching its first Super Bowl since 1976.
3. Green Bay Packers (7-9) -- Load up on Aaron Rodgers, fantasy drafters. Back from the injury that ate half his season last year and sent the Pack reeling, he could throw for 5K. Especially with a bright new toy in offense-minded tight end in Jimmy Graham. Only hesitation with Gee Bees is what’s been a flawed defense, but Rodgers has been praising its improvement this preseason.
4. Pittsburgh Steelers (13-3, 0-1) -- Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell (even disgruntled) remain, for me, the most productive pass/catch/run troika in the league. Add an improving top-10 defense and this looks like the best team in the AFC.
5. Philadelphia Eagles (13-3, 3-0) -- Too low for a reigning champion? For a team without roster holes? Maybe. But NFC has grown really strong, Carson Wentz (though close) still isn’t fully recovered from last December’s knee injury, and King Sport hasn’t seen a repeat champion since 2003-04.
6. New Orleans Saints (11-5, 1-1) -- Precision master Drew Brees, at 39, is a great as ever. It’s tough to keep that offense south of 30 points. Now the N’Awlins defense is solid, too, and that combo gives Saints the right to think Super Bowl.
7. New England Patriots (13-3, 2-1) -- Blasphemy! The mighty Patriots ranked a lowly seventh!? Don’t get it wrong. Bill Belichick and Tom Brady are not done dominating the weak AFC East yet, but it says here their grip on league superiority is gradually loosening. The NFC has the best teams right now, Brady is 41, and the Pats would be ripe for a hostile division takeover if only the Dolphins, Jets or Bills had sufficient arsenals.
8. Atlanta Falcons (10-6, 1-1) -- The Birds are solid all-around. Defense is stout. And Matt Ryan, Julio Jones and Devonta Freeman continue to make the Falcons’ offense a percolating challenge to stop.
9. Houston Texans (4-12) -- Houston is poised for maybe the biggest turnaround in the NFL. Why? Deshaun Watson and J.J. Watt. The dynamic Watson showed signs of QB greatness as a rookie before being injured last year. And the elite sacker Watt is back after two years mostly lost to injuries.
10. Jacksonville Jaguars (10-6, 2-1) -- Jags reached the AFC title game last year, proving you can win without a top QB but only if you do something else great. Jax does. It’s called defense. Elite D can make up for an awful lot. For example, Blake Bortles.
11. San Francisco 49ers (6-10) -- Niners are on the ascent, and adding cover guy Richard Sherman is big for the defense. But so much rests on Jimmy Garoppolo, who is 7-0 as a starter and surrounded by hype but now starts his first full season as The Man.
12. Los Angeles Chargers (9-7) -- See the Bolts as playoff-good and rising to the top of the AFC West. The defense is really solid, pass rush to secondary. And Philip Rivers at 36 is close to as good as ever., enhaced by improved protection..
13. Dallas Cowboys (9-7) -- Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott are a pretty good starting place for a playoff chase. But (to Dak’s chagrin, we’d imagine) the ‘Boys didn’t do a whole lot to replace departed Dez Bryant and retired Jason Witten.
14. Carolina Panthers (11-5, 0-1) -- The new offensive coordinator is recycled Norv Turner, 66, so let’s see how that weird marriage with Cam Newton plays out. Cats will be good. Problem is, division-mate Saints and Falcons are better.
15. Kansas City Chiefs (10-6, 0-1) -- Andy Reid is a quality coach and the KC defense gets a boost from the return of safety Eric Berry, but Chiefs will struggled to get to double-digit wins again. Why? We’re far from sold on raw QB Patrick Mahomes.
16. Seattle Seahawks (9-7) -- Kam Chancellor has joined the defensive exodus, and the Legion of Boom is dead. Seattle’s gradual slide to mediocrity since 2013-14 continues. Russell Wilson remains really, really good but doesn’t have sufficient help.
17. MIAMI DOLPHINS (6-10) -- Bulletin: The Dolphins will be better than last year. They will be back in the customary average-but-competitive range of 7 to 9 wins that will have them hunting an AFC wild-card playoff spot as Thanksgiving melds into Christmas. This might seem crazy talk to some. Miami has been a trendy offseason punching bag for the NFL literati. ESPN, for example, ranks the Fins 32nd -- dead last -- in its latest league Power Rankings. But the healthy return from injury of quarterback Ryan Tannehill alone will be enough to keep Miami in games as the season lifts off Sept. 9 vs. Tennessee. I look at the schedule and count only four games as big-underdogs losers: Roadies at at Patriots, Texans, Packers and Vikings. This relative optimism pegged to Tannehill’s return does not mean the Dolphins have had a positive offseason or that the future is bright. Losing Pro Bowl talent like Mike Pouncey, Ndamukong Suh and Jarvis Landry and adding aging guys like Josh Sitton, Danny Amendola and Frank Gore is not a plus-exchange in the long term. For this season, though, Miami should find itself in the great NFL midsection of average teams with a chance, if Tannehill stays healthy. And the “ifs” don’t get much bigger.
18. Tennessee Titans (9-7, 1-1) -- Mike Vrabel was a pretty good NFL linebacker. Will he be a good head coach? Find out starting Sept. 9 in Miami vs. Dolphins. Marcus Mariota regressed in his third year and needs to bounce back if Titans are to stay playoff-caliber.
19. Baltimore Ravens (9-7) -- Crows’ defense is stout again. Not Ray Lewis/Ed Reed-era good. But solid enough to keep tream in wild-card hunt. Am just about done with Joe Flacco, though. Lamar Jackson, please.
20. Oakland Raiders (6-10) -- So Jon Gruden is going to maraud back onto an NFL sideline and make instant magic after 10 years in a cushy TV booth? Um, nope. Sorry, Chucky. Playoffs seem a longshot, and sackman Khalil Mack’s holdout doesn’t help.
21. Washington Redskins (7-9) -- The Objectionable Nicknames will need much-improved defense to contend, because new QB Alex Smith doesn’t have a lot talent around him. Unless, of course, Adrian Peterson, at 33, starts partying like it’s 2012.
22. Detroit Lions (9-7) -- New coach Matt Patricia will find it tough to repeat last year’s winning record. Lions haven’t won the division since 1993 and that drought will continue. Matthew Stafford is better than ever, but keeping him upright will be a challenge.
23. Cleveland Browns (0-16) -- Winless embarrassment to a shot at respectability is where the Brownies are headed. The “it team” hype is overblown and the playoff talk farfetched, but Cleveland is aimed right. Tyrod Taylor is a quality placeholder at QB, and if Baker Mayfield turns out be to be great, the NFL’s most suffering fandom will soon be smiling.
24. Arizona Cardinals (8-8) -- Fantasy-stud David Johnson is back healthy, but it’ll still be tough for new coach Steve Wilks to stay out of the division cellar. Watching the Sam Bradfiord/Josh Allen QB situation play out will be telling.
25. Denver Broncos (5-11) -- Broncs’ defense has fallen a couple of notches from its former elite level, and, do we trust that the Case Keenum we saw for Minnesota last year can duplicate that success? This ranking says nah.
26. Cincinnati Bengals (7-9) -- The ‘Gals are entering Year 3 of an abyss of mediocrity or just a little less. How much longer can Marvin Lewis hang on? Meanwhile (like Tannehill), Andy Dalton has solid stats but is finding the next level elusive.
27. New York Jets (5-11) -- Planes’ defense really regressed last year, but when highly touted rookie pass-man Sam Darnold is fully ready and if her lives up to billing, NYJ fortunes could change quickly. Jets finally seem to get it: NFL teams either had better have a great QB, or had better draft one.
28. Buffalo Bills (9-7, 0-1) -- The Bison way-overachieved last season in finally ending the franchise’s 17-year playoff drought, but now are ripe for slipping back to normal thanks to bad quarterbacking until top pick Josh Allen is ready and proves he’s all that. Bills might not be favored in any game ‘til Week 9.
29. Chicago Bears (5-11) -- Tough baptism for new head coach Matt Nagy. Mitch Trubisky had a spotty rookie season, and he’ll have a tough time producing enough points to outscore his own team’s shaky defense.
30. Indianapolis Colts (4-12) -- As with the Dolphins’ QB situation, so, so much is riding on Andrew Luck’s comeback from injury. But even a healthy Luck at his best won’t be enough to remedy an overall shortfall on roster talent.
31. New York Giants (3-13) -- Odell Beckham is getting healthy and Saquan Barkley is a strong add, but Eli is fading fast, the defense is weak and NYG figures as an underdog in at least its first seven games.
32. Tampa Bay Buccanmeers (5-11) -- Somebody has to play caboose, and Bucs are stuck in a division with three other teams that all are playoff-caliber. Jameis Winston’s three-game suspension for groping an Uber driver (costliest ride of his life) doesn’t help.
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