The NFL embarks on its historic 100th season, celebrating itself anew for being America’s undisputed King Sport despite the pitfalls of injuries, holdouts, anthem-kneeling controversy, brain trauma and the unrelenting chokehold of Bill Belichick and Tom Brady.
Cutting through all that is the ultimate proof, in five words, that anything is possible: The Cleveland Browns are good!
Might that mean hope for even the Dolphins as Miami prepares for its 54th franchise season? Yes. I guarantee a Miami Super Bowl this season! (By which I mean I guarantee Miami will host the Super Bowl this season.)
On with our annual team rankings.
We did pretty good a year ago. Ranked the Rams No. 1, and they reached the Super Bowl. Our top 12 included six teams that made the playoffs. We foresaw the 0-16 Browns’ rise to respectability. Also had the Dolphins as better than expected.
(Of course we won’t mention that we also ranked the Bears and Colts 29th and 30th last year before they went combined 22-10 and both made the playoffs.)
Sally forth! Our 2019 NFL team rankings:
Super Bowl Favorites
1. Kansas City Chiefs (12-4 last season; 1-1 in playoffs): Quiet please on the inevitability of a decline by Patrick Mahomes. The MVP wunderkind could fall off by 20 percent and still top 40 TDs, thanks in part to Tyreek Hill as one of NFL’s most electrifying weapons, and steady TE Travis Kelce. But Chiefs needed to improve on defense for me to hunch this is their year — and K.C. did, by adding pass rusher Frank Clark to pair with excellent, underrated DE Chris Jones.
2. New Orleans Saints (13-3; 1-1): Departure of RB Mark Ingram and C Max Unger hurts, but a still-great Drew Brees has ample help left led by WR Michael Thomas and fantasy-god back Alvin Kamara. Impact from new TE Jared Cook would be a nice bonus. N’Awlins also turns out a very draftable top-10 defense fronted by DE Cameron Jordan. Bottom line? In Brees we (still) trust!
3. New England Patriots (11-5; 3-0): Gronk retired to his party boat, and this is about the fifth anniversary season of “When the hell is Tom Brady going to start acting his age,” and yet the reigning Super Bowl champions keep being pretty great every damned year. The Pats are again among Super Bowl favorites as assuredly as Earth is up for Best Planet. Now Brady reinherits WR Josh Gordon off the suspended list, which is akin to Jeff Bezos getting a raise. Pats are solid again on D, too, and added end Michael Bennett.
4. Los Angeles Rams (13-3; 2-1): Returning Super Bowl loser is well-poised for a return, led by DT Aaron Donald’s No. 2-ranked fantasy defense. That unit and QB Jared Goff are capable of overcoming a couple of free agency losses on both lines. The big concern: Does anybody trust RB Todd Gurley’s knee? He is the league’s top back when healthy, but that caveat is getting larger and larger — and bedeviling a million fantasy drafters.
Super Bowl Contenders
5. Philadelphia Eagles (9-7; 1-1): A fully healthy QB Carson Wentz will find life much easier with the addition of top RB Jordan Howard, quietly one of the offseason’s most significant moves. I wonder if there are enough defensive playmakers beyond pass rusher Fletcher Cox, but still believe Birds have a shot to get their 2017 mojo back.
6. Chicago Bears (12-4; 0-1): The new Monsters of the Midway should be great on defense, led by LB Khalil Mack, FS Eddie Jackson, DT Akiem Hicks and CB Kyle Fuller. The difference for the Bears being a playoff team and having a championship shot will be the continued ascension of young QB Mitchell Trubisky, about which a doubt or two linger.
7. Los Angeles Chargers (12-4; 1-1): Tempted to have Chargers higher. Rush twins Melvin Ingram and Joey Bosa and front a top-five defense, and Philip Rivers-to-Keenan Allen will be prolific. But RB Melvin Gordon’s holdout and injury that will shelve FS Derwin James half the season foment concern — even though Bolts were 4-0 sans Gordon last year.
8. Cleveland Browns (7-8-1): This is meek-inherit-the-Earth stuff. The long-downtrodden Browns are ready to make their run. Or had better be, based on the all the “it team” hype. Freddie Kitchens is one of six rookie NFL head coaches, and he inherits a bunch as Cleveland aims to end club’s 16-year playoff drought. Top young QB Baker Mayfield adds receivers Odell Beckham to Jarvis Landry, and gets RB Kareem Hunt the second half of the season, and the D could be solid led by end Myles Garrett. It’s playoffs or bust for a team poised to either win big or disappoint big.
9. Pittsburgh Steelers (9-6-1): Yes, Browns, that is division-rival Pittsburgh right on your heel, ready to say, “Not so fast, Junior.” Steelers lose Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell, but Ben Roethlisberger still has much help left in WR Juju Smith-Schuster and RB James Conner. And a defense already with T.J. Watt and Cameron Heyward gets a big add with rookie ILB Devin Bush.
10. Minnesota Vikings (8-7-1): Vikings bring a top-five fantasy defense, and QB Kirk Cousins has no excuses with targets such as Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs. Vikes could vault from maybe-playoffs to NFC power if RB Dalvin Cook enjoys the good health he needs for his great potential to blossom.
11. Houston Texans (11-5; 0-1): The iffy status of OLB Jadeveon Clowney lent a drama/distraction Houston hardly needed. But J.J. Watt still leads a top-10 defense, and Deshaun Watson-to-DeAndre Hopkins fronts an offense with some pop. A healthy Watson gives Texans a chance.
12. Dallas Cowboys (10-6; 1-1): RB Ezekiel Elliott’s holdout was sort of holding the season (and fantasy drafts) hostage. Even beyond that, though, this should be a playoff team, and coach Jason Garrett will be fired (it says here) if it isn’t. Dallas led the league with eight players in NFL.com’s 2019 Top 100 ranking, and that didn’t even include QB Dak Prescott. That’s too much talent not to win with. Getting TE Jason Witten back from retirement helps (though not as much as it helps viewers to get him out of the broadcast booth).
13. Baltimore Ravens (10-6; 0-1): Miami’s season-opening opponent saw its really good defense suffer some losses but also added safety Earl Thomas. Hope, though, rests with QB Lamar Jackson, who looks as if he has the chance to skip stardom and leap straight to superstardom. And Crows gave him a huge gift by signing RB Mark Ingram.
14. Green Bay Packers (6-9-1): After two years in a row out of the playoffs, can new coach Matt LaFleur get Aaron Rodgers back to a happier place than fired Mike McCarthy did? I wonder how good the Pack D will be and don’t see a lot of offensive playmakers beyond Davante Adams. But I do still believe in Mr. Rodgers.
15. Atlanta Falcons (7-9): QB Matt Ryan, WR Julio Jones and a healthy RB Devonta Freeman give Falcs a shot. The return of coordinator Dirk Koetter should really help, but there are big questions on defense. Like, can fading DE Vic Beasley recover his 2016 mojo or is it time to write him off?
16. Seattle Seahawks (10-6; 0-1): Is Seattle poised for a drop-off? How far can Russell Wilson carry this offense on his back? And can a once-vaunted defense prove itself great again when LB Bobby Wagner might be the only elite piece left?
17. Indianapolis Colts (10-6; 1-1): We dropped Indy all the way from a Super Bowl-contending No. 6 to here with the shocking, sudden retirement of QB Andrew Luck. Colts are now solid on defense and added edge rusher Justin Houston to a unit already including top LB Darius Leonard. And the offense added blur-fast WR Parris Campbell to weapons such as T.Y. Hilton and Eric Ebron. But the QB falloff to Jacoby Brissett is seismic.
18. Tennessee Titans (9-7): QB Marcus Mariota in a contract year — and with longtime former Dolphin Ryan Tannehill now on his heels — should make things interesting. Dear Marcus: Just always remember your best play is probably a handoff to Derrick Henry.
19. Carolina Panthers (7-9): A healthy shouldered Cam Newton and fantasy darling RB Christian McCaffrey give Cats’ offense a shot to be fearsome, and LB Luke Kuechley and DT Gerald McCoy are playmakers on D. Could be playoffs or bust for the future of coach Ron Rivera.
20. Jacksonville Jaguars (5-11): Team struggled last season but remains mostly really good on defense led by mouthy CB Jalen Ramsey and ancient ex-Canes DE Calais Campbell. Nick Foles is a significant QB upgrade over Blake Bortles; then again, your cat Fluffy might be. Without much wideout pop, key will be health/performance of RB Leonard Fournette.
21. San Francisco 49ers (4-12): Both lines look solid, and Niners have a couple of nice pieces (TE Goerge Kittle, DE Dee Ford), but so much depends on the comeback season of still-unproven QB Jimmy Garoppolo. Is he anything special? I’m still a doubter.
22. Denver Broncos (6-10): LBs Von Miller and Bradley Chubb give Broncs a nice starting point on D, Phillip Lindsay is a solid under-radar RB, and new coach Vic Fangio brings a ton of experience after years as a coaching grunt. Am I underselling Denver? Just don’t know how much quality QB Joe Flacco has left in the tank.
23. New York Jets (4-12): Will RB Le’Veon Bell look vintage or just old? Will Sam Darbnold be better than in his rocky rookie year? Will Adam Gase make Dolfans miss him? Planes have a couple of nice defenders (C.J. Mosley, Jamal Adams), but too many questions.
24. Detroit Lions (6-10): Detroit never seems to have a good defense and never seems to have enough help for QB Mathew Stafford — shortcomings that persist into 2019. Another problem: Clearly the fourth-best team in a four-team division.
25. Buffalo Bills (6-10): A top-10 defense (maybe) improved if rookie DT Ed Oliver proves as good as he has looked. But young QB Josh Allen is much better running than passing, and shortfall on elite talent leaves Bills as only team shut out of NFL.com’s 2019 Top 100 players list.
26. Oakland Raiders (4-12): Drama-king WR Antonio Brown and his preseason helmet issues may or may not have been scripted by “Hard Knocks.” At any rate, coach Jon Gruden doesn’t have a lot of special talent to work with here, and do we trust Derek Carr to keep Brown happy?
27. MIAMI DOLPHINS (7-9): The bad news? Yup, Fins are in my bottom tier. The good news? They lead The Dregs! Woo-hoo! Miami is commonly pegged for four or five wins in betting over/unders. I peg six wins likelier under rookie coach Brian Flores, and even seven would not shock. And that’s with any quarterback combination of Ryan Fitzpatrick and/or Josh Rosen. The division-mate Jets and Bills not being that good helps, and the schedule softens after a brutal four-game stretch to open the season. QB play, a shaky offensive line and lack of pass rush are reasons for general foreboding. But I think the QB play will exceed expectations and that the wide receiver room looks solid. Mostly, I think the defense led by elite CB Xavien Howard (Miami’s only Top 100 pick) will be better than most think and keep the Fins in games. By the way, bank this: No matter if Miami wins three games or seven and no matter how good Rosen might look, the Dolphins will prioritize trading up for a QB in the 2020 draft. Consider that a guarantee.
28. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (5-11): Erratic QB Jameis Winston without a proven running game could be trouble.,but new coach Bruce Arians has had some success, so there’s that.
29. Washington Redskins (7-9): Jay Gruden has survived six seasons, but this might be his last, the drama with OT Trent Williams only casting a deeper pall. The ray of light? Waiting for QB Dwayne Haskins to be ready, and to be good.
30. New York Giants (5-11): It’s RB Saquon Barkley and a whole lot o’ nuthin’! It’s a team getting by on the fumes of Eli Manning until the gamble on Daniel Jones pays off ... or doesn’t.
31. Cincinnati Bengals (6-10): Andy Dalton-to-A.J. Green keeps not being enough, injury loss of first-round OL Jonah Williams was huge blow, and there isn’t much on D after Geno Atkins. Also, is rookie coach Zac Taylor any good?
32. Arizona Cardinals (3-13): Rookie coach Kliff Kingsbury and rookie QB Kyler Murray could make the Redbirds interesting. Which isn’t the same as making them good.