Welcome to the 96th season for the NFL, the 50th season for the Miami Dolphins, and the first season ever to approach with a federal judge wasting his time trying to decide whether the league’s biggest star was aware that footballs he used in a game had been infinitesimally underinflated.
This is where I annually rank the 32 teams. Unfortunately, they have me list them in exact order of how good I think they will be, not randomly, which is where the problems arise.
When it comes to NFL predictions and me, I tend to accentuate the positive because that is generally less embarrassing than the unembellished reality. For example, last year the teams I ranked Nos. 1 and 3 overall (Seattle and New England) reached the Super Bowl. Pretty good, right? That sounds a lot better than admitting only six of the 12 eventual playoff teams had been included in my preseason top 12.
My division-by-division capsules, playoff forecast and Super Bowl pick will appear Sept. 11 on the first of our Friday NFL prediction pages.
For now, here is my 2015 top-to-bottom ranking, with last year’s regular-season and playoff records in parentheses. As always, these teams’ cooperation in helping to make this ranking as accurate as possible will be hugely appreciated and thoroughly unexpected.
Spoiler alert: The Dolphins are the sixth-best team in all of football and will barrel into the postseason.
No, officer, I have not been drinking!
1. SEATTLE SEAHAWKS (12-4, 2-1): Seattle, aiming for a third consecutive Super Bowl appearance, is one play-call from (likely) entering 2015 as a back-to-back champion. And the Seahawks might be even better, adding a huge weapon in TE Jimmy Graham. Biggest concern could be the offensive line, but Russell Wilson’s mobility helps offset that.
2. NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS (12-4, 3-0): “Deflategate” fallout hounded Patriots through August as Tom Brady fought his four-game suspension into federal court. No matter the outcome, though, Super Bowl champ New England still looks like class of AFC East and solid bet to be the NFL’s first repeat champ since Pats did it in 2003-04. Team beefed up both lines and added veteran WR Reggie Wayne, too.
3. BALTIMORE RAVENS (10-6, 1-1): Ravens added targets for QB Joe Flacco in Marc Trestman’s offense as the franchise sees Ray Rice and that whole mess recede in the rear-view mirror. Baltimore might also have league’s most unheralded top-tier coach in John Harbaugh.
4. DENVER BRONCOS (12-4, 0-1): The defense should be very strong. The concern is that Peyton Manning is 39 now and missing security-blanket LT Ryan Clady. Uh, oh. If his protection breaks down, Manning’s creaky old legs won’t buy much time.
5. GREEN BAY PACKERS (12-4, 1-1): Packers losing top WR Jordy Nelson to what is believed to be a season-ending knee injury is about as bad as the news gets in August. Green Bay already has defensive issues. The great Aaron Rodgers will survive Nelson’s absence, but it’s still a major blow.
6. MIAMI DOLPHINS (8-8): QB Ryan Tannehill and his new-look offense showed signs of excellence early in the preseason and should be even better when LT Branden Albert and top draftee DeVante Parker both are fully healthy. And a D-line anchored by Ndamukong Suh and Cameron Wake should lead one of the NFL’s best handful of defenses. Now all Miami has to do is prove it can finish a season strong and then win in January under coach Joe Philbin, things not accomplished lately.
7. INDIANAPOLIS COLTS (11-5, 2-1): “Miami North” added ex-Hurricanes Phillip Dorsett, Frank Gore and Andre Johnson as weapons for Andrew Luck. Indy has O-line issues, though. And will shaky defense make every game a shootout for Luck?
8. DALLAS COWBOYS (12-4, 1-1): Still doubts on defense, but no doubt that Tony Romo and Dez Bryant spearhead what should be a potent attack. The biggest question is the huge RB drop-off from departed DeMarco Murray to constantly inured ex-Raider Darren McFadden.
9. PITTSBURGH STEELERS (11-5, 0-1): The defense is an unfinished portrait with Troy Polamalu gone and a new coordinator, Keith Butler, taking over after seemingly a century of Dick LeBeau. Offense still looks good with Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown, but losing C Maurkice Pouncey to August ankle surgery looms big.
10. ARIZONA CARDINALS (11-5, 0-1): If QB Carson Palmer can stay healthy, if Arizona can develop a solid running game, if Cardinals can withstand a few key departures on defense. ... If some notable stuff goes right, team should make playoffs again.
11. MINNESOTA VIKINGS (7-9): RB Adrian Peterson is back healthy and motivated to prove it when he says, “I’m the LeBron” of the NFL. Vikings could be a surprise playoff team if they can conjure a pass rush and if Teddy Bridgewater shows continuing signs he can be as good as some think.
12. PHILADELPHIA EAGLES (10-6): The only 10-win team to not make playoffs in ’14, Birds will need a big, healthy season from new QB Sam Bradford to take that next step under coach Chip Kelly. Replacing RB LeSean McCoy won’t be easy, and the pass defense, targeted for improvement, had better be better.
13. CINCINNATI BENGALS (10-5-1, 0-1): Cincy has mastered the regular season but fallen on its collective face afterward, with coach Marvin Lewis and QB Andy Dalton 0-4 in the playoffs for a franchise that last won a postseason game in 1990. Everything around him looks solid, but questions about Dalton remain.
14. DETROIT LIONS (11-5, 0-1): Detroit needs a steady ground game to augment Matthew Stafford flinging to Calvin Johnson. Lions also must prove that losing Ndamukong Suh won’t leave a crater smoldering in the middle of this defense.
15. NEW ORLEANS SAINTS (7-9): Saints suffered a major departure in TE Jimmy Graham and had better be much improved on pass defense to have any playoff shot. But they have a real chance, in that division, if Drew Brees, at 36, is still Drew Brees.
16. KANSAS CITY CHIEFS (9-7): QB Alex Smith must find a way to maximize an offense that has Jamaal Charles and now Jeremy Maclin. Pass rush is in good hands with newly enriched Justin Houston, but K.C. needs bigger plays in secondary after NFL-low six interceptions last season.
17. SAN DIEGO CHARGERS (9-7): Chargers kept QB Philip Rivers and gifted him with a potential Rookie of the Year RB in Melvin Gordon. But San Diego will need better defense, especially on the pass rush, to be playoff-good.
18. CAROLINA PANTHERS (7-8-1, 1-1): A top-notch linebacking corps led by Luke Keuchly, solid defense all-round and a weak division give the Panthers a big playoff shot. If erratic Cam Newton sheds the last of his doubters, Carolina could be in for a big season.
19. BUFFALO BILLS (9-7): Buffalo has not made the playoffs since 1999, but new coach Rex Ryan inherits a fiercely good defense, maybe the best D-line in football and a unit that has led NFL in INTs over the past two seasons. But choosing a QB from Matt Cassel, E.J. Manuel and Tyrod Taylor is pretty close to a nightmare.
20. HOUSTON TEXANS (9-7): J.J. Watt leads a stout defense for the team that starred in HBO’s Hard Knocks this year, and RB (and noted atheist) Arian Foster is still good when healthy. But Brian Hoyer starts the season at QB. Is that a good thing?
21. NEW YORK JETS (4-12): A teammate sucker-punches starting QB Geno Smith, breaks his jaw and knocks him out for a half a season. NYJ’s defense could be really good, especially the front seven, but it’s hard to envision a Ryan Fitzpatrcik-led offense doing much in the way of scoring.
22. NEW YORK GIANTS (6-10): Tom Coughlin’s last hurrah? Team drafted Hurricanes tackle Ereck Flowers with its top pick to keep Eli Manning upright, but Giants’ biggest issues look to be on defense again.
23. ST. LOUIS RAMS (6-10): Rams’ new-look offense is led by new QB Nick Foles and top-pick RB Todd Gurley, but will a suspect offensive line allow either or both to be as good as team needs them to be? Foles still must prove he is starter-caliber and that 2013 was no fluke.
24. ATLANTA FALCONS (6-10): Atlanta has a new coach (Dan Quinn), a new offensive coordinator and old defensive problems — namely the fewest sacks in football during the past three seasons. Looks a like a lot of shootouts for Matt Ryan.
25. SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS (8-8): After a tumultuous offseason of suspensions, retirements and other departures, including coach Jim Harbaugh bolting for Michigan, there seemed something fitting in the Niners being the only team to draft a punter. Could be a long year for new coach Jim Tomsula.
26. CHICAGO BEARS (5-11): Bears drafted Kevin White to replace departed Brandon Marshall, but White could miss half the season injured. Don’t see enough improvement in a defense that gave up second-most points last year. That and an erratic Jay Cuter make it tough to trust Chicago.
27. WASHINGTON REDSKINS (4-12): Very few teams’ outlooks are more centered on one player or find that one player under more pressure. For the Washington Unmentionable Nicknames, it’s all about Robert Griffin III. He needs a breakout season for the team to have a chance.
28. CLEVELAND BROWNS (7-9): Browns have targeted an improved run defense, but more pressing issues are on offense at quarterback. Josh McCown isn’t the answer there, and if Johnny Manziel is, well, he isn’t yet. Good luck, Duke Johnson.
29. OAKLAND RAIDERS (3-13): Oakland hasn’t had a winning season in 13 years. Why start now? (No wonder Raiders fans show up for games wearing disguises.) WR Amari Cooper should be a large help for QB Derek Carr. Coach Jack Del Rio seems to have a plan, but he’s at least a year away.
30. JACKSONVILLE JAGUARS (3-13): Jags signed TE Julius Thomas among other weapons for Blake Bortles. Jacksonville is young and headed promisingly but has more learning curve to get past. Losing pass-rushing OLB Dante Fowler, third pick in the draft, to a season-ending injury was a crushing blow.
31. TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS (2-14): All eyes will be on rookie QB Jameis Winston from Florida State, but he has a lot to overcome, namely a below-average offensive line and a poor defense. Winston might top 20 in interceptions, if coach Lovie Smith is that patient.
32. TENNESSEE TITANS (2-14): Rookie QB Marcus Mariota will be good, eventually. But without much supporting cast, it surely won’t be this season.