After winning a Super Bowl at age 39, most quarterbacks would choose to retire on top. In 2016, Peyton Manning did just that. This past offseason, Tom Brady was given the same opportunity when his Patriots pulled off the largest comeback in Super Bowl history. Capturing a fifth ring in dramatic fashion before riding into the sunset- it would be a storybook ending to the career of an all-time great. After all, when you’ve had a career like Brady’s, there’s nothing more to prove.
Yet, now at 40 years old, coming off the greatest season all-time for someone his age and showing no signs of slowing down, Brady is back to do it again. With his long-documented work ethic and dedication to the game, it’s hardly surprising. Tom Brady lives football and will continue to do so until his body forces otherwise. And so, here we are, days before the Patriots kick off their 2017 season, with Brady on the quest for ring number six.
Brady and the Patriots open the year holding the top spot in my power rankings. After an incredible offseason for any team, let alone a reigning Super Bowl champion, it seemed the Patriots might actually have a better team in 2017. Then there was Julian Edelman’s ACL injury. Still, the outlook is bright for a team with no real competition in the AFC East.
The first week of power rankings is the most difficult, as there aren’t any actual regular season games to judge the teams on. Still, I’ve ranked every team, although positions, especially in the middle, will be vulnerable to large swings over the first few weeks before we get a good idea of how strong each team really is. I’ll start my normal team-by-team recaps next week. This time around, I’ve broken every team into six tiers based on their prospects entering the season.
Tier 1: Super Bowl Favorites (Patriots, Falcons, Steelers, Packers, Seahawks)
I’ve already established the Patriots are #1. Next are the Falcons. Complain if you want, but last season, Atlanta was the only team to hold a 25-point lead in the Super Bowl. The Steelers, with possibly the best offense in the NFL, have the best chance of taking down New England, but there are a few question marks on D. Aaron Rodgers always gives the Packers a solid shot at a championship, and Seattle and the Legion of Boom shouldn’t be underestimated. Plus, Russell Wilson has had a great preseason after a somewhat disappointing 2016. Final story: it’d be surprising to see any of these teams achieve less than double-digit wins and a division title.
Tier 2: Likely Playoff Teams (Raiders, Cowboys, Giants, Chiefs)
Not quite in the same category as those in Tier 1, fans of these four teams should like their odds of repeating their 2016 playoff appearances. The Raiders could’ve made a Super Bowl run last year had Derek Carr not been injured, but they’ll be even more dangerous this year with Mr. Beastquake himself Marshawn Lynch running the ball. The Cowboys should see a drop-off this year, especially with Ezekiel Elliott’s six-game suspension, but they still have more than enough talent to remain strong in his absence. The Giants could have the league’s best defense this year. If only they could fix their longtime struggles at the offensive line and running back positions, they’d be near unstoppable. Lastly, the Chiefs are never the most fun team to watch, but they’ve won at least 11 games in three of the past four seasons.
Tier 3: Postseason Competitive (Titans, Buccaneers, Cardinals, Lions, Broncos, Texans, Eagles)
Now here’s where things start to open up. For the most part, your guess is as good as mine on these next two tiers. I have the most confidence in the Titans and Bucs to take steps forward with third-year quarterbacks Marcus Mariota and Jameis Winston. The Cardinals should be much improved over last season, while the Lions remain heavily dependent on Matthew Stafford, now the highest-paid player in league history. On the flip side of things, the Broncos and Texans have great defenses but below-average quarterbacks. Still, I’d rather have second-year starter Trevor Siemian than three-year backup Tom Savage. The Eagles have a great front seven and could have a breakout year if new offensive weapons LeGarrette Blount, Alshon Jeffery, and Torrey Smith pan out.
Tier 4: Potential to Surprise (Redskins, Vikings, Dolphins, Panthers, Saints, Ravens, Chargers, Bengals)
Things don’t look great for these teams, but it still wouldn’t be too surprising to see them win eight, nine, or even ten games and play their way into the mix. The Redskins high-powered offense lost coordinator Sean McVay, who became the youngest head coach in modern NFL history with the Rams this season. It’ll be a real challenge for Kirk Cousins to succeed with an unfamiliar receiving corps. The Vikings will once again rely on defense and special teams, while the Dolphins are hoping Jay Cutler can keep up the team’s 2016 success. You’d have to figure the Panthers will improve on their shocking nine-win plummet to 6-10, but they’ll still likely hang in mediocrity with the Saints, coming off three straight 7-9 seasons. I see a similar future for the Ravens, Chargers, and Bengals, all with their best years behind them.
Tier 5: Long Seasons Ahead (Colts, Bills, Rams, Jaguars, Browns, Bears, 49ers)
Andrew Luck was just about the only person keeping the Colts relevant, but now that he’s missing week 1, it’s time for the Scott Tolzien show. With Luck, the Colts at least stand a chance, but nothing close to their expectations for the franchise. The Bills didn’t have much to begin with, but they traded their season away when they sent Sammy Watkins to the Rams. Who is there to pass to? The Rams will slowly improve, but they’ll need to pay Aaron Donald first. I still have some faith in Blake Bortles, but he’ll be on quite a short leash in his fourth year. The Browns, at 29th, are already two spots higher than at any point last season, but that’s more due to other teams looking terrible than them looking respectable. The Bears and 49ers? I don’t want to get started on their issues, but they’re still both better than our final team.
Tier 6: The Jets
There are great football teams. There are good football teams. There are OK football teams. There are bad teams, and there are very bad teams. There is also the Jets, a team so hopeless experts are debating whether they’ll finish 0-16 before the season even starts. Remember last year, when the Browns were last in the power rankings every week? That’s what I’m expecting from the Jets.