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NFL Power Rankings, Pre-Training Camp

When you do your first set of NFL power rankings as training camps open, the tendency is to make it an exercise in looking backward, at the season that wrapped up almost six months ago. After all, what else do we have to judge by other than the most recent games and results?

But of course that's all wrong. At this time of year we should be looking forward, and trying to figure out where the NFL landscape has changed without any games -- other than the hiring, firing and personnel acquisition kind -- having been played.

So here's an early attempt to divine the relative strengths and weaknesses of teams as they report to camp, and keep in mind these aren't predictions of what will be in 2010 as much as they're a snapshot of where I perceive teams are right now in late July. As always, your results may vary. Of that I'm sure. (2009 records in parentheses.)

NFL Pre-Training Camp Power Rankings
1New York Jets
New York Jets (2009 record: 9-7)
Normally I'm not the type to buy the hype, but with the Jets so clearly going all-in when it comes to their 2010 season, why not play along and add to the self-created pressure on which Rex Ryan and his players seem to thrive? Let's see if they thrive on it this year. That'll be the tricky part. Handling all the Super Bowl expectations that come with a roster built to win -- and win big -- now. Of this much we are certain: After the offseason personnel spree they went on, the Jets mercifully can't trot out that tired no respect/underdog spiel they rode so far last season.
 
2New Orleans Saints
If I had to, I could probably come up with some very cogent reasons why the Saints will never duplicate their success of 2009 as defending Super Bowl champions. For starters, few teams repeat these days. But there was nothing all that fluky about the Saints winning last season, so I don't see them suffering anything resembling the classic post-Super swoon. As camp convenes, I believe there's not a more confident squad in the league than Sean Payton's club, and I think New Orleans is going to ride that wave for quite a while longer.
 
3Baltimore Ravens
I liked almost everything about the Ravens offseason, from Anquan Boldin signing in March to Marc Bulger signing in June as a potentially shrewd insurance policy on the health of Joe Flacco. But what really has caught my ear is the sense of urgency that prevails on Baltimore's roster. It's a hungry team, with an intriguing blend of youth and experience in almost all of the right spots. Bigger things are in store this year for the Ravens than just the AFC's sixth seed in the playoffs and another January road trip.
 
4Indianapolis Colts
I can hear the Colts fans now: How can the Jets and Ravens, two teams Indy beat soundly in the AFC playoffs in January, start this season ranked ahead of the defending AFC champs? It's a fair point, and yes, I did see both of those games, thanks for asking. All I can say is that was then and this is now. The Colts' Super Bowl window isn't closed, so let's not overreact. And I'm not making the same mistake I made last preseason, believing that Indy would finally miss the playoffs. But I don't see where the Colts really improved this offseason, and the status quo can sometimes be the enemy in the NFL.
 
5Green Bay Packers
I like the Packers and I like them a lot, even though I strangely don't hear a ton of optimism coming from the Cheesehead fans I live amongst these days in Madison. True, there's not enough pass rush on hand and the age and health of Green Bay's cornerbacks is worrisome. But if the Pack can protect Aaron Rodgers, this team is going to score enough to overcome a lot of its issues. As the Saints proved last season, a high-scoring offense and opportunistic defense can earn you a parade.
 
6San Diego Chargers
Can't see the Broncos, Raiders or Chiefs making the Chargers sweat out the division title and that means San Diego will be back knocking on the door again in January. For all its talent, this is a team that needs to grow some guts in the playoffs, because the Bolts can't be wasting 11-game winning streaks against a lesser opponent like last year's 9-7 Jets. I'm looking for big things from rookie running back Ryan Mathews in San Diego, and it says here he'll produce from day one.
 
7Minnesota Vikings
Brad Childress's team has improved by two wins in each of the past three seasons, but that's an impressive trend that's about to end. The Vikings with Brett Favre back under center will again be capable of beating anyone. But I detect the balance of power in the NFC North shifting east toward Green Bay.
 
8Dallas Cowboys
If you're a Cowboys fan, you'd better hope Wade Phillips's guys don't get all caught up in the chatter about Dallas trying to become the first team to play a Super Bowl on its home field. Don't go there until its time to hoist the NFC title trophy. They'll be plenty of time to beat that topic to death after that. The Cowboys only concern should be building on last year's success, and popping in a tape of that playoff meltdown at Minnesota should be all the motivation they need.
 
9Atlanta Falcons
I wasn't surprised the Falcons look a step back last season after their big 2008, but I'm equally convinced the pieces are back in place for a rebound playoff run this year. Atlanta plays New Orleans very tough, and with a sense of health restored this year, the Falcons have the kind of talented roster that could cause a lot of problems for the defending champs in the NFC South.
 
10New England Patriots
The days of the vaunted Patriots being able to win six or seven games a year just by throwing their Flying Elvis-festooned helmets on the field are over. Perhaps they've never really been the same since the Giants peeled back the green curtain on them in the Super Bowl a few years back. But swagger or no swagger, the cupboard isn't exactly bare in New England. They've still got some playmakers, but the reality is they just don't do all the same little things that consistently added up to victory after victory.
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