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The NFL team that could make the biggest turnaround this season is...
0:51 | NFL
The NFL team that could make the biggest turnaround this season is...
Tuesday August 2nd, 2016

Our long national nightmare is over. No, not that one—the election isn’t until November.

The other one. Football’s back.

Starting with the Hall of Fame Game between the Colts and Packers on Aug. 7, there will not be a football-free Sunday again until after the next Super Bowl champion is crowned in early February. To be fair, the NFL preseason can be interminable in its own right, like when fourth-string QBs and second-string kickers are battling it out at the end of August. But the hard and fast rule remains that any football is better than no football.

•​ Complete training camp guide: Breakdowns of all 32 teams

Best of all, as the 2016 regular season approaches, the league’s beloved parity appears to be alive and well. There are a handful of teams clearly closer to title contention than others, but a good 25 or so teams (if not more) can make a case that they’re good enough to be in the thick of the playoff race this season.

We’ll see if the preseason changes anything—which teams manage to stay healthy, who emerges as a surprise star, how the position battles play out.

Before the official preseason opener this Sunday, though, here’s how the pecking order sits: 

 
  • 1
    1Arizona Cardinals
     
    This is the time of year when every team will claim that falling shy of a Super Bowl win would be a disappointment. Few really mean it—qualifying for the playoffs or reaching a conference title game are clear successes for many franchises. For the Cardinals, though, any finish other than one that has them lifting the Vince Lombardi Trophy would be a significant letdown. They have been building toward title contention for the past three seasons and were on the cusp of a Super Bowl trip a year ago. Provided their 49–15 NFC championship beatdown at the hands of the Panthers serves as motivation, not a confidence-diminishing distraction, this team should be right there at the end.

  • 2
    2Carolina Panthers
     
    It took a historically great Denver defense to slow the Panthers last season, perceived offensive line issues and all. (Atlanta also did it, randomly, in a Week 16 upset that ended Carolina’s perfect regular season.) So, the question with Josh Norman departing is: Does the defense even need to be that good? That unit should be just fine, thanks to its front seven, but the Carolina offense hung 500 points on the board last season and did so without No. 1 receiver Kelvin Benjamin.

  • 3
    3Pittsburgh Steelers
     
    The Le’Veon Bell suspension (if it sticks) is an obvious setback, but let’s not soon forget what DeAngelo Williams did in his 10 fill-in starts last season. With Bell out of the lineup, Williams averaged about 112 yards from scrimmage per game. The Steelers were 7–3 those weeks, with Antonio Brown elevating his play to ridiculous levels. This is an obvious Super Bowl contender with Bell in the lineup, but it's also a legitimate threat without him.

  • 4
    4New England Patriots
     
    I bumped New England down a spot from our Power Rankings earlier this off-season since it is now official that Tom Brady will miss Weeks 1–4. That’s a different animal than Pittsburgh being down Bell. But the Patriots will still have ample time to reestablish themselves as the AFC East frontrunners once Brady returns in Week 5—that is, if they're not already sitting in that seat by that point anyway. 

  • 5
    5Denver Broncos
     
    We can say with a degree of certainty that someone will start at quarterback for the Broncos. Mark Sanchez? Trevor Siemian? Paxton Lynch? John Elway, pulling himself out of retirement to one-up Peyton? Winning the way Denver did last season, with its defense buoying a stagnant offense, makes for a difficult journey, but even with all o the uncertainty on offense, the Von Miller-led D is talented enough to pull it off again.
     

  • 6
    6Cincinnati Bengals
     
    Picking the Bengals to make the playoffs is like picking Wisconsin basketball to contend in the Big Ten—it’s not always 100% obvious how it will happen, but odds are it will happen. Granted, this is a loaded Cincinnati roster, save for question marks at WR (aside from A.J. Green) and QB (how will Andy Dalton fare without Hue Jackson calling the shots?)

  • 7
    7Minnesota Vikings
     
    The Vikings just handed coach Mike Zimmer a contract extension, and why not? In two seasons at the helm, Zimmer has molded the roster in his image and produced a team capable of rivaling the New Englands and Cincinnatis of the world when it comes to making the playoffs on a consistent basis.

  • 8
    8Kansas City Chiefs
     
    Last year, Alex Smith’s career-high passing total (3,486 yards) ranked just 20th in the league. He never before has thrown more than 23 TDs in a single season. If he is capable of taking his game to another level, now would be the time to do so. Kansas City has Jamaal Charles back, an elite tight end in Travis Kelce, talent in its receiving corps and an O-line bolstered by Mitchell Schwartz’s arrival. The pieces are in place for this to be a dominant attack.

  • 9
    9Green Bay Packers
     
    Jordy Nelson landing on the PUP list (physically unable to perform) is not cause for panic...yet. It is, however, enough to give pause when considering Green Bay’s 2016 outlook. Last year's Nelson-less passing game was rudimentary in design and inefficient in execution. Aaron Rodgers badly needs his go-to target at full speed if the offense is to avoid a repeat of last season.
     

  • 10
    10Seattle Seahawks
     
    So long as Russell Wilson, Richard Sherman, Earl Thomas, Kam Chancellor, Bobby Wagner and Pete Carroll are around, the Seahawks are going to remain a team to be reckoned with. This season will be no different, and their two showdowns with NFC West rival Arizona (Weeks 7 and 16) are as must-see as any other games on the NFL calendar.
     

  • 11
    11Oakland Raiders
     
    The buzz surrounding this Oakland team has been unceasing, which is noteworthy in itself given it’s been 14 years since the Raiders finished above .500. Are we all jumping the gun? Yes, this roster is stockpiled with talent, but much of it is young—even younger with future Hall of Famer Charles Woodson walking away. Jack Del Rio’s team plays three of its first four away from home, so the legitimacy of Oakland as a playoff contender will be revealed early.
     

  • 12
    12New York Jets
     
    If you ever watched “House,” you know that most episodes spent about 50 minutes building up to the title character's eureka moment, in which he suddenly would come up with an answer to his patient’s mysterious ailment. There was limited drama in the moment. And that’s about how the Ryan Fitzpatrick contract standoff went down, ending as just about everyone anticipated, with Fitzpatrick re-signing. While yours truly is on Team Geno Smith Might Be O.K. After All, bringing back Fitzmagic cements the Jets as New England’s most prominent challenger within the division.

  • 13
    13Dallas Cowboys
     
    The strengths and weaknesses of this team appear rather obvious—a run game that could produce a 1,500-yard (or greater) back, a passing attack that’s lethal when Tony Romo is healthy, and problematic holes along the
    defensive line and potentially at linebacker. The upside of this offense with a healthy Romo tips the scales in a positive direction.

  • 14
    14Indianapolis Colts
     
    As forgettable as the Colts were last season, they also controlled their own destiny as of Week 15 (a loss to Houston). To imagine them being worse than they were in 2015 ignores how much of a factor Andrew Luck is as the starting quarterback. If the Colts finish 8–8 again, or worse, next off-season will be one of considerable change.

  • 15
    15Houston Texans
     
    The late-May Power Rankings set the Texans in pole position within the AFC South. J.J. Watt’s recent back surgery slides them down this time around, with Watt’s status for the start of the season murky. Expect the offense to be improved, to be sure, but there is no meaningful way to make up for Watt’s absence if he is not there come Week 1.
     


  • 16
    16Chicago Bears
     
    The NFC North of late has not allowed much room for Chicago to get up off the mat—the Bears are riding back-to-back last-place finishes; Green Bay, Minnesota and Detroit all have made the playoffs at least once since 2014. The outlook is a bit sunnier this season, although it only will stay that way if Chicago’s defense is as steady as advertised.

  • 17
    17Washington Redskins
     
    The possibility very much exists that Robert Griffin III turns in a bounce-back season for Cleveland, opening the door for second guessing on Washington’s own direction at QB. The trick for the Redskins to avoid the pratfall is to pin as little of their hopes on Kirk Cousins as possible. Last season’s playoff run was as much about growth elsewhere as it was Cousins’s strong play.

  • 18
    18New York Giants
     
    Eli Manning is going to throw for a bunch of yards and upwards of 30 touchdowns again this season. Ben McAdoo’s offense, Odell Beckham Jr.’s presence and Victor Cruz’s imminent return almost guarantees those things. That said, Manning racked up stats last season (4,432 yards, 35 TDs) and it mattered little for a team that ended up finishing 6–10.

  • 19
    19Buffalo Bills
     
    Tracking the health statuses of Sammy Watkins and LeSean McCoy this preseason will be a primary focus in Buffalo. It’s a decent bet Rex Ryan coaxes more out of his defense than a year ago, so if he can pair it with a fully stocked offense then the Bills will have a chance to snap their playoff drought.

  • 20
    20Baltimore Ravens
     
    Speaking of injuries, the Ravens are one of the league’s biggest 2016 mysteries because of them. Joe Flacco, Terrell Suggs, Steve Smith and Dennis Pitta all are returning from serious setbacks, while we’re still hunting for confirmation that 2015 Breshad Perriman actually exists and is not some sort of imaginary friend GM Ozzie Newsome concocted. Put all the pieces in place and the Ravens will be an AFC North threat again.

  • 21
    21Jacksonville Jaguars
     
    This is lower than the Jaguars should be based on their rising expectations, but higher than they have shown they deserve to be. A key factor to keep an eye on is if they have struck the right balance in the backfield with Chris Ivory joining T.J. Yeldon and Denard Robinson. While Yeldon showed signs of being a No. 1 last season, Jacksonville does not seem to trust him in that role yet.

  • 22
    22Detroit Lions
     
    Like landing a backup center or a lefty bullpen specialist, the Anquan Boldin signing by Detroit is not one that necessarily pushes a team over the top on its own but it can go a long way toward rounding out a roster. Oddly enough, in spite of losing Calvin Johnson, the Lions’ receiving corps is deeper than it’s been in years.

  • 23
    23Miami Dolphins
     
    Does the Arian Foster signing move the needle at all? A bit, sure, depending on which version of Foster the Dolphins just landed. Keep in mind he is about to turn 30 and has played 25 total games the past three seasons. His outlook is the same as this entire offense: In a dream scenario he’ll be brilliant, but reality and recent history sets the bar a great deal lower.

  • 24
    24Los Angeles Rams
     
    The Rams open with a Monday night trip to San Francisco, then re-christen the Coliseum by hosting Seattle in Week 2. If the L.A. Rams stay true to recent St. Louis Rams form, they’ll stumble against the 49ers and then beat the Seahawks in impressive fashion. Jeff Fisher, man. #MaketheRams8and8Again

  • 25
    25New Orleans Saints
     
    The last thing the Saints needed this off-season, as they attempted to rebuild its defense, was an injury setback. They’ve already had two. Promising young pass rusher Hau’oli Kikaha tore his ACL last month (his third ACL tear) and landed on I.R., then slot corner Kyle Wilson (torn labrum) joined him. New Orleans cannot afford any more hits.

  • 26
    26Philadelphia Eagles
     
    The Eagles are semi-settled at quarterback for the time being, with Sam Bradford ahead of Chase Daniel and Carson Wentz in the pecking order. Now, the coaching staff has to figure out exactly who is helping Bradford et al., from the skill positions. Darren Sproles and Zach Ertz are about the only sure things, although Jordan Matthews comes close to that designation. Can Ryan Mathews stay healthy? Will Nelson Agholor be reliable? A lot of unknowns.

  • 27
    27Atlanta Falcons
     
    The Falcons’ Alex Mack addition—and the resulting impact it has on the offensive line and Matt Ryan—could be the latest reminder that the center position is of premium importance. Atlanta finished 21st in points scored last year. With its list of weapons on offense, it should not settle for anything lower than a top-10 mark in 2016.

  • 28
    28San Diego Chargers
     
    San Diego arguably was the most disappointing team in football a year ago. Despite the excitement that came with their Melvin Gordon draft choice, the Chargers fell from back-to-back 9–7 finishes all the way down to 4–12 in '15. The Chargers should be more competitive this season, even if the record doesn’t show it.

  • 29
    29Tampa Bay Buccaneers
     
    This might sound odd to say about the team that's ranked 29th here and is coming off its fifth consecutive losing season but ...it doesn’t require a huge stretch of imagination to see Tampa Bay pushing into the playoff race. Of course, within the same realm of realistic possibilities is a 1–6 or 2–5 start.

  • 30
    30Cleveland Browns
     
    I wrote an extended post last week on why the Browns, (eventually) featuring Josh Gordon, have a chance to be explosive offensively. That notion has to come with the same excitement-to-dread ratio that comes with eating food that’s a week past its expiration date, but still ...

  • 31
    31San Francisco 49ers
     
    “Don’t rule out the possibility that Chip Kelly pulls a stunner and gets his team to the playoffs this season,” he said, stumbling across the room to pour himself another drink. He sat back down and began talking again, to no one in particular. “Did I ever tell you about the time that I went kayaking with Bigfoot?”

  • 32
    32Tennessee Titans
     
    The Titans signed Andre Johnson last week, making a late push for the “Sure, why not” roster move of the month. The staff should be doing whatever it can to develop and play its young guys, so we’ll see how many snaps Johnson actually ends up on the field for this season.

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