Experts Network: Can Patriots make a run once Tom Brady returns?
2:17 | NFL
Experts Network: Can Patriots make a run once Tom Brady returns?
Wednesday September 7th, 2016

Football. Finally.

The 2016 NFL season arrives Thursday to dominate the sports landscape and TV ratings for the next five months or so, culminating in Super Bowl 51 on Feb. 5, 2017. Which teams will be left standing for that final game in Houston? Who will be this year’s surprise?

The first regular-season Power Rankings of the year begins sorting it all out:

  • 1
    1Carolina Panthers
    last week: 1
    Carolina is loaded on both sides of the ball (although the cornerbacks are young and mostly untested). Of course, the Panthers got pummeled in the Super Bowl and could be the first team to lose in the 2016 season, so putting them up top here violates the first rule of Power Rankings: Never do Power Rankings.

  • 2
    2Arizona Cardinals
    last week: 2
    David Johnson finished last season with 1,038 yards from scrimmage, and he didn’t even step into a full-time role until Week 12. Few players have matched his level of hype this off-season—his position coach says he could be “one of the best backs to ever play the game”—but if he just maintains his 2015 trajectory, the Cardinals’ offense will be close to unstoppable.

  • 3
    3Denver Broncos
    last week: 3
    Not entirely sure how to factor Trevor Siemian into the Power Rankings equation. Should he cause Denver to drop because of his inexperience and shaky preseason play? Does he give the champs a boost because he has more arm strength and mobility than 2015 Peyton Manning? (If you search Google for “noodle arm quarterback,” the first image is of Kyle Orton and the third of Manning, by the way.) For now, let’s stick with Denver at No. 3 and see if the defense can do it again.

  • 4
    4Seattle Seahawks
    last week: 9
    Elevating Seattle a few spots not because of preseason results (the Seahawks went 3–1) but because the offensive line looked less debacle-ish than it has in the past, at least on the interior. Even with a blocking-optional approach last season, Seattle boasted a top-five offense. Improvement up front could push Pete Carroll’s squad over the top.

  • 5
    5New England Patriots
    last week: 5
    During his four-game suspension, Tom Brady cannot attend practices, have any contact with his coaching staff or even discuss football with his teammates. Between those stipulations and Roger Goodell previously demanding that he turn over his cell phone, this is about close to an NFL player being grounded as it gets.

  • 6
    6Pittsburgh Steelers
    last week: 4
    The Steelers’ offense will be explosive, with or without Le’Veon Bell. The defense ... well, they just traded for Justin Gilbert with the genuine hope that he improves their secondary, so they could cough up quite a few points this season. If you like 38–31 games, this could be the team for you.

  • 7
    7Cincinnati Bengals
    last week: 6
    Much in the way that you know Law & Order: SVU will be on every time you turn on the television, bank on the Bengals playing meaningful games come December and January. That is, if the schedule doesn’t get in the way: Cincinnati plays four of its first six on the road, all against teams that should be in the postseason hunt.

  • 8
    8Kansas City Chiefs
    last week: 8
    On a lesser team, entering the season without a player of Jamaal Charles’s caliber would be cause for panic. The Chiefs have security in Spencer Ware and Charcandrick West. They may not be able to replace Justin Houston as easily—the premier outside linebacker won’t be back until Week 7, at the earliest.

  • 9
    9Green Bay Packers
    last week: 10
    Teddy Bridgewater’s injury means that Green Bay is the clear, unanimous favorite in the NFC North. But the Packers’ stunning decision to cut guard Josh Sitton also means this team is a little worse than it was a week ago. They face a sneaky tough start (at Jacksonville, at Minnesota, Detroit).

  • 10
    10New York Jets
    last week: 12
    It’s like an episode of “American Ninja Warrior” watching running backs traversing the Jets’ Muhammed Wilkerson-led defensive front. The Patriots plus a brutal first six weeks will conspire against the Jets, but they’re the best AFC team that no one is really talking about.

  • 11
    11Houston Texans
    last week: 14
    From the “Preseason Doesn’t Matter, We Hope” department comes this stat: Lamar Miller rushed for 20 yards on 10 carries over his final two August outings. He’ll be expected to produce far more when the Bears come calling on Sunday.

  • 12
    12Minnesota Vikings
    last week: 7
    A brutal turn of events last week for the Vikings, who lost Bridgewater for who knows how long to a gruesome non-contact knee injury. Spinning a first-round pick for Sam Bradford in the aftermath came across as a panic move, even though Bradford finished 2015 strong.

  • 13
    13Oakland Raiders
    last week: 11
    First thing’s first in the Raiders’ expected 2016 resurgence: winning in Week 1. Oakland has lost its last four and 13 of its past 14 on opening weekend, the lone reprieve coming with a 2012 Week 1 win in Denver. Falling in New Orleans this week would not spell doom, but it’d be nice to avoid an early hole for a change.

  • 14
    14New York Giants
    last week: 15
    The starting quarterback for the Giants the last time they played a game without Tom Coughlin as their coach? “The Bachelor” star and current TV analyst Jesse Palmer. So, it’s been awhile. New head man Ben McAdoo has more talent than Coughlin did in his final year.

  • 15
    15Baltimore Ravens
    last week: 18
    The Ravens set a franchise record last season when Marlon Brown became the 20th player to hit injured reserve. A few key pieces are back to health this year—Joe Flacco, Terrell Suggs, Steve Smith, Justin Forsett—but there also already are a dozen players on IR in Baltimore. This team does not have the depth to withstand another tornado of injuries.

  • 16
    16Dallas Cowboys
    last week: 13
    Time to find out what rookie QB Dak Prescott is capable of when the games count. We’ll also soon know just how powerful a wizard defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli is—his defense is woefully shorthanded up front, but he’s also gotten the job done before against stacked odds.

  • 17
    17Chicago Bears
    last week: 20
    Packers GM Ted Thompson, in general, has been quite astute at knowing when to bail on veteran players, which means Josh Sitton’s arrival deserves to be met with a little caution. That said, a Sitton–Kyle Long guard pairing is about as sturdy as it gets in the league. The Bears improved at a time of year when it is extremely rare to pull off an impact addition.

  • 18
    18Washington Redskins
    last week: 17
    Does anyone even remember that Washington won the NFC East last season? It’s been brushed under the rug rather quickly amid all the Prescott/Ezekiel Elliott buzz, the Eagles’ whirlwind off-season and the Giants’ free-agent spending. Should the Redskins so choose, there’s a disrespect card to be played (says the guy who ranked them below two division rivals).

  • 19
    19Buffalo Bills
    last week: 19
    Rex Ryan has become something of the NFL’s ShamWow Guy. He’s constantly pitching the value of his team’s product, no matter how shoddy his previous sale turned out to be. “Hey, remember the 2015 Bills? Forget them. Try the new and improved 2016 Bills. Faster, stronger, made from 100% organic materials!”

  • 20
    20Detroit Lions
    last week: 21
    In releasing recent draft picks like Alex Carter, Gabe Wright and Caraun Reid, new GM Bob Quinn again made it clear that he’s not going to be bogged down by his predecessors’s decisions. Shaking off the franchise’s 50 years of disappointment won’t come without burning a few bridges.

  • 21
    21Jacksonville Jaguars
    last week: 22
    No point in overreacting to Week 1 outcomes, but the national perception pendulum of the Jaguars will swing depending how they fare against Green Bay. The Jaguars’ schedule gives them a shot at five or six wins before October’s out, which would be incredible for a team that hasn’t hit six victories total since the 2010 season.

  • 22
    22New Orleans Saints
    last week: 23
    When the Saints are firing on all cylinders, there is not a more imposing home venue than the raucous Superdome. They’ve gone 7–9 in the Dome combined the past two seasons. The Saints’ first three home games this season are against Oakland (this Sunday), Atlanta (Week 3) and Carolina (Week 5). If they can reestablish that edge, the playoffs are possible.

  • 23
    23Indianapolis Colts
    last week: 16
    Dear Indianapolis: When people said, “The Colts can’t win without Andrew Luck,” that was not meant as a challenge to find out how many other injured players that statement might apply to. Because the Colts also cannot win with just Andrew Luck on the field.

  • 24
    24Miami Dolphins
    last week: 24
    Whenever discussion of a team’s playoff potential has to be prefaced by “If everything goes right,” said team usually does not fare well. Something always goes wrong, even for the best teams. So, sure, the Dolphins can make a run if everything goes right—Adam Gase turns Ryan Tannehill into a star, Arian Foster stays healthy, the secondary isn’t a wasteland, etc. However, this is not a roster that can withstand many hits.

  • 25
    25Tampa Bay Buccaneers
    last week: 28
    Is this the team that can challenge Carolina’s NFC South supremacy? Don’t scoff. Based on SI’s preseason staff predictions, the Buccaneers are a semi-popular playoff pick, and they appear to have upgraded a roster that started 6–6 last season before a four-game slide.

  • 26
    26Atlanta Falcons
    last week: 25
    Fair or not (and it’s becoming increasingly fair), Matt Ryan has slipped into the conversation of the NFL’s most overrated quarterbacks. While the Falcons are not going to bail on him anytime soon, he has a lot of weight on his shoulders headed into 2016. The defense and O-line should be better; the QB is a question mark.

  • 27
    27Philadelphia Eagles
    last week: 26
    Did the Eagles not realize they could move Carson Wentz to QB1 until they traded Sam Bradford? “Well, he’s ready to have the job, but we already wrote Sam’s name on the depth chart, so ...” In the blink of an eye, the Eagles switched gears on Wentz, elevating him from third-string to starter. Their 2016 season became a whole lot more intriguing in the process.

  • 28
    28San Diego Chargers
    last week: 29
    Joey Bosa finally signed his rookie contract, bringing an unnecessary standoff to its inevitable conclusion. It was like a TV sitcom that pretends the two leads won’t end up together. “Oh, Ross and Rachel got back together? No way.” But anyone who saw the Chargers’ D-line play this preseason knows how desperately it needs Bosa’s presence.

  • 29
    29Los Angeles Rams
    last week: 27
    The Rams may not be the fourth-worst team in football—another Jeff Fisher 7–9 special feels about right—but I’m docking them for making “Hard Knocks” borderline unwatchable this year. Replacing Fisher with, like, Craig T. Nelson or Matthew McConaughey just for the summer would have been worth it.

  • 30
    30Tennessee Titans
    last week: 31
    This offense will surprise a few folks this season, provided Marcus Mariota can stay healthy. New GM Jon Robinson has pieced together a lot of talent in a minimal amount of time. Unfortunately for him, and for the Titans’ 2016 chances, none of that changes the fact that he inherited the league’s worst roster.

  • 31
    31Cleveland Browns
    last week: 30
    Admit it: You’re looking forward to seeing what Robert Griffin III does in the regular season. For all that went wrong for RG3 in Washington, football fans still remember quite well what an exciting talent he was mere years ago. Let’s see how much of it he got back.

  • 32
    32San Francisco 49ers
    last week: 32
    The 49ers recently traded for WRs Rod Streater and Jeremy Kerley, in part because they lost Bruce Ellington to injury and in part because they arrived early at the Why-the-Hell-Not portion of their season. Chip Kelly better have settled in for the long haul, because this fix is going to take multiple seasons.

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