By Don Banks
September 05, 2012

When we last left our story, the New York Giants were once again reminding us that it's not how you start, it's how you finish that counts for everything in the NFL. Of that, the Packers and Patriots need no further reminders. They dominated the discussion in their respective conferences last season, but both came up empty when the opportunity to end the Giants' storybook playoff run presented itself. Just as they did in 2007.

The regular season's 256-game schedule is always a mystery ride, but here's our up-to-minute projection of how the league's 32 clubs stack up at the close of another tedious preseason. Every Wednesday from now until January, we'll re-order the NFL landscape based on the previous weekend's games, ranking and remarking on the rising or falling fortunes as the football unfolds.

NFL Power Rankings
1 Green Bay Packers
Last Week: --
Why top billing for the Packers, who went one-and-done in last January's playoffs? Because I'm convinced if you put 31 other NFL general managers on truth serum and asked if they'd swap their entire roster straight up for Ted Thompson's, you'd get 31 affirmatives. I foresee Green Bay's draft class and Dom Capers ensuring that last season's defensive shortcomings do not recur. At least not to the degree that doomed the almost-perfect Packers in 2011.

2012 Bottom Line: Another Super Bowl run unfolds in Titletown.
2 New England Patriots
Last Week: --
Like the Packers, the Patriots' path to improvement was getting younger and more athletic on defense, thanks to their laser-like draft focus on that glaring area of need. As for Tom Brady and the offense, it's still state-of-the-art in the AFC, and it helps that New England's schedule is quite a bit less daunting than in recent years. The Patriots' stranglehold on the AFC East continues, and there's really no end in sight.

2012 Bottom Line: The Pats will cruise to their 10th division title in the past 12 years, but the quest for that fourth ring comes up empty for an eighth season.
3 New York Giants
Last Week: --
Out of respect for the resilience and ridiculously clutch play of the defending Super Bowl champs, I'm starting them out in the high-rent district of our top five. I just don't expect them to stay there all year. Remember, this was a 7-7 team entering Week 16 of 2011, and New York wound up being outscored in the regular season. There's talent galore, but these Giants won't be able to rely on the furious fourth-quarter comeback as a blueprint to victory this time around.

2012 Bottom Line: In an improved NFC East, New York's 9-7 record will leave it a game shy of the playoffs and in no position to pull a repeat.
4 Houston Texans
Last Week: --
If Matt Schaub stays healthy and the Texans' defensive front seven plays up to Wade Phillips' expectations, Houston has every right to be thinking Super Bowl this season. The Texans are good and now they finally know it, after last year's validating success. This is a team ready to take a couple sizable steps up in weight class, if it can prove worthy of handling prosperity and the burden of expectation.

2012 Bottom Line: The Texans will dominate the AFC South and be in season-long contention for the conference's top seed.
5 Baltimore Ravens
Last Week: --
The Ravens haven't always made for great entertainment on offense, but this year's commitment to the no-huddle should make for fascinating theater. This could be the year Baltimore's offense carries the defense for significant stretches of the season, but a rough first-place schedule will take its toll at some point and make it difficult for the Ravens to repeat in the AFC North.

2012 Bottom Line: Another 10-win season, but the playoff berth that comes with it will be via an AFC wild card slot.
6 San Francisco 49ers
Last Week: --
There was no defense that hit harder or played with more intensity than the 49ers last season, and being able to bring that level of ferocity on a weekly basis is where the remarkable turnaround started in San Francisco in 2011. But staying on top really is tougher than getting there in the NFL, and the 49ers will have to work even harder this year -- and enjoy some good fortune -- to earn another crack at the NFC title game.

2012 Bottom Line: Another NFC West crown? Yes. Another NFC Championship Game appearance? No.
7 New Orleans Saints
Last Week: --
After the longest offseason/preseason in Saints franchise history, at least we'll finally soon find out if reports of their demise were greatly exaggerated. I say they were, and that New Orleans will remain one of the league's elite teams as long as Drew Brees is at quarterback, and new defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo makes the impact I think he will.

2012 Bottom Line: The Saints will persevere and wind up winning the NFC South, and at least play for the chance to become the first "home" team in Super Bowl history.
8 Pittsburgh Steelers
Last Week: --
The negatives have outweighed the positives in Pittsburgh of late, but they don't do panic in Steelers-ville. They just figure out how to navigate around the problems and keep working. The offensive line looks like a season-long headache waiting to happen, but I've learned not to discount Pittsburgh's adaptability. It may not always look pretty this season, but the Steelers will be still standing when the playoffs arrive.

2012 Bottom Line: Another AFC North title, as the Steelers squeak past Baltimore in the division by a narrow margin.
9 Philadelphia Eagles
Last Week: --
The Eagles this week issued t-shirts to their players with a helpful reminder: "It's Time" reads the ironed-on message. Give Philly credit for at least getting the two-word motto right this time around. (I promise that was my last Dream Team reference ever). It's actually past time for Andy Reid's bunch to win. Let's see what that sense of urgency produces this season in Philadelphia.

2012 Bottom Line: The Eagles will be just a little bit better than the Giants and Cowboys and claim the seventh NFC East title of Reid's 14 seasons in town.
10 Atlanta Falcons
Last Week: --
Speaking of time to win, nothing matters in Atlanta this year other than Mike Smith and Matt Ryan getting rid of their 0-fer in the playoffs. The offense looks ready to go for broke with a new push-the-envelope approach to the passing game, but let's see it work for a while before the Falcons inspire deep belief.

2012 Bottom Line: Another winning record in Atlanta, but the Falcons will lose out to improved Carolina for a wild-card berth in the NFC South.
11 Denver Broncos
Last Week: --
If the Broncos proved capable of winning the AFC West last season at 8-8 with Tim Tebow running the offense, logic tells me they're still the class of the division with Peyton Manning under center. And don't overlook a Denver defense that can field playmakers like Elvis Dumervil, Von Miller and Champ Bailey.

2012 Bottom Line: Denver won't run away with anything, but nine or 10 wins, a division title and a playoff victory will make the Manning move a success.
12 Seattle Seahawks
Last Week: --
Preseason results can be entirely meaningless, but I don't think that's the case with Seattle's 4-0 August. The Seahawks created some good mojo in their favor last month and there will be a carryover effect. Rookie quarterback Russell Wilson makes the offense much more explosive, and Seattle's talented young defense is ready to emerge as one of the best in the league at taking the ball away.

2012 Bottom Line: Seattle will push San Francisco all year in the NFC West, then punch a ticket to the playoffs with a wild-card berth.
13 Detroit Lions
Last Week: --
We know the Lions will throw the heck out of the ball with Matthew Stafford, and score plenty this season. And they'll rush the passer with abandon with that strong four-man line. But the running game and the secondary will again be weaknesses that keep Detroit from a successful follow up to its breakthrough season of 2011.

2012 Bottom Line: Contention in the NFC wild-card chase, but a step back to 8-8 or 9-7 territory means the Lions will start a new playoff-less streak.
14 Buffalo Bills
Last Week: --
I'm buying when it comes to the Bills this season, but that celebrated defensive line has to lead the way and take some of the pressure off a Buffalo offense that can look so streaky at times. If rookie left tackle Cordy Glenn can protect Ryan Fitzpatrick's blind side, a wild-card spot is within reach and the Bills' long national nightmare will finally come to a close.

2012 Bottom Line: No season-wrecking long losing streaks this year. The Bills hang around and then parlay a soft December schedule into a wild-card slot.
15 Cincinnati Bengals
Last Week: --
There's plenty to like about the direction the Bengals are heading, and with a Week 2-6 stretch of Cleveland, at Washington, at Jacksonville, Miami, at Cleveland to look forward to, another great first-half start is well within reach. But the schedule gets much tougher after that, and it adds up to Cincinnati being only the third-best team in the AFC North once again.

2012 Bottom Line: The Bengals will win eight or nine games, but this time it'll translate to missing out on an AFC wild-card slot.
16 Chicago Bears
Last Week: --
It all sounds good in theory, that a happy Matt Forte and two big new receivers in Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffrey make the Bears very formidable on offense. But there are challenges to contend with, like Chicago's ever-present pass protection problems and a defense that ranked a so-so 17th last season.

2012 Bottom Line: If Jay Cutler and the passing game play lights out, the playoffs will beckon. But the Packers and Lions throw it better, and Chicago is .500 material again.
17 Carolina Panthers
Last Week: --
That 4-2 stretch in the final six games of the season was very meaningful for the Panthers, because it convinced them to fully buy into Ron Rivera's program. This is an improved team on defense with Luke Kuechly drafted and Jon Beason back in the lineup. If Carolina can start fast, a little turnaround-team momentum might carry them a long way this year.

2012 Bottom Line: The Panthers will be a surprise 10-win team behind second-year quarterback Cam Newton, nudging out division rival Atlanta for a wild-card slot.
18 Kansas City Chiefs
Last Week: --
The Chiefs could certainly make some noise in the wide-open AFC West, and their return to health after 2011's string of injuries has made them a popular pick to return to the postseason after a one-year absence. But this is a very young team, and sometimes youth takes a step back in order to take a couple steps forward.

2012 Bottom Line: Contention in the AFC West, but a second-place, non-playoff finish behind Denver.
19 Dallas Cowboys
Last Week: --
This could prove to be laughably low for the Cowboys, but I thought I'd underestimate them for a change and see what that feels like. If the upgrade at cornerback works, and DeMarco Murray proves to be a dependable force in the running game, 10 or 11 wins and an NFC East championship is within reach. But until I see Dallas close out games and avoid those fourth-quarter blown leads of a year ago, call me skeptical.

2012 Bottom Line: The Cowboys once again tease us with their talent, but find a way to lose a few games they should have won, missing the playoffs with a third-place showing in the East.
20 San Diego Chargers
Last Week: --
It's win or start over time in San Diego, and that does tend to narrow a team's focus. But the Chargers still struggle to find a sense of consistency throughout the season, and that maddening trait hasn't changed in the Norv Turner era. There's talent here, but San Diego just isn't a resilient team that's capable of overcoming much adversity.

2012 Bottom Line: The Chargers look like a third-place team that will continue to underachieve.
21 Tennessee Titans
Last Week: --
Tossing the keys to the offense to second-year quarterback Jake Locker is the right move, but it probably won't look like it right away. The Titans open at home against New England, then play at San Diego, home against Detroit and at Houston. The Titans with Locker may ride the rollercoaster this year, but it's a trip they have to take.

2012 Bottom Line: Repeating last year's hopeful 9-7 won't happen unless Tennessee finds a way to go at least 5-1 in the AFC South.
22 New York Jets
Last Week: --
The Jets will get some of their swagger back on defense this year, but rebuilding the confidence on offense is a very big project, and new coordinator Tony Sparano won't accomplish it in just one season. By the time New York figures out its offensive identity, the Patriots and Bills will be comfortably ahead of Rex Ryan's team.

2012 Bottom Line: Seven wins and third place in the AFC East are the ceiling for the Jets.
23 Washington Redskins
Last Week: --
The Redskins will be in that five- or six-win range again this season, but at least they won't be a dreary team to watch this year thanks to Robert Griffin III. He'll make his share of big plays and give Washington fans legitimate hope that the game's most pivotal position is at last in good hands.

2012 Bottom Line: There's just not enough talent surrounding Griffin to allow the Redskins to climb out of last place in the NFC East.
24 Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Last Week: --
If the Bucs play hard to erase the stench of late last year, and get encouraging signs from quarterback Josh Freeman's game, then Greg Schiano's first season in Tampa Bay will be a success, even if last place in the NFC South is the reality. The Bucs are in a deep division that requires patience at this point.

2012 Bottom Line: Tampa Bay won't win on too many game days this season, but even how they lose might help lay the groundwork for success in 2013.
25 Indianapolis Colts
Last Week: --
The Colts' roster doesn't look as depleted as a lot of us thought it would, and this might be a plucky five-win team that gives a heavy favorite or two fits. If Indy's offensive line can keep rookie Andrew Luck upright most of the time, the kid is going to win more games than Peyton Manning did as a rookie in 1998, when the Colts went 3-13.

2012 Bottom Line: The bar has been set low in Indy, but when the Colts beat out Jacksonville for third place in the AFC South, it'll feel like real progress.
26 Oakland Raiders
Last Week: --
The Raiders have found a way to throw away solid playoff shots the past two seasons -- under Tom Cable and Hue Jackson -- but I don't think they'll even get into such advantageous position this year. It's really about Carson Palmer again this year in Oakland, and so far he doesn't look capable of taking the Raiders where they want to go.

2012 Bottom Line: Unless the Chargers unravel, Oakland will occupy the bottom rung of the AFC West.
27 St. Louis Rams
Last Week: --
The Rams won't have many winnable games in Jeff Fisher's debut season, but the home opener against Washington in Week 2, a visit from Arizona in Week 5 and at Miami in Week 6 qualify. If St. Louis is 3-3 after six games, Fisher will inspire some early Coach of the Year chatter. Not that it'll last past October.

2012 Bottom Line: After last season's 2-14 debacle, baby steps are in order in St. Louis. Third place in the NFC West and five wins sound about right.
28 Minnesota Vikings
Last Week: --
I don't get the sense the Vikings are truly worried about Adrian Peterson looking like his old self after knee surgery. The franchise running back can be counted on physically. The much bigger issue is whether quarterback Christian Ponder will mentally take the big year-two step he gave hints of in the preseason. That's the story of the year to follow in Minnesota.

2012 Bottom Line: The Vikings are better this season, but their record will barely reflect it. Another last-place showing in the NFC North is on the way.
29 Jacksonville Jaguars
Last Week: --
The situation Blaine Gabbert found himself in last season in Jacksonville was probably unfair, but he's not the first young NFL quarterback who had to play before he was ready. How Gabbert looks in year two will probably give us a clear preview of his career trajectory.

2012 Bottom Line: Sadly for Jags fans, the Maurice Jones-Drew holdout looks like an omen for this season in Jacksonville: Time and energy spent, amounting to nothing.
30 Arizona Cardinals
Last Week: --
It's true what they say: If you have two starting quarterbacks, you really have none. John Skelton and Kevin Kolb will wind up playing this season -- and maybe Ryan Lindley, too -- but with the Cardinals offensive line and running game still being question marks, no quarterback will play the role of difference-maker in Arizona.

2012 Bottom Line: The Cardinals will hit rock bottom in the NFC West, perhaps prompting a decision on head coach Ken Whisenhunt's future.
31 Cleveland Browns
Last Week: --
Another new season, another new starting pitcher in Cleveland. The Browns begin again, this time with Brandon Weeden, the ex-baseball hurler. He makes it 11 different Week 1 quarterbacks in the 14 years since the Browns re-entered the league. That stat tells the story of Cleveland's long, frustrating opus as well as anything else could. On a hopeful note, Browns fans, I had the Bengals as my No. 31 team at this point last year, and they went to the playoffs.

2012 Bottom Line: Anything better than last year's 4-12 record and the Browns will have taken a step forward, but last place is all but a given.
32 Miami Dolphins
Last Week: --
The Dolphins will take some ugly beatings with rookie Ryan Tannehill at quarterback, but Miami wasn't finding its long-sought replacement for Dan Marino in Matt Moore or David Garrard. Might as well cut to the chase and give Tannehill his shot to surprise us.

2012 Bottom Line: Miami surprisingly won six of its last nine games in 2011 after an 0-7 start, but those will seem like the good old days after this year's bottom-feeding in the AFC East.

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