A few months out from the start of the regular season, there's little surprise which teams sit atop the 2015 NFL off-season power rankings. But how do the rest of the teams stack up?
The Patriots and Packers have qualified for the past six postseasons. The Broncos and Bengals are sitting on matching four-year streaks; the Colts and Seahawks are at three. Add it all up and half of the NFL's playoff spots since 2012 have been claimed by the same six franchises, leaving little wiggle room for any other contenders.
There are other teams capable of crashing the party, of course—Baltimore, which missed the playoffs in 2013, won Super Bowl XLVII over San Francisco, which struggled to an 8–8 mark a year ago. Dallas, San Diego, Philadelphia and Arizona, to name a few, may have what it takes to crash the upper echelon again this season.
With a little less than four months to go before Pittsburgh and New England kick off the regular season, here's how the teams stack up:
To a team that has averaged 12 regular-season wins since 2012 and came within a yard of back-to-back Super Bowl titles, Seattle added Jimmy Graham, who stands alongside Rob Gronkowski as the game's top tight ends. Unless Russell Wilson takes a year off to play minor-league baseball (aka "The Michael Jordan redshirt"), the Seahawks will be in the playoffs again, probably as an NFC favorite.
Aaron Rodgers won $50,000 for charity playing Celebrity Jeopardy! this month (the real version, not the Will Ferrell SNL parody, although Will Forte as retired Brett Favre has some potential). Consider this the latest reminder that Rodgers is an unstoppable force. All that's left now is to find out it actually was Rodgers who created the "I want to buy the world a Coke" commercial.
It has been general practice here to keep the Super Bowl champs No. 1 at least until they lose a game. Fun (made-up) fact: "General practice" is another of locker room attendant Jim McNally's nicknames, in case you don't feel like calling him "The Deflator".
The Patriots are a couple of spots below the peak not only due to Tom Brady's suspension but also because they're trying to reconfigure their defense on the fly, apparently sans cornerbacks. So placing them at No. 3 balances the potential for early-season struggles with Brady's vengeance tour starting in Week 6.
Sooner rather than later, Andrew Luck and the Colts are going to make a Super Bowl. Is this the year? If the offensive line can stay healthy and the defense can generate a little pass rush, quite possibly. This is a talented roster topped with a superstar quarterback.
The Broncos play four of their first six on the road, then come out of their subsequent bye with a Green Bay-at Indianapolis-Kansas City stretch. In other words, if there are any lingering flaws in Peyton Manning's game or the John Fox-for-Gary Kubiak coaching swap, they'll be exposed early. Don't hold your breath.
Banking their 2015 hopes on Carson Palmer's knees is a bit like traversing a rickety suspension bridge over a raging river. They might hold up, but it will be real bad if they don't. The Cardinals were 6–0 in games started by Palmer last season.
This team has finished somewhere between 7–9 and 9–7 for each of the past five seasons, with just one playoff appearance. So it's understandable if you want to wait on declaring the 2015 Chargers legitimate contenders. With the arrival of Melvin Gordon behind what should be one of the league's top O-lines, though, allow us to get ahead of the hype curve.
"It's now or never," running back Jeremy Hill told ESPN.com of his team's Super Bowl aspirations following four consecutive wild-card round losses. "It's been four years in a row, and if it doesn't happen this year, then it's probably never going to happen." While Hill paints a bleak picture for 2016 and beyond, the Bengals have the talent to make a run in '15. But have they maxed out with Marvin Lewis as head coach and Andy Dalton at QB?
Whether you love him or loathe him, Chip Kelly is downright entertaining to watch—an NFL King Joffrey. Following a tumultuous, often stunning offseason, the Eagles' ceiling is the Super Bowl. Their floor: an outright implosion that sends Kelly back to the NCAA ranks.
Accomplishing what the Steelers continue to attempt—shifting from one era to the next without losing much steam—is an extremely difficult trick. The offense will be lethal again once Le'Veon Bell's suspension ends, but what is the defensive identity these days?
The long-suffering Lions followed up their 2011 wild-card round appearance with a nightmarish 4–12 showing the next season. Ndamukong Suh's departure is worrisome, but they should avoid a similar fate this year. As long as Aaron Rodgers is in Green Bay, though, will Detroit ever be able to get over the top?
If we're scoring on the Jeremy Hill Now or Never Scale, Joe Philbin should be feeling as desperate, if not more so, than anyone in Cincinnati. Now entering his fourth year at the helm, Philbin has yet to produce better than an 8–8 record and coached his way into a loss or two last season. Suh's arrival, among other factors, has Miami eyeing an AFC East run in 2015. Failing that, Philbin likely will not be around for the 2016 charge.
Ladies and gentlemen, allow me to introduce the team that will be 2015's most popular "surprise playoff pick". If nothing else, a season's worth of Teddy Bridgewater and Adrian Peterson in the backfield make Minnesota must-see.
In an effort to crank up their middling offense, the Bills this offseason added Percy Harvin, Charles Clay, LeSean McCoy and Matt Cassel ... uh ... and one of these things is not like the others. The acquisition of Cassel reiterates how the location of Buffalo's Achilles heel: quarterback. Just about everywhere else on this roster, Rex Ryan has a playoff-caliber team.
Jeff Fisher's last season finishing above .500 as a head coach came back in 2008, with the Titans. To break that trend he will need much more the Rams team that posted a 5–3 stretch in the middle of last season, and far less of the squad that scored in single digits five times.
Yes, this is the first NFC South team on the board. Hey, 7-8-1 took home that division last year so everyone's in prove-us-wrong territory. Carolina draws top billing on the strength of back-to-back division crowns and what should be the South's best defense.
The 49ers promoted Jim Tomsula because they wanted to maintain some continuity, even though it feels like everything has changed. Kind of like how the National Lampoon's movies recast the Rusty and Audrey characters over and over. It sort of worked but, like, does anyone not think of Anthony Michael Hall as the true Rusty Griswold?
Not to put too much pressure on a bunch of rookies, but the Falcons' 2015 chances may rest on how quickly Vic Beasley, Jalen Collins, Grady Jarrett and Tevin Coleman can make their presence felt. Beasley and Coleman, in particular, land at spots (pass rush and run game, respectively) where Atlanta was abysmal last season.
Burying a Drew Brees-led team this low still gives off an odd vibe, but how far did leading the league in yards get New Orleans last season? Granted, the defense cannot possibly be as porous as it was then—not with Brandon Browner, Dannell Ellerbe and Stephone Anthony arriving and Jairus Byrd back from injury. No. 23 could be the Saints' low point.
The Giants have had the same record as the Rams and Bears over the past two seasons (13–22). Are they any closer to Super Bowl contention that either of those teams? Right now, hard to say yes. Good health for Victor Cruz, Shane Vereen, Jason Pierre-Paul and basically anyone along the offensive line would help change the tune.
How long will this take to click? The Jets underwent a coaching change this offseason, from Ryan to Todd Bowles, plus added important new faces at receiver, running back, cornerback and along the D-line. A prediction: Ryan Fitzpatrick swipes the starting QB job away from Geno Smith by Week 3 of the regular season.
New GM Scot McCloughan is just what the doctor ordered in D.C., because can utilize his proven background of NFL talent evaluation to get this franchise making smart, scrupulous decisions. Case in point: OL Brandon Scherff in Round 1 of this year's draft. Remember, we're not that far removed from when the Washington front office handed out free-agent deals like it was playing with Monopoly money.
The Jaguars are steadily reaching that point in their cliched sports movie where they advance via montage from, ya know, not really understanding the rules of football and wearing mismatched uniforms to turning into a real team and upsetting a heavy favorite. There's a light at the end of the tunnel—a long tunnel.
More or less everyone expected the Raiders to be bigger players in free agency than they were—they entered the offseason with approximately $Infinity free under the cap. However, there is something to be said for not tossing around money just for the heck of it. Oakland's still shy on talent but it is also not bogged down by a bunch of unwieldy contracts.
Cleveland's seven wins last season marked its most since 2007, so clearly head coach Mike Pettine is doing something right. And yet, the Browns' tough reality lies in this question: Which AFC North team are they better than at the moment?
The last five quarterbacks selected No. 1 in the draft, prior to Jameis Winston, were Andrew Luck, Cam Newton, Sam Bradford, Matthew Stafford and JaMarcus Russell. Bucs fans are praying Winston is the next Luck, although they probably would be satisfied if he's the next Newton or Stafford. Anything but the next Russell, really.
Carrying a 10-game losing streak into the 2015 season, the Titans swung for the fences during the draft—Marcus Mariota, Dorial Green-Beckham, Tre McBride, etc. Even with them, the bar cannot be set much higher than six or seven wins.