The parity-filled NFL could be in for a wild ride again this season, as every team brings at least one nagging flaw into Week 1.
Pick a team—any team—and you will find a flaw.
The defending champion Patriots have holes to patch in the secondary, and the Seahawks must do the same along their offensive line. The Packers are down their top wide receiver, the Cowboys are still trying to replace the league's leading rusher from a year ago and the Colts have potential issues in the trenches.
The list goes on and on.
So while there are a few teams that stand out as strong Super Bowl contenders as the regular season mercifully arrives on Thursday night when the Steelers come to Foxboro, the parity-filled NFL could be in for a wild ride again this season.
And now, the Week 1 Power Rankings:
The thinking that Tom Brady and co. will be supremely motivated this season by the Deflategate circus is a misguided way of looking at things. Every player in the league wants to win every week, period. But the Patriots' showdown with Roger Goodell may help New England dodge a Super Bowl hangover. To stay on top, the Patriots have to cover for the losses of Darrelle Revis and Vince Wilfork—the latter's departure has been ignored, to some extent. The defense's outstanding front-seven athleticism gives it a chance to remain a top unit. The offense will be a balanced, prolific attack.
“Has this team gotten over the play call in the Super Bowl?” ... “How about now?” ... “Now?” Everyone can stop asking now. Those involved will likely always regret Russell Wilson's goal-line interception last February, but the choices are to move on and try to win the NFC again or to curl up in a fetal position for all eternity. Good teams use disappointment as fuel. Seattle is a great team.
Are the Colts sturdy enough in the trenches? The answer to that query likely will determine whether this is the season Andrew Luck reaches his first Super Bowl. A defense that was bowled over by the Patriots twice in 2014 will rely heavily on two rookies (David Parry and Henry Anderson) and a former UDFA (Zach Kerr) up front. Just about everywhere else, Indianapolis has the look of a title contender.
The loss of Jordy Nelson looms large, even with the promise of Davante Adams's imminent breakthrough and several intriguing, young receivers in tow. Of course, Aaron Rodgers has some wiggle room before he even sinks to “mere mortal” classification. Last season, he became the first QB in NFL history to throw 500-plus passes and finish with fewer than six interceptions.
Is Jerry Jones getting antsy? Probably. After all, once the initial clamor over the Cowboys' additions of La'el Collins, Randy Gregory and Greg Hardy subsided, most of the NFC East headlines focused on Philadelphia (mostly positive) and Washington (mostly negative). But if his 2015 team meets expectations, Jones will have plenty of time in the spotlight.
The interminable NFL off-season provided plenty of time for the Wheel of Broncos Analysis to make a full rotation—from Super Bowl contender to destined to implode alongside a crumbling Peyton Manning back to an AFC favorite. And now we have 17 weeks of the regular season for it to spin again.
Perhaps the most tenuous of the top-10 teams, Arizona a) needs Carson Palmer to stay healthy, and b) must show it can thrive on defense without former coordinator Todd Bowles. There’s not much the Cardinals are able to do about the former other than cross their fingers, which means the defense will be front and center. Will the front seven provide enough pop?
The usual line asks if this is the year the Bengals make it over the hump. There is some danger that the pendulum could swing the other direction, though. After qualifying for the playoffs in four straight seasons with zero postseason wins to show for it, it may be time to wonder if this group has peaked.
Look, if you hire a mad scientist, you can't be surprised when he starts randomly blowing things up. Chip Kelly's roster overhaul, if it works, could land him Executive of the Year votes. If it doesn't ... well, there are plenty of college programs that would love to have Kelly.
There is playoff-level talent, maybe more, to be found in the Motor City—at least one SI NFL mind (not this one) picked the Lions to not just make, but host the NFC title game. Will the schedule prove to be overwhelming? Detroit opens with three of four on the road (at San Diego, at Minnesota, Denver, at Seattle), then hosts Arizona. Finishing 2–3 would be acceptable. At 1–4 or 0–5, the Lions could be too far gone.
The Vikings move into their new stadium next year and, on their current upward trend, might be a legitimate home team the following season when they play host to Super Bowl LII. They're a threat in 2015, but the elevated, Adrian Peterson-inspired expectations are threatening to bypass reality. The team, like its future digs, remains a work in progress.
We have seen divisions max out by claiming three playoff spots in a single season—the division champ plus both wild cards. The AFC West has as good a chance as any to pull off the trick this season. To do so will require the Chiefs to stay healthy (Eric Berry for Comeback Player of the Year?) and for Alex Smith to take advantage of the playmakers around him.
The last meaningful game Tyrod Taylor started was the Orange Bowl on Jan. 3, 2011, for Virginia Tech. It is not unheard of for QBs to succeed after long waits on the bench—a few failed prospects probably would have preferred to go that route—but it's also not commonplace. The Bills open with Indianapolis, New England and Miami. How long are they willing to give Taylor as the No. 1 if the wins take a while to come?
The good news for the Steelers is that preseason results are meaningless, historically. The bad news is that during the exhibition schedule, their reworked, Dick LeBeau-less defense put up all the resistance of those moving walkways at the airport. Big Ben produced a career year in 2014. He may need another one to keep Pittsburgh afloat.
Aside from Atlanta fans now being able to name their fantasy football teams “Quinnsane in the Membrane,” the obvious draw to Dan Quinn's arrival is his proven ability to coach up a defense. Count on improvement in that facet. But, odd as it sounds, might the offense be a significant concern? Roddy White has struggled to stay 100%, and the run game and line are question marks. Julio Jones can't do it alone.
This stands to be a tumultuous season for the St. Los Angelouis Rams, what with the threat of relocation hovering. Coach Jeff Fisher probably should not feel all that comfortable, either—he's just 20-27-1 in his three years with the Rams and has not finished above .500 since 2008 in Tennessee.
Truth be told, it felt as if the Saints were a lot worse last season than they actually were (7–9). A few tweaks might have been enough, then, to reclaim the South. But instead, the Saints' front office swung for the fences this off-season, essentially altering their entire offensive identity by trading away Jimmy Graham. Risky, to say the least.
The Giants looked the last two seasons like a franchise easing out of one era into the next. The only thing stopping them from fully transitioning is that the old guard is still in place— joined by youngsters like the remarkable Odell Beckham Jr., yes, but there nonetheless. A drastic shake-up may be in the cards if the 2015 season is a bust.
This was a masterpiece of off-season chaos, the Murphy's Law of NFL events. From Jim Harbaugh's departure to a stunning number of retirements, the 49ers somehow made it through. There's nowhere to go but up.
Let's just call this season what it is for the Bears: a transition period. The coaching staff changed, the defense shifted to a scheme that fits only a few of the current parts and Jay Cutler is inching closer to being salary-cap expendable. Chicago is far from a lost cause, but it's not a quick fix either.
“What else can go wrong?” is to the Jets what “I think we're safe” is to a horror movie: Say it and something awful is probably about to happen. The Geno Smith jaw punch was New York's latest example. This is a franchise in need of some stability. New coach Todd Bowles, veteran QB Ryan Fitzpatrick and a rebuilt defense that features the return of Darrelle Revis could provide a bit.
Week 1 cannot arrive soon enough for the Browns, who since their last regular season game have had a wide receiver (Josh Gordon), assistant coach (Andy Moeller) and even their general manager (Ray Farmer) suspended. Tough to bank on such a discombobulated organization pulling itself up by the bootstraps.
New coach Jack Del Rio said way back at the combine that “the goal from day one is to win the division.” It’s a nice sound bite and all, but the Raiders no longer serving as a gimme for their opposition would count as positive momentum. They should accomplish the lesser goal. Oakland will be physical on both lines.
The Jaguars' September record over the past three seasons is a dismal 1–11. They open the 2015 campaign with back-to-back home games against Carolina and Miami, and while it's hard to label any games this early as must-win, Jacksonville sure could use at least a split. Otherwise, another long season—and, perhaps, a coaching change—awaits.
The sheer volume of players Tampa Bay claimed off waivers last weekend—five guys, including what appears to be a superfluous third quarterback—indicates what GM Jason Licht thinks of his roster entering year two on the job. The turnover is likely far from complete.
In the category of “First head coach to be fired” this season, Bovada lists Jay Gruden (+300) behind only Cleveland's Mike Pettine (+275); BetOnline Sportsbook has Gruden (+200) as an overwhelming favorite—Ken Whisenhunt is closest (+650). Barring a surprise turnaround, Washington is headed down a familiar path.
Titans fans would be wise to keep in mind the story of one Peyton Williams Papa John's Manning. Now one of the greatest quarterbacks ever, Manning still holds the record for most interceptions thrown by a rookie (28), and he posted a 3–13 record that first year. So don't panic if Marcus Mariota slumps or turns the ball over a few times or gets benched for Charlie Whitehurst. (OK, you can panic about that last one.) This process will take time, both for the QB and the team.