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Posted: Tuesday July 28, 2009 11:58AM; Updated: Tuesday July 28, 2009 4:06PM
Don Banks Don Banks >
NFL POWER RANKINGS

Pats, Steelers again look like top dogs as training camp begins

Story Highlights

The league should be very concerned about how motivated the Pats will be

The Steelers don't appear to have any holes, but repeating is no easy task

Despite faith in Jim Schwartz, the Lions still find themselves near the bottom

Thanks to the lose-'em-all Lions and other luckless franchises of their ilk, a whopping 21 teams finished at .500 or better last season, with only 11 clubs below the break-even mark. That inspires a lot of hope in a lot of venues as NFL training camps begin opening in 2009, and our first SI.com Power Rankings of the nascent season reflects all that optimism.

Of course everybody thinks they're better in late July. Reality will start setting in shortly thereafter. A quick reminder that bears noting: This isn't just a freeze-frame snapshot of how teams finished in 2008. It's an attempt to divine the up-to-the-minute power structure within the NFL, even before the real games begin in September. As we all go camping for a few weeks, this is how the league's landscape appears from this vantage point after months of personnel changes: (Send comments to siwriters@simail.com)

NFL Power Rankings, Training Camp Edition
1New England Patriots
2008 record: 11-5
The rest of the league should be concerned, very concerned, about how motivated Tom Brady and the rest of the Patriots might just be as the season arrives. New England hasn't won a playoff game in more than 18 months, and there is that little matter of an imperfect ending to a perfect season to make amends for. I see the Patriots defense getting younger and better, and that could make for more than a few blowouts in Foxboro this fall.
 
2Pittsburgh Steelers
2008 record: 12-4
I see no glaring holes when I study the defending champs, but the business of repeating in today's NFL is so fraught with the unexpected challenges that it would make me a bit queasy if I bled black and gold. As I pointed out the other day in commenting on Ben Roethlisberger's off-field legal issues, the last time Pittsburgh had a Super Bowl title to defend (in 2006), the follow-up was a season-long letdown.
 
3Philadelphia Eagles
2008 record: 9-6-1
Donovan McNabb has had his contract addressed and offensive weapons upgraded. Other than the team-wide pall cast by respected defensive coordinator Jim Johnson's battle with cancer, these Eagles have had an outstanding offseason. And those are the kind of indicators you look for when you're doing a pre-training camp power ranking.
 
4New York Giants
2008 record: 12-4
Every NFL analyst and his or her brother have the same question mark when it comes to the G-Men: Who's going to replace Plaxico Burress as the New York receiver who must be game-planned for? At the moment, we don't see a veteran on the roster who can fill that glaring need. But sometimes you find out some pretty significant stuff in training camp. Players emerge, jobs are won. Think Marques Colston in New Orleans in 2006.
 
5San Diego Chargers
2008 record: 8-8
Astute observers of SI.com's NFL coverage might note a propensity on my part to consistently overrate two teams, one in each conference. They would be your San Diego Chargers and your New Orleans Saints. I don't know why, exactly. Maybe I just over-value offense and like the symmetry of Drew Brees having been traded to make room for Philip Rivers. Maybe I love the uniforms. Whatever it is, here I go again.
 
6Baltimore Ravens
2008 record: 11-5
The Ravens, in their hearts, believe Derrick Mason is going to unretire in the near future and relieve some of the current angst at receiver. Baltimore has its question marks -- namely replacing defensive coordinator Rex Ryan with Greg Mattison -- but let's not forget that this Ravens team did some serious damage last January and might just be tough enough to push the defending champion Steelers all year long.
 
7Tennessee Titans
2008 record: 13-3
I don't think there's really anything fluky about the way the Titans won last season, and even with the loss of Albert Haynesworth in the defensive middle, last year's blueprint for victory should continue to work just fine. But there's no way I could rank Tennessee ahead of Baltimore after it lost that devastating playoff opener at home to the Ravens.
 
8Dallas Cowboys
2008 record: 9-7
This is admittedly higher than most of my peers have the Cowboys rated this preseason, but it's time to win in Dallas, and the pressure that Tony Romo and Wade Phillips are under this year should be a clarifying motivation. Something just tells me that Jerry Jones's new $1 billion-plus football palace will bring out the best in his team, which has experienced its share of big-stage fright in recent years.
 
9Carolina Panthers
2008 record: 12-4
OK, it was about as ugly as any playoff-opening home loss in memory. And the Panthers defense got shredded more than a few times down the season's backstretch. But this was a 12-win team in one of the NFL's toughest divisions last season, and that absolutely has to count for something. Right?
 
10Indianapolis Colts
2008 record: 12-4
Speaking of 12-win teams that pulled a fold job in their opening game of the playoffs, a lot of people are pretty nervous about the Colts this season. And I'm kind of one of them. I'm not saying Indy can't win without Tony Dungy around, but I'm not penciling them in for an automatic 12 wins any more. Those days may be gone for good.
 
11Arizona Cardinals
2008 record: 9-7
Out of respect for what the Cinderella Cardinals accomplished, it seems to me that the least we can do is make sure they're right here on the cusp of our top 10. But keeping the magic of last season's playoffs alive in the desert is going to be nigh impossible. So much in Arizona revolves around Kurt Warner and the dicey proposition of keeping him upright for another 16 games.
 
12Atlanta Falcons
2008 record: 11-5
I realize that on paper the Falcons easily look improved from the stunning 11-5 turnaround success of last season. Tony Gonzalez for Matt Ryan to throw to? Rookie defensive tackle Peria Jerry to help stuff the middle? What's not to like? It's just that teams making the kind of one-year jump that Atlanta did in 2008 often fall back to earth a bit the following season. It's the law of averages, or gravity, or something.
 
13Chicago Bears
2008 record: 9-7
Don't label me a Bears believer just yet, but even if No. 4 reports to Minnesota, it'll be Chicago who upgrades its quarterback position the most among NFC North teams this season. My colleague Peter King had the Bears all the way up to No. 4 in his MMQB power rankings in May, but I'm not quite ready to go that ga-ga over Jay Cutler landing in the Windy City.
 
14New Orleans Saints
2008 record: 8-8
Here for your enlightenment and amusement is my annual over-estimation of the talent on hand in Saints-dom. But hear me out: Gregg Williams at defensive coordinator is an upgrade in my book, and the beleaguered New Orleans defense is bound to have better luck with injuries than it did in 2008. And yep, that's the best I can do.
 
15Miami Dolphins
2008 record: 11-5
A lot of what I believe will hold true in Atlanta this season I could echo for the Dolphins. While I see all the makings of a sound foundation having been laid last year in South Florida, duplicating last year's 11-5 rags-to-riches scenario is going to be difficult without the element of surprise or a schedule that in 2008 included games against the NFL's two weakest divisions (the AFC and NFC West).
 
16Minnesota Vikings
2008 record: 10-6
Attention, Vikings: It's less than three days before the start of training camp and do you know where your starting quarterback is? The Favre Watch has made a mockery of trying to project Minnesota's current state of readiness to defend its division title, but I suppose by the time we roll out our next edition of the power rankings we'll all know more. Please let that be the case.
 
17New York Jets
2008 record: 9-7
It was pretty predictable we in the media were going to love the Jets in the Rex Ryan era, given the ex-Ravens defensive coordinator never met a question he didn't like -- which leaves him in somewhat stark contrast to his taciturn predecessor. But it's not just hype. New York has a chance to be a surprise playoff team this year, and if its rookie QB gets hot, things could really get fun.
 
18Houston Texans
2008 record: 8-8
In the NFL, you have to make other teams respect you, and the Texans will never do that until they move out of their nice, safe 8-8 neighborhood and start running with the big boys. No painfully slow starts allowed this year in Houston. And no late-season losses to Oakland, either.
 
19Green Bay Packers
2008 record: 6-10
While I'm giving all of Green Bay's defensive changes -- from switching to the 3-4, to hiring Dom Capers, to drafting B.J. Raji and Clay Matthews -- a thumbs-up, I have a hard time seeing all those pieces coming together quickly enough for more than eight or nine wins this year. But coming off last season's desultory 6-10 record, that's progress.
 
20Seattle Seahawks
2008 record: 4-12
Last season showed us how much Matt Hasselbeck really means to the Seahawks' success. This year, with him back healthy, the same thing could be said. Seattle isn't a team with 4-12 talent, but it isn't a team with 12-4 talent, either.
 
21San Francisco 49ers
2008 record: 7-9
If the 49ers can get some efficient quarterbacking out of either Shaun Hill or Alex Smith, they might be able to squeak out enough 13-10 wins on the strength of their improving defense to make some real noise in their division. The gap between an also-ran 7-9 and a title-winning 9-7 in the NFC West is ever so slight.
 
22Buffalo Bills
2008 record: 7-9
Don't get too caught up in the T.O. drama, because his first year in town usually goes reasonably well (there was that little matter of an accidental overdose/purported suicide attempt in Dallas in 2006, but we digress). The bigger issue is whether or not the Bills' offense can consistently challenge opposing defenses, thereby saving the jobs of Dick Jauron and his staff.
 
23Denver Broncos
2008 record: 8-8
Sometimes I think the task of separating the bottom 10 teams in these power rankings is significantly more challenging than identifying the top 10. Is Denver a disaster waiting to unfold in coach Josh McDaniels' rookie season, or are the Broncos merely executing a plan the rest of us have yet to comprehend?
 
24Washington Redskins
2008 record: 8-8
The Giants are the only NFC East team that has put together more than one 10-win season in the past four years, so why does it feel like the Redskins are perennially looking up at all three of their division rivals? I'm not quite sure, but if you believe these preseason power rankings, they'll be doing it once again in 2009.
 
25Cincinnati Bengals
2008 record: 4-11
The Bengals desperately need a quiet year in which the focus remains on the field and their once-potent offense steps back toward relevancy.
 
26Kansas City Chiefs
Last Week: --
Is anybody but me eager to see some of the ongoing renovations taking place at Arrowhead Stadium? As for the on-the-field improvements, I think it's going to be upgrades all around in K.C. this year.
 
27Tampa Bay Buccaneers
2008 record: 9-7
Did anyone in the NFL have a more puzzling offseason than the Bucs? They're being universally written off to the rebuilding class of the league's lower echelon, and I can't really argue with that assessment.
 
28Oakland Raiders
2008 record: 5-11
I do think Tom Cable is the right man for the job as it currently exists in Oakland -- I just question whether anyone can actually prosper in that setting. At this point, merely snapping the Raiders' six-year streak of double-digit loss seasons would be baby steps in the right direction.
 
29Jacksonville Jaguars
2008 record: 5-11
Things seem to be in the get-worse-before-they-get-better stage for the Jaguars, but then it's hard to imagine what would constitute a step down from last year's 5-11 debacle.
 
30Cleveland Browns
2008 record: 4-12
The Browns aren't the chic pick of pundits and TV schedule-makers this year, but then that role didn't suit them too well in 2008. If nothing else, Eric Mangini should bring a sense of discipline that was sorely lacking last season.
 
31Detroit Lions
2008 record: 0-16
Consider it a strong vote of confidence for the beginning of the Jim Schwartz era that I didn't doom the winless Lions to dead last right off the bat this season. But next to last still speaks to how much work remains in Motown.
 
32St. Louis Rams
2008 record: 2-14
Investing in Steve Spagnuolo's future was a move I believe will pay dividends at some point in the future. Solid coaching is the foundation of success in the NFL. But this year, a bright future may be hard to see in St. Louis.
 

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