Posted: Wednesday September 7, 2011 1:07PM ; Updated: Wednesday September 7, 2011 1:47PM
Don Banks
Don Banks>NFL POWER RANKINGS

The strangest NFL offseason in memory is over, but some of the weirdness has yet to disperse. The Colts without Peyton Manning in the lineup? The Lions might be over-hyped, but the Cowboys aren't? Not a Brett Favre rumor to be heard, and barely a peep out of Chad Ochocinco in weeks? What's happened to the familiar state of the NFL?

Fortunately, the regular season's 256 games are about to commence, and that much we'll recognize after the long lockout-addled buildup to 2011. Here's our best guess as to how the league's 32 teams stack up coming out of the preseason. Between now and January, we'll be back every Wednesday with a look at how the previous weekend's games reshuffled the NFL landscape. Now on to this week's rankings:

NFL Power Rankings
1Green Bay Packers
Last Week: --
With the consensus being that this Packers team is stronger and deeper than last year's championship club, research reveals that only two Super Bowl repeat winners have improved their record by at least two games the second time around: The 1989 49ers went 14-2, four games better than the 10-6 edition of 1988; and the 1998 Broncos finished 14-2, winning two more games than the 12-4 club of 1997. I see at least a 12-4 year coming in Green Bay, and it'll get started in victorious fashion Thursday night at Lambeau, in a shootout with the Saints team that could block Green Bay's path to another NFC title. Come Week 17, remember this game if we're talking about tiebreakers to determine the conference's top seed.
 
2New England Patriots
Last Week: --
Only the Colts own more regular season wins (36-12) than the Patriots (35-13) in the past three years, but New England has no playoff victories (0-2 in that span) to show for all that September through December dominance. That's why it feels like nothing matters this season in Foxboro but January. Everything Bill Belichick has done this offseason is aimed at erasing the stench and sting of those twin playoff meltdowns at home against Baltimore (2009) and the Jets (2010).
 
3Pittsburgh Steelers
Last Week: --
I know they take their balance on offense and power running game very seriously in the Steel City, but if you're Pittsburgh offensive coordinator Bruce Arians, how do you resist not loading it up and throwing all day to the likes of Hines Ward, Mike Wallace, Antonio Brown, Emmanuel Sanders, Jerricho Cotchery and Heath Miller? The Steelers scored more than 28 points only three times in the 2010 regular season, but that number could easily double this year with all the downfield options that Ben Roethlisberger can look for.
 
4New Orleans Saints
Last Week: --
The last time we saw the Saints, they were getting carved up by the 7-9 Seahawks in the playoffs, to the tune of 41-36 amidst the bedlam of Qwest Field. I think Marshawn Lynch is still weaving his way to the end zone as we speak. But the New Orleans defense is better than that, and Gregg Williams and Co. are going to be motivated all season to prove it. The Saints' first chance at redemption is a doozey, but something tells me they're not going into Lambeau Field to play the sacrificial lamb for a Packers team that will hang a championship banner Thursday night.
 
5New York Jets
Last Week: --
As it turns out, neither brash-talking Ryan brother (the Jets' Rex or the Cowboys' Rob) was able to land the services of ex-Raiders cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha in free agency. But that's okay, because the Dallas-New York Week 1 showdown on Sunday night still has plenty of sizzle, with the Ryan family feud being just part of the attraction this week.
 
6Baltimore Ravens
Last Week: --
If you want to get to the essence of the Ravens-Steelers smashmouth rivalry, just talk to Baltimore linebacker Terrell Suggs: "I respect them, but I like to get after their ass," Suggs told me in training camp. "Most definitely. And I'm pretty sure every Pittsburgh fan hates me. But they respect me because they know what they're going to get. I'm coming to fight every time, and the same for their guys." We do know what we're going to get when the Steelers and Ravens collide, and we like it.
 
7Atlanta Falcons
Last Week: --
For a team that won more games (13) than anyone in the NFC last season, the Falcons are somehow in that under-the-radar zone as the new season begins. Like everyone, I can't wait to see if the Julio Jones draft-day gamble starts paying immediate dividends for Atlanta. I liked the boldness of the move in late April, but that's an easy opinion to toss off months before the games begin. Starting Sunday in Chicago, Jones has to make a difference for a team that's in win-it-all-now mode.
 
8Philadelphia Eagles
Last Week: --
And to think a year ago right now Michael Vick was still Kevin Kolb's veteran backup, with no apparent path leading back to stardom or contract riches. It's a good reminder of how much can change in Week 1 of the NFL season, and I wonder if there's another significant plot twist in store for Vick and the Eagles in Sunday's opener at St. Louis?
 
9San Diego Chargers
Last Week: --
I don't know if the Chargers have a slogan for 2011 yet, but it should be: "Start fast, or else." San Diego lost its opener in the rain at Kansas City last year, and never really recovered, missing the playoffs for the first time since 2005. It simply can't happen again, not in an AFC West where the Chiefs, Raiders and Broncos all look so flawed.
 
10Indianapolis Colts
Last Week: --
Here's how long it has been since we've seen a meaningful Colts game without Peyton Manning under center at the start of things: Jim Harbaugh, the new head coach in San Francisco, was the quarterback for Indy on Dec. 21, 1997, a 39-28 season-ending Colts loss at Minnesota. Marshall Faulk, in his pre-St. Louis incarnation, was in the Indianapolis backfield, Randall Cunningham started at quarterback for the Vikings, and the ancient Eddie Murray kicked for Minnesota. If that doesn't scream eons ago, you're not paying attention.
 
11Chicago Bears
Last Week: --
At the start of a training camp interview I did with him, Bears offensive coordinator Mike Martz leaned over and whispered: "We're going to be pretty good. Nobody thinks so, but we're going to be pretty good." But I don't know, Mike. I'm not seeing the positive omens at the moment. Lance Briggs wants a new deal or wants to be gone. Talks break off with Matt Forte regarding his contract extension. Roy Williams can't catch a cold. I suppose the Bears have us all right where they want us and are ready to sneak up on the rest of the NFL once again. Or not.
 
12New York Giants
Last Week: --
Some teams thrive in the preseason, and some teams barely survive. With linebacker Jonathan Goff's torn ACL on Monday, the Giants defense has lost five significant contributors since the start of camp. Those 90-man preseason rosters would come in pretty handy in New York about now.
 
13St. Louis Rams
Last Week: --
I think the Rams get it in Year 3 of the Steve Spagnuolo era. They know they're better than last year's 7-9 club, but they also know they've got to earn their promotion to a higher NFL weight class. "It's not automatic," Spagnuolo told his team in August. "From 1-15 (in 2009) to 7-9 doesn't guarantee 10-6 or 11-5. It doesn't work that way." No, it doesn't. But I do sense these Rams are hungry for more -- especially second-year QB Sam Bradford -- and ready to climb back into the 12-team playoff field.
 
14Dallas Cowboys
Last Week: --
It's been a fairly quiet, uneventful preseason for the Cowboys, and that's a sign of Jason Garrett's calming influence on display. But look for the volume to get pumped up this week with the Ryan Bowl and a trip to New York on the horizon. I see that Rex is 3-0 in head-to-head matchups against twin brother Rob in the NFL, and that's got to hurt. If Rob is to realize his goal of becoming an NFL head coach, and soon, this would qualify as a statement game waiting to happen.
 
15Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Last Week: --
The Bucs lost the greatest player in franchise history this week with the stunning death of Hall of Fame defensive end Lee Roy Selmon, and his memory should serve to inspire a Tampa Bay team that seems to be intent on attaining greatness itself. I grew up a Bucs fan in St. Petersburg and watched Selmon's entire career play out. Like his life itself, it was all too brief, but packed with accomplishment. Bucs head coach John McKay once said when he "wanted to feel good," he just "thought of Lee Roy Selmon." There aren't many tributes more eloquent than that.
 
16Detroit Lions
Last Week: --
I've got a friend who's a life-long Lions fan, and I don't think he's ever been more hyped for a season to begin than this one. For a change, it doesn't seem like false hope. Detroit has done things the right way in the Jim Schwartz-Martin Mayhew era, and now the payoff should start to come.
 
17Houston Texans
Last Week: --
I'll say it again: I can't remember a team that had more pressure to win in Week 1 than the Texans if they do indeed face the Colts without Peyton Manning. It's one thing to lose at home to No. 18, but to fall upset to his stand-in Kerry Collins, who just climbed off the couch the other day? If the unthinkable occurs, the air might come out of the balloon so quickly in Houston that you could hear it from Seattle to Miami and all NFL cities in between.
 
18Kansas City Chiefs
Last Week: --
Injuries are a part of the game and they can happen at any time in the most freakish of ways. But I promise you Chiefs head coach Todd Haley won't have any key starters playing into the second quarter of his team's fourth preseason game next year. There's just not enough upside. Some lessons have to be learned the hard way, and the loss of tight end Tony Moeaki for the season, not to mention seeing quarterback Matt Cassel get crushed, will be burned into Haley's memory.
 
19Oakland Raiders
Last Week: --
The Raiders make trips to Denver and Buffalo in the first two weeks, and that's a golden opportunity for new Oakland head coach Hue Jackson to get things rolling right away against a pair of clubs that finished 4-12 last season. But it was difficult for me to see the seeds of progress being sewn in a winless Raiders preseason. Oakland scored a league-low three touchdowns in their four exhibition games, and that doesn't reflect well on Jackson's offensive acumen.
 
20Cleveland Browns
Last Week: --
I'm high on Colt McCoy from what I've seen so far, but the Browns are one of 12 teams starting new quarterbacks in Week 1 compared to their 2010 openers (it's 13 if Kerry Collins starts for Indy). In the vast majority of those cases, the teams starting over at the game's most critical position are coming off either losing or .500 seasons. That applies to Buffalo, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Tennessee, Jacksonville, Minnesota, Carolina, Washington, Arizona and Seattle. That should tell you something about the correlation between winning and quality quarterbacking in the NFL.
 
21Tennessee Titans
Last Week: --
I'm intrigued to see how much Chris Johnson can manage to contribute to the Titans offense so soon after his holdout ended. Tennessee will obviously use him, but how much work is too much, and will the fear of injury keep the Titans from letting Johnson really cut it loose? Imagine how different the AFC South race would instantly look if both Peyton Manning and Johnson were lost to the teams they lead.
 
22Washington Redskins
Last Week: --
I still believe John Beck will be the Redskins' starting quarterback at some point fairly soon this season, but his late preseason play must have given the Shanahans pause, tilting the competition in favor of Rex Grossman. As Mike Shanahan explained it to me in training camp, his only concern with Beck was "trying not to build him up too much, so he can go in low-key and let his play do the talking for him." I'd say making Beck the backup in Week 1 should nicely counteract any potential hype factor.
 
23Miami Dolphins
Last Week: --
The Dolphins draw the Patriots at home on Monday night, and that's as good as any place to open the 2011 season, because it's where 2010 starting going so wrong. Miami was a hopeful 2-1 when it played host to the Patriots on a Monday night in Week 4, but then came that monumental special teams meltdown and a second-half New England explosion in a 41-14 Pats win. The Dolphins lost seven of their final 12 games and never really got over that embarrassment in front of their home crowd. Time to make amends.
 
24Buffalo Bills
Last Week: --
We should know pretty early if the Bills have improved a run defense that ranked dead last in the NFL in 2010, giving up 170 yards per game. Buffalo travels to Kansas City on Sunday, and the Chiefs led the league in rushing with 164 yards per game last year. In a 13-10 overtime win against Buffalo in October, K.C. rolled to 274 rushing yards, so little wonder the Bills spent their No. 3 overall pick on run-stuffing Alabama defensive lineman Marcell Dareus. Don't look for a quick fix by Buffalo, but baby steps toward the middle of the pack are definitely expected.
 
25Jacksonville Jaguars
Last Week: --
It's Jack Del Rio's style to make some of his calls with his gut, and dumping starting quarterback David Garrard five days before his team's opener is another sterling example. But the question that begs an answer is why the Jaguars waited so long before moving beyond the Garrard era? Wouldn't it have been wiser to give Luke McCown or rookie Blaine Gabbert more work with the first team this preseason, rather than wasting it on Garrard, who apparently was a lost cause in Del Rio's eyes?
 
26Arizona Cardinals
Last Week: --
I am admittedly not as sold on the Kevin Kolb acquisition as some other NFL observers, but with the Cardinals opening the season against Carolina, Washington and Seattle -- three teams starting new quarterbacks and coming off losing records in 2010 -- Kolb and Arizona have an excellent chance to prove me wrong.
 
27Seattle Seahawks
Last Week: --
With the exception of the improved Rams, the NFC West looks like the eighth-strongest division in the NFL once again. The Seahawks need to get their offensive line playing the physical, zone-blocking brand of ball that new line coach Tom Cable prefers, and quarterback/newly elected team captain Tarvaris Jackson has to limit his mistakes. But if everything comes together smoothly, Seattle still only has the potential to threaten the .500 mark this season.
 
28Minnesota Vikings
Last Week: --
Leslie Frazier was ready for me when I asked him why anyone should be optimistic about his team's chances in the NFC North this season. After all, the Packers are defending Super Bowl champions and look loaded, the Lions are on the way up, and the Bears made it all the way to the NFC title game last season. Which was exactly his point. "Nobody picked Chicago last year, and they almost made the Super Bowl," Frazier said. "Every year in this league is different. What happened in 2009 and 2010 has no relevance on the 2011 season, because teams change so quickly." He's got a point.
 
29Denver Broncos
Last Week: --
It's a tough era to be a Broncos fan. In the decade of 1996-2005, Denver won at least 10 games seven different times, with seven playoff berths and a pair of Super Bowl titles. But in the past five seasons, the Broncos are eight games under .500 (36-44), with nary a postseason trip. And I don't see any quick turnarounds ahead for this once-proud franchise. The glory days are going to feel even farther away in 2011.
 
30San Francisco 49ers
Last Week: --
It's once again last-chance time for Alex Smith in San Francisco, and this time we mean it. (I think.) If 2005's top pick can't bring forth the best effort of his underachieving NFL career with the guidance of new head coach Jim Harbaugh, it's hard to imagine he'd ever get another starting opportunity. That said, there's a good bit of pressure on Harbaugh, too. He made re-signing Smith a priority this offseason, and his reputation as a teacher of quarterbacks is on the line as well.
 
31Cincinnati Bengals
Last Week: --
I like that the entire AFC North is facing off this Sunday, with Pittsburgh at Baltimore and Cincinnati traveling to play Cleveland. It should give us a good early barometer of where things stand in the division. But I'll be greatly surprised if the Browns don't look like a solid third-place team after Week 1, with the Bengals and rookie quarterback Andy Dalton firmly entrenched in last place.
 
32Carolina Panthers
Last Week: --
Rookie Panthers quarterback Cam Newton will make his NFL regular season debut at Arizona on Sunday, and if nothing else, the kid will know how to find the locker room. Newton's final game at Auburn was at the University of Phoenix Stadium, exactly eight months earlier. That was the national championship game, which the Tigers won 22-19, beating Oregon behind Newton's 265 yards passing and two touchdowns.

 
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