1. Baltimore (10-6). Why? I trust John Harbaugh to find answers in a league devoid of a truly great team. I trust the running game to take pressure off Joe Flacco until he develops chemistry with new receivers, and I trust Dean Pees to replace Haloti Ngata with a combination platter of front-seven changeups. This is a battle-tested team that had two 14-point playoff leads in Foxboro last January. I just think the Ravens will find a way.
2. Seattle (12-4). The addition of Jimmy Graham means so much. He could mean a third straight Super Bowl trip. There’s little reason to doubt Seattle, except the loss of some key defensive pieces, including coordinator Dan Quinn. But it’s hard to stay on top in the NFL for even three years.
3. Green Bay (12-4). The secondary worries me, as does the pass rush. The Pack’s a trendy pick to get to the Super Bowl, and it wouldn’t surprise me, but a lot will have to go right on defense for that to happen.
4. Kansas City (9-7). Two things must happen: making Justin Houston contractually happy and finding some answers in the passing game. I like most everything else about the Chiefs’ ability to play in January.
5. New England (12-4). I don’t care if Damon Huard plays the first four games. Pats will win 11. Or more.
6. Minnesota (7-9). This is reliant on so many things. Adrian Peterson showing up number one. But finding a consistent pass-rush is key too, as is the continued maturity of Teddy Bridgewater. I pick the Vikes here because if you ask me for one rising team if two or three vital things go right, I’m picking Minnesota.
7. Philadelphia (10-6). Mike Trout says: In Chip We Trust. For the Eagles to be seventh in the NFL, he’s going to have to say: In Sam Bradford We Trust.
8. Pittsburgh (11-5). Like Antonio Brown a lot. Like Ben Roethlisberger a lot. But this faith is subject heavily to the ascension of Keith Butler to defensive coordinator after 16 seasons as a defensive assistant below the coordinator level. Mike Tomlin is putting tremendous faith in Butler, who replaces Hall of Famer **** LeBeau, to be a breath of fresh and productive air. Risky move, and early returns are good. But early returns come in shorts and T-shirts on the South Side of Pittsburgh, not on a cruel Thursday night in Foxboro.
9. Denver (12-4). The Ryan Clady injury shows what a house of cards this offensive line was. (Of course, any team can say losing the left tackle is a crippler, and it is.) But when your quarterback is 39 and cannot roll out and escape the rush, it’s triply important.
10. Arizona (11-5). Maybe the most intriguing team in football. If Carson Palmer stays healthy and productive, the Cards can fight Seattle until Week 17. But we all know Carson Palmer’s health is one of the biggest ifs in the NFL.
11. Indianapolis (11-5). Best team in the AFC South, which isn’t saying much. Still have no clue how the Colts will stop the best offenses in football. I bet Chuck Pagano doesn’t know either.
The Saints are counting on tight end Josh Hill, a third-year player with 20 career catches, to step into the role vacated by Jimmy Graham. (David Banks/Getty Images)The Saints are counting on tight end Josh Hill, a third-year player with 20 career catches, to step into the role vacated by Jimmy Graham. (David Banks/Getty Images)
12. Cincinnati (10-5-1). The running game, and the offensive line, should be enough to make up for Andy Dalton if he struggles. But I don’t think a team can be great unless its quarterback is close to great.
13. Dallas (12-4). I keep reading how many great pieces the Cowboys have added to their defense. I don’t see it. But they’re going to win a bunch of 33-27 games, so there’s hope.
14. New Orleans (7-9). Josh Hill, it’s time for your closeup. Drew Brees needs a power tight end with red-zone chops, and you’re it. Or you’d better be.
15. San Diego (9-7). I feel this way every recent June about the Chargers: They will not go 6-10. But they could go 11-5 or 8-8 and it would not surprise me. The insecurity of the franchise will not help.
16. Miami (8-
. Dolphins win second in the AFC East, which is an accomplishment. But I wonder if Stephen Ross will think 9-7 and being out of the playoffs is really such a swell year?
17. Detroit (11-5). I don’t trust that the Lions have done enough to bolter a defense made thin by the loss of its best position group, defensive tackle.
18. Buffalo (9-7). Who wouldn’t love to see Rex Ryan playing important football games in January? But if he’s going to do that, it means that Matt Cassel, or EJ Manuel, or even Tyrod Taylor, is going to have to be playing important football games in January.
19. St. Louis (6-10). If Nick Foles is really good, the Rams will win 11. If he’s average, they’ll win eight. You see which way I’m leaning.
20. Carolina (7-8-1). Giant question marks at both tackle spots and an offense that can’t afford to lose its quarterback. Still love the defense, but did the offense improve enough?
21. Atlanta (6-10). What does new coach Dan Quinn have in store on defense? The pass rush is a question mark coming into the season. And new offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan needs to find a starting running back and new No. 3 receiver.
22. New York Giants (6-10). Tell me Eli Manning stays protected, and tell me the second act of Steve Spagnuolo can come close to matching the first, and I’ll have more faith in the Giants to be a playoff team.
23. Chicago (5-11). They blew it with Ray McDonald, and I just don’t see that defense improving. And relying on a Jay Cutler-led offense to over-produce is not a sound strategy.
24. New York Jets (4-12). Love the front seven. Love the new coach. Don’t love much about the offense.
25. Washington (4-12). I’d love to muster up enthusiasm for Jay Gruden, a good man and a good coach. But I can’t get his RGIII negativity out of my head from last season. Only Robert Griffin III can do that—for both of us.
26. San Francisco (8-
. A hurricane’s coming for Jim Tomsula. It’s one thing to know that—and he does know it. It’s another thing to deal with it and find a solution when September comes.
27. Cleveland (7-9). I don’t hate the Browns, at all. I’m just tired of having June faith in them.
28. Houston (9-7). Actually, HBO’s “Hard Knocks” will be a good thing for Houston coach Bill O’Brien. I’ve never been one to think the show is some huge distraction. With a bunch of young kids trying to prove themselves, and an interesting but anonymous quarterback battle, I think the show will be good TV, and good for the Texans in learning to deal with the spotlight early.
29. Tampa Bay (2-14). Jameis Winston will get thrown to the wolves without a good offensive line, and the Bucs also lack a running back. It won’t help having two studs at receiver if Winston doesn’t have time to find them.
30. Jacksonville (3-13). This ranking comes from not trusting Blake Bortles—yet—and not trusting a pass rush dealt a horrible blow with the Dante Fowler injury an hour into his NFL career.
31. Oakland (3-13). It’s not that I don’t trust Derek Carr. It’s that I don’t trust Derek Carr’s health after what I’ve read about the problems with a finger on his throwing hand. That plus the fact that the Raiders have a boatload of existing holes that Jack Del Rio has to address this summer.
32. Tennessee (2-14). I love the Marcus Mariota pick. I don’t love the supporting cast, and he’s not a guy who’s going to be great day one. Or day 24.