One of the best parts about college football, and I suppose college basketball as well, is the rankings. I always love watching games when a #1 battles, say, a #5, or when a #3 team has to go on the road to play a surging #15 squad. It makes the games more exciting before they even begin because you know the stakes are high. Plus, with the advent of the new College Football playoff, it actually means something to be one of the best four teams in the country.
NFL power rankings exist, but the ones you’ll find on various websites obviously aren’t nearly as important as the AP or Coaches polls in college football. Moreover, what bothers me about most of these rankings is that they usually go through the trouble of ranking every one of the 32 teams. I mean, who cares who the 18th best team in the league is or whether the 25th ranked team moved up from 27th?
So, with training camps across the country beginning this week, here is a college football-style ranking of the ten best teams in the NFL entering the 2016 season.
All offensive, defensive, special teams, and overall rankings you’ll come across are from Football Outsiders.
2015: 11-5 (2nd in AFC West); lost in Divisional Round to New England
2015 Rankings: Offense: 6th / Defense: 6th / Special Teams: 9th / Overall: 5th
Key Additions: OT Mitchell Schwartz
Key Losses: CB Sean Smith, S Hussain Abdullah, S Tyvon Branch, G Jeff Allen
The Chiefs are coming off a year in which they reeled off ten consecutive wins to make the playoffs after a horrible 1-5 start. Yet while all the attention went towards Kansas City’s impressive streak, what often went unsaid about Andy Reid’s squad last year was how stout they were in all facets. After acquiring wide receiver Jeremy Maclin, the Chiefs offense was much improved, as evidenced by how they were still able to finish in the top ten in scoring despite losing Jamaal Charles to an ACL injury. Luckily for the Chiefs, Charles should be back healthy this year, and after retaining most of their key free agents (Eric Berry, Derrick Johnson, Tamba Hali), Kansas City should be just as good in 2016.
2015: 4-12 (4th in NFC East); did not make playoffs
2015 Rankings: Offense: 31st / Defense: 19th / Special Teams: 11th / Overall: 27th
Key Additions: RB Ezekiel Elliott, RB Alfred Morris
Key Losses: DE Greg Hardy
After a miserable 4-12 season, the Cowboys will be better, assuming Tony Romo and Dez Bryant return to the field at 100 percent. Simply put, even without their two best players, Dallas was extremely unlucky in 2015 and not as bad as their record indicated. They would be bound to improve even if Romo and Bryant weren’t returning; but fortunately for Cowboys fans, they will be. However, while Dallas could make for an intriguing playoff team once again, a number of strong teams reside in the NFC, meaning the Cowboys are nothing more than a dark horse Super Bowl pick until proven otherwise.
2015: 10-6 (2nd in AFC North); lost in Divisional Round to Denver
2015 Rankings: Offense: 3rd / Defense: 11th / Special Teams: 18th / Overall: 7th
Key Additions: TE Ladarius Green, OT Ryan Harris
Key Losses: WR Martavis Bryant (season-long suspension), TE Heath Miller, CB Antwon Blake, S Will Allen
On paper, Pittsburgh could be the most dangerous team in the NFL. The only problem is that games aren’t played on paper and it doesn’t appear that we’ll ever see what the Steelers are truly capable of. Earlier this offseason, emerging wideout Martavis Bryant was suspended for the entire 2016 season for substance abuse; just the other day, reports surfaced that running back Le’Veon Bell might be suspended for a similar reason to start the season again as well. Ben Roethlisberger and company should be just fine despite these losses, yet it must be frustrating for Steelers fans because with their defense quietly forming into one of the better units in the league, the Steelers have their most well-rounded team in five years. However, it looks as though this Steelers team of the past couple of years might go down as one of those “great teams that never was” due to these suspensions and a passive offseason.
2015: 11-5 (1st in AFC North); lost in Wild Card Round to Pittsburgh
2015 Rankings: Offense: 2nd / Defense: 10th / Special Teams: 8th / Overall: 2nd
Key Additions: LB Karlos Dansby, WR Brandon LaFell, S Taylor Mays
Key Losses: S Reggie Nelson, CB Leon Hall, OT Andre Smith, WR Marvin Jones, WR Mohamed Sanu
You could say the Bengals were one of the NFL’s elite teams in 2015–that is until they lost Andy Dalton to a fluky thumb injury in December and later collapsed in epic fashion in the AFC Wild Card round. The hope in Cincinnati is that Dalton builds off his best season as a pro and has Cincinnati vying for a first-round bye once again. But that may be difficult considering how many integral players Cincinnati lost in free agency and how competitive the AFC North should be assuming Baltimore bounces back, which I think they will.
With that said, the Bengals have fewer holes than a majority of the NFL’s other 32 teams, which means they are a good bet to be in the playoffs for a sixth consecutive year.
2015: 12-4 (1st in AFC West); won Super Bowl 50 over Carolina
2015 Rankings: Offense: 25th / Defense: 1st / Special Teams: 14th / Overall: 8th
Key Additions: QB Mark Sanchez, OT Russell Okung
Key Losses: QB Peyton Manning, QB Brock Osweiler, DE Malik Jackson, LB Danny Trevathan, G Evan Mathis, OT Ryan Clady
Does anyone know what to expect from the defending champs? Because that list of departures is long and they may be stuck with Mark Sanchez as their quarterback. At least the Broncos project a tremendous defense again in 2016, particularly now that Super Bowl MVP Von Miller is happy with his brand new $100+ million extension.
I will say this about the Broncos: No team will enjoy playing that physical defense. But will that be great enough to get them to 12 wins and deep in the AFC playoffs again? I’m not so sure. Until then, it would be a crime to not have them somewhere on this list.
2015: 12-4 (1st in AFC East); lost in AFC Championship to Denver
2015 Rankings: Offense: 5th / Defense: 12th / Special Teams: 5th / Overall: 6th
Key Additions: TE Martellus Bennett, DT Terrance Knighton, DE Chris Long, OG Jonathan Cooper
Key Losses: DE Chandler Jones, DT Akiem Hicks, LB Jerod Mayo, WR Brandon LaFell, DT Dominique Easley
Despite a few key losses in free agency, New England remains the most complete team in the AFC. But after dealing with a spate of injuries in 2015, the new season will begin with more adversity now that Jimmy Garoppolo is confirmed to start the first four games in place of a suspended Tom Brady. It will be interesting to see whether not having Brady puts the Patriots behind the eight-ball for one of the two first-round byes. Yet if Garoppolo can manage, say, a 3-1 start, the Patriots look poised to return to a sixth consecutive AFC Championship game at a minimum.
2015: 13-3 (1st in NFC West); lost in NFC Championship to Carolina
2015 Rankings: Offense: 4th / Defense: 3rd / Special Teams: 29th / Overall: 3rd
Key Additions: DE Chandler Jones, S Tyvon Branch, G Evan Mathis
Key Losses: S Rashad Johnson, OLB Dwight Freeney, CB Jerraud Powers, DT Corey Redding
Arizona is undoubtedly one of the most aggressive teams in football. Offensively, Bruce Arians won’t hesitate to have Carson Palmer take deep shots even when it’s third-and-short, and defensively, the Cardinals have one of the best ball-hawking secondaries in the league and a front-seven that should be able to put even more pressure on quarterbacks after acquiring Chandler Jones.
With that said, I still can’t get Arizona’s two playoff performances from last January out of my mind. They barely slipped by a depleted Packers squad and then were annihilated on the road in Carolina. I’m certain the Cardinals are good, but I’m not sure they are great. For that reason, they rank behind three of their foes from the NFC.
2015: 10-6 (2nd in NFC North); lost in Divisional Round to Arizona
2015 Rankings: Offense: 11th / Defense: 9th / Special Teams: 17th / Overall: 10th
Key Additions: None
Key Losses: CB Casey Heyward, DT B.J. Raji
Green Bay wasn’t its usual self last year, but now they have Jordy Nelson back in the fold. His return along with perhaps a better year from Eddie Lacy should make the Packers offense one of the league’s most prolific teams once again. Combine that with one of the league’s better pass defenses and the league’s easiest projected schedule and I’m confident that Green Bay will be in contention for the NFC’s top seed.
2015: 15-1 (1st in NFC South); lost in Super Bowl 50 to Denver
2015 Rankings: Offense: 8th / Defense: 2nd / Special Teams: 23rd / Overall: 4th
Key Additions: None
Key Losses: CB Josh Norman
2015 was Carolina’s year until they were uncharacteristically overpowered by the Broncos in Super Bowl 50. Unfortunately for Panthers fans, they will look back on that game as a huge missed opportunity: Given how much luck was in their favor last year, it’s doubtful Carolina makes a run at even 13 wins, let alone last year’s total of 15.
Nonetheless, the Panthers still absolutely deserve to be on the shortlist of legitimate Super Bowl contenders. Reigning MVP Cam Newton will regain the services of his top wideout in Kelvin Benjamin and the Panthers defense returns some of the league’s top playmakers, even though they must cope with the loss of corner Josh Norman.
2015: 10-6 (2nd in NFC West); lost in Divisional Round to Carolina
2015 Rankings: Offense: 1st / Defense: 4th / Special Teams: 3rd / Overall: 1st
Key Additions: DE Chris Clemsons, CB Brandon Browner
Key Losses: RB Marshawn Lynch, LB Bruce Irvin, OT Russell Okung
Statistically, the Seahawks were the strongest team in the NFL in 2015. Even though they failed to win the NFC for the third year in a row, Seattle’s DVOA, which is Football Outsiders primary stat to measure team efficiency, was right in line with their figures during their two Super bowl runs. In addition, consider this: Last year, Seattle ranked in the top three in each of these five important categories: passing offense, rushing offense, passing defense, rushing defense, and special teams. That’s unbelievable, especially when you take into account that the recently-retired Marshawn Lynch was injured for most of last year as well as the fact that most of Seattle’s key defensive players are back.
However, as evidenced by how shaky the Seahawks were in the playoffs, they are by no means the consensus best team in football. Plus, while Seattle’s core is still in tact, they don’t have quite the depth they had in 2013 and they play in one of the NFL’s most physical divisions as well.
Simply put, it appears to be another wide open year in the NFL where any number of teams could win the Super Bowl.
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