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NFL Power Rankings: Preseason Edition

With the NFL’s preseason about to begin in earnest with 12 games on Thursday night, it seemed like a good time to take another crack at some power rankings as August football heats up. After the next four weeks play out, we’ll do it again as the fake football gives way to the real thing in September.

As we’ve all learned over the years, looks can be deceiving in the preseason, so be wary of what you’re watching between now and the end of the month. Perceptions in the summer often look silly come the fall. But hey, it’s the only version of football we have for the time being, so let’s have at it.

From No. 1-32, here’s how we have them ranked up to the moment. As always a reminder, your results may vary...

1. Philadelphia — Ex-Giants head coach Ben McAdoo may be openly questioning whether the defending champs have what it takes to handle success, but that’s a first-rate problem to have isn’t it, trying to follow up on a Lombardi Trophy? I just don’t see the Eagles wilting under the pressure of being the chased. Philly is a deep team, with plenty of veteran leadership and a clear talent edge over most of its opponents on both the offensive and defensive lines, which is pivotal. Until proven otherwise, the Eagles should be considered a legit threat to repeat.

2. Minnesota — The Vikings offense has essentially added a healthy Dalvin Cook at running back and the new big-ticket starting quarterback, Kirk Cousins, to a rock-solid defense that should keep Minnesota in most every game. These Vikings are loaded and poised to make up for last season’s NFC title game egg-laying, and for once the Super Bowl-or-bust chatter isn’t mere hype. They didn’t earn the right to stay home in their own dome for the Super Bowl, but now they can legitimately aim for playing in Atlanta’s dome next February 3.

3. New England — On paper, the questions are numerous for the defending AFC champion Patriots. The receiving corps lacks star power, especially given Julian Edelman’s four-game league suspension to start the season. The offensive line has to prove it can fill the void Nate Solder left at left tackle. Rookie Sony Michel must supply impact at running back, and coming off the Super Bowl humbling, New England’s defense has to re-invent itself with Brian Flores replacing Matt Patricia. All that aside, how can you not pick the Patriots to again rule the AFC East, and stay alive deep into January? The issues are real, but so is their penchant for being able to figure things out as they go.

4. Jacksonville — Pretty lofty perch for the Jaguars to start from, but realistically they deserve top-five billing. After all, they made the league’s final four last season for the first time since 1999. After all those years of hearing about Jacksonville’s bountiful talent level, when none of it ever produced results, the Jaguars reversed that trend last season and proved themselves when it counted. With the league’s most well-rounded and elite defense, the main thing that could derail Jacksonville’s Super Bowl dreams is if Blake Bortles can’t reproduce his playoff-season performance. A tougher AFC South to fight their way out of is another potential road-block.

5. Los Angeles Rams — As potentially important as the moves were, don’t get overly excited about the Rams adding the likes of proven defensive stars Ndamukong Suh, Marcus Peters and Aqib Talib this offseason. Stay focused on the youthful core of this team, Jared Goff, Todd Gurley, and maybe most importantly, head coach Sean McVay. The continuing Aaron Donald stand-off is a bit troubling, but these Rams are still on the rise and built to win it all right now. It should be fun to watch them go for it in what is a ridiculously stacked NFC.

6. Green Bay — Two reasons for my optimism when it comes to the Packers: Aaron Rodgers is healthy and I believe driven to hang up a monster season in 2018, clicking early and often with newly acquired tight end Jimmy Graham, who is going to resurrect his career playing with No. 12. Secondly, Mike Pettine will thrive as Green Bay’s new defensive coordinator, getting more bang for the buck than his embattled predecessor, Dom Capers. In shades of their Super Bowl season scenario of 2010, the Packers might not win the NFC North, but that doesn’t mean a ring is out of reach this year.

7. New Orleans — It still feels funny to think about the Saints as a well-balanced team, but we better start changing that narrative. Because this isn’t a team that relies on Drew Brees to win every shootout any more, not after that boffo draft class of 2017. The Saints have to prove they can take the next step after last season’s resurgence, but you get the feeling no one is going to be eager to face this New Orleans team this year. The Saints haven’t had this level of defensive talent since their Super Bowl season of 2009, and maybe not even then.

8. Atlanta — The Falcons can make this lofty claim: They lost to the eventual Super Bowl champions in each of the past two years, falling to the Patriots in that epic Super Bowl meltdown in Houston and losing at Philadelphia in the divisional round last January. So there’s that. Atlanta wasn’t as explosive last season under new offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian, but the hope is year two, plus the addition of rookie receiver Calvin Ridley, will add more quick-strike impact. The Falcons’ biggest challenge might be surviving the rugged NFC South.

9. Pittsburgh — Steelers Nation probably won’t like my so-so No. 9 ranking, but I can’t seem to shake the memory of Pittsburgh’s defense getting torched at home by Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski in Week 15’s monster showdown, then embarrassing itself in the playoff-opening 45-42 divisional-round loss to visiting Jacksonville. Rookie safety Terrell Edmunds has looked strong early in camp, but the loss of Ryan Shazier last December still leaves a massive void. The offense remains elite, even if Le’Veon Bell and the club look headed for a messy divorce after the season.

10. Houston — I’m higher on Houston’s playoff chances this season than some NFL pundits, and the only thing I can figure is they’re forgetting how rookie quarterback Deshaun Watson was playing at an MVP level before he went down with a knee injury at midseason. If Watson is back, the Texans will be dangerous, and I love the defensive addition of Tyrann Mathieu, who gives some teeth to that Texans pass defense.

11. San Francisco — The 49ers are the NFL’s version of the Rorschach test this preseason, with different people capable of seeing very different things when they look at Kyle Shanahan’s team. I see a club capable of building on last year’s 5-0 finish with Jimmy Garoppolo at quarterback, and challenging for an NFC wild-card berth. But San Francisco’s schedule is extremely tough in the first half, so the 49ers should finish far stronger than they start. Kind of like last season.

12. Kansas City — By virtue of putting them 12th, I suppose I’m stamping the Chiefs a playoff team, which would be their fifth berth in coach Andy Reid’s six-year tenure in Kansas City (already?). But I actually think there’s a modest step back coming for the Chiefs this year, and they’ll finish just out of the money in the playoff race. Quarterback Patrick Mahomes will be electrifying at times, but I think he’ll lack Alex Smith’s consistency, and the Chiefs’ renovated defense just doesn’t do a lot for me at this point. Prove me wrong, K.C.

13. Tennessee — I’m starting the Titans in the league’s middle third, but they’ve got some ceiling room to rise. Coaching hire Mike Vrabel has energized this organization and the Titans are well-positioned to give Jacksonville and Houston a dog fight in the AFC South. The defense starts quality players at all three levels, and Marcus Mariota’s best days at quarterback are still ahead, especially since he’s able to rely on a proven running game tandem of Derrick Henry and Dion Lewis.

14. Carolina — Call me skeptical that the Norv Turner-Cam Newton odd-couple pairing is going to bear fruit on offense. Seems like something the Panthers might wind up regretting. The Panthers should be in the playoff race, but I like the Saints and Falcons better in the NFC South, and it’s hard to forecast the division advancing all three teams to playoffs. Too many good teams in the NFC for that.

15. Los Angeles Chargers — Is this the year the Chargers finally stop being a tease and put a full season together? Once again, the idea of the Bolts having their best team on the field never seems to materialize, with tight end Hunter Henry and cornerback Jason Verrett already lost for the season with injuries. There’s talent galore on this roster, but when it comes to winning steadily, I’m going to have to see it first to believe it. Year two in Carson might be suspiciously similar to year one.

16. Baltimore — If there’s truth in the axiom that the most desperate team usually wins in the NFL, the Ravens might have a wild-card-qualifying season in them, given the sense of urgency that prevails in Baltimore. If Joe Flacco is rejuvenated by the presence of rookie quarterback Lamar Jackson, and if the additions of Michael Crabtree, John Brown and rookie tight end Hayden Hurst boost the pass-catching weaponry, the Ravens could be a surprise team this season. The defense remains good enough to win with.

17. Dallas — I’m having a difficult time projecting this Cowboys team at the start of preseason, because their chances feel a bit all over the map — kind of like your typical press conference with their owner, Jerry Jones. If Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott both turn in dominant bounce-back seasons, Dallas could be pretty good and have a say in the NFC East. But they lack proven receivers and the Cowboys defense needs to get past last year’s inconsistency and build on its strong December work.

18. Detroit — Too much faith in first-year Lions head coach Matt Patricia to whip Detroit into a more efficient and productive club? Entirely possible, but I do like the new formula in Detroit. The Lions are going to (finally) commit to running the ball and playing sound defense to win games, with the draft bring a new running back in Kerryon Johnson, plus a potential stud center in Frank Ragnow. If veteran back LeGarrette Blount can do his thing for yet another new team, the Lions offense will hold its own in the talented NFC. On defense, it's another story, which is why it’s hard to see Detroit finishing higher than third in the NFC North.

19. New York Giants — Ignore what Bill Parcells always loves to say, about you are what your record says you are. The 2017 Giants weren’t truly 3-13 bad a year after going 11-5, but once the mudslide began, nothing stopped it. New York will be considerably better this season, and might even hang in the NFC wild-card race for a good long time. The offensive line is improved and the presence of Saquon Barkley could be a game-changer. At the least, the threat of a running game is going to help Eli Manning find Odell Beckham Jr.

20. Seattle — Well there will be no more chicken-or-the-egg question about whether Russell Wilson or the team’s defense should get the credit for Seattle’s success. It’s all on Wilson’s shoulders now, with the departure of defensive stalwarts like Kam Chancellor, Michael Bennett, Cliff Avril and Richard Sherman. The Seahawks could still be entertaining, but they feel like a once-great band that stayed together a bit too long.

21. Washington — Alex Smith and rookie running back Derrius Guice could give Washington’s offense increased legitimacy and a whole new look, but I still don’t think it’s enough to get Jay Gruden’s team to 10 wins and back into the playoffs for the first time since 2015.

22. Oakland — Was that 12-4 mark in 2016 a complete mirage, or did the Raiders have the shortest Super Bowl window of opportunity in NFL history? The return of Jon Gruden brings a wave of nostalgia to the East Bay, but I don't see it bringing another wave of success. Especially if Khalil Mack and the team remains estranged.

23. Arizona — Admittedly I’m not giving the Cardinals enough credit for being an eight-win team last season, despite a plague of injuries. But I’m not going to pretend to know just yet what kind of head coach Steve Wilks will be, and it’s hard to count on a team quarterbacked by Sam Bradford. Full stop. There’s talent in the desert, but it’s a tough NFC West these days.

24. Denver — In order to view the Broncos as a potential playoff team, you have to believe Vance Joseph will know how to stop the bleeding once it starts (he didn’t last year as a rookie head coach) and that Case Keenum will recapture the mojo he displayed in Minnesota in 2017. I’m not buying either one of those suppositions, and that’s why Denver looks like an also-ran once again.

25. Chicago — This is only a building-block season in year one of the Matt Nagy coaching era, but there’s plenty to like and the Bears should at least be interesting again. John Fox’s three seasons in Chicago must have felt like being lost at sea for the team's rabid fan base. If Nagy can get quarterback Mitchell Trubisky off and running, and feed those talented running backs, Jordan Howard and Tarik Cohen, the Bears won’t an easy out even if they do finish last in their division.

26. Buffalo — On the bright side, Buffalo won’t go another 17 years between playoff berths. On the down side, they will start a new streak of missing the postseason this year. Brace for a bit of a step back, Bills fans. The goal in 2018 is putting rookie quarterback Josh Allen into the best possible position for long-term success.

27. Cleveland — I’ve already gone out on a limb and written that the vastly improved Browns could threaten to finish .500 if they get a few breaks, and I really do think Cleveland is finally on the right track. But I have to admit, watching the first episode of HBO’s “Hard Knocks’’ made me think the Browns aren’t quite ready to leave their losing past behind.

28. Indianapolis — A healthy Andrew Luck and a competent and creative coach in Frank Reich could go a long toward delivering the Colts from the punching-bag status they held last season. Last place in the AFC South is likely their destiny, but there’s hope again in the heartland.

29. Miami — Ryan Tannehill better be at the very top of his game after last season’s injury absence, because the Dolphins’ 30-something crowd is expected to lead the way. Frank Gore, Danny Amendola and Josh Sitton are quality players, but they’re not going to be difference-makers for a Miami team that is in between whatever they were and whatever they are trying to become.

30. Cincinnati — Let’s see what Marvin Lewis makes of his very unexpected and undeserved reprieve. I’m not expecting much different than the past two underachieving seasons. The Bengals are a blah team trapped in a strange limbo, thanks to the unending and unwarranted patience of owner Mike Brown.

31. Tampa Bay — The Bucs actually had a productive offseason in terms of adding quality and sensible pieces to the roster, but everything about the direction of the club feels wrong. The commitment level to both franchise quarterback Jameis Winston and head coach Dirk Koetter is understandably shallow, and it’s difficult to see this Bucs club rising above its current dismal state of affairs.

32. New York Jets — We all trashed the “tanking’’ Jets last year and they went out and pulled off five wins and hung around in several other games as well. And now at least they have the promise of a new chapter with the drafting of franchise quarterback Sam Darnold at No. 3 overall. New York doesn’t have enough quality weapons and the defense is still mid-level at best, but the Jets will be anything but a lost cause in 2018.

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